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Peter Singer's radical moral challenge to humanists everywhere

By Paul Ewans

Paul is a member of Humanists UK and Humanists International, and he contributes occasional articles to the Humanist Heritage website. In this article he asks how great a sacrifice we should make to save other people’s lives.

In 1972, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer published an influential essay entitled Famine, Affluence and Morality. Singer was responding to the suffering of nine million Bangladeshi refugees who had been forced from their homes by a combination of poverty, a cyclone and a civil war. The refugees were destitute and were dying from a lack of food, shelter and medical care.

Singer pointed out that most of this suffering could quickly be brought to an end if only rich nations took appropriate action. However, the international response to the crisis had been inadequate. People had not contributed to relief funds, they had not pressed their governments to provide help, and they had not demonstrated on behalf of the refugees. As a result, the response made by governments around the world had fallen short and the refugees were at risk of starvation.

Singer argued that, assuming that suffering and death from privation are bad, and that it is within our power to stop these things happening, we ought to act accordingly and do our best to prevent them, unless by doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral importance.

Suppose, Singer wrote, that you are walking past a shallow pond in which a child is drowning. You ought to wade in and rescue the child. You will get your clothes muddy and you will have to pay to have them cleaned, but this is trivial given the need to save the child’s life, which is obviously what you should to do. And it makes no difference, morally speaking, whether the person you can help is a neighbour’s child ten yards away or a Bangladeshi child ten thousand miles away. If you accept any principle of equality, impartiality or justice it is wrong to discriminate against someone merely because they are a long way away. Nor is it relevant whether you are the only person who can help or just one among many. Are you any less obligated to save the drowning child if other people can also see that the child is drowning but are doing nothing about it?

If everyone in rich countries contributed just £5 to famine relief, Singer pointed out, the problem would be solved. (Of course, £5 was worth much more in 1972 than it is today.) But you know that many people will not contribute anything so it seems that you should give as much as you possibly can, at least up to the point where this would cause serious suffering to you and your family. To repeat, if you can intervene in a situation to prevent something bad happening without sacrificing anything of equal moral importance, then you ought to intervene.

You ought, Singer wrote, to feel ashamed if you buy new clothes or a new car instead of giving the money to famine relief. You would not be sacrificing anything of moral importance by wearing old clothes, so you are not being generous by donating the money. On the contrary, it is wrong not to donate. You should prevent as much suffering as you can unless this means that you will be allowing something equally bad to happen, doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good that is equal in importance to the suffering you can prevent. You should therefore donate to charity, and continue to donate, until you have the same standard of living as a refugee.

Most people reject Singer’s belief that we should make great sacrifices to save other people’s lives. If you agree with them, you might like to consider whether it is in fact reasonable to dismiss his argument. Where exactly has Singer gone wrong – if indeed he has?

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