Famine, Affluence, and Morality - Précis

Précis

One of the core arguments of this essay is that, if one can use one's wealth to reduce suffering — for example, by aiding famine-relief efforts — without any significant reduction in the well-being of oneself or others, it is immoral not to do so. According to Singer, such inaction is clearly immoral if a child is drowning in a shallow pond and someone can save it but chooses not to; nor does placing greater geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper reduce the latter's moral obligations:

It makes no difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.

The affluent, says Singer, are consistently guilty of failing to recognize this, having large amounts of surplus wealth that they do not use to aid humanitarian projects in developing nations.

Here is the thrust of Singer's argument:

  • "Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad".
  • "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it".
  • "It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away".
  • "The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position".

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