How Persuasive Is Peter Singer’s Argument For Famine Relief? – Political Science Essay

How Persuasive Is Peter Singer’s Argument For Famine Relief? – Political Science Essay
A quick glance at any news, activist, or NGO website will reveal the huge level of global inequalities and problems of poverty that the 1.3billion people below the

poverty line suffer from (UN HDR 1999: 28). This makes it unnecessary to retell these shocking statistics here. For the last thirty years Peter Singer has been arguing for a form of global redistributive justice that, if implemented, would radically alter the balance of the global economy. This essay examines his main argument before considering some criticisms and evaluating how strong in light of these his case really is. Singer’s original argument is logically sound and morally strong but has limitations as a practical guide. Due to space restrictions I will not touch on criticisms that Singer makes no distinction between causing someone deliberate harm and causing someone harm by doing nothing (see Glover (1990) for this argument). This argument is also left out as, to use Singer’s analogy, it appears irrelevant whether the child was pushed into the puddle by us, or fell in of his own accord. Finally I conclude that although Singer defends his argument well, he presents an inaccurate picture of the global situation.

Singer’s core argument is a relatively simple utilitarian one that has formed the basis of his subsequent work on redistributive justice. He starts with the highly indisputable claim that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad” (Singer 1972: 231). He then posits that if it is in our power to prevent something bad happening without sacrificing anything of “comparable moral importance” then we ought morally to do it (ibid.). By way of demonstrating this he uses his famous analogy of the child drowning in a puddle. If we were to pass this situation then we would be morally obliged to rescue the child from drowning if the only cost to us were to ruin our clothes for example. This analogy and a related one devised by Unger (1996: 5) are in my opinion very effective rhetorical devises due to their apparent moral clarity; very few people would deny that we are obliged to save the child when the cost to us is so little. Despite this I find Kuper’s argument that they do not accurately represent the global economy convincing (2002: 110). This aside, there is a weakness in Singer’s argument at this stage; when first proposing this theory he uses the wording “of comparable moral importance” yet further down the page the wording is “anything morally significant” (Singer 1972: 231). This has the net effect of creating two different “strengths” of his argument; the “strong” involving anything of “comparable moral importance” and the weaker involving anything “morally significant” (Barry 1991: 182). This does lead to ambiguities, for instance Barry’s point that ruining your trousers saving the drowning child could constitute in something morally significant in one person’s morality. For the purposes of this essay I shall be using the strong version as it will avoid this problem.

Singer argues that while proximity may have practical effects on one’s actions, there is no case for it to have a moral impact on what one ought to do (Singer 1972: 232). Singer adopts a universalist perspective on his work, arguing that distance has no impact on morality at all (Barry 1991: 184). If it is in our capacity to save someone’s life, whether standing next to us or on the other side of the planet and we choose not to help then we are implicated in their death, even if we will never directly know (Singer 2003). This principal has to be accepted in order for one to believe in Singer’s argument, without accepting this core feature the rest falls apart. It is important at this point to distinguish between what one would do due to psychology or emotion, and what one ought to do. This is a key point for this essay and much of Singer’s case. Rejections of his principle on the basis that “people will not do it” are confusing the distinction between “ought” and “likely to” (Singer 2004a: 28). To take Singer’s own clarification of this difference the statements “everyone should do X” and “it is certain most people will not do X” are not contradictory (ibid.)

A key component of Singer’s utilitarian ethic is the concept of impartiality in morality. From this we owe no special duties to our fellow citizens over those on the other side of the world (Singer 2004a: 14). One defence of special obligations to our fellow citizens is a practical one regarding efficiency. Goodin (1988: 663) rejects the concept of impartiality, arguing instead that we have special duties to those with whom we stand in some special relation, such as family and countrymen. It is in effect the argument that “charity begins at home”. This view poses a challenge to the Singer Principal as to give aid abroad to those most needy will ignore the plight of some of our fellow citizens, thus amounting to sacrificing something morally important. Goodin gives the classic example of the undesirability of impartiality; the choice between saving an important public figure or your own mother (1988: 665). Singer rejects the claims of Goodin though by using Rawls’ technique of the “veil of ignorance” to give impartial reasons for the importance of impartiality. If justice is conceived of as being about what individuals would choose were they unaware of who they are (Singer 2004a: 24) then people would surely chose an impartial universalist approach to redistributive justice as advocated by Singer if they did not know whether they were a citizen of the USA or Chad. Singer also acknowledges that while we may feel we have special duties to our fellow citizens etc. this is again confusing “ought” with “will”. To Singer governments that give priority to their citizens over the far more urgent and desperate needs of those further away amounts to little more than racism (Kuper 2002: 109).

Firstly I shall examine the two weakest criticisms of Singer’s case. The first is that of Hardin, who argues that there is no duty towards redistributive justice as it will encourage excessive population growth beyond the carrying capacity of the earth (1974). Hardin argues along neo-Malthusian lines that the exponential growth of populations does not correlate to the linear increase in resources (O’Neill 1986: 58). He compares the developed states to a lifeboat; it is impossible to take on ever increasing numbers of passengers as eventually the lifeboat will sink, therefore, the only ethical thing to do is to refuse to pick up any more survivors (1974). From this harsh logic, it is unethical to give aid to developing states as it will increase the rate of population growth, placing a further burden on the state’s economy and therefore worsening the quality of life globally. This harsh fascistic outlook sees poverty in the developing world as a “crude form of population control” (Hardin 1974). This argument falls apart in my view very easily. Firstly there is the argument that with an increase in wealth there is a decrease in population, see for example Rostow’s 1960 classic model of development. The birth rates in developed states are much, much lower than in those developing economically, in addition with economic aid states may be able to implement population stabilisation policies as India has done. Secondly Hardin assumes that food resources are scarce, something that is obviously not the case when one considers the high level of obesity in developed states (O’Neill 1986: 59). Another criticism is that Hardin confines his redistribution to food (Burgess 1978: 266), ignoring the vast sums of money that citizens in developed nations waste (Singer 1999). It is also hard to see how to take this view is different from advocating the deliberate “culling” of people in developing states seeing as the end result is to reduce populations. This amounts to killing by act, rather by omission as a conscious choice has been made to let people die.

The second weak argument against giving aid is that it often does not reach those it is intended to, either through inefficiency or corruption (Barry 1991: 185). As with the issue of distance though, this has no impact on the morality of Singer’s argument. If we know that 50% of our aid will not get through to the people who need it, then surely that is still 50% more than they would receive were we not to give any? (ibid.) One could also argue that the solution to this would be to work on increasing the security and delivery of aid. In his more recent work, Singer puts forward an interesting idea to prevent the plunder of states resources and aid by illegitimate rulers, arguing that illegitimate rulers amount to little more than robbers who plunder the natural resources of a state to sell to the complicit west (2004b: 101). This could be seen as a shift more towards the position of Pogge and his argument for the need for structural readjustment.

Singer also argues that group inaction is no excuse for individual inaction (1972: 232), one does suddenly not become obliged to watch the child drown solely because others are standing around doing nothing. This objection is expanded on by Murphy (in Arneson 2004: 36) who argues that it is wrong for there to be requirements on an individual to increase their aid as when others fail to do their part. From this Murphy argues for a “Cooperative Principle”: that the duty of beneficence on the individual should only be what it would be if everyone who could aid did. Arneson argues instead that the most important factor regarding the moral requirements of beneficence is the ratio of the cost to the agent against the benefits to the recipient (2004: 39). Arneson illustrates this by proposing the following situation. A thousand people have fallen off a ship, and one hundred, including the agent are watching from the deck. It will cost each actor 5ps worth of inconvenience to save one person. Apart from the agent, no one else is willing to help. Under the Cooperative Principle, the agent will be required only to save 10 people and leave 990 to drown as this would be the optimal distribution of the burden. Yet if he were to save all of them he would only involve a cost of £50 in order to save 1000 lives (Arneson: 37), therefore not sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. When one has accepted the above argument that distance from the persons involved makes no difference to morality then this provides extra strength for Singer’s case for famine relief. When those in the developed states chose to buy a new television or fashionable clothes they are in Singer’s view choosing these over the life of someone in the developing world.

Another criticism of Singer’s morality is that it is overly demanding and in conflict with an individuals personal preferences. Arneson adapts the work of Hampton (1993) giving the example of Terry, a woman who devotes all her energies to the caring for her husband and children, to the detriment of her own health. Hampton condemns Terry’s behaviour as she is denying herself any level of self-respect in being so devoted to others, thus rendering her behaviour immoral (Arneson 2004: 40). However her case is a rather weak one. Arneson states that as Terry sees her happiness as tied to that of those she looks after, she is in fact increasing her own happiness. Hampton claims that altruistic sacrifice is only acceptable when there are bonds of love between the actors, as most humans only have this level of love for their friends and family. However Arneson says that if Hampton allows her to put her own utility above that of anyone else, then why is Terry unable to place others’ utility higher than her own? (2004: 43) Despite this though it is hard to see how the Singer Principal will morally allow people to pursue any activity that is not related to saving lives due to the huge amount of problems in the world (Kuper 2002: 110).

The central flaw is that Singer uses a bad analogy of how the global economy actually is, it assumes that the child has somehow appeared there of his own devices and that a simple act will save him. Many of Singer’s key principals, such as the importance of impartiality and the irrelevance of distance are very strong and I find it hard to disagree with them. Whilst I do not agree that to adopt Singer’s solution will cause actual harm (Kuper 2002: 110), to me it is not convincing as the most effective way to solve the problems of poverty. The current structure in my view is that the developed states have pushed him in and are holding him under the water. To follow Singer’s principal will amount to everyone else jumping in the water and drowning to some small degree. Due to the structure of the global economy, buying fair trade goods for example is far more likely to have a positive impact on the lives of people in developing states than charity (Kuper 2002: 111). Kuper develops his argument by claiming that while people in rich states can survive without luxuries; those in poorer ones where most are manufactured could not survive as their economic base would be wiped out (ibid.p112). Changing the rules of global trade, so that they do not unfairly disadvantage poorer nations, such as by the IMF imposing its “structural re-adjustment” programs, is likely to do better long term good. Famine relief is certainly useful as a short-term solution and the work of agencies like Oxfam in providing sustainable development are admirable (Singer 2002: 122). With some adjustment of his analogy to make it a more accurate representation of the global economy, Singer would find his argument overcoming its central inherent weakness.

Barry, B. (1991) Liberty and Justice: Essays in Political Theory 2
(Clarendon Press: Oxford)
Glover, J. (1990) Causing Death and Saving Lives (Penguin: London)
Murphy, L. (2000) Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (OUP: London)
O’Neill, O. (1986) Faces of Hunger: An Essay on Poverty, Justice and Development
(Allen & Unwin: London)
Rostow, W. (1960) The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto
(Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)
Singer, P. (1993) Practical Ethics 2nd ed. (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)
Singer, P. (2004b) One World: The Ethics of Globalization
(Yale University Press: London)
Unger, P. (1996) Living High & Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence
(OUP: London)
Edited Books
Arneson, R. (2004) “Moral limits on the demands of beneficence”
in Chatterjee, D. ed. (2004) The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)
Singer, P. (2004a) “Outsiders: our obligations to those beyond our borders”
in Chatterjee, D. ed. (2004) The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)
Journal Articles
Burgess, D. (1978) “An Answer to Life Boat Ethics”
Theology Today Vol.35:3:Oct 1978;pp 265-272
Caterson, I. D & Gill, T. P (2001) “Obesity: epidemiology and possible prevention”
Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism Vol.16:4:Dec 2002; pp595-611
Kuper, A. (2002) “More Than Charity: Cosmopolitan Alternatives to the “Singer
Solution” Ethics and International Affairs Vol.16:1; pp107-121
Singer, P. (1972) “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”
Philosophy and Public Affairs Vol.1:3:Spring 1972; pp229-244
Singer, P. (2002) “Poverty, Facts, and Political Philosophies: Response to
“More Than Charity” ” Ethics and International Affairs Vol.16:1; pp107-121
Hampton, J. (1993) “Selfishness and the Loss of the Self”
Social Philosophy and Policy Vol.10:1
Online Sources
Hardin, G. (1974) “Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor” (Garrett Hardin Society) Accessed 3/11/04
Singer, P. (1999) “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (Peter Singer Links) Accessed 3/11/04
Singer, P. (2003) ““The Bread Which You Withhold Belongs to the Hungry”: Attitudes to Poverty”
(Inter-American Development Bank) Accessed 6/11/04