Singer Famine Affluence and Morality

5 May 2017

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The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable in any fatalistic sense of the term. Constant poverty, a cyclone, and a civil war have turned at least nine million people into destitute refugees; nevertheless, it is not beyond the capacity of the richer nations to give enough assistance to reduce any further suffering to very small proportions. The decisions and actions of human beings can prevent this kind of suffering. Unfortunately, human beings have not made the necessary decisions.

At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way. Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed toward providing the refugees with the eans to satisfy their essential needs.

At the government level, no government has given the sort of massive aid that would enable the refugees to survive for more than date, given For comparative purposes, Britain’s share of the nonrecoverable development costs of the Anglo-French Concorde project is already in excess of E275,ooo,ooo, and on present estimates will reach ”440,000,000. The implication is that the British government values a supersonic transport more than thirty times as Philosophy 6 Public Affairs highly as it values the lives of the nine million refugees.

Australia is another country which, on a per capita basis, is well up in the “aid to Bengal” table. Australia’s aid, however, amounts to less than onetwelfth of the cost of Sydney’s new opera house. The total amount given, from all sources, now stands at about E65,ooo,ooo. The estimated cost of keeping the refugees alive for one year is Most of the refugees have now been in the camps for more than six months. The World Bank has said that India needs a minimum of E”oo,ooo,ooo assistance from other countries before the end of the in year.

It seems obvious that assistance on this scale will not e forthcoming. India will be forced to choose between letting the refugees starve or diverting funds from her own development program, which will mean that more of her own people will starve in the futureal These are the essential facts about the present situation in Bengal. So far as it concerns us here, there is nothing unique about this situation except its magnitude.

The Bengal emergency is Just the latest and most acute of a series of major emergencies in various parts of the world, arising both from natural and from man-made causes. There are also many parts of the orld in which people die from malnutrition and lack of food independent of any special emergency. I take Bengal as my example only because it is the present concern, and because the size of the problem has ensured that it has been given adequate publicity. Neither individuals nor governments can claim to be unaware of what is happening there.

What are the moral implications of a situation like this? In what follows, I shall argue that the way people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation like that in Bengal cannot be Justified; indeed, the whole way we look at oral issues-our moral conceptual scheme -needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society. In arguing for this conclusion I will not, of course, claim to be morally neutral. I shall, however, try to argue for the moral position l.

There was also a third possibility: that India would go to war to enable the refugees to return to their lands. Since I wrote this paper, India has taken this way out. The situation is no longer that described above, but this does not affect my argument, as the next paragraph indicates. Famine, AfJluence, and Morality hat I take, so that anyone who accepts certain assumptions, to be made explicit, will, I hope, accept my conclusion. I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and reach the same view by different routes.

I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further. My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.

By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good, and it equires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important.

I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

The uncontroversial appearance of the principle Just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. 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. Secondly, 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.

I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account. The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of mpartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him).

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