Journal of Philosophy, Science & Law
10, June 7, 2010
Does Singer's “Famine, Affluence and Morality”
Inescapably Commit Us to His Conclusion?
* Applied Ethicist; the author can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
1972 work Famine, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer presents an argument
that we of the developed world, can and ought to do more for the developing
nations to alleviate their poverty.
can be summarised as follows:
1. The suffering caused by lack of food,
shelter or healthcare services is bad.
2. If we can prevent something bad from
happening, without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then
3. We can alleviate this poverty induced
suffering, without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance.
4. Thus, we ought to contribute as much as
we can to the eradication of poverty, until doing so harms us more than it
believes that his argument leads to the inescapable conclusion that we should
keep giving to the poor (be it in terms of time, money, effort etc.) until
giving more, will harm us more than it will benefit them. It seems that
Singer's argument is valid, but what I will present in this paper are some
difficulties with the truth of his 3rd premise based on its definition of
“comparable moral importance”.
I think that we
can safely assume the truth of premise 1, anyone who has experienced hunger,
cold, or sickness can attest to this (though the level we have experienced it
at is most likely very low, compared to how people in developing nations
Premise 2 also
hold true. Premise 3 however has some difficulties, which we will look at
later. Thus in the end we will see that the conclusion is not as inescapable as
it seems on the surface. In this paper, I will argue that Singer is right in
saying that we should do more to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty, but
the extent to which we are committed is not as great as he believes.
his argument with the example of a drowning child. This example runs as
follows: You are walking through a park on the way to work, when you pass by a
pond to see a small child struggling in the water. It would only take you 30
seconds to wade into the pond to save the child from drowning, but doing so
will permanently damage your brand new leather shoes. Would you be wrong in
ignoring the drowning child? Singer argues that in line with our intuitions,
the minor inconvenience of getting your shoes wet is far outweighed by the
saving of the child's life.
Thus from this
thought experiment, Singer attempts to show that where we can prevent suffering
at little cost to ourselves we should, as to do otherwise would be wrong.
However, how far down this line of reasoning should we go? Singer claims that
until the costs of us helping outweigh the benefits, we should go on helping;
thus forcing us to keep on giving until we are reduced to the same level as the
worst off - which seems too overly demanding.
conclusion that Singer draws, does not have to be the only way out. We start
with a thought experiment A (the drowning child), from which we derive a moral
intuition B (if we can help someone at minimal cost to ourselves we should),
from which Singer derives his principle C (we should aid others until doing so
makes us give up something of comparable moral importance). However by
accepting B (that if we can help someone at minimal cost to ourselves we
should), does not mean that we have to accept C (Singer's conclusion) as
accepting B does not necessary entail accepting C, as it all depends upon your
interpretation of “at minimal cost to ourselves”.
conclusion is extremely counter-intuitive because of its over demandingness. We
can see this if we expand upon what Singer's principle entails, it entails
absolute equality (be it equality of welfare, or equality of resources or
anything else), and that is why it is so counter-intuitive.
Let us look at
an example. $100 extra to a billionaire is nothing, maybe another bottle of
wine, but $100 extra to a starving family in Africa is 6 months wages, enough
to buy medicine so the children don't die – a $10 movie ticket to a wealthy
doctor does not nearly provide preference satisfaction to the level that a $10
bag of rice, to prevent starvation to a whole family would. Thus in terms of
decreasing marginal utility where our terms of reference are in famine/poverty,
Singer's preference utilitarianism seems to require the over-demandingness of
Let us now look
at another example. If I am at a welfare level of 10 and a poor person is at a
welfare level of 1, it is like me being a rich lawyer and the poor person a
starving refugee. If I (the rich person) am going to spend money on a dinner,
to Singer, I could do more good by giving this money to the poor person to buy
a mosquito net (I give away one unit of welfare to the poor person, so now I
have 9 units and the poor person has 2) since a luxury dinner is not worth as
much as someone's life. Now if the next day I am going to buy a bottle of wine,
I could according to Singer again do more good by giving this money to the poor
person to buy some malaria injections (so now I have 8 units and the poor
person 3) since my pleasure of drinking is of less significance than their
Again the next
day, I am going to buy a movie ticket, but again according to Singer I realise
it would do more good if I have this money to the poor person to buy oral
rehydration powder (so now I have 7 units and the poor person has 4) since my
seeing a movie, is not as beneficial as their grandmother not dying of
diarrhoea. Thus according to Singer, this redistribution will keep going and
going until we both reach the level of 5.5. Where for me to feed/immunise/house
the other person better, I need to give up my own food/health/accommodation of
similar value (since I can no longer afford wine, movies, or dinners etc.,
since I have given all this away already).
Principle requires that we keep giving and giving until we are at the same
level as the worst off. This results in
it being excessively overly demanding; as it means you cannot go to
restaurants, see movies, buy wine or chocolates, go for holidays etc., but
rather you must refrain from spending on luxuries and give your money to the
principal does lead to this seemingly repugnant conclusion where we need to
bring ourselves down to the level of the worst off. For us never to be allowed
to spend time or money on treats or activities of interest to ourselves, or
things to promote our own personal projects, or to have fun and promote the
interests of those close to us; would result in us leading much less fulfilling
lives - by alienating ourselves from the very things that give meaning to our
actually formulate a more moderate principle “that we should prevent bad occurrences
unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant,”
but to Singer this is purely for demonstration purposes of
his argument, and not designed as a morally guiding principle. Singer himself says, “I should also say that
the strong version seems to me to be the correct one. I proposed the more
moderate version - that we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we
had to sacrifice something morally significant - only in order to show that,
even on this surely undeniable principle, a great change in our way of life is
required.” Thus in line with Singer's argument, the more moderate formulation
has to be rejected in favour of his strict formulation we outlined earlier, due
to its arbitrariness. This more moderate principle however, is exactly in line
with the “Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach” I will outline later, and
thus does not actually need to be rejected.
tries to address this issue of over-demandingness in his 2009 book “The Life
You Can Save”, however his way out is not to lesson our moral obligations from
his conclusion in this earlier work, but rather to acknowledge how psychologically
difficult it is to be this moral saint, by “suggesting a level [of
charitable donation] that will get you started, and put you on a path toward
challenging yourself and working toward doing more.”
Thus it seems that Singer still admits the soundness of his original argument
and that we are forced into its conclusion, but then goes on to pragmatically
state that many people would not be able to do this, and thus suggests giving
of your income to charity as a form of appeasement.
just seems a bit of a cop out. He still admits that we are bound by his
conclusion to contribute as much as we can to the eradication of poverty, until
doing so harms us more than it benefits them, but that in the real world he
tells people that a 5% donation is OK, because if he where to tell them to give
more they wouldn't. Thus his reformulation is not very sound at all, and just
looking for a way out of the over-demandingness objection albeit
unsuccessfully, again due to its arbitrariness
Thus we have seen
how from the thought experiment A, we derive a moral intuition B, from which
Singer derives his principle C. However even though we accept intuition B we
can actually arrive at another principle D, (which I will attempt to explain
later), which is different to Singer's, which actually leads to a different and
more intuitively acceptable conception of justice. Thus just by accepting B,
does not mean we are inescapably committed to C.
drowning child example the moral intuition that if we can benefit someone at
minimal cost to ourselves we should, seems pretty acceptable. However Singer
takes it to its extreme in what it requires of us, when in fact there is a more
moderate version we can take which leads not to an absolute egalitarian
conception of justice, but rather one based on Pareto efficiency which I will
call the “Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach” (principle D). From moral
intuition B, the principle we derive depends on our interpretation of “at
minimal cost to ourselves”, Singer takes this to mean cost in terms of welfare.
However, we can
take this to mean cost in terms of capabilities instead. Singer's
interpretation of cost in terms of resources lead to an extreme and
unacceptable conclusion, however if we interpret cost in terms of capabilities/freedoms
as well as using a conception of justice based on Pareto efficiency, we reach a
much more acceptable conclusion. A conception of “cost” based on capabilities
alone will still lead to the same conclusion that Singer purports, it is only
when combined with the concept Pareto efficiency that we can actually arrive at
a different and more acceptable conclusion.
is Pareto efficient if and only if you cannot make someone better off without
making someone else worse off. Now on a general level, this seems to look like
we should not give any aid to the poor, as by making the poor better off, we
are making the rich worse off. Pareto efficiency has nothing to say about
marginal utility (it does not matter if the rich person's losses of 1 unit,
results in a 1000 unit gain by the poor; we still encounter a loss, which is
thus not Pareto efficient). Thus on a general level it seems that any amount of
aid we redistribute to the poor from the rich is not Pareto efficient, as you
need to take from somewhere before you can give it to someone! Thus if looking
at Pareto efficient resource distribution as a means to aiding the poor, it
seems we should do nothing!
is assuming Pareto efficiency is grounded in dollar terms or by a matter of
degrees. There are however, other ways of quantifying Pareto efficiency. One
approach might be to use a capabilities and freedoms approach, much like how
Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum couch development, an approach I will call the “Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach”.
development is not about increasing GDP per capita, or wealth, but rather
increasing the capabilities and freedoms of people. Sen defines these capabilities as, “the
ability to meet one’s nutritional requirements, the wherewithal to be clothed
and sheltered, the power to participate in the social life of the community.”
, as well as “a person's actual ability to do the different
things that she values doing,”
“shift[ing]...the focus of attention from the means of living to the actual
opportunities a person has”.
Thus based on this conception of capabilities, to a billionaire, losing $5 is
not a loss in a capability. Nussbaum to
defines these capabilities as consisting of, life, bodily health, bodily
integrity, senses, imagination, and thought, emotions, practical reason,
affiliation, and a few other factors, showing that it is not lack of money per
se which creates poverty, but lack of these capabilities itself. Money is just
the means to an end, the end being capabilities themselves.
If we continue
with this approach and use it in conjunction with Pareto optimisation, we can
actually come to the conclusion that we are morally obliged to give aid, but
not so much that it detrimentally impinges on our own capabilities and
freedoms. In contrast to a continuous monetary measure of Pareto efficiency, a
capabilities approach is discrete in nature, thus dealing away with any
objections based on arbitrariness
If a rich
person gave away $5, this would not be Pareto efficient on a monetary measure
of optimality, as they are losing $5. However, on a capabilities approach, this
loss of $5 does not decrease any of the rich person’s capabilities. Giving away
$5 a week wont cause you to starve (and thus lose a capability/freedom, such as
freedom from hunger) but will rather mean that instead of putting $5 in the
bank(or buying your 6th cup of coffee for the day) you are giving it
away. This $5 transfer will not result in any reduction of capabilities for the
rich person, but will result in the increase of capabilities for a poor person
(for example an anti-mosquito bed net resulting in freedom from preventable
in terms of capabilities, a transfer of $5 from the rich person to the poor is
Pareto efficient, the poor person has increased the capabilities but the rich
person has not reduced their capabilities. Thus, a Pareto efficient
distribution in a capabilities approach can require us to give aid to the poor,
but will not be nearly as demanding in committing us to give away as much as we
can until we are as poor as they are.
Let us look at
another example of this. Imagine a scenario where you are going to the
university bookshop to buy textbooks (essential for your education) and lollies
(just a luxury for pleasure). As you are about to enter the shop a person
collecting money for a charity approaches you. Having a think about how much
benefit you would get out of the money (spent just on lollies) compared to that
of a starving child in Darfur, you give the money to the charity worker. The
next week you again go to the bookshop and the same charity worker approaches
you, are you obliged to give them your money again instead of spending them on
lollies? If so, then why not just give the charity worker a big lump sum of money
(enough so that you cannot afford to buy either textbooks or lollies) to save
having to do this repeatedly every week?
Now it seems
here that Singer would have to be committed to this line of reasoning but this
seems highly counter intuitive. Using the “Pareto Efficient Capabilities
Approach” however, this problem is easily resolvable. By giving up your lolly
money a few times, your capabilities are not lost (but the child's freedom from
hunger) is gained, however by giving away all your possible spare money(that
you would otherwise spend on university fees, textbooks, lollies etc.) your
capability (freedom to education) is lost since you can no longer attend
Thus, it seems
that given a different conception of justice to Singer's absolute equality, we
can end up with a duty to foreign aid, which does seem in line with our moral
intuitions in terms of its demandingness, in regards to how far it alienates us
from our own personal projects and those close to us. In the case of the
drowning child, the wet shoes are not a loss of a capability, but the loss of
the child’s life is (and thus even on the capabilities approach we should still
save the child).
seems that there is a way out of Singer's conclusion if we accept a different
conception of justice based on a Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach.
Singer's argument then seems to rest on a much weaker principle (the one he
himself rejects), namely that “if we can reduce suffering at minimal cost to
ourselves, then we should” and not his originally stronger version “if we can
reduce suffering, without losing anything of comparable moral significance,
then we should”. Thus on this weaker principle it does commit us to
helping/aiding the poor, but only up till a level where we lose a capability of
our own, a reduction not in relative terms but rather absolute terms; and this
second more acceptable variation is the principle that we are committed to,
based on a Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach. Singer rejects this approach
due to its arbitrariness (as do I), but this arbitrariness does not occur
within a Pareto Efficient Capabilities Approach framework.
as we have seen, depends on our interpretation of cost, Singer uses a cost
benefit analysis of absolute welfare to determine cost (which we have seen
leads to an unacceptable conclusion); whereas by using a capabilities/freedoms
approach (combined with Pareto efficiency) to determine cost (where we are not
obliged to sacrifice one of our own capabilities, no matter how much than can
improve someone else’s) we reach a much more acceptable conclusion - a Pareto
efficient conception of justice.
as we have seen, we are not committed to Singer's conclusion that “we should
keep aiding the poor until doing so forces us to give up something of
comparable moral significance”. As we are only committed in this regard if we
use Singer’s definition of “comparable moral significance” alone. However,
doing this leads us to an unacceptable account of absolute equality of
welfare. This can be avoided if we use a
different definition of “comparable moral significance” by using a Pareto
Efficient Capabilities Approach. Thus we are not inescapably committed to
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