Famine Relief Ethics


“Famine Relief Ethics” references the ethical theory put forth by Peter Singer in his article,
“Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (CLICK HERE to read).
 Singer argues the following (summary borrowed from the West Valley College’s website):

P1: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

P2: “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.” John Arthur calls this Singer’s Greater Moral Evil Principle.

P3: It is in our power to prevent suffering and death by giving money to causes such as famine relief.

C: Therefore, we have a moral obligation to give money to causes such as famine relief. We should give and it is wrong not to give.


The next question is: how much are we obligated to give? The next argument outlines Singer’s arresting and controversial answer:


P1:  Singer’s Greater Moral Evil Principle: “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.”

P2: Our interests and those of our dependents matter only to the degree that they are of comparable moral importance.

P3: “Interests” such as cars, clothes, cool shoes, stereos, CDs, fancy food, excessive rent, eating out, going to movies, concerts, or sports events, partying, goofing off, earning unnecessary money, etc. are clearly not of comparable moral importance compared to the plight of desperately suffering people.

C: People in affluent countries are morally obligated to do everything in their power to relieve the suffering of the famine victims, even if this means drastically changing our lives. If we spend extra money solely for our own pleasure, we are in effect killing innocent poor people. Furthermore, our obligation to the poor lasts as long as we are not also suffering and dying from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. We are obligated to give to the point of “marginal utility”; that is, until, our situation is as bad as that of the victims.

This is an area in which religious and secular ethics take different positions in terms of assigning responsibilities and duties.  If one takes a strong position, that acting and failing to act should be viewed as morally indistinguishable, then the failing to prevent persons from starving to death is not morally different from actively killing those persons.  This position could even be a provocation to war: if one nation fails to prevent deaths in another country, the first nation may be regarded as an assailant and, on a moral level, as an aggressor.  More often than not, both secular and religious ethicists have argued for moderate positions in which there is some obligation to intervene to stop preventable deaths, but the obligation is balanced by principles of ownership and justice so that persons or nations are not required to make heroic or supererogatory sacrifices.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much sacrifice should be made to help others.  Peter Unger estimates that it takes about $200 to save the life of a child. Shouldn’t that be preferred to spending $200 on a vacation, or clothes, or any expense less valuable than life? Singer offers the following thought experiment:

I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning … 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.

But how far does this thinking extend? One philosopher put this thought experiment forward:

What if, every day, as Singer walks past the pond, fifty children were close to drowning? Every day, he takes his self-imposed obligation seriously, and spends the day rescuing them, abandoning his lectures. Princeton gets wind of this and does not share his ethical orientation. Now it is one thing to expect someone to save a drowning child and give up one lecture, but it is quite another–if there are tens or thousands drowning (or starving, or ill) everyday–to expect him to devote himself to being a lifeguard instead of a teacher.

To read more about Peter Singer’s theory, and the objections to it, CLICK HERE.