My final critique of Peter Singer (for now) will focus on one of his less publicised but more striking claims. This is that there is a moral obligation on everyone in affluent countries to give very generously to charities helping poor and sick people in less fortunate countries, up to the limit at which it seriously impinges on our own welfare. In essence, he demands that we give up luxuries and donate all money beyond that spent on essentials.
There is much to be said for the consequences were this view taken seriously. We really could have a profound effect on world poverty if we donated to anything like this extent. Without doubt, it would be profoundly moral to give charitably in this manner, but I take exception to the claim that it is a moral obligation.
Singer's conclusions derive from one central premise - if we can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (1), we are obliged to do so. He suggests that having money cannot be comparible to having basic necessities to live without suffering. In fact, he suggests that for his conclusions to work all that is necessary is that we be obliged to prevent suffering where nothing of moral significance at all is sacrificed (2). The difference between these principles would seem to be exemplified by following example: A man whose foot is trapped in a railway switch can push it to divert a train away from a child who would otherwise die, but at the cost of his foot. Singer would presumably accept that the foot is of at least some moral significance. Therefore on the less harsh test (2) the man would have no duty to push the switch as it would sacrifice something of moral significance. However, on the harsher test (1) we would have to consider whether the foot is of comparible moral significance to the child's life. Since it probably is not, he would have a duty to make this sacrifice.
Before considering the bulk of the argument, I will first argue that position (2) cannot lead to Singer's conclusions, and that he will have to stick to position (1). After that I will argue that both positions are profoundly misguided.
The idea that we have a duty to prevent evil where nothing (morally) significant must be sacrificed seems appealing. After all, it would seem that such a sacrifice cannot be too onerous upon us. It seems strange therefore that such a supposedly soft requirement could lead us to give up all luxuries. The reason for this is that Singer has an odd idea of what is morally significant. He would need to argue that giving up potentially huge sums of money is not morally significant. But money widens our options and choices in a unique way. While giving a small amount may indeed be close to insignificant, as the amount goes up the deletarious effect it has on our life options increases dramatically. This is why it is seen as a sacrifice, just like giving up our foot. It seems especially odd for a preference utilitarian like Singer to ignore the importance to people of autonomy. Even beyond essentials, what he derides as mere luxuries are expressions of autonomy which is subjectively intensely valuable. As one of the key points of liberalism, one might expect Singer to recognise this. In fact, almost everyone agrees that theft of money does a moral wrong to the owner, so it would seem odd for there to be no moral sacrifice if such money was given away!
In fact, this goes further. Singer talks about passers by seeing drowning strangers and claims that nothing of moral significance is lost in requiring them to go in and rescue the strangers. But this is not so. Indeed, the cost of replacing damaged clothes may be minor (although depending on the person's means, it may not) but if the watcher is compelled to save the drowner, all of their other options are prohibited to them, a loss which again is at least morally significant. This is the reason that omissions are rarely crimes in most countries - to force positive actions is a massive infringement of autonomy.
It would seem that the idea of morally insignificant sacrifices is very weak, at the least. Any such sacrifice would have to involve no significant reduction in autonomy. At most this might extend to small amounts of money from those who have an over-abundance of which they will not miss small amounts. It will certainly not go anywhere near the levels necessary to end world poverty as Singer dreams.
The only way for Singer to maintain his thesis is by sticking to position (1), that we are obliged to prevent suffering where such sacrifice as is necessary is not comparable to the suffering prevented. This seems much more plausible in support of Singer's conclusions. One could use Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a starting point for working out moral comparibility. So in order to allieviate basic deficiencies like illnesses and early deaths, we should be prepared to make sacrifices up to the point where to go further would be to subject ourselves to such things. This seems to go even further than Singer asking us to give up luxuries, but at least it would certainly justify that stance. Losing the autonomy money can provide would almost certainly not compare with the suffering in parts of the world, as losing autonomy briefly in order to rescue a drowning man would not compare with his death. On this model, if people were to do the right thing then countries would eventually equalise in terms of the welfare of their peoples, and people would always have to prevent harm to others unless they were likely to incur similar or greater harm in doing so.
However, I will say that this view is nonsense, going against almost every ethical intuition we have. To start with, an example. Say I earn some money and buy myself two apples. One is enough to sate my hunger but if I eat the other one, I will be pleasantly satisfied. My friend however has not earned any money, and is also hungry. Am I morally obliged to give him one of the apples? Clearly the sacrifice of the satisfaction is not comparable to his hunger (remembering that my hunger will be sated either way). If I have a duty to give him an apple, then what about the next day? And the next? Do I have a duty to feed him each day, because I work but he does not? Let me stress that I do not believe the more needy are by any means usually in that position due to any lack of effort or fault. I just mean to show that the principle seems insecure even to start with. The further away from illness and famine we move, the more ridiculous it seems.
Do we really think that the stranger who passes a random man drowning has a moral obligation to save him as long as there is no peril? Some have argued for a legal obligation in this direction, like Andrew Ashworth. However, I say that this view is actually out of line with general moral considerations, because of its view of moral obligations. When we think of such obligations, we consider them as being in some way incurred, or inherent. Incurred obligations like contracts can be of all kinds of different nature. However, here we are dealing with inherent obligations, and these are usually reserved for obligations not to impinge on the interests and freedoms of others. Indeed, they appear more like prohibitions from the wrong rather than obligations at all.
Imagine that the drowning man is able to send a message to a whole town telling them of his plight. It would seem ridiculous to argue that there is any difference between anyone who hears the message and the original walker. So who is now obliged to help him? Everyone? Must they all rush to help him, despite the damage to the town's economy and widespread chaos of all their positions being left? Are all these people responsible for helping the man? I would imagine we would not think so. Those responsible for alleviating suffering are normally those responsible for it in the first place, so the obligation is on those who cause the suffering.
In order to determine causation, we look at the situation had the person's actions not occured (this happens in law all the time). We can only conceivably find them responsible if the situation would have been significantly different without them. And this is the logical standard to follow, not that everyone is responsible if they could do something. The primary way for someone to become positively morally obliged is if they are causally responsible for the state of affairs in some way. Now with the right state of mind, such causation might mean that their actions leading to the state of affairs were morally wrong. Even if not, I would say that there is a positive moral obligation to right those wrongs for which we are causally (if innocently) responsible.
If this were not true, then it would not make sense to demand that people compensate others for harm. If responsibility for cure rests with those who can best achieve it, then merely committing the harm would remain morally irrelevent. Instead, we rightly expect those responsible for harm to be made to pay compensation as far as reasonably possible.
What does this all mean? It means that I am not morally obliged to help a stranger I see drowning - although it would be morally good to do so, it would not be morally wrong to fail to do so. However, if I inadvertently tripped a stranger into water, I would then have a moral obligation to help, at least as long as I would not have to sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance (ie. my life and possibly my good health). As for the poor and sick, we do not owe as great a duty as Singer imagines.
I would not deny that we have some obligation in that direction, however. I would say that apart from this normal way of incurring obligations, we can also do so by profiting from wrongs and injustices. Since a lot of western wealth is based on injustice which has led to the poverty and illness is developing countries, there is still a degree of moral responsibility we should bear. However, I will save this idea for a later post, and conclude that Singer is far from justified in assuming that we are morally obliged to help wherever we can.
In the comments, Richard correctly points out that I have not made explicit my view on whether act / omission is a morally valid distinction. Mea culpa - I will quote the my view as I set it out in the comments: "In point of fact, I believe that the act / omission distinction is not morally important, although it is a good rule of thumb for a valid moral distinction: Whether one is causally responsible for a state of affairs. Thus an omission to correct something harmful I have (perhaps innocently) started is as bad as an act."