What Can We Learn From Peter Singer's “Famine, Affluence, And Morality”?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
"Famine, Affluence, and Morality" is an essay written by Peter Singer and published in the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, in 1972. In the essay, Singer explores the bounds of our obligation to help those in need, regardless of where they live or whether they’re connected to us.

Singer’s essay has been highly influential, bringing up important questions about how we ought to help others and whether affluent societies are as generous with their resources as they should be. Below, we’re going to discuss what "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" says about altruism, wealth, and ethics.

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What is "Famine, Affluence, And Morality"?

Peter Singer is a moral philosopher from Australia who works as a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He approaches many issues from a utilitarian standpoint, which emphasizes the importance of doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This is the guiding principle behind his most famous work—"Famine, Affluence, and Morality"—an essay in which he argues that people, organizations, and governments with sufficient resources have a moral obligation to donate what they can to help humanity. 

Singer wrote “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in 1971, at the same time as a genocide was occurring in East Pakistan (now known as Bangladesh). During this time, millions of refugees were crossing into India, where many of them faced challenging conditions, including extreme hunger. Singer used the example of refugees in crisis to illustrate his point, which was that people who can give their own resources to people in need—without harming themselves or others—should do so.

Main arguments

“Famine, Affluence, and Authority” has a few key points, but the primary assertion is that if people, organizations, or governments with sufficient resources can use their money to alleviate hardship around the world, they are morally obligated to do so. Singer is not saying that those with substantial wealth should give up all their money, but enough to help those in need while not inhibiting their ability to sustain themselves.

One of the main ways Singer makes his point is through a thought experiment in which he describes how most people respond to a hypothetical situation in which they see that a child is drowning in a shallow pond nearby. Most people would say that they would save the child, despite the fact that they may damage their clothes or miss work. They will make this tradeoff given what could be lost if they do not help. However, when it comes to making a sacrifice—potentially a much smaller one—for those who live far away (e.g., in Bangladesh), people often do not experience the same impulse. 

Singer says that people should look beyond the motivations and interests of the society they live in when providing aid to others. He also points out that, thanks to technological advancements, people can more easily allocate money and aid anywhere in the world, meaning that there is no longer any "justification for discriminating on geographical grounds,” as he puts it. Singer observes that many affluent societies do not recognize this moral obligation. 

In his essay, Singer explains that agony from a lack of food, medicine, or shelter is preventable, and that steps should be taken to avoid it whenever possible. He then states that if we have sufficient resources, and we can prevent or lessen this burden without affecting our well-being, we have a moral obligation to do so. 

Singer goes on to argue that there is no difference between helping your neighbor and helping someone in Bangladesh, even though it may be easier to help someone close to you. The obligation does not change, and though most of us are going to put the interests of our community first, we should still help those thousands of miles away if we can.

Singer also states that it doesn't matter if you are the only person who could help, as in the case of the child in the pond, or one out of many, as in the case of people in need around the world. According to him, regardless of the number of people who can help, each person has an obligation to do so. He believes that individuals can't pass the responsibility to someone else simply because others are also in a position to help. He equates this to someone seeing the child in the pond but not helping because many others also see the child. 

Critical reception

Singer’s essay was generally well-received, and it is considered one of the most important pieces on applied ethics ever written. The aforementioned child in the pond analogy has also become a popular thought experiment and has been used in many other essays (e.g., “A "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" for Climate Change?”).

However, there were a few criticisms. Many people believe that Singer’s view of our obligations is overly demanding. Some people have argued against the extreme nature of Singer’s points, claiming that they defy practicality and are too broad. For example, let's say that to help someone in great need, you would have to leave your family behind. According to people who object to Singer’s principle, this could be deemed too demanding of you; therefore, your moral obligation to help would be dissolved. 

How you can help others

While many people refute some of the principles laid out in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer’s essay illustrates the various ways we can help others. If you’re interested in supporting people in need, there are numerous opportunities for you to practice altruism regardless of your financial situation. The following are some ways that you can help others. 

Spread awareness about causes you support

Consider getting the word out about organizations that align with your values. For example, if you are passionate about ecological conservation, you may want to engage with environmental non-profits on social media. Or if you want to help the unhoused, you could write a blog post about a local shelter. 

Consider volunteer work

Volunteering is a direct and effective way to help others and give of yourself. Consider donating your time to a cause that you're interested in. If you love animals, try volunteering at an animal shelter. If you want to help alleviate hunger, consider working in a food pantry.  

Reach out to people outside your community

In the spirit of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” consider providing support to people whom you might not ordinarily have the chance to help, whether because they live in other cities, states, or countries. For example, you could become an international pen pal with a child who is in need of encouragement and guidance, donate money to an international food safety organization, or even volunteer abroad. 

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How online therapy can help

Sometimes, the best way to embark on a path to helping others is to learn how to help ourselves. And sometimes, we need some help learning how to do that. Online therapy platforms may be a helpful tool in learning how to improve the mental health of ourselves and others. For example, one study demonstrated how people who used BetterHelp experienced a significant decrease in depression symptom severity after engaging in online therapy.

Those who help others often need support of their own at times. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can work with a therapist remotely, which can be helpful if you’re already busy giving back to your community. BetterHelp works with thousands of mental health professionals—who have a range of areas of expertise—so you’ll have a better chance of connecting with someone who can address your specific mental health-related concerns. Continue reading for reviews of therapists from those who have sought help in the past.  

Therapist reviews

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We can learn a lot from the ideas Peter Singer discusses in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Even if we do not meet the standard he sets out—which many people believe is overly demanding—Singer’s essay helps illustrate the many opportunities we have to help people who are in need across the world. If you’d like guidance as you give to others, consider connecting with a licensed therapist online. With the compassion and support of a qualified mental health professional, you can receive care as you provide it to others.
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