What Can We Learn from Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, And Morality?

Updated January 02, 2019

Reviewer Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

What Are Famine, Affluence, And Morality?

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Famine, Affluence, and Morality is an essay published in 1972 in the academic journal Philosophy and Public Affairs. It was written the year before by Peter Singer.

Who is Peter Singer, you may ask? Peter Singer is a moral philosopher from Australia, and he works as the professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, among other things.

A moral philosopher is someone who argues what is right and what is wrong, and Peter Singer has been doing this for many years. His issues are approached from a secular perspective, meaning that it is free from religious influence, and also a utilitarian perspective. Utilitarianism is a philosophy that states that the best way to approach a problem is to maximize utility. The utility can mean many things, but the basic definition is how useful something is.

Peter Singer has written many essays, including some that argue for vegetarianism. He is still alive as of this article and still working as a philosopher. Now, let's discuss the gist of what Famine, Affluence, and Morality say.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality argue that people who are affluent, or rich, have a moral obligation to donate to help humanity. They must donate more than a normal person in Western society would.

The idea of the rich donating to help the poor isn't anything new, but Singer's essay was still quite powerful. It came during the Bangladesh Liberation War refugees' starving.

In1971, there were refugees from Bangladesh who headed to India. As many as 9 million refugees were in 829 camps. They were escaping from genocide, and many of them headed to India to do so. However, the mass exodus hurt India's economy. They struggled to support the refugees, and some of the refugees had to take shelter in places that were not ideal. Sewer pipes, crowded camps, and famine spread. Seeing this, Singer was inspired to write this essay, believing the rich should help the refugees.

The Arguments Of The Essay

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This essay has quite a few arguments, and one of them is that if a wealthy person can use their riches to lower suffering across the world, such as providing relief to famine, they are morally obligated to do so. The singer is not saying that the rich should give up all their money, but enough to help the poor while not affecting the rich person.

Singer compares the inaction of rich people to see a child drowning in a pond that is shallow. The adult can save the child without the risk of death, and if they choose not to, they are not a good person.

Singer says that people should look beyond the motivations and interests of the society they live in. He also points out that thanks to the advancement in technology, people can be able to donate money anywhere in the world, and people who are rich should be able to do it.

Singer observes that many of the rich people do not recognize their moral obligation. They sit on bags of money they don't need and don't help the less fortunate who are unable to help themselves.

Here is the basic breakdown of Singer's argument.

On Suffering

In the essay, Singer explains how people should not suffer or die from having no food, medicine, or shelter. He believes this suffering is preventable and it should be taken care of whenever it's possible.

On Prevention

Singer then goes on to explain that if we can prevent or aid this suffering without affecting our livelihood, we have a moral obligation to do so. Someone who is rich has no excuse not to donate some of their money to help the less fortunate.

On Distance

In the essay, Singer explains that there is no difference between helping your neighbor or helping someone in Bangladesh. People are all on the same level, and though most of us are going to put the interests of our community first, we should still help those who are thousands of miles away.


Singer believes that it doesn't matter if you are the only person who could help or one out of many. Regardless of the number of people who can help, you still have an obligation to. You can't pass the obligation to someone else just because there are many people.

How Was This Essay Received?

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This essay had quite a great reception. It has since become one of the most famous articles when it comes to the ethical argument. Some say that when you read the essay, you are intellectually stimulated, and you feel upset you haven't given or not given enough money to help people, regardless of your position.

The above mentioned drowning child comparison also became quite popular and was used in many other essays as well.

However, there were a few criticisms. One of which was the demandingness objection. In that, people argue that donating excessively is just praiseworthy and not a moral obligation and that the obligation to donate seems demanding.

So What Can We Learn From This Essay?

You probably know by now that charity is good, especially when you're rich and can make the difference in the world. If someone is a billionaire, they can donate a million dollars and still be quite wealthy. However, most of us are not billionaires.

With that said, there are still ways to donate and help others. If you aren't rich, donating even a dollar can help. While it doesn't seem like that much, if every one of your statuses is doing it, it adds up.

Some rich people have given back to the community as well. Meanwhile, there are others who like to keep the money to themselves and don't care about the less fortunate. People are different, and those who have not fulfilled their moral obligation to give to the less fortunate won't be able to change.

How You Can Help Others

With all that said, here are some ways that you can help other people when it comes to charity.

Pick A Cause Worth Fighting For

If you are donating to charity, you want to pick a charity you're interested in. It can be something personal to you, or just something you're interested in. You aren't going to be that invested if you just pick a charity that you don't care about. Once you pick the cause that's worth fighting for, it's time to think about how you're going to approach it. To do this, you can:

Do Some Research

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Always do some research when it comes to figuring out which charity you want to donate to. Some charities may be more reliable than others. There are some charities where the owners take most of the money for themselves. Meanwhile, there are selfless charities that give all the money to the people who need it the most. While there is no way to know where the money goes, you can do a little digging and see if there's any information. A good charity should disclose where all the money is going, so do your research and see what you can find.

Do Some Volunteer Work

If you want to give back to society and don't have much money, you can always try volunteer work. Not only does it look good in your job experience, but it's also a great way for you to feel good about yourself.

Just like with a charity, you do want to do some research on where it is you're working and figure out a cause you're interested in. If you love animals, try working in an animal shelter. If you want to help the homeless, try looking at your local homeless shelter.

Just Talk To Someone

One way you can help a fellow person is just to be empathetic to them. If your friend or someone less fortunate, talks to you, be empathetic. Listen to what they have to say and see what you can do to help. Improving your empathy skills is a great way to help the less fortunate, and it's quite easy to do. Just listen, imagine yourself in their position, and offer to help.

With that said, you need to look after yourself as well. If your well-being isn't strong, then you won't be able to help others. Make sure you're getting enough rest, exercise, and are having enough money for yourself. Go to therapy if you need it. Take some time alone.

In Conclusion

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We can learn a lot from Singer's essay. Most of us in the first world are fortunate to live the life we have, and we can help others across the world have a better life, especially in modern times with the Internet. By being able to help other people, we will feel much better about ourselves, and it can allow us to live a much more productive, happy life. So, get out there and help someone today.

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