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

Updated January 27, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: 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 in 1971 by Peter Singer.

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

A moral philosopher is someone who deeply explores 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 takes on a utilitarian perspective. Utilitarianism is a philosophy that states that the best way to approach a problem is to maximize utility, or 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” says.

“Famine, Affluence, and Morality” argues that people who are affluent, or rich, have a moral obligation to donate to help humanity. They must donate more than someone with less income in Western society would, simply because they have more to give.

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, during which refugees were starving.

In1971, there were refugees from Bangladesh who headed to India for safety from genocide. As many as 9 million refugees were in 829 camps. However, the mass influx of people 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, such as sewer pipes and crowded camps. Famine ensued. Seeing this, Singer was inspired to write this essay, believing the rich should, and maybe would, 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 or nation can use their riches to lower suffering across the world, such as providing relief to famine, they are morally obligated to do so. Singer is not saying that the rich should give up all of their money, but enough to help the poor while not inhibiting their own ability to live.

Singer compares the inaction of rich people to seeing a child drowning in a pond that is shallow. The adult can save the child without risking their own death, and is therefore morally obligated to do so.

Singer says that people should look beyond the motivations and interests of the society they live in. He also points out that thanks to advancements in technology, people can more easilyrelocate money and aid to 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 people and nations who are affluent 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. Oftentimes, there is a mentality of “out of sight, out of mind.”

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 possible.

On Prevention

Singer then goes on to explain that if we can prevent or lessen this suffering without affecting our wellbeing, we have a moral obligation to do so. Those who have the means to help therefore have a moral duty to do so.

On Distance

In the essay, Singer explains that there is no difference between helping your neighbor and helping someone in Bangladesh. People are people, regardless of things like location, 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 if we can.

Amount

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. He equates this to someone seeing a child drown but not helping because many other people also see the same child. Someone else will help…right?

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 ethical arguments. Some say that when you read the essay, you are intellectually stimulated, and that you may feel upset that you haven't given at all or not given enough to help others in need, regardless of your position.

The aforementioned 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. The demandingness objection, in short, argues that if something is too demanding of someone, they are therefore not morally obligated to perform that action. For example, let’s say that in order to help someone in great need, you would have to leave your family behind. According to the demandingness objection, this could be deemed too demanding of you, and therefore your moral obligation to help is dissolved. This rationale of this particular argument is argued by many philosophers, and is quite shaky and imprecise.

So What Can We Learn From This Essay?

You probably know by now that charity is helpful, especially if you have the means to donate your time, money, etc. and can therefore make a positive difference. If someone is a billionaire, they can donate a million dollars and still be quite wealthy.

With that said, there are still ways to donate and help others even if you don’t have much money. Sometimes, donating even a dollar can help. While it doesn't seem like that much, if every person did this, it would add up quickly and make a great deal of difference. This is why it’s important to focus on the big picture, and not just the immediate small one directly in front of us.

How You Can Help Others

With all that being 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 that 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, and “charities” that are just outright scams to take people’s money. Meanwhile, there are selfless charities that give all of the money to the people who need it the most. A goodand legitimate charity should disclose where 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 help others and 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 that 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 – talk with them, listen to them, and just be with them. If your friend or someone less fortunate confides in 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 any help that you can, even if it’s just a listening ear and a supportive shoulder.

With that said, you need to look after yourself as well. If you don’t take care of your own emotional and physical wellbeing, then you won't be able to help others. Make sure that you're getting enough rest, exercise, and have 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 first world countries are fortunate to live the life that we have, and we can help others across the world have a better life, especially in modern times with improved technology. 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.

How Online Therapy Can Help

Sometimes, the best way that we can embark on a path to helping others is to learn how to help ourselves. And sometimes, we ourselves need some help in learning how to do that. Online therapy has been found to be just as beneficial and effective as face-to-face therapy, with 98% of BetterHelp users making significant progress in their mental health journeys and 94% preferring it to in-person therapy. In fact, a study conducted by the University of Zurich found that 53% of clients using online therapy experienced a continued decline in adverse mental health symptoms even three months post-treatment, as opposed to 50% of in-person therapy users.

Additionally, in line with this article’s recurring topic of technology improving our ability to help others, licensed BetterHelp therapists are accessible anytime, anywhere. You’ll just need an internet connection to get started (and if you choose to utilize video sessions). The ability to have therapy sessions via video chatting, texting, live voice recording, email, or phone calls adds to the convenience. This can be particularly useful to those who live too far from a conventional therapy office or lack transportation, those with busy schedules, or those who feel more comfortable talking with someone from the comfort of their own home. Continue reading below to see reviews of some of our licensed therapists from people seeking help with a variety of issues.

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