Famine, Affluence, and Morality by Peter Singer

Peter Singer's article Famine, Affluence, and Morality describes the death and suffering that happened in East Bengal in 1971 as a result of a shortage of food, shelter, and medical attention (Singer 231). Poverty, civil conflict, and a hurricane all combined to worsen the situation for around nine million people living in the area at the time, but if richer nations had intervened and provided assistance, further suffering would have been avoided. This essay examines why famine victims should be provided aid and how doing so alters our view of the difference between charity and obligation. It also offers a critique of Singer’s argument based on John Arthur’s idea of “just deserts” from his article entitled Famine relief and the Ideal Moral Code.

Why we should aid famine victims

Singer’s main argument in Famine, Affluence, and Morality, is that the manner in which people conduct themselves morally needs to change. The author holds that if it is within our power to prevent a bad event from taking place without sacrificing anything else of moral importance, or without causing something equally bad to happen, then we are morally obligated to react and prevent it (Singer 231). According to him, we all have the power and the means to prevent bad situations from affecting people across the world no matter how helpless we feel. Singer provides an example where human beings are placed in a situation where they can prevent something bad from happening yet they choose not to try. Such behavior, in his opinion, is a cowardly, lazy, and morally wrong way of acting. While everyone can agree to the fact that it is indeed morally wrong to fail to act in preventing bad occurrences, very few people usually practice this idea, and a clear case is given in the handling of the Bengal crisis. The world thus would be a better place if people could practice what they think is right when faced with a moral crisis.

Singer also states that proximity, as well as the magnitude of the problem, should not dissuade people from doing what is morally required of them (232). In East Bengal, it is estimated that at least nine million people had been turned into destitute refugees as a result of the war and famine. With such a huge number of people to attend to, one would feel that availing aid would be a difficult or even worthless thing to do and that problems of such proportions require richer nations or governments to act. Singer, however, states that the distance of the Bengali refugees from one’s location and the number of people that need help should not reduce our moral obligation to them. Additionally, the fact that a lot of people are doing nothing to help should not be an excuse for individuals to refrain from playing their part in alleviating suffering. Such inaction in times of crisis in Singer’s opinion is morally indefensible and should be discouraged.

Argument against singer’s assumptions

In as much as Singer’s assertions are true and morally correct, there are a few occasions when one would feel that his principles are not wholly applicable. For instance, it is quite natural that a person will feel strongly obligated to assist someone who is much closer to him or her as opposed to someone who is further away. As a result, a person may be more willing to help another as long as they are closer because they would be able to provide help more easily and faster than if they had to offer support to a far-off person. One would also be more predisposed to decide on the type of help to provide as they will be more aware of the gravity of the situation for people who are closer to them. Singer, however, argues against this position by stating that human beings should not discriminate against others just because they are not neighbors (234). His position here would seem to hold weight because the transformation of the world into a global village today has facilitated interconnectivity where advanced modes of transport and communication make provision of humanitarian services easier.

Singer’s position on morality in the face of crisis also raises an interesting debate regarding our understanding of the distinction between charity and duty. Under normal circumstances, charity would be defined as the act of offering help especially in the form of money to those in need while duty could be described as a task that one must perform. It is widely held that donating money to a given cause is not supposed to be a duty and so failing to do so should not condemn one to criticism. In the context of Singer’s article, however, charity should be considered a duty. According to his statements, the fact that many people do not consider charity as a moral obligation does not mean that it is not. His insistence that people ought to rethink their perception of philanthropy thus conflicts with the commonly held assumption that charity is beyond duty or beyond what is obligatory.

Famine, Relief and the Ideal Moral Code

John Arthur in his article Famine, Relief, and the Ideal Moral Code, critiques Singer’s arguments by referring to the idea of “just desserts” where he states that people are allowed to justify their inaction by invoking their rights. I think the author wanted to emphasize that, if someone did not promise to offer help, and is not responsible for the other person’s predicament, then he or she should not be expected to give up the comfort and give away savings to distant strangers. Additionally, Arthur holds that in some cases, people should reserve what they have acquired to themselves. He gives an example of a hardworking farmer who strives to produce surplus food for the winter while his neighbor who is lazy spends the summer relaxing. He then poses the question as to whether the hardworking farmer should come to the aid of the lazy one when winter approaches just because the ideal moral code dictates so. In his opinion, Arthur concludes that while some circumstances dictate that we should offer help because of our moral attitudes, it is not obligatory that we do so.

I agree with Arthur’s argument because in some cases, the individual who is faced with a particular problem could be the one who got himself or herself in the situation by ignoring certain warning signs. For instance, a person who gets beaten up in battle should be left to deal with his problems because he or she had the option of retreating especially if the opponent seemed formidable. The overwhelmed party, therefore, should have deliberated upon the consequences of their actions before the fight, but since they did not, then they only have themselves to blame. According to Cahn and Markie, whenever people are made more cognizant of the fact that taking a certain approach or behaving in a particular manner could lead to certain undesirable consequences, they will be predisposed to act in a manner that will promote a culture of responsibility. As a result, we will have a society which will be less problematic because the ideal moral code will be central to both law and morality, where negative behaviors are discouraged and positive actions encouraged.


In conclusion, Singer definitely means the best when he claims that humanity should help their own whenever some of them are faced with a problem, but his ideas on how and why we should provide aid are not the best ones. According to him the lack of food, shelter, and medicine is unacceptable and that if it is in our power to stop this from happening, then we should take action. He, however, goes on to state that performing charitable acts should be a duty as opposed to being an option and this in turn conflicts with the notion that it’s only when it is within our power to provide help that we should do so. John Arthur thus criticizes Singer’s position by stating that inaction in the face of crisis is sometimes defensible especially if the affected party only wants to take advantage of another. Upon critical examination of the two authors’ standpoints, one would be inclined to agree to a greater extent with John Arthur because his philosophy espouses some form of responsibility where negative behaviors are discouraged while positive ones are encouraged for the good of society and the whole world at large.

Works Cited

Arthur, John. Famine relief and the ideal moral code. na, 2002.

Cahn, Steven M, and Peter J. Markie. Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues. Oxford UP, 2012.

Singer, Peter. "Famine, affluence, and morality." Philosophy & Public Affairs,1972, pp. 229-243.

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