Monday, September 5, 2011

Let's Have a Toast for the Assholes

In Famine, Affluence and Morality, Peter Singer argues that persons in affluent countries have a moral obligation to donate at least some of their income to organization designed to combat global famine. While most of us take donating to Oxfam to be a charitable act, Singer argues that for most of us, such donations are morally obligatory.

In arguing for this conclusion, Singer asks us to consider a scenario like the following:

Janice is on the way to the club in her new Manolo Blahnik stilettos (yea, surprise, surprise, I know what Manolo Blahniks are). She sees a small child drowning in a shallow pond. In order to save the child, she’ll have to wade into the pond, ruining her new shoes.

Clearly, we should think Janice an asshole if she chooses her shoes over the child’s life.

Singer thinks that this situation is no different, morally, from the situation of the person who spends however much on Manolo Blahniks instead of donating most of that money to Oxfam and buying less expensive shoes.
In fact, Singer’s position is more extreme. He thinks that it would be wrong to the buy less expensive shoes as well. Starving children need food, no one needs stilettos (or Starbucks coffee, or whatever).

Now, let’s consider the following three propositions which I think most of my readers will consider true of themselves.

1. I know that I can help feed a starving child in, say, Somalia, by donating what, from my perspective, is an insignificant amount of money to Oxfam or some other organization designed to combat famine.
2. I don’t donate money to Oxfam or an Oxfam-like organization, but instead spend much of my income on things I don’t need.
3. I’m not an asshole.

But, light of Singer’s argument, it’s not clear that all three propositions can be true.

So, this is the challenge (which is not unfamiliar to anyone who has studied moral philosophy): Either figure out how all three propositions can be true or reject one.

How do you respond?


  1. I remember seeing Peter Singer(among others) in Examined Life. Worth checking out. As far as the propositions, I agree with the first For the second, I donate money and time, but I also buy things I don't need. Finally, I know I can be an asshole. To me, it's not about living a life that meets some high standard, but constantly striving to become a better person. I only donated around $500 last year. This year, I'll donate more in time and/or money. Next year, I want to surpass whatever level I reach this year. If a simple majority of people adopt this approach, then there would be no need to reduce things to a choice between having some material good or saving a child from starvation. My 2 cents. Interesting post.

  2. So I generally buy the Singer line, and more or less accept that we have to accept that 3 is not true (we could probably soften this to say something like "I am not delinquent in fulfilling my moral obligations" - I assume we would have an easier time accepting that we fail to meet our obligations than we would agreeing whether or not that makes us an asshole). But that said, I also think that the issues are a lot more complex when it comes to what uses of our money can and cannot be justified. Conspicuous consumption (buying expensive things for no good reason other than demonstrating that you can afford to buy expensive things) seems to be indefensible, and we should direct moral criticism at people who needlessly flaunt their wealth in this way. We do weigh various other considerations when we decide how to spend our money, though. Assuming that I'm not going to simply stop wearing shoes, I'm faced with the question of which shoes to buy. Maybe I should just buy the cheapest shoes possible so that I can donate more money to charity. That's not an unreasonable position, but I may want to make my choice based on where the shoes were manufactured, the labor standards governing their production, the materials used, how long they will last, and so forth. These considerations may weigh against spending as little as possible, but I don't think these other commitments should all be sacrificed. I could be wrong, of course - it could be that we should weigh nothing more highly than maximizing our contributions to saving third-world lives (and I certainly think that in practice I could cut out a lot of unnecessary expenditures in favor of increasing my contributions), but I feel that balance is possible and preferable.

  3. If you did a survey of the English speaking world, the rate of "yes" responses to the question of whether there is a moral obligation to fight poverty in 3rd world countries would vary based on which class the question specifies (assuming it specifies a class).

    Clearly, those in poverty themselves have no moral obligation to fight poverty in some foreign country, because "ought" implies "can" and, well, they can't.

    The response for middle-class families would probably be about the same. Does it really make sense to vilify families making 40-150K a year because they use their money to provide for their children, save for retirement, and perhaps splurge a little on a nice car? Very few people would say such individuals should considered immoral for living such a lifestyle.

    Moreover, for lower and middle class folk, the expected survey response that there is no moral obligation to use their limited funds to fight poverty probably matches any decent analysis of our moral language as a whole.

    This brings us to the real issue Brandon raises, which is whether the wealthy have a duty to use their money for the good of the impoverished (I doubt the response rate would differ significantly between having a duty to aid the impoverished in one's own country versus a random 3rd world nation).

    I do not know what a survey on this question would bring, but it very well might be that yes, the rich should help the poor. At the very least, the rich would get moral credit (along the lines of Kant's "imperfect duties") for so doing, in the sense that people would tend to think more highly of wealthy individuals who donate.

    Most people would probably say that the impoverished should somehow be cared for, or in other words that "society" should care for the impoverished. Most people would probably expand this to a global level as well, stating something along the lines of "people shouldn't have to starve or die of easily curable diseases," or "humanity should take care of humanity." And this would match any sort of utilitarian account of our moral discourse because there is a diminishing marginal utility to wealth.

    The question, ultimately, is how this is to be done or, in other words, who is to do this. The candidates seem to be wealthy individuals or groups with enough combined resources to make a difference, such as governments, organized religions, and corporations. Assuming that it generally matches our moral discourse to say that the poor should be cared for, it would seem that one or all of these groups would have a moral obligation to carry out this imperative. I imagine that the responsibility would be somehow apportioned among these candidates, and would fall most heavily on government. Whether the level of responsibility that our moral discourse places on the other candidates rises to the level of moral obligation is an empirical question, and the answer is not clear to me.

  4. perter singer is an asshole white supremacist jerkoff who should be shot in the head. it is his convoluted thinking which he believes to be logical that led to the deaths of millions of people under Nazi Germany.shame on the academic world to take the rantings of this lunatic seriously.