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On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine

John Kekes

Philosophy / Volume null / Issue 04 / April 2002, pp 503 - 517

DOI: 10.1017/S0031819102000438, Published online: 28 October 2002

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0031819102000438

How to cite this article:

John Kekes (2002). On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine. Philosophy, null, pp 503-517 doi:10.1017/S0031819102000438 Request Permissions : Click here Downloaded from http://journals.cambridge.org/PHI, IP address: 192.12.88.14 on 05 Nov 2014 On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine JOHN KEKES I The supposed obligation to relieve famine is based on a rationally indefensible rampant moralism. Moralism is to morality what scientism is to science. Both aberrations involve the illegitimate inflation of reasonable claims either by exaggerating their importance or by extending them to inappropriate contexts. As monetary inflation weakens the currency, so moralistic and scientistic inflation weaken morality and science. Those who value morality and science will oppose moralism and scientism. If moralism is rampant, it is, according to the unabridged Random House Dictionary, ‘1. violent in action or spirit, raging, furious … 2. growing luxuriantly, as weeds. 3. in full sway; prevailing or unchecked.’ Moralism is rampant. It is very hard to think of an area of life that is free of the exhortation of one or another group of moralizers. We are told what food is right or wrong to eat; how we should treat our pets; what clothing to wear; how we should spend our after-tax income; how precisely we should phrase invitations for sex;

what kind of bags we should carry our groceries in; when and where we are permitted to pray or smoke; what jokes we are allowed to tell;

who should pick the fruit we buy at the supermarket; how we should invest our money; what chemicals we should use in our gardens; by what method of transportation we should go to work; how we should sort our garbage; what morality requires us to think about cross dressing, sex change operations, teenage sex, and pot smoking;

we are forbidden to inquire after the age, marital status, drug use, or alcoholism of job applicants; we are liable to be accused of sexual abuse if we spank our children or hug our neighbour’s; our 19 and 20-year olds are permitted to fight our wars, but they are not permitted to buy a beer; we are not supposed to say that people are crippled, stupid, mentally defective, fat, or ignorant; and we must not use words like ‘mankind,’ ‘statesman,’ or ‘He’ when referring to God.

The aim of this paper is to examine one influential attempt to doi:10

–  –  –

make a reasoned case for moralism. It is Peter Singer’s, and it endeavours to provide a utilitarian justification for the version of rampant moralism that Singer advocates. Singer has views on many controversial subjects, but only what he says about famine relief will be considered here.

II

Singer says that when people are starving it is immoral to have such things as ‘stylish clothes, expensive dinners, a sophisticated stereo system, overseas holidays, a (second?) car, a larger house, private schools for our children, and so on.’ (PE, 232).1 If the ‘so on’ is taken as broadly as Singer undoubtedly intends, it becomes obvious that a very large majority of people in affluent societies is immoral. If, for instance, we put the poverty level in America at 14%,2 then it is a reasonable estimate that about 86% of Americans are guilty of what Singer regards as immorality. Similar estimates hold in other affluent societies. Most people above the poverty level, and many below it, spend money on things that are not necessities. Those to whom this kind of moral exhortation gives an uneasy conscience may be cowed into thinking that there is something to Singer’s claim. But not many of them would think that the immorality they are charged with is terribly serious. If it is a sin to have more than what is necessary, it is a venal, not a deadly, sin. In a different moral vocabulary, it is a minor omission that involves a failure of generosity, not a major commission of a wrong that causes serious unjustified harm to others.

Singer, however, strongly disagrees. He says that ‘by not giving more than we do, people in rich countries are allowing those in poor countries to suffer from absolute poverty [less than basic necessities], with consequent malnutrition, ill health, and death. This is not a conclusion that applies only to governments. It applies to each absolutely affluent [more than basic necessities] individual, for each of us has the opportunity to do something about the situation; for instance, to give our time or money to voluntary organizations like Oxfam …. ’ (PE, 222). In saying this, Singer states no more than a

Parenthetical references in the text are to the pages of the following

works by Peter Singer: Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), second edition, referred to as PE, and Writings on an Ethical Life, (New York: Harper-Collins, 2000), referred to as WEL.





‘13·7 percent of the population are poor by current standards.’ Bruce

Wetterau, Desk Reference on the Federal Budget. (Washington, DC:

Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1998), p. 138.

On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine factual possibility: we are allowing absolute poverty and we could spend our time and money to try to alleviate it. The question is whether there is a moral obligation to do so, and, if there is, how strong is this supposed obligation. Singer’s moralism enters with vengeance in his answer. Since ‘allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers.’ (PE, 222).

This is not a slip or a momentary exaggeration. Singer really means it. When we stay at home after work and read a book, listen to music, watch TV, or, God forbid, go out to a restaurant, instead of doing volunteer work or writing a check to Oxfam, we are allowing someone to die, and we are murderers. He asks: ‘Is this verdict too harsh?’ He knows that ‘many will reject it as self-evidently absurd.’ (PE, 222). He allows that there are obvious differences between killing and allowing to die, but ‘these differences need not shake our previous conclusion that there is no intrinsic difference between killing and allowing to die. They are extrinsic differences, that is, differences normally but not necessarily associated with the distinction between killing and allowing to die.’ (PE, 224). It should not be overlooked that when Singer attempts to argue for his outrageous claim that we are all murderers, he drops the talk about murder and speaks instead of killing. But the concession he slips in makes the claim only a little less outrageous: we are merely all killers, not murderers, of people who live in absolute poverty.

Singer also makes clear that the obligation to alleviate absolute poverty is very strong. It is not the obligation of charity, which is usually thought to be right to do, but not wrong not to do. The obligation is not just right to do, but also wrong not to do. It is a clear positive duty, and the failure to discharge it is equivalent to killing those whom we could have saved. He says: ‘we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called ‘supererogatory’—an act which it would be good to do but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give money away, and it is wrong not to do so.’ (WEL, 110). Singer realizes that the general acceptance of what he says would lead to ‘the revision of our conceptual moral scheme’ and that it would have ‘radical implications,’ (WEL, 111), but given the suffering from absolute poverty, nothing less is called for. This makes obvious that what Singer is saying is that if people do not think about their moral obligations the way he does, then they should change the way they think. It will John Kekes perhaps be seen that it is not inappropriate to describe what Singer is doing as rampant moralism.

Describe it as we may, the question remains whether Singer is right. Reason may be on the side even of rampant moralism. Let us, therefore, see what reason Singer gives in support of his outrageous claim that affluent people are killers if they do not alleviate absolute poverty. He begins by saying: ‘Suppose that … I notice that a small child has fallen in [a pond] and is in danger of drowning. Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy … but compared to the avoidable death of a child this is insignificant.’ (PE, 229). And he goes on, ‘we have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a pond.’ (PE, 230).

Those willing to use their critical faculties will notice that most people in absolute poverty are not small children and to think of them as such is a crass paternalistic insult. They will also notice that it makes a great difference who the person is who is in danger of drowning. If it is a contract killer in pursuit of a victim, we are unlikely to acknowledge a strong obligation to pull him out.

Furthermore, if there is a lifeguard on duty whose job it is to rescue those in danger of drowning, we should let him do it. And, of course, the equivalent is precisely the job of the governments of the countries in which people in absolute poverty live. Singer’s putative analogy is a rhetorical stratagem that misleads the uncritical and infuriates the critical.

The example, however, is dispensable to Singer’s argument.

What he really wants to do is to propose and defend a principle that underlies the example. We shall call it the Prevention-Principle. The Prevention-Principle is: ‘if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.’ And he claims that ‘This principle seems uncontroversial.’ (PE, 229). But this claim is patently false, as the following considerations show.

First, it obviously makes a great difference who is threatened by the very bad thing. If the very bad thing is defeat in war and it threatens unjust aggressors, or if it is imprisonment for life of justly convicted murderers, then the obligation to prevent it is hardly uncontroversial. Second, it is no less obvious that it is folly to prevent a very bad thing from happening without asking about the consequences of doing so. These consequences concern not those who could prevent it, but those who are prevented from suffering it. The consequences could be even worse than the very bad On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine thing that is prevented. Death is presumably very bad, but if the consequence of preventing it is to live in great pain attached to a life support system, then an increasingly large number of people (including Singer) would not recognize the obligation to prevent it.

Third, it is equally obvious that it affects the supposed obligation why the very bad thing is threatening some people. What if they brought it upon themselves by imprudent risks (such as taken by recreational drug users), or by lack of foresight that reasonable people can be expected to have (such as ignoring the notice to evacuate from the way of a flood or a rapidly spreading fire). Is the obligation to prevent the very bad thing that threatens obvious then?

Fourth, it is similarly questionable whether the obligation holds if the people threatened by the very bad thing are proud, independent, and refuse help. Fifth, should it not be asked also how good are the chances of preventing the very bad thing from happening? Is it not more reasonable to prevent merely bad things from happening if the chances of success are good, rather than expend efforts and resources by risking the strong likelihood of failure to prevent very bad things? These considerations render the putatively uncontroversial Prevention-Principle controversial.

The implication is that before it is reasonable to acknowledge the obligation whose violation, according to Singer, makes us killers, we should ask: are we obliged to prevent very bad things regardless of whether they are deserved? regardless of consequences? regardless of whether people have brought it upon themselves? regardless of people’s refusal of help? regardless of the likelihood of success?

These questions should not be asked in order to justify doing nothing, but in order to determine whether our obligations would not be better met by concentrating on helping people in our own context where the answers could more easily be found rather than on distant contexts in which our unfamiliarity makes it unlikely that we can find reasonable answers. Singer, in offering his simple-minded argument, fails to consider these complexities. Of course, he could consider them. But then he would have to show that the answers to the difficult questions raised above would favour his case. That, however, he has not even begun to do.

–  –  –

Let us go on, however, and ask what makes Singer so confident that the Prevention-Principle is uncontroversial? The answer is that he supposes that the principle is a straightforward implication of John Kekes ethics. He thinks that if ethics is rightly understood, then commitment to it commits one to the Prevention-Principle. We need to ask, therefore, what his understanding of ethics is.

According to Singer, ethics is egalitarian. ‘Equality is a basic ethical principle … the principle of equal consideration of interests.



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