In Famine, Affluence, and Morality, utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer argues that all of us ought to act according to the following principle:
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
The only assumption underpinning this principle is the belief that suffering is bad, which he takes to be incontrovertible.
If everyone were to seriously adopt this principle, the world would change radically. This is because seriously adopting this principle means acting to prevent suffering in all situations, regardless of our proximity to that suffering or the number of people like us who could take our place in preventing or reducing it.
Our physical distance from suffering doesn’t matter, he argues, because it is a fact that aid workers can now reach places all over the planet in order to aid crises like famine and war. Neither does the number of people like us who are capable of taking action, but are not. This fact doesn’t make us any less morally obliged to help relieve or prevent suffering, in the same way that failing to save a drowning child because there are others around doesn’t, or the fact that others drive cars make us any less responsible for the problem of pollution.
He goes on to argue this: if all people similarly placed where to give x amount of money (x being a fixed amount of money), there would be enough to relieve the suffering of y, therefore all people similarly placed are obliged to give no more than x. However since it is true that not all people similarly placed will give x, people ought to give more than x.
But this argument can, it seems, lead to an absurd conclusion. If everyone were to give as much as they ought to – and Singer believes that this should be to the point where giving any more would cause serious suffering to oneself and ones dependents, or to the point at which giving more would cause oneself and ones dependents to suffer as much the suffering she is trying to prevent, – then the amount of aid given to relieve the suffering will outweigh the sacrifices made by those giving. Therefore people ought to give less, or only some people ought to give, in order for the outcome to be optimal in relieving suffering.
This absurd conclusion can only make sense, according to Singer, if people were to give all at once, and as if nobody else had already given or was going to give in the future. This is because those giving after people have already given are in a different circumstance (and therefore not similarly placed) than those who are giving before people have given. Because they are not similarly placed, they ought to give different amounts in order to optimally relieve suffering. Note that there is still something that these people ought to do, regardless of the circumstance that they find themselves in. What they ought to do is what will, in fact, relieve suffering.
I said earlier that if everyone were to take Singer’s principle seriously, the world would change radically. The world would change radically because our consumer society would be derailed in a world in which people spent their money not on superfluous things, but on relieving suffering. In a world where the principle was taken seriously, our definition of charity would be redefined: it would no longer be something that it is good to do, but not wrong to not do. Not acting charitably would be wrong, because in failing to prevent something bad from happening we would be acting in a way that is not merely amoral, but categorically immoral.
Singer ends his essay with a call to action, encouraging us all to take the principle of using our power to prevent bad things from happening seriously:
Discussion, though, is not enough. What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously? In this instance, taking our conclusion seriously means acting upon it. The philosopher will not find it any easier than anyone else to alter his attitudes and way of life to the extent that, if I am right, is involved in doing everything that we ought to be doing. At the very least, though, one can make a start. The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.