Why we should give
By Colten Kamlade, Contributor
Anyone who has taken a philosophy course has probably heard of Peter Singer. This eccentric, controversial figure has defended infanticide, doping in professional sports, and bestiality. Sifting through this menagerie of bizarre ideas, you may have stumbled upon something more palatable: Singer’s 1972 paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.”
It argues that neglecting to donate to charities is morally reprehensible. This is contrary to the idea that donating to charities is supererogatory; meaning that it is a good act, but not morally required. Singer’s argument rests on two central premises. Firstly, that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad,” and secondly, that “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 conclusion, therefore, is that we ought to do everything in our power to help people avoid suffering and death.
Singer also presents a thought experiment to put his argument into perspective. He writes that if you were walking by a shallow pond and saw a child drowning, it would be morally right—even though you might ruin your clothes—to wade in and save them. He claims that this is the same as to forego buying new clothes and donating the money you save to charity. Therefore, neglecting to donate to charity is not a morally-neutral act, but an immoral act.
There has not been a convincing counterargument to Singer’s paper. Some have claimed that his argument reduces our lives to nothing but moral values, and that we need to consider more than just morals when making decisions. While it is true that amoral values influence our choices, living a moral life implies that we put moral values before amoral values.
Others have challenged his assumption that donating to charity is the best way to alleviate suffering. While this may be true, you can alter the argument to include whatever you believe to be the most effective way of reducing suffering. If you believe that it’s volunteering at a hospital, then it still follows that you should volunteer as much as you can.
I have known about this argument for the past two years, and I have done little to change my life. Assuming, however, that we strive to live moral lives, it follows that we are obligated to do as Singer says. That is, cut all frivolous spending and give to those living in squalor. No unnecessary clothes or food or drink; just the bare minimum to keep yourself healthy.
I have not written this to persuade you to do exactly as Singer says. We are too selfish, and overcoming that selfishness seems impossible. What I do encourage is that we give something. Stop drinking coffee for a week and donate that money to charity. Don’t buy that $150 pair of boots, and instead spend it on groceries for the food bank. If we are convinced by Singer’s argument, then neglecting to give to charity is reprehensible, and giving is an act expected of all people who are striving to live decent, ethical lives.