21 July, 2005

Worthy of Attention: Taking Stock of Reality: Duty—NOT Charity


As a philosophical skepticist, I sometimes find it hard to make arguments that would convince anyone that I am correct in my views. But if I restrict my audience to a subset of the population, then I believe that I can, because of shared initial premises, convince a great number of people to see things the way I do.

So, in the spirit of Peter Singer (Famine, Affluence, and Morality), I present the following highly uncontroversial premises. First, I will start by saying that (1suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. And second, I will assume that (2if it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. Before I begin my argument, I will take a closer look at each premise to see what kind of audience would agree with them, and whether or not you, as a reader, would be one of those selected few.

Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
I know more than a few people who would challenge this position, myself included. But if we define the moral sentence "X is bad" as "X is something that I wish everyone considered bad", then I think that everyone I know, no matter how attached to moral relativism they may be (nor how evil they think themselves), will accept this initial premise.

If it is within our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.
This premise is a little more challenging to get the maximum number of people to accept it, yet I still think that the vast majority of my readers will find themselves thinking it correct. When I say "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance", what is meant is without causing anything else comparably bad to occur, or doing anything that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good that is comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. In other words, this premise only requires us to prevent what is bad whenever we can do so without sacrificing anything that is comparably morally important. Allow me to quote an example of this principle from Singer: "If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing."

I think that just from what I have said so far, a large number of you have already accepted this second premise. But if you have, then you may want to consider the following, to see if you accepted too hastily. The reason I say this is because this principle does not take into account the distance between the actor and the actee. It also does not take into account whether or not others might not be following the same principle. Yet I wish that I could convince you all to accept this principle without additional qualifications, because I do not think that distance or agreement with others is particularly relevant from a moral standpoint.

Distance should not matter. If a person is near us, then maybe that makes it more likely for us to help him, but it does not make it more important for us to help him, morally speaking. If we want to be impartial, and consider all equally, then we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us.

I imagine some of you might argue: "But we are in a better position to judge what needs to be done to help a person near us, and also to give him the necessary assistance. Therefore, there is ample reason to consider first those that are near to us." Perhaps this may have once been a justification, but today instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. Today, expert observers and supervisors sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid in foreign countries almost as effectively as we could get it to someone on our own block.  Therefore this particular objection is not sound.

Agreement with others on this premise should also not matter. The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position. If we consider the good to be good, then it does not matter if everyone around us is doing bad, we should still do good.


Some of you might argue: "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for the starving masses; there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am; therefore I have no obligation to give more than $10." The premises as stated are true enough; but the conclusion was incorrectly stated.  What should have been said is that "If everyone in circumstances like mine gave $10 to charity, then I have no obligation to give more than $10." This is a completely true statement, but seeing as how not everybody in circumstances like yours gives $10 to charity, the objection is moot. In reality, it is more or less certain that not everyone in circumstances like yours will give $10. So there will not be enough to provide the needed food, shelter, and medical care. Therefore by giving more than $10 (up to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more you would cause yourself and your dependents as much suffering as you would prevent from the starving masses), you will prevent more suffering than you would if you gave just $10.

To paraphrase from Singer: If there are a hundred people around that same shallow pond, and none of them are doing anything to save the child, that does not mean that it is okay for you to not help.
And for those Christians out there, allow me to quote from St. Thomas Aquinas himself [Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 66, Article 7]:
Now, according to the natural order instituted by divine providence, material goods are provided for the satisfaction of human needs. Therefore the division and appropriation of property, which proceeds from human law, must not hinder the satisfaction of man's necessity from such goods. Equally, whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance. So Ambrosius says, and it is also to be found in the Decretum Gratiani: "The bread which you withhold belongs to the hungry; the clothing you shut away, to the naked; and the money you bury in the earth is the redemption and freedom of the penniless."
By now, I would hope that the vast majority of my readers would agree that these two premises are acceptable. And as a result, I'm sure they already see what this means for them. But just to illustrate, I will continue by giving a few cases from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting De: Our Illusion of Innocence.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
For many years to come, Bob enjoys
owning his Bugatti and the financial
security it represents.
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed—but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Did Bob make an immoral choice? I am certain that most of you will say that he did. Yet consider the following:
In your mailbox there is something from UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon. But, you throw the material in the trash basket, including the convenient return envelope provided. You send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have had you sent in the requested $100.
Honestly, is there any difference between these two examples? Perhaps some of you might argue: "But Bob is the only one who can save the child on the tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $100 to UNICEF." This is true enough, but does it make any real difference?
Suppose that there were more owners of priceless vintage cars—Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy—all in exactly the same situation as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car. Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd ethics—the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not excuse them because others were behaving no better.
All it takes is $100 to save the lives of thirty starving children.
All it takes is $100 to save the
lives of thirty starving children.
After reflecting upon this for a moment, in the spirit of both Unger and Singer, I would like to provide a link to Unicef [800.367.5437] and Oxfam [800.693.2687] in the hopes that those of you with a hundred dollars to spare will take the time to donate the hundred dollars you would have spent on unnecessary clothing, video games, restaurants, or metro D.C. trips so that the money can be put to the much more excellent use of saving the lives of thirty starving children.
They will most certainly die unless you donate $100 right now. I'm absolutely serious about this. This is not charity—it is duty. And yet I am certain that only a very small percentage of my readers will actually take the time to donate that hundred dollars. And that deeply saddens me.

But regardless of how each of you reacts, I hope that all of you readers will have lots to think about, and I hope that you will forward a link to Panangelium.tk to all of your friends and family, so that they might also get a chance to think on the points that I've brought up in this week's article.

Until next time, be well.

(Information taken heavily from Peter Singer's Famine, Affluence, and Morality. Cases cited are from Peter Unger's Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence and Peter Singer's The Singer Solution to World Poverty.)

1 comment:

  1. "But if we define the moral sentence "X is bad" as "X is something that I wish everyone considered bad", then I think that everyone I know, no matter how attached to moral relativism they may be (nor how evil they think themselves), will accept this initial premise."

    I fail to see what you mean here, and specifically how it is supposed to be easier to accept "I wish everyone would believe X" than "I believe X".

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