Is there a moral obligation to give to charity?

By Aristophanes


In his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” philosopher Peter Singer argues that not only do first-world citizens have a moral obligation to feed starving children in developing nations, but they must give until those children suffer no less than they. John Arthur claims Singer is wrong in his assumption that positive rights are as universally applicable as negative rights. In his reply to Singer, titled “World Hunger and Moral Obligation,” Arthur explains positive rights only originate through prior contractual circumstance.

In this article, I will argue why Singer is wrong in his weighing of negative versus positive rights and why both Singer and Arthur are mistaken in dismissing proximity as an irrelevant moral factor. If proximity leads to factors that could be considered contractual, and we accept Arthur’s proposition that positive rights only originate in this way, then we are likely to have a moral obligation to help those close to us while bearing no such responsibility to those halfway across the globe.

Central to Singer’s argument is his greater moral evil 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.”

To illustrate this, Singer proposes a thought experiment in which a man passes a pond containing a drowning child. We will assume the man is capable of safely rescuing the child without endangering himself. However, the man is also wearing a very expensive suit that will be ruined if he enters the water. Under Singer’s principle, we would say the ruining of the suit is not of “comparable moral importance” to saving the life of the drowning child. Therefore, the man is morally obligated to enter the pond.

Singer believes proximity is not a morally relevant factor in determining how we ought to act, so in this way he transposes the properties of a child starving in a developing country halfway across the world onto the example of the child drowning in the pond. We, as relatively affluent Americans, can easily save the child by donating to famine relief. If we don’t, we commit a moral sin akin to letting a child drown, according to Singer.

Arthur refutes Singer’s argument by stating positive rights, or rights of recipience, are always contractual. On the flip-side, negative rights, or rights of non-interference, are naturally occurring. For example, if I have a right to be rescued from a burning building by a fire crew, I only have this right because American society forces me to pay taxes that fund the upkeep of my local fire department. However, I am born with the natural right to not be killed by another human being, which is then violated if I am murdered.

To further illustrate the point, Arthur explains how Singer’s greater moral evil principle would lead us into very strange obligations, such as being required to grant sexual favors to someone who would be psychologically damaged otherwise, or to donate one of our eyes to someone who was born completely blind. As such, Arthur believes we are only obligated to do such things if some form of legitimate agreement, societal or otherwise, existed beforehand.

Arthur’s argument is intuitive, but it inevitably entails a few strange moral freedoms. For instance, Arthur would lead us to believe we would have absolutely no obligation to institute a system of redistributive taxation. In fact, our current system of slightly redistributive taxation would be an infringement of personal liberty, according to this logic.

We have evidence suggesting the overall utility of a society that provides no mandatory aid to the poor would be quite low — certainly lower than the overall utility of a society operating measures to keep inequality in check. For example, look at France before the French Revolution. The nobles and others of wealth accumulated greater fortunes while the poor descended further into poverty. The violent uprising that ensued as a result brought forth much misery for a long period of time, both for the wealthy and the poor. The end result may have produced a more respectable society, but revolution would not have been necessary had the problem not existed in the first place.

If the effects on society are so detrimental, how can we allow such a libertarian system to be considered morally correct? Simply put, the solution to this matter is in the definition of what is considered a prior contractual arrangement.

Both Singer and Arthur believe proximity to be a morally irrelevant factor in any circumstance. Let us assume, however, that proximity were relevant. This would explain why we feel it is necessary to save the child drowning in front of us, but not the one starving half a world away.

This could be explained as purely psychological; evolution has enhanced our herd instinct in a way that strengthens our emotional bonds to those physically close by. However, what if proximity were itself a contractual arrangement? If it were, this would satisfy Arthur’s stipulation on when we ought to act in response to others’ positive rights. When we inhabit a space close to another human being, we insert them into our field of perception in a way we don’t for those who are far away. This awareness brings forth the idea that I am obligated to help not merely because I can, but because I both can help and fully recognize that I must.

Then comes the question of degree. With the advent of the information age, we are bridging these “proximity gaps of awareness” in ways prior generations never did. We are certainly aware that children are starving in developing nations while we are relatively well-off, something that has not always been true for the preceding history of mankind.

However, would we consider ourselves as aware of these sufferings, still so far away, as we are of, say, the suffering of a family member, even if the family member’s suffering is relatively minor compared to that of the starving child? We must amend the statement that proximity is a moral factor, replacing it with the statement that awareness is a moral factor. In this way, we would hold a higher moral obligation to help those to whose suffering we are more aware, and less of an obligation to help those to whose suffering we are less aware.

This, however, still does not fully justify the claim of the contractual nature of awareness. If killing and letting die have equal intention and equal consequence, they must be on morally even ground. Therefore, would not “starving” and “letting starve” be of the same moral weight? We cannot hold one man responsible for the ills of all life in all places. The contractual nature of awareness places the boundary: we should not be held responsible for that of which we do not know.

Continued awareness is also contingent on personal choice. We are not always responsible for those systems we discover, but we are responsible for those systems on which we continue to mentally dwell. In this way, a prisoner cannot be forced, by mere proximity alone, to be consciously aware of the ills of his fellow inmates.

Once we discover a system, we hold this certain obligation to do right. However, the obligation is dependent on how we discover and experience the system. For example, say Sally had a dying infant in her arms, afflicted by a poison to which she held the antidote. We would say Sally held an almost certain obligation to save the infant’s life. However, say Jerry heard a labored cry of pain from an adjacent room where a dying, poisoned child lies. He, too, possesses an antidote, but does not understand that it is needed and, therefore, does not use it.

The difference between the two cases lies in the fact that Jerry cannot be sure a dying infant uttered the cry. In our case, Jerry assumes, understandably, that the infant merely wants to be fed or held, and its parent will soon come along to do so. He hears the cry once, then silence, leading Jerry to put it out of his mind. We would not, in these circumstances, hold Jerry to the same accountability that we held Sally, namely because he had a lower level of awareness to the ongoing situation.

We conclude with a greater understanding of the distinction between mere awareness and active conscious awareness, the latter being a personal choice. The latter is also what applies to our obligation to help others and, as such, has a direct connection to proximity. We can assume that because free choice is a prerequisite for a just contract, active conscious awareness is the true morally relevant factor in these cases.

We need not go against our evolutionary-biased psychology to make the claim of active conscious awareness as contractual moral obligation. Likewise, neither do we need to go against our general understanding of decency and human good.


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