A Moral Obligation

This is an excerpt from my essay Poverty: The Effects and a Moral Obligation to Help Others. You can find the downloadable PDF with complete citations in this post.

Peter Singer, a philosopher and professor at Princeton University, puts into perspective and validates the duties mentioned in Principal III of the Earth Charter in his essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality.  His stance in this piece is that human beings are morally obligated to care about and provide for those who are less fortunate.  He acknowledges that relatively few people have made efforts to offer monetary support to those who are living in poverty or have held rallies or fasts to stand in solidarity with these people.  Government agencies, he adds, are in the same situation: they simply are not giving funds to make a significant impact.  Many people value luxury items to a far greater extent than they do the lives of fellow human beings.  There are sufficient resources to feed the world, but humans have failed at distributing them adequately.

Singer says that there are people who are dying of causes that are singularly related to having a shortage of food.  We, citizens of developed and economically sound countries, are generally aware that poverty exists throughout the world but do not appreciate the extent of the problem.  Some of us are more aware than others because we hear of the children starving in poor countries from India to Africa to Latin America but become desensitized to their suffering. The individuals and governments are aware of the devastation of poverty yet do nothing because they take their comfort and wealth for granted, resulting in their failure to contribute to relief efforts in these impoverished areas.

The main point of Singer’s argument, which aligns with the duties of the Earth Charter, is that if a person has the ability to stop something from happening that is detrimental to others, then he or she is morally obligated to do so.  By not doing good, he feels, one is doing bad.  To clarify his point, he uses a powerful metaphor.  He says:

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 be presumably a very bad thing.

The issue that is brought up in relation to this scenario is that it is a seemingly natural response to save a child who is in front of you due to the physical proximity. If a child was drowning in a shallow on the pond in the other side of the world, it is not likely that someone would feel the same sense of urgency to help.  The idea of “out of sight, out of mind” is truly prevalent here.  When living in developed and progressive areas, one does not typically see the effects of poverty.  Many of the “drowning” kids in this world are not provided with the aid and resources because the people with resources do not see them.

Singer identifies a common mindset that further explains why many people do not contribute even though they are morally obligated to.  He says that people justify their lack of action by comparing their behavior to that of another person with similar circumstances.  According to Singer, “One feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing.”  His philosophy disputes these opposing ways of thinking by reminding readers that humans are to blame for some serious issues, such as poverty, which means the responsibility to fix them falls on every capable human’s shoulders.

In order for humans to move towards solutions, they must first change their mindsets.  If every week a person works and makes $100 and his or her expenses for necessities are $75, there is an excess $25 to be spent.  The person could use that money each week to buy candy, drugs, video games, unneeded clothing, or other luxury items.  He or she could also take even a portion of that money and donate it to an organization that gives all proceeds to feeding families in a third world country whose survival depends on that few extra dollars a week.  In many situations, it could barely be considered a sacrifice to give a small percentage of income, whether it be $5 or $5000, yet people still waste this money on useless things that have very little use or value at the end of the day.  The shift in mindset must include understanding the true purchasing power of a single dollar in a poor country.  That dollar spent on a candy bar (that you certainly do not need) could be a dollar to feed a whole family in a poor village for a day.  It is not difficult to make a difference, so there is no excuse as to why so many people with large amounts of expendable income are not contributing to the extent that they could.

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