Duties to the Less Fortunate

Sandra LaFave


The Moral Problem


Some people have much more than they need to live; others don't have enough. Very frequently, the “haves” possess no special virtues; they are simply lucky to have been born in relatively affluent societies. Very frequently, the “have-nots” are desperate through no fault of their own — for example, victims of natural disasters such as famine. Peter Singer, in his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1971) asks: what are the obligations of the “haves” toward the “have-nots” in these cases?



Peter Singer “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”


Singer asks us to consider this simple argument:

Premise 1: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

Premise 2: “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.” John Arthur calls this Singer's Greater Moral Evil Principle.

Premise 3: It is in our power to prevent suffering and death by giving money to causes such as famine relief.

Conclusion: Therefore, we have a moral obligation to give money to causes such as famine relief. We should give and it is wrong not to give.


The next question is: how much are we obligated to give? The next argument outlines Singer's arresting and controversial answer:


Premise 1: Singer's 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.”

Premise 2: Our interests and those of our dependents matter only to the degree that they are of comparable moral importance.

Premise 3: “Interests” such as cars, clothes, cool shoes, stereos, CDs, fancy food, excessive rent, eating out, going to movies, concerts, or sports events, partying, goofing off, earning unnecessary money, etc. are clearly not of comparable moral importance compared to the plight of desperately suffering people.

Conclusion: People in affluent countries are morally obligated to do everything in their power to relieve the suffering of the famine victims, even if this means drastically changing our lives. If we spend extra money solely for our own pleasure, we are in effect killing innocent poor people. Furthermore, our obligation to the poor lasts as long as we are not also suffering and dying from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. We are obligated to give to the point of “marginal utility”; that is, until, our situation is as bad as that of the victims.



Singer responds to each of the following objections to his views. He argues that none are morally-acceptable excuses for inaction.


1.      The suffering people live far away from me.


2.      Other people are not helping.


3.      Singer's proposals are “too different”; they demand a drastic revision of many traditional moral views.


4.      If we adopt Singer's views, we'd all have to be working full-time to relieve the great suffering of the innocent from famines, wars, and other disasters.


5.      It's okay not to give, because giving my time and money to poor and suffering people is not demanded by morality. Certainly I would be a better person if I did help, but there is nothing wrong with not helping. Not everybody is expected to be Mother Teresa.


6.      Singer is right that we should help, but his proposal that we give money is not the best way to help.


Singer quickly disposes of objections (1) and (2); both are simply irrelevant. If I am aware that desperate famine victims exist, and I agree with Singer's Greater Moral Evil Principle, I am obligated to help no matter where the victims live and no matter who else is helping. (If I know that other people are helping, and how much they are giving, I can perhaps adjust my contribution downward; but my obligation is in no way removed.)


Objection (3) is also irrelevant; the question is not whether Singer's views are new and different, but whether they are well-reasoned.


Singer's response to objection (4) is simply "Yes, probably".


Singer devotes most of his attention to objections (5) and (6).


Objection (5) invokes the traditional moral distinction between what is required to satisfy minimal moral requirements; and what is extra “supererogatory” virtue. Judith Thomson, for example, talks about the Good Samaritan and the Splendid Samaritan. We can do extraordinary virtuous acts if we are so moved, but it's not necessarily wrong not to do them. Not everyone is called to be a saint. So, the objector concludes, Singer is blurring the distinction between what is required and what is “above-and-beyond the call of duty.” In effect, Singer is saying that we are all required to be moral saints.


The distinction between what’s required and what’s extra is reflected in our legal system. For example, when you pay taxes, you can get a deduction for gifts to charity, but you don’t have to give anything to charity if you don’t want to.


The distinction between what’s required by morality and what’s “over and above” is sometimes called the distinction between general and specific duties; or between duties and obligations.


A general duty is (1) owed to all members of the moral community alike; (2) unavoidable for any member of the moral community; and (3) negative, i.e., a duty to refrain, or not do, some action. Commands such as “Don’t murder,” “Don’t steal,” and “Don’t lie” are general duties.


But some moral obligations are not general. Consider the obligation to keep a promise. Promise-keeping is owed only to the person to whom a promise is made. Therefore, my obligation to keep promises is not general because it’s not owed to everyone in the world. Another way in which my obligation to keep a promise is not general is that I can avoid the obligation to keep a promise simply by not making any promises; I have the obligation only if I voluntarily promise. General duties, by contrast, can’t be avoided at all; other things being equal, I must always refrain from murder, stealing, lying, etc. Furthermore, my duty to keep a promise is positive; I must actively do something, namely keep the promise, for the sake of the other. General duties, on the other hand, require only that I refrain from doing certain things.


Obligations to do things for specific people, then, count as specific duties — for example, duties to family members or friends. Giving to the poor falls under specific duty, or obligation, also, since giving to the poor requires positive action, and singles out some members of the moral community (the poor) as recipients while ignoring others (the rich). Singer’s opponent would then say that insofar as giving is a specific duty, it is voluntary, and not strictly required. The same goes for duties to family members; such duties must be specifically volunteered for. If you don’t want to have the specific duties of a parent, for example, then don’t volunteer for those duties, i.e., don’t have kids.


Our legal system supports Singer’s opponent. It enforces violations of general duties, but only sometimes enforces violations of specific duties. You can be arrested for murder, but you can’t be arrested for not giving to charity. You can be arrested for breaking a promise only in very specific cases (e.g., legal contracts), and usually not for purely family matters. Adult children are not legally bound to care for their aged parents. No one is legally bound to intervene or take special action on behalf of another unless a specific contract has been made. I’m not even legally obligated to call the police if I witness a crime.


Singer’s critic is right that Singer’s view is opposed to the traditional duty-obligation distinction. In fact, Singer argues against the distinction; Singer thinks the distinction falls apart in some cases, e.g., his case of a drowning child. On the traditional view, you have an unavoidable duty to refrain from killing anybody, and thus a duty not to jump into the pond and hold the child’s head under water until it’s dead. But seeing that the child is drowning, you have no obligation to do anything for the child that you haven’t specifically promised to do. So if you haven’t promised to try to save the drowning child’s life – as, say, a parent or a lifeguard would have – you don’t, morally, have to do anything; you can just sit back and watch the child drown. Singer thinks this case shows how ridiculous the general/specific duty distinction is. Singer thinks it’s obvious that you are guilty of a grave moral offense if you just stand by and do nothing. You can’t say “I’m not guilty because I didn’t do anything bad.” There are sins of omission as well as sins of commission.


Singer in effect gives an interesting argument against the distinction between general and specific duties. If Singer's Principle is correct — that is, other interests matter only if they are of comparable moral significance — then giving money to the helpless and innocent poor is an unavoidable duty for the affluent. You literally can't find a better use for your money. It is morally inexcusable, if Singer's Principle is correct, to spend your money on anything else. As Singer puts it, “we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.”


The final objection, (6) above, asks whether giving money is really the best way to help. For example, you often hear the argument that it might be more charitable in the long run to let starving people starve, since if you save them, they'll just make more babies, and the cycle of overpopulation and starvation will begin all over again. (This is Garrett Hardin’s “lifeboat” argument.) But, says Singer, if you think overpopulation is the real problem, you cannot just ignore it. You must do something about it, namely, work with all your strength for population control.


Singer is willing to be flexible about what action you take; it doesn't matter for his argument. If you don't think giving money is the best solution, you are nevertheless obligated to do, with all your strength, whatever you think is best. His point is simply that you are not allowed to sit back and do nothing.





John Arthur, “World Hunger and Moral Obligation: The Case Against Singer”


Arthur says Singer’s Greater Moral Evil principle results from two arguments:

1.      The first is an argument by analogy. Suppose Donald believes it's OK for him to ignore a child drowning in a shallow pool because by ignoring the child he is nevertheless still doing his negative duty not to kill. (Donald believes that as long as he doesn't actively kill the child, e.g., by holding its head under water, he is still morally OK.) Donald's belief strikes most people as morally suspect, no? Most people feel the moral thing to do in this circumstance is to act to save the child's life, not merely to refrain from killing it. Singer's argument seems powerful because it relies on this kind of moral intuition: that we are acting just like Donald when we ignore the suffering of the poor.

2.      Singer relies on our concept of moral equality, i.e., our belief that the poor are just as important as we are, so it would be unjust for me to prefer my trivial interests to preservation of their lives.


But, Arther says, Singer ignores entitlements.


According to Arthur, and in agreement with much philosophical and legal precedent, there are two kinds of entitlements: rights and desert.

1.      Entitlements of Rights: we are not obligated to heroism (e.g., to give up e.g., our kidneys or eyes or grant sexual favors to save someone else’s life or sanity (848-849).  Strangers have only negative rights (rights of non-interference), unless we have volunteered more. 

2.      Entitlements of Desert: we have a right to what we deserve based on the past. Everyone knows the tale of the ant and the grasshopper. Lazy, foolish, imprudent people in fact deserve less than industrious hard-working people, and hard-working people should not permit lazy people to take advantage of them.


Our moral system already gives weight to both future and past, consequences and entitlements. Of course we ought to help the drowning child if nothing of greater importance is at stake; but our moral code must be practicable by most people, and Singer’s isn’t. Singer just completely ignores backward-looking considerations.



Garrett Hardin, “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case Against Helping the Poor”


We should reject metaphor of earth as a spaceship, because there’s no single “captain” of earth. Rather, the metaphor of a collection of lifeboats is more appropriate. See 854-855. The rich nations are the lifeboats; the poor nations are the people adrift in the sea clamoring to get aboard.


Each lifeboat has limited capacity. Complete generosity/justice/equality = complete catastrophe.


Poor nations are having children at a rate far surpassing the rich ones. Their population doubles every 21 years; rich nations’ double every 87 years. 88% of world’s children are born poor. So if we let the poor on board and they keep reproducing at the same rate, our lifeboat will go down much faster.


The fundamental error of “spaceship ethics” is the “tragedy of the commons”. (856-857, 872). The world’s air and water are commons. The pollution of the air and water, and depletion of fish are the result. The resultant tragedy is that everybody eventually dies: the responsible stewards as well as the irresponsible ones.


The World Food Bank is no answer. The program is a sweetheart deal for special interests (farmers, railroads, manufacturers of farm equipment and fertilizer, etc.), funded by taxpayers. It contributes to the depletion of soil through the use of chemical fertilizers. But more importantly, it creates a commons. There’s no incentive for poor nations to plan ahead. Someone will always come to their aid. Furthermore, a world food bank hurts population control efforts; if the sympathetic do-gooders didn’t interfere, population control would happen “naturally” — albeit gruesomely — by crop failures and famine.


The Chinese fish approach (“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and he will eat for the rest of his days”) won’t solve the real problem either. It’s a simple matter of ecological limits: too many people are going to spoil the balance of nature. It’s a zero-sum game: the more people use, the less remains for others. The environment is going to become overloaded. Alan Gregg: “Cancerous growths demand food, but … they have never been cured by getting it.”


Similar arguments apply against immigration of people from poor nations to rich ones. Capitalists should recognize that their policy of exploiting lower-paid foreign workers is eventually going to backfire ecologically.


Thus, (864) “we cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all peoples so long as people reproduce at different rates.”



Murdoch and Oaten, “Population and Food: Metaphors and the Reality”


These authors, like Hardin, are biologists from UC Santa Barbara. 


Many of Hardin’s arguments are based on metaphors: commons, lifeboat, escalator.  Murdoch and Oaten see these metaphors as misleading analogies.



Lifeboat World Real World
Lifeboats barely interact with poor Nations, peoples interact constantly
People in lifeboats are there purely by luck or by enlightened, provident leadership(!) Rich nations' economic and political policies -- such as insistence on interest payments on Third World debt, encouragement of cash crops (thus wrecking biodiversity and depleting soil) -- are at least partly responsible for poverty poor nations.
Quantity and nature of lifeboats' supplies are fixed; rich can't do anything their patterns of consumption. Rich nations have other consumption and diet options.
Lifeboats can sail away. Rich nations can't ignore poor ones.
Poor nations will always have many more babies than the rich; poor people can't do anything about population control. Poor nations can control population if people have hope, if women are educated, if birth control is legal and encouraged.
Tragedy of the commons is inevitable unless private ownership is re-instituted. Tragedy of the commons is avoidable by many alternative social arrangements.

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