Peter Singer is gaining a near monopoly on posts thus far. I'll be sure to spread my attention around more fully. But... I've been thinking lately about some of the comments my students have made about our moral obligations to help those that are close to us--both in terms of proximity and in terms relationship (i.e., family, friends, etc.). Singer famously argued that proximity is not something that is morally significant. As he puts it, "It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away." It seems to me that he is right about proximity. My moral obligations to help those in need are not modified by distance. It's not as if the closer a person is to me, the more moral obligation I have to help them. But what about those that are close to me in the sense that I love them? Do I have a grater obligation to save loved ones than I do strangers? Some clarification is in order. I suppose the issue that my students worry about is one of comparative moral worth. The person starving in a far-off land, whom I do not know, is seen as somehow less deserving of my aid than is my friend Kent, whose friendship I cherish. But what's the argument for this view? Why think that Kent is more deserving of my help than someone else?
Further, things are much more complicated than I'm making them out here. We have to also consider the relative needs of individuals. Suppose Kent loses his job and he needs some money to cover his rent; and suppose that a stranger in some other country lives in a village that has an inadequate supply of potable water. Does the fact that the villager is in more dire need than Kent matter? It seems clear to me that it does. This is part of Singer's point. We have an obligation to help those in dire need--wherever they are--and giving aid to someone that needs our help less is to spend resources in a way that's not morally ideal. According to Singer, it would be good, of course, to help Kent; but it would be better to help the villager.
I know that some of you do not agree with Singer on this point and I wonder why exactly? Why do you think our loved ones are more deserving of help than strangers?
One thing that I have to stress is that there's a difference between what you would do and what you ought to do. This is something that students often get confused by. I'm not asking something about my psychology--whether I would help Kent and not the villager. I'm asking about morality. It's a question about what one ought to do in this kind of situation. I might be overcome by sympathy for my friend and thus help Kent. Of course, this doesn't mean that I am doing the right thing.