In class we discussed poverty and charity, particularly Peter Singer’s view on both subjects. Singer is a consequentialist and thinks that if you have the opportunity to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, then you ought, morally, do so. Singer uses a thought experiment to prove his point. If you see someone drowning in a pond, then you have a moral obligation to try and save that person, Singer believes. To many the moral intuition is very solid. Many people believe that you should save people when you have a chance. Then why has Singer’s position come under so much criticism? Many believe that Singer’s position is too demanding. Others believe that it violates personal property rights. Since Singer is a consequentialist his response to such criticisms would be that his view maximizes happiness and reduces suffering. To him those are the only things that matter in morality.
However, Singer’s position is rather unsteady when you look at it and charity through a deontological outlook. Deontology looks at morality through a motivational and intuition formation outlook, while Singer focuses on the consequences of one’s actions. There are two thought experiments that show the issues with Singer’s position. The first deals with charity and tax exemptions. The American tax system is set up so if you donate to charity, you can write it off on your taxes and thus pay less. While a fair amount of people donate to charity because they believe that it is the right thing to do, some people and corporations donate because they can pay less in taxes. To many this is morally abhorrent. However, Singer would not find it morally wrong to donate to charity for tax breaks. This is because to Singer the donation still helps people who are suffering. Deontology supports the intuition that such actions are morally corrupt. This is because the motivation for donating to charity to pay less in taxes is morally wrong. It is selfish and treats charities and charity workers as a means instead of an end. The second thought experiment deals with for-profit charities. Most major charities are for-profit and thus most of the money donated to them does not go to those in need. As a consequentialist, Singer would view your actions as not morally good. This is because the donation did not actually go to those in need and ease their suffering. But many who donate to these charities feel that their actions are moral. This is where deontology comes in to play. Even though your donation may not go to those who need it the most, it is still morally correct. This is because your motivation for donating was to help those in need.
Singer’s position looks impervious to lasting criticism. However, deontological criticism pokes holes in Singer’s theory. This is because as a devoted consequentialist Singer overlooks certain exceptions to his theory. These exceptions can be seen through thought experiments about tax exemptions and for-profit charities.