Friday, July 22, 2016

Singer and Arthur on Charity

From guest blogger, Aria.

"In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, Singer argues that we are morally obligated to donate much more of our time and resources in helping those suffering from various causes such as famine around the globe. In fact, he is arguing that we need to change our moral scheme and instead of considering such humanitarian acts as supererogatory, we need to think of them as moral obligations we have towards our fellow beings. He gives the following two premises to support his conclusion: Firstly, death and suffering from lack of access to food, shelter, medical care, and such basic human needs is bad. Secondly, if we are able to prevent such suffering from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance then we are morally obligated to do so.

He provides thought experiments (i.e. child drowning in the pond) to capture our natural moral intuition to get his point across. In addition to his theoretically neutral approach, as it was discussed in lecture, what makes his argument really strong is its emphasis on “moral luck”. It is an objective fact that we cannot predetermine the circumstances of our existence. By that, I mean that we can neither explain nor control where and to what kind of a family we are born to. In other words, you cannot explain why you were born into a family that supported you and gave you the opportunities to thrive and another person was born to a poor family struggling for their survival day after day. Such differences between me and you, and those struggling with such unfortunate circumstances, are nothing but byproducts of random chance events.  As a result, we cannot possibly blame others for their suffering in circumstances such as famine and natural disasters. Consequently, it is our moral obligation to prevent such sufferings to the best of our ability until we reach the point of marginal utility; the point where our assistance causes more suffering than the amount of suffering we are intending to prevent.

As discussed in class, Arthur’s objection to Singer’s key principle points out the importance of moral entitlements (our rights and deserts) in determining our moral obligations. Arthur believes that our right to personal property, our own body, and resources, supersedes the right of others against us and our resources. Thus, we bear no obligation to assisting others in cases of famine and other calamities.  

At this point there is a standoff between these two mutually exclusive moral perspectives. What makes our discussion about them challenging is explaining why we should favor one over another. Why should we think that our personal rights supersede the right others have against us to prevent their suffering/or save their lives?  Similarly, what reasons do we have to think that someone’s right to life/ or prevention of suffering is superior to our right to our resources/fruits of our labor?"

1 comment:

Tim Heinzel said...

I've never really believed in positive rights such as the right to resources and assistance from others. Positive rights require action from someone in order to exist - for the poor person in Singer's case to have a right to food and medical care, someone has to guarantee the delivery of that food and care. Many people voluntarily do that, and I applaud them for doing so. However, positive rights for one individual are necessarily translated into obligations for another, and if these obligations are to bear any meaning (and not merely be a suggestion), the threat of force must be involved. If someone doesn't obey their obligation to help the poor, then for the positive right to exist, this obligation must be physically enforced. This enforcement typically emerges through the threat of arrest, fines, and jail time if the obligation to help the poor is not met.

I do not find it justified to threaten someone in order to compel them to fulfill a positive obligation (or imprison them for failing to do so). Consequently, I don't think anyone truly has a positive right to anything, including food and medical care. To obtain a product or service, one has to generate it themselves or obtain it through a voluntary agreement with someone else. Having a positive right to a product or service legitimizes being able to threaten someone else with force in order to secure that right.

For those who are a bit confused by my analysis, imagine a small group of people are on an island. One is disabled and is confined to one spot, unable to support himself. Everyone else works on the island and obtains all the food. For the disabled man to have food, it would have to come from someone else on the island. What if everyone on the island ignored him and refused to give him anything? In that case, we see that the "right to have food" isn't a default state. Someone else would have to come in, forcefully take food from everyone else on the island, and give it to the disabled man.

As a result, I think a moral obligation is meaningless unless that implies enforceability. If all Singer means by a "moral obligation to help the poor" is that we should feel bad for acting immoral if we don't help, then a moral obligation doesn't have any significant ramifications. Someone can ignore it with no consequences.

If by moral obligation we mean "this outcome must happen and we can take forceful steps to ensure that it does", then we have an interesting debate. My generic answer will then be that we can only use force in self-defense - we can't create a positive right for one person by taking something from another person. This is why I don't accept Singer's argument that we have a moral obligation to help the needy - for that obligation to carry weight, it has to be enforceable, and I am unwilling to provide legitimacy to that enforcement.

Personally, I think he makes a great case as to why we should help others, but I will not be convinced we have an "obligation" until there is a discussion of the enforcability necessary to create a positive "right".