Famine, Affluence, and Morality

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"Famine, Affluence, and Morality" is an essay written by Peter Singer in 1971 and published in Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1972. It argues that affluent persons are morally obligated to donate far more resources to humanitarian causes than is considered normal in Western cultures. The essay was inspired by the starvation of Bangladesh Liberation War refugees, and uses their situation as an example, although Singer's argument is general in scope and not limited to the example of Bangladesh. The essay is anthologized widely as an example of Western ethical thinking.[1]


One of the core arguments of this essay is that, if one can use one's wealth to reduce suffering—for example, by aiding famine-relief efforts—without any significant reduction in the well-being of oneself or others, it is immoral not to do so. According to Singer, such inaction is clearly immoral if a child is drowning in a shallow pond and someone can save it but chooses not to;[2] nor does placing greater geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper reduce the latter's moral obligations:[3]

It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. ... The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, ... this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.

The affluent, says Singer, are consistently guilty of failing to recognize this, having large amounts of surplus wealth that they do not use to aid humanitarian projects in developing nations.

Here is the thrust of Singer's argument:

  • "Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad".[4]
  • "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it".[4]
  • "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".[4]
  • "The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position".[5]

Reception and criticism[edit]

Gilbert Harman has stated that he considers "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" as one of the most famous articles in ethics.[6] James Rachels said of the article: "one felt intellectual interest in the argument, but also guilt for not having contributed more money to relieve starvation".[7]

Singer's article also influenced the writing of Peter Unger's 1996 book Living High and Letting Die.[6]

A common criticism of Singer's essay is the demandingness objection. The "supposed obligation" of Singer's essay has been criticised by John Kekes,[8] and by John Arthur.[9] Singer's claim of a straight path from commonsense morality to great giving has also been disputed.[10]

The drowning child analogy featured in the paper formed the basis of choral music that has been performed by Södra Latin Chamber Choir (conducted by Jan Risberg)[11][12] and Choate Chamber Chorus.[13]


  • "[N]either our distance from a preventable evil nor the number of other people who, in respect to that evil, are in the same situation as we are, lessens our obligation to mitigate or prevent that evil."[14]
  • "[I]f 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." This, according to Singer, is a qualified reassertion of the principle that governs his argument.[15]
  • "People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look 'well-dressed' we are not providing for any important need."[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In the preface to the book version of the essay published in 2016 by Oxford University Press, Singer said: "An incomplete list of anthologies in which it has been printed runs to fifty." (Singer 2016, p. xii) Some examples are:
    • Cottingham, John (1996). Western philosophy: an anthology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 461ff. ISBN 978-0-631-18627-4.
    • Shafer-Landau, Russ (2007). Ethical theory: an anthology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 523ff. ISBN 978-1-4051-3320-3.
    • Pojman, Louis P. (2003). Moral philosophy: a reader. Hackett. pp. 344ff. ISBN 978-0-87220-661-8.
    • Wellman, Carl (2002). Rights and Duties: Welfare rights and duties of charity. Taylor & Francis. pp. 227ff. ISBN 978-0-415-93987-4.
    • Chadwick, Ruth F.; Doris Schroeder (2002). Applied ethics: critical concepts in philosophy. Politics. Taylor & Francis. pp. 272ff. ISBN 978-0-415-20837-6.
  2. ^ Singer points out that saving the child "will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." (Singer 1972, p. 231).
  3. ^ Singer 1972, pp. 231–232, 237.
  4. ^ a b c Singer 1972, p. 231.
  5. ^ Singer 1972, p. 232.
  6. ^ a b Helga Kuhse, ed. (2002). Unsanctifying human life: essays on ethics. New York: Blackwell. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-0631225072.
  7. ^ James Rachels (1981). "Sociobiology and the 'Escalator' of Reason". The Hastings Center Report. 11 (5): 45–46 [45]. doi:10.2307/3561299. JSTOR 3561299.
  8. ^ Kekes, John (2002). "On the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine". Philosophy. 77 (4): 503–517. doi:10.1017/S0031819102000438. S2CID 170461189.
  9. ^ Singer, Peter. "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (PDF). www.food.unt.edu.
  10. ^ Markoč, Anton (2019). "Draining the pond: why Singer's defense of the duty to aid the world's poor is self-defeating". Philosophical Studies. 177 (7): 1953–1970. doi:10.1007/s11098-019-01293-1. S2CID 159524233.
  11. ^ "Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" - Södra Latin Chamber Choir". youtube.com. Retrieved 2020-01-27.
  12. ^ "The Life You Can Save in Swedish music information center". www.mic.se. Retrieved 2020-01-27.
  13. ^ "Chamber Chorus Partners with Oxfam for Benefit Concert". www.choate.edu. Retrieved 2020-01-27.
  14. ^ a b Singer 1972, p. 234.
  15. ^ Singer 1972, p. 233–234.


External links[edit]