Peter Singer puts forth the proposal that if there if we can act to prevent something bad from happening without causing something comparably bad to happen, we should do it. He gives the example of walking past a shallow pond where a child is drowning. If we should find ourselves in this situation, clearly the thing to do is to wade in and save the child. We’ll get muddy, but this doesn’t matter compared to saving a life. Similarly, if we can give money to charity to help end world hunger instead of buying things we don’t need, we should do so. He also admits that this example is deceptively simplified, but that this simplification is irrelevant. First, there is the matter that we are not anywhere near the people who are affected by world hunger and are not in a position to judge what is in there best interests. Singer responds to this by saying that in the modern world, distance means nothing. We have global communication with correspondents in affected nations who are in a position to make those judgments. Secondly, there is the matter of diffusion of responsibility, the psychological phenomenon that led to the famous slaying of Catherine Genovese in 1964. If there are many people in a position to help, we feel less responsible that we should be the one to do so. Singer responds to this by saying that just because we feel less responsible doesn’t make it any less wrong for us to not intervene.
There are a handful of common reasons given by those opposed to giving charity to the poor or starving. One is the concern that the aid will be used irresponsibly, as seen recently with the victims of hurricane Katrina. A common reason given for people not giving change to homeless people is the concern that the money will be spent on drugs or alcohol instead of food. An extension of this could be made that if we give people food, they’ll spend what little money they do make for themselves on drugs or alcohol. Such is the nature of addiction, sadly, and in these cases, the solution is to give them not just food, but treatment as well. A second, broader reason given for not helping the poor is that if they are continually given aid, people will never learn to help themselves. By consistently relying on outside help in order to support themselves, people will just keep on doing what they’ve always done, instead of actually working to improve their lives in a more permanent fashion. Singer would probably respond to this by saying that even though things many not necessarily change as a result of helping, that’s better than not trying at all. For Singer, inaction when suffering could be prevented is still a sin.
What he doesn’t say, however, is that inaction when suffering could be prevented is equivalent to murder. I have read his essay in the textbook multiple times searching for this statement, and have yet to find it. I even found a digital copy of the unabridged essay and searched for murder, omission, and passivity, to see if there was any mention of the equivalence made in sections that were edited out. I have found nothing in the essay to suggest that Singer ever attempted to equate a sin of inaction with anything; indeed, the words “passivity”, “omission”, and “equivalent” never appear in the text, nor any form thereof. Now, if one were to follow Singer’s beliefs, it is entirely plausible that they might hold this equivalence to be true, but Singer himself never said anything of the sort.
Singer’s work earned the criticism of John Arthur, who claims that people should be able to spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit. He says that just because we are able to help someone doesn’t necessarily mean we should; the decision of what we do with our own earnings is ours and ours alone to make. More interestingly, he presents extreme cases which are, in fact, not so extreme. He says that, for example, while it would be unpleasant for someone to go through life with only one eye when they once had two, if they were to donate one of their eyes to someone who had lost both of theirs, they would be fulfilling Singer’s idea of their moral obligation. Arthur argues that in this regard, people who are able to live with one eye or one kidney are obligated to donate the other one to organ banks so that someone else may gain sight or no longer need dialysis. Arthur even says that it may be plausible to come up with a situation where someone may come to harm of we do not perform sexual favors.
Arthur’s central idea in his response to Singer is that we have the right do decide what we do with our own earnings. In the plainest sense, this is true. However, there’s really no reason for people to spend more money on themselves and their families than they need to. If one makes enough money to live comfortably, the best thing they can do with their excess is do something useful with it. While it can be said that the purchase of luxury goods is good for the economy, a corporate executive from, say, a restaurant chain would probably see better results from using his extra money to give all the cooks, cashiers, and dishwashers a raise than buying himself a jet. As far as monetary and culinary (?) charity for the impoverished and famished goes, in the long term, it does more harm than good. While there is some fraction of the affected population that actually uses their charity money to move up in the world, for most, it is either insufficient or squandered. The best aid we can give to the impoverished and famished is the building of farms and factories where people can get steady jobs and maintain self-sufficiency.