When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

“As I write this, in November 1971, people are dying in East Bengal from lack of food, shelter, and medical care.  The suffering and death that are occurring there now are not inevitable, not unavoidable…”

“At the individual level, people have, with very few exceptions, not responded to the situation in any significant way.  Generally speaking, people have not given large sums to relief funds; they have not written to their parliamentary representatives demanding increased government assistance; they have not demonstrated in the streets, held symbolic fasts, or done anything else directed towards providing the refugees with the means to satisfy their essential needs.”

History repeating itself – a sad but true cliché.  As Britain is embroiled in a media scandal, thousands of people are slowly starving to death in East Africa, largely unnoticed.

Peter Singer has lost a few fans in the UK following the New College for Humanities scandal.   He did, however, write one of the most significant articles in contemporary political philosophy, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” .  His argument is worth re-stating here to remind us of why we should all be donating to the East African crisis appeal .

Singer begins with the assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.”  He argues, “if 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 principle seems obvious, but in reality, it fundamentally challenges the way we live our lives in consumer societies.  To prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we would have to give up almost everything we own until the level of marginal utility; that is, until the level where we have the most basic standard of living necessary to survive.

Singer argues that this is morally correct.  He admits, however, that the demanding nature means that most people will not adopt such a principle.  He suggests instead that, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought morally to do it.”

For example, if you walk past a shallow pond where a child is drowning, you ought to go into the pond and save the child.  All you are sacrificing are wet, muddy clothes and a loss of time; these are not as morally significant as the death of a child.

What does this mean for individuals in developed countries?  Singer suggests, it means not buying new clothes, or a new car, or whatever consumer item you feel you need, but giving that money to famine relief.  If what you already own is acceptable, owning these items is not of comparable moral significance to the death of an individual due to famine.  It would not be good of you to give that money to famine relief, it would not be an act of charity; it is a moral obligation.

If you can prevent something bad from happening (death through starvation) without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (clothes, booze, electronics), you ought morally to do it.

What’s wrong with this argument?  Well, it is an argument about individual morality.  We know that the causes of poverty and famine are structural.  So simply appealing to individual morality is inadequate.  We need to rethink and transform the political and economic structures that allow chronic poverty and famine to occur.  Individual morality, however, is a good place to start.

If you are still not convinced, let me suggest a further reason why you should donate.  Famine is not a natural disaster; it is man-made.  As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen pointed out three decades ago, there has never been a famine in a functioning democracy.  While the years of drought that have precipitated the crisis in East Africa are natural phenomena, the ability to cope with this is not.  A functioning government, which can fairly distribute food and resources, can prevent disaster.

Why doesn’t that exist in these countries?  Bad governance?  Partly, yes.  But also as a result of IMF policies that prevented them from developing viable public sectors.  In the 90s, the IMF demanded developing countries open their markets to foreign direct investment (FDI) if they wanted to keep receiving loans.

Foreign multinational corporations and governments have bought up the most fertile land in these countries, leaving wasteland for those who live there.  This neo-colonial land grab, designed to keep Western countries functioning at their current levels of consumption, has also gone largely unnoticed.

Have you lobbied British companies that are involved?  Have you checked if you pension fund or bank is involved?  Have you written to your MP condemning this heinous practice?  No?  We are all complicit in this – this famine, and the next one, and the next one.  It’s time, at the very least, to mitigate some of its effects.

So instead of going to the pub tonight and spending £50 on booze and partying, give it to the DEC.  As Singer has shown us this isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a moral imperative.

Quotes from Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, reprinted in Thom Brooks ed., The Global Justice Reader, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008

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3 Comments

Filed under Democracy, Human Rights, Uncategorized

3 responses to “When Peter Singer was right: why we should give to the East Africa appeal

  1. Sorry why is Singer everyone’s least favorite philosopher? He’s hugely influential and well respected. That’s never changed. Controversial as well? Sure. But “everyone’s least favorite philosopher” is nonsense.

    • The first part of that sentence reads, ‘Following the New College for the Humanities scandal…’ I forgot to link to something about that, which I’ve now amended. Perhaps reading the link will help answer your question. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

      • I understand. But your view on the New College for the Humanities doesn’t reflect “everyone” nor Singer’s status as a philosopher. It’s a pedantic statement.

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