It can be argued that technology has made it easier to get involved in the process of helping reduce poverty across the world. It has reduced certain barriers such as transportation difficulties, information asymmetry, and now within seconds we can browse around the internet and make a donations effectively and easily or even find out about the effectiveness of different charities. Peter Singer argues that we have a duty to reduce poverty and death simply because we can, and these technological advances have made it obvious. For those in richer nations donating will have the ‘100x multiplier’ (MacAskill, 2015: 24), I will explain this concept further throughout this essay.
First, this essay will explore the argument made in Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ to explain the reasoning behind Singer’s argument that ‘we ought to donate any spare money to effective charities rather than spending on luxuries for ourselves’. Second, for the simplicity of this essay I will critically assess Singer’s argument by looking at Timmerman’s alternative analogy (Drowning Children), as it provides crucial differences to Singer’s analogy (Drowning Child). Finally, this essay will examine the failure of Timmerma’s critiques as they rely purely on the basis that morality is aligned with intuitive responses, based on Login’s ‘Save the children’ analysis. The aim is to demonstrate that the failure of these critiques highlight some misunderstanding of Singer’s argument and consequently makes it a stronger and valid argument.
Peter Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’ presents a ‘stark moral challenge’ (Jamieson, 1999: 2) to our traditional charitable giving. His argument starts from clear assumptions to argue that ‘if you can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of (comparable) moral significance, then you ought to do it’ (Singer, 1972: 235).
Singer provides a clear analogy of the Drowning Child in the pond with the aim to make us reflect on the importance of sacrificing something that is not as morally important or significant as preventing someone from dying due to, for example, malnutrition or diseases. If it is in our power to prevent a child from drowning in a pond, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, for example our brand new shoes or getting our clothes muddy, we ought to do it. My central argument for this essay is that Singer’s sacrifice principle is justifiable by looking at the failure of Timmerman’s attempt to criticises the sacrifice principle, and most importantly, Singer’s success to set a boundary through the concept of ‘marginal utility’ which makes one’s life worth-living when it consists of engaging in making donations to effective charities throughout one’s entire lifetime.
In 2012, according to the World Bank, just over 900 million people globally lived under the international poverty line of $1.95 per day (in 2011 prices). Many of who die from lack of shelter, food and easily preventable diseases such as malaria, yet there’s many of us who are comparatively so rich, that the amount by which we can benefit others is vastly greater than the amount by which we can benefit ourselves. William MacAskill, one of the founders of the effective altruism movement, calculates that those in rich countries can reasonably expect to do ‘one hundred times’ more for someone who is living in extreme poverty than they could by spending the money on themselves (MacAskill, 2015: 20). Therefore, donating as little as £5 will have a greater benefit such as the provision of blankets for refugees. Consequently, Singer concludes that we ought to donate any spare money to effective charities rather than spending on luxury for ourselves, in the same way that we ought to save the child from drowning in the pond because what is required of us to do so, is not a big burden and the positive outcomes outweigh the sacrifices being made.
On the other hand, Timmerman’s analysis suggests that Singer’s analogy doesn't quite reflect the real world which arises some concerning implications of Singer’s sacrifice principle. For instance, the analogy puts the reader in a situation that, gratefully, we don't have to face everyday, and therefore gives the impression of not having to make these sacrifices frequently in the future. Timmerman refers to this as an anomalous event (2015: 207).
This also links to that fact that people mistake psychological differences from moral differences. For example, we are more likely to be more sympathetic in helping the drowning child from this analogy, than other sufferings happening everyday such as poverty, diseases and oppressions. This is perhaps because we have grown accustomed to them. Whereas, events such as the drowning child inspire deeper and more urgent emotions (MacAskill, 2015: 55). Consequently, the analogy can be psychological biased as we mistakenly assess the event as more important and instantly presume that Singer’s sacrifice principle is true.
So, the analogy is clear in showing that we are morally obliged to sacrifice a suit worth £200 to save a drowning child. But, there are many children dying every day and when applying this concept to today’s position, it is much less clear that people from richer nations are morally obliged to make repeated £200 sacrifices to effective charities in order to save children’s lives just because they are in the position to do so. Problematically, this leads to the conclusion that even if one donates to a specific charity, there remains more children in need of help at a relatively small additional costs.
So we ought to keep cutting back an unnecessary spending and donating what you save, until you have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you will be sacrificing something nearly as important as saving the child’s life (Singer, 2009: 18).
Therefore, he believes that Singer’s moral obligation is very demanding which only leads to diminishing of returns since poverty is a large-scale problem that requires more than one person’s lifetime savings/earnings. So the reader’s intuition (which is psychologically biased) that they are obliged to save the drowning child doesn't justify that we ought to spend our entire life making repeated sacrifices that are no as morally significant (Trimmerman, 2017: 467).
Singer’s argument also raises the question of how much are we obligated to donate to aid organisations. Without a doubt, there’s no moral difference between the obligation to save the child in the pond and the obligation to donate to charities, but the main moral difference is the sacrifice required. And according to Timmeraman, Singer overlooks this detail in his analogy ‘giving us no room to believe that there are certain occasions where it is morally permissible not to prevent something bad from happening at a insignificant personal cost’ (Timmerman, 2015: 201).
Timmerman illustrates the issue of the obligation of those in richer nations to give their earnings to charities with a better version to Singer thought experiment- Drowning Children.
Timmerman’s Drowning Children explains that a lady gets a call from the bank to inform her that her bank account has been hacked and they are taking her money, so she must go to the bank immediately to prevent any further credit loss. On her way to the bank, which is just 5 minutes away from her house, there are many children drowning in different ponds. It would require all her assets to save every child, since that is not as significantly important as saving the children’s lives. This is a huge sacrifice she would have to make everyday for the rest of her life (e.g. 80 years of her life) not being able to stop the hackers and rebuild her life. And according to common-sense morality, giving her one day-off to stop the hackers and treat herself such as a spa day would be morally permissible, so one single time is enough which consequently, implies that Singer’s premise that ‘we are morally obligated to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of (comparable) moral significance’ is false and unsound.
However, the aim of this essay is to prove that Timmerman is making assumptions that leads to misunderstandings of the sacrifice principle, and therefore his objections are weak.
In particularly, by looking at Logins’ ‘Save the children’ clearly illustrates the weaknesses of these critiques. First, Timmerman doesn't justify his conclusion that common-sense morality supports the claim that it is morally permissible to give Lisa a day-off so she can stop the hackers and enjoy a spa day, and therefore fails to show that Singer’s conclusion is false. Second, Timmerman makes the error of assuming that Lisa’s lifetime performance of saving drowning children is no significant compared to the lives being saved, and therefore...
Logins’ claims that ‘blameless does not entail permissibility’ (2016: 420). In fact, someone who accidentally hits a pedestrian with a car, given they are not under the influence of alcohol nor drugs, but simply because they didn't see the person, doesn't mean it is acceptable or permissible to hit pedestrians even if ‘it is not always blameworthy’. Similarly, giving Lisa a day off is not blameworthy but it is still wrong because consequently children will drawn. Also it is not clear that commonsense morality supports the idea of a day-off is blameless, it sounds more like an ‘excuse’ and it is important to recognise the difference between a justification and an excuse. Distinguishing these two can explain why we sometimes consider that it not blameworthy not to give one’s savings/earnings to an effective charity, while we may be blameless in neglecting charity. But, it is still wrong, to be living comfortably buying luxuries, while others are dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are blamelessly doing nothing to prevent their sufferings. Clearly common-sense morality wouldn't justify this behaviour. As a result, Logins shows Timmerman’s failure to demonstrate that Singer’s sacrifice principle is false nor unsound because there is no room to believe there are certain circumstances where it is morally permissible not to prevent something bad from happening at a insignificant personal cost.
Furthermore, Timmerman assumes that Lisa’s lifetime performance (80 years of her life) of saving the drowning children does not require a sacrifice that is as morally significant than saving the children’s life. However, caring such humanitarian action does have health risks in the long term- empirical evidence conducted in 2013 shows 30% of aid workers had experienced post-traumatic stress disorder. Therefore, if Luisa’s health is at risk from saving drowning children everyday, then we may question ‘whether it is correct to say that Lisa’s 80 years of sacrifice are not nearly as important as a child’s life’ (Logins, 2016: 421).
In fact, Singer highlights that it is important to assess the value of an additional sacrifice, Macskills refers to this a marginal utility.
[Everyone] ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one's dependents-perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one's dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal (Singer, 1972:234).
Despite of this concept being mentioned in Singer’s writings, Timmerman omits this point and assumes that the sacrifice principle provides no boundaries to when it’s necessary to stop making sacrifices. But evidently, Singer successfully sets a boundary that makes life worth-living when it consists of giving earnings to effective charities, instead of being viewed as the creation of a big burden to one’s life. This puts into bed any concerns about how much sacrifice one ought to make. This justifies the fact that we ought to donate throughout our entire lifetime, even if it is as little as 5% of our disposable income (or even more), as long as it doesn't have a negative impact which can cause our situation to be as bad as the calamity we aim to prevent, instead of just simply making donations during ‘emergencies’, as Timmerman suggests, which in turn wouldn't have much positive change in the world (or at least at a lower pace).
Additionally, since Timmerman doesn’t point out the health implications to be as morally significant, one can assume otherwise, that in fact, she may never face psychological health problems by devoting her entire life saving children. Consequently, this indicates that since there are no risks of having negative impact in her life, the act itself can not be considered as a sacrifice in the first place, so why should we permite Lisa to have a day-off?
Overall, Timmerman’s claim that Singer’s argument is false given that ‘there are certain circumstances where it is morally permissible not to prevent something bad from happening at a insignificant personal cost’, is entirely based on the belief that the sacrifice principle does not have enough ‘intuitive appeal’ (Glover, 1977: 286). However, it is important to note that Singer favoured utilitarianism over intuitionism (Philips, 1998: 57) as he understood our common intuitions could be a poor judge of moral positions, as shown above.