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Peter Singer - "famine, Affluence, and Morality"

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Peter Singer supports this claim by providing an example of a scenario in which a person witnesses a child drowning. Most people would agree that that person has a duty to save the drowning child. Singer claims that this duty exists because we believe that the drowning of a child is a bad thing. If a person has a duty to save the child because a drowning child is a very bad thing, it is reasonable to assume then, that moral duty extends to preventing any significantly bad thing from happening, with the exceptions mentioned earlier being the only limitations to this duty and, this duty exists independent of how people actually choose to act. Moral requirements are different than legal requirements, and what a person chooses to do is not necessarily what he/she has to do.

This argument at first glance seems pretty straightforward and uncontroversial. Most people would agree with Singer's example of the drowning child. One must also be willing to accept two key features that are fundamental to Singer's claim. His principle: "takes no account of proximity or distance..." and "...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" (Singer, 1972). That is, no matter how close to or far away from the source of suffering one is, is irrelevant to his/her moral obligation to alleviate that suffering. Also, other people's response to this suffering, similarly, has no affect on moral duty.

To explain the first feature of this principle, Singer appeals to our sense of equality. On the basis that we accept equality and impartiality as a part of our morality, then we cannot discriminate against someone on the basis of proximity. How can we say someone's distance makes their suffering any less worthy of our moral duty? We cannot deem the needs of a man in Bengal less morally significant on the basis of his distance, "if we accept any principles of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever" (Singer, 1972). Singer further addresses the possible counter-argument: if I am unable to properly assess the needs of the people in Bengal, my money can do more good per capita for the less fortunate of my community. Singer argues that globalization has invalidated this excuse. Aid organizations are now very efficient, and the needs of the people of Bengal are highly publicized by news organizations across the world and are understood by the general public. Having addressed these counter-arguments, Singer concludes that there is "no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds." (Singer, 1972)

Singer spends more time on the second feature because it involves a change in our way current way of viewing morality or what Singer calls "our moral conceptual scheme." To explain this, Singer again refers to the drowning child

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