3. Famine relief.
We think that murder is wrong. Most of us have unsettling feelings about abortion, even though some of us may maintain that abortion is morally permissible. The intentional taking of another person's life is certainly in the top category of wrong actions. Abortion may be a gray area morally speaking, but the taking of an innocent three-year-old child's life is flat out wrong. Or is it?
Suppose that I were to predict that before the week is over, you would be a murderer. I am not speaking about a sin of omission, but intentional killing of another person. I predict that you will intentionally kill an innocent child by the end of next week. You will deliberate over whether or not to do the proper action, which is not to kill the child, and, I predict, you will not do the action necessary. You will effectively kill the innocent child.
The argument that I will put forward is one developed by Peter Singer. (See Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Philosophy & Public Affairs 1, no. 3 (Spring 19720), Princeton University Press, 1972.) I will use the basics of his argument and add some other details to demonstrate my prediction.
Singer's argument has two premises. The first is "Starving to death is bad." He informs us that if we disagree with this premise, the argument will not work. He's right. But, as most of us would hold, no one doubts the truth of the premise. The second premise is "If it is within our power to prevent something terribly bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value, then we ought to do it." The force of the premise centers on harm; the premise does not require us to go out of our way to do superficial good for anyone. In general, if there is needless suffering happening which we could correct without much trouble to ourselves, then we ought to correct the suffering. For example, if we saw a person drowning and all we had to do to save his life was to throw him a rope, then we are morally obligated to do so. Failure to throw the rope would be to kill him for no good reason. There are actions that can be ommitted without being wrong in doing so. They are "supererogatory" actions; actions that are right to do but not wrong not to do. Giving to charity is an example. No one would say that you did the wrong thing if you did not give to the Salvation Army, but they would admire your generosity if you did, saying that you went beyond the call of duty in sharing your monies. Not throwing the rope is not a supererogatory action. It would be wrong to do, for there are no good reasons for your not saving the person's life, especially given the fact that you will not be harmed or inconvenienced.
There are, however, conditions which would excuse us from such a rescue action. For example, if we did not know of the harm, we could not be held blameworthy of a failure to rectify the harm. Lack of knowledge or ignorance of the situation is a valid excusing condition. Or, if there were obstacles which prevented us from carrying out the rescue, we would be excused. Inability to overcome material obstacles or perform the saving action constitutes a valid excusing condition. Finally, if there were psychological constraints so great as to overwhelm our ability to act, then we would be excused. Consider an example. Suppose a child is being swept down a shallow creek into a culvert where it will surely drown. If we do not hear the child's screams, we are ignorant of the calamity and are excused. Or, if there were a fence between us and the child -- and try as we might, we cannot get over the fence-then we are excused. Finally, if we have ourselves almost drowned and have a paralyzing fear of water so great that it prevents us from going near the stream, then we are excused. What will not count as an excusing condition, Singer notes, is if we find other persons failing to rescue and claim that because others are not doing anything, then we are excused also. Were we to come upon a group of persons watching the child being swept down the stream, their failure to rescue does not relinquish us from the duty to rescue.
One other point is necessary to complete the argument. This point I borrow from James Rachels (See James Rachels, "Active and Passive Euthanasia," The New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 292, no. 2 (Jan 9, 1975), pp78-80.) The point is that an action and its opposite (an inaction or doing nothing) can be morally symmetrical or morally equivalent. If I walk up to the altar with my future bride, but do not respond to the question, "Do you take this woman to be your wife?" then I have effectively said "No." If I see that you are about to drink some poison put in a soda bottle for disposal but left carelessly unattended, and I do not stop you but watch as you finish the whole bottle, then I have effectively killed you. My not doing anything in both cases is tantamount to doing the action which would produce the end result, in the first case leaving the bride at the alter, in the second, killing you. Two very different actions can be morally equivalent given that they have similar ends and intentions.
So here's the argument. I know that there are starving persons, adults and children who will die horribly if they do not receive aid. (Let's forget about the adults and concentrate on the innocent children.) So do you. But, I, let me stipulate for the argument at this point, am a bad person who doesn't care about children. I admit that I am bad. I will let them die; I simply don't care. I am like one of the persons in the crowd standing by watching the child being swept to its death in the creek. You, however, are not like me. You are a moral person. You recognize the force of the duty to render aid. Further, you have the ability to aid these children, for you have monies that you can give to relief agencies. You know what the agencies are. (I'll tell you one: the United Nations Famine Relief Organization.) There is no reason or excuse for your not giving to the fund to save the children.
"Wait a minute," you may reply. "I have already done my part through paying taxes. I have given my fair share. You cannot ask more of me than my fair share."
Two responses. The first is to ask, "What is your fair share?" Sure you pay taxes. Sure some of that money goes to famine relief. But let me ask you. Suppose that you live on a street that has some irresponsible (to the point of moral disgust) parents also living on it. The parents have two small children, ages four and seven. One day, they show up at your door, dirty and very hungry. They tell you that their parents have "been away" for three days, and they have not eaten anything for two days. It is obvious to you that this "away trip" is not the first time, for the children are literally starving. What ought you to do? (I, being a bad person, would have no trouble. I would say to the kids to "Beat it!") You would bring them into your home, bathe and feed them, and call the police. The police come, take the kids and you think everything is over. But, the parents come back, the police release the kids to the parents after much legal work, and two weeks later, the kids are back on your doorstep. This process is repeated three more times; the police and social workers just do not have the time or resources to make things right. The forth time, the kids ask to stay with you. What ought you to do?
You could say that you have done enough through asking the police and social workers to handle the problem. After all, it is your money through taxes that pays their salaries. But, can you look the children in the eyes and turn them away from your door simply because you have done enough through paying taxes. I doubt it. Turning away starving kids into the cruel night is the same as condemning them to death, though that death may take a brutal while in coming. I just don't think that you could push them off your doorstep.
The second is the "good Samaritan" principle. Here, I am speaking to those persons who claim to have religious convictions that are strong. Care for other persons involves more than lip service. It involves action that can be painful, ongoing, and giving up much of one's happiness for the sake of others. Certain religions, here Christianity, call on each person to watch over others to help them in times of need. Christianity does not ask us to merely give enough to prevent disaster; it asks us to make certain that those who are suffering are relieved of that pain as much as possible. Passages in the New Testament and other religious doctrines make it clear that a person in need is to be cared for. That doesn't mean that he/she is to be taken down to the shelter, but really cared for. The good Samaritan not only takes the needy stranger in, but he nourishes him until he is well and provides him with goods to go on. Religions do not ask us to help "as much as we want," they command us to do the right action no matter how much it may relieve us of our time and monies.
So, back to the argument. You know that there are starving children in the world. You know that they are "on your doorstep." You know that you have monies that you could give to famine relief. You know where these relief institutions are and how they can be reached. You can write a check tonight that can be mailed tomorrow. That check will arrive in a few days and the monies will go straightaway to providing food and medicine to starving children. You can choose to write the check or not.
If you choose not to write the check, you are taking the food out of the mouths of those children and letting them, no causing them, to die of starvation. Since you intentionally withheld you money and thus caused them to die through starvation, you are a murderer.
Criticism of Singer's argument.
The above argument has a "tragic" flaw. It simply asks too much of us. If we were asked to prevent harm without giving up something of comparable moral value, then, as Singer says, our lives would change radically. He is right; we would all be required to be moral saints. Put another way, were we to live as Singer says we ought to, we could not live normal lives; we spend our working hours struggling to provide for starving and sick persons.
Some of us could even agree with Singer that such a life is what we ought to do. But, others would say, "Look at the recipients. Do they deserve such care? No. They have brought about their own misery. We are not required to bail them out. They have no right to our goods, even if it means that they will die were they not to receive any." As example to support their point, consider the following situation. Some person in Asia will die unless he receives a pint of your blood every six months for the rest of his life. Does he have a right to your blood? No. Do you have an obligation to give it to him? No. You are not the cause of his plight. It would be supererogatory of you to make such a commitment, but there is no obligation.
Or consider a second scenario. What if we go out of our way to feed these starving persons? Will they conduct their extended lives responsibly? Probably not. They are free-riders and will simply have more children. The net result is a bigger problem of starving persons to deal with later. Avoid the greater future calamity by not giving the food now. That will make them responsible for their own lives and well-being.
Singer's position would make our lives into chaotic messes; we would toil to be moral saints supporting persons who are probably free-riders and undeserving of our help.