Peter Singer vs The Poor

I am new at Notes On Liberty, graciously invited by Brandon Christensen. I’ll be blogging about a range of things, some of which will include political philosophy.

I am currently working on a paper on Peter Singer’s famous “Famine, Affluence and Poverty” paper that argues that we have a moral obligation to donate a lot of our current holdings to poor people. His argument is pretty straightforward.

Premise 1: I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

Premise 2: 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. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.

Example: An application of this principle would be as follows: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

And therefore, he concludes, there is a strong moral imperative to donate a lot of money to poorer people who are in dire need of assistance.

However, there seems to be something obvious that is overlooked, something that I haven’t encountered in the literature on the topic. Namely, Singer discusses the implications this principle has for rich people, they have to donate a lot of money, because being poor and suffering because of lack of food is bad. However, this principle doesn’t limit itself to creating obligations for those in affluence. It should, ipso facto, also create implications for those in poverty.

Premise 1: Poverty and the suffering it causes is bad. (It seems hard for Singer to disagree with this.)

Premise 2: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we ought, morally, to do it.

Ok, fair enough. But if poverty is bad: why doesn’t this principle create a very strong moral obligation for people in poverty to not get children (and thus putting more people in this situation?) Maybe one could argue that getting children is a great moral good (or that not getting children is a great moral evil), but it seems weird to say that putting people into something that (by implication of Singer’s views) is considered a great moral evil is somehow a good thing.

So if I am right, Singer needs to accept that his views create a strong moral obligation towards poor people not to get children.

Even more so. If this is the case, it follows that everyone every has a strong moral implication not to get children, because we will always be poorer than we’ll collectively be 100 years in the future. (Were the original cave dwellers immoral people for getting children then?)

Maybe one can argue that even though suffering is bad, but on net, a human life is still a good thing. The marginal choice leads us to say ‘we need another life’ (that’s on net good) but when a specific human life is in need, we need to help that life, on that margin, because on that margin, we can still alleviate suffering (which is generating ‘less bad and more good’). The issue with this line of argument seems that it has a very strong assumption that a life is, on net, a good thing. But even ignoring that, it does open the gate towards a comment from the ‘rich people’ to say: ‘well, if those parents don’t have a moral obligation to not get children because on net a human life is still worth living, even if there is some suffering, why do we have an obligation then to help at the point of suffering? The life, on net, was still a good life.’ (This point follows from the assumption that it isn’t unethical for those parents to get children, despite their poverty and the suffering that results from it.)

I invite any and all comments on this issue.


4 thoughts on “Peter Singer vs The Poor

  1. One might ask if the children of the poor actually contribute more to society than what their costs to society are? Note that neither China or India are “rich countries” despite the fact that both have over one billion people each. So just having “more people” doesn’t make a society wealthy. Wealth is generally created by well educated people everywhere we look. Countries where the majority of people are well educated tend to be the wealthiest country with the same in reverse occurring where the great majority are uneducated beyond even the grade school level.

  2. Are you familiar with any of the literature on sociobiology? I’d like to continue the conversation along those lines.

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