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Philosophy and Public Affairs

Peter Singer pointed out in his article Famine, Affluence and Morality that, “… if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally do it. ” There are three possible objections that may be raised against this statement. These objections may be sourced out from the words: power, sacrifice and moral importance. First is the word Power. People may have varied meanings of this word.

Some may define it as the ability to take control or dominate situations, individuals or things. Some may equate it with manipulation. Others may view it simply for selfish reasons like being able to survive, to work, to get what he needs and wants, etc in comparison with others. Surely, some people would say, “The government is more powerful than I am, they should help the people in Bengal and not me. ” Others would say, “I do not have enough power to even help myself, why should I help others? ” Identifying the power that everyone has is relative.

A power may be enough just to support himself. Another person may possess it but there are limitations by which he can demonstrate that power. Second is Sacrifice. Sacrifice is something that is done willingly. If an individual is constrained to do something unwillingly especially if it means taking away something that is beneficial to him, he would feel violated. Sacrifice is traditionally not seen as a duty. It may be a charitable act. But in majority, there is always something in return that a giver may expect.

In short, people do not readily sacrifice themselves even if they have material surpluses. Moral Importance – what is morally important for somebody may not be the same for another. As in the example given by Singer, buying new clothes for the purpose of looking “well-dressed” is insignificant compared to buying clothes to keep oneself warm (792). One might as well give the money to famine relief as saving refugees from starvation is morally important than clothes that may just run out of fashion in time.

This may not be the same for all people. Being well-dressed may be equal to self-esteem or sense of fulfillment. This may have a comparable significance to self and the community. It is, therefore, difficult to judge the morality or immorality of not giving to famine relief when you have the power and the readiness to sacrifice without affecting anything of moral importance. What is evidently unimportant may be important for others.

For example, for the man who got muddy after saving a drowning child, he may have been able to save a life but in return he was not able to go to work and his family starved. It would be inconclusive to say that he was not a moral person if he had not saved the child. It is true that it is a moral obligation of everyone to share what he has to others in need but the circumstance of giving is all entirely up to him. Source: Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality. ” Philosophy and Public Affairs. 1. 3 (1972): 789-796.

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