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A positive duty is a duty of which we are required to carry out (Singer, 1965). Resultantly through Singer’s argument that we have a positive duty to give as much as we can afford to poverty relief charities, he has removed the notion of supererogation from the act of aid, doing beyond what is asked but not being punished for not doing so, instead portraying assistance as a moral obligation. When referring to ‘we’ it must be made clear that Singer’s is referring to those in affluent countries with funds allowing them to live above and beyond the basic level. I must also clarify in my essay when referring to poverty I am assuming Singer is addressing those in absolute poverty around the world, those who are in severe deprivation, supported by his use of the people in Bengal as an example. In this essay, I shall outline the three premises Singer offers regarding our moral duty, then going on to introduce limitations to these statements. After of which I shall conclude that whilst Singer is right that we do have a duty to help those in need, his cause is not strong enough to conclude that we have a duty to provide as much as we can afford.
Singer’s argument starts with the assumption that ‘suffering and death caused from lack of food, shelter or healthcare services is bad’. This is a statement which can easily be supported as those services are known to be basic human needed in order to survive (Singer, 1972). As we are able to back this premise Singer goes on to present the second ‘If we can prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of (comparable) moral importance, we should do so’. Under this premise Singer offers two principles in hopes of strengthening his argument, the weak principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought to do it” and the strong principle: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it.” I shall be focusing on the stronger principle in my analysis, as favoured by Singer in achieving his conclusion. In supporting this premise Singer presents the ‘Pond’ analogy linking the act of being able to save a boy from drowning in a pond with the sacrifice of ruining your clothes to the issues surrounding global poverty. Singer believes that if we are able to save the child it is logically assumed that we have the capabilities to provide aid to those in poverty. It is assumed from this it logically follows that “by donating to poverty relief agencies rather than purchasing luxuries you can prevent anguish without sacrificing anything of moral importance” therefore concluding that we have a moral obligation to give as much as we can afford to poverty relief charities (Singer, 1972).
Singer is aware of the flaws in this argument so tries to respond to the potential objections within his ‘Pond’ analogy before they arise. He focuses first on the objection of proximity, in the case of the pond the individual is right in front of you whereas those in absolute poverty are far detached from those living in affluent countries. This however shouldn’t matter regarding whether it is our moral obligation to help according to Singer. The second objection is regarding the number or individuals helping. In the pond analogy you are the only individual that is able to provide aid whereas on a global level it is not just you who is personally responsible. Singer once again responds to the objection stating that this is just an excuse for individuals not to fulfill their moral obligation as they believe it is the burden of another individual (Singer, 1972). Whilst I agree with Singer that we should all hold some moral obligation to provide aid to those in need, responsibility more importantly needs to be held by those in power. We may be able to provide financial aid but if leaders are making poor judgements on the running of their country this will have even more catastrophic consequences on poverty levels which cannot be influenced by a mere donator. If we are to relate this to the ‘Pond’ analogy I may be able to help the boy from drowning but if a lifeguard was to walk by wouldn’t he be able to save the individual more effectively? I would assume the answer is yes but this isn’t stating that I myself wouldn’t be willing to help just there are other individuals who could be more efficient with their actions (Wisor, 2011).
The ‘Pond’ analogy under my judgement also fails to be effective in showing how we have an obligation to prevent suffering to those in poverty, purely because we have the means to do so through financial aid. The analogy highlights how the sacrifice of the individual ruining their clothes is not comparable to the loss of a life moving on to suggest that the sacrifice of an individual giving up their luxuries is not comparable to giving the money they could have used to aid those living in poverty. There are a number of issues with this link the first being that there is a major distinction between the two with one being an emergency with the other being a chronic condition (Badhwar, 2006). If we were to make the analogy more comparable the individual would have to constantly be saving children all the time out of ponds as absolute poverty isn’t a one-off event so you must be willing to constantly ruin your clothes as morally that isn’t comparable to saving the lives of individuals. From what was a small cost has now turned into a constant cost in order to save others highlighting the demanding nature of what Singer is asking. This brings doubt on to weather we have a positive duty to provide as much as we can afford to those in need as what was originally disguised as an easy task by the ‘Pond’ has now been presented as a persistent task that we should feel obliged to carry out due to our capacity to do so regardless of the impact it could have on our own lives, until we to are at the same level of equality. Singer would however stick by his claim that we have a positive duty to give as much as we can afford to poverty relief charities as the cost of us helping is nowhere near as substantial as those living in absolute poverty even if it is demanding.
The issue of demandingness is not only present within the ‘Pond’ analogy but if we are to accept Singer’s conclusion that we have a moral obligation to give as much as we can afford to poverty relief charities it seems a lot of our time and resources will be demanded of us. Singer believes this is just, however this would seem to be an infringement of individuals personal desires (Otteson, 2000). Singer is suggesting that in order to act morally you must give as much as you can afford to poverty relief charities, however you may want to dedicate your time to other passions which may be as morally permissible but don’t fall in line with Singer’s intended desires. Additionally, Singer’s principle is encouraging equality as those who have the capacity to should provide as much as they can. Would this not demotivate people as rather than being able to purchase luxuries which they have worked hard for they have to donate the funds to charity in order to create a level playing field or are acting immorally (Otteson, 2000). I support Singer in that as individuals we should be providing more to those in need however think that expecting it to be a moral obligation to provide as much as you can is excessive and unattainable. Singer addresses this stating that it will be a drastic change to our ‘moral scheme’ yet I don’t accept that he has made a strong enough argument to convince individuals to give up so much for the sake of others.
To conclude, I applaud Singer for addressing the issues ‘we’, those with a financial surplus, need to take responsibility of. It is no secret that affluent individuals have the resources to provide more to those in absolute poverty and agree that there should be a moral duty to do so. I cannot however fully support his argument that we have a positive duty to give as much as we can afford to poverty relief charities. As individuals we have the right to live our life without being heavily restricted which seems to be a consequence of having to provide as much as you can afford under Singer’s argument.
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