My Rating: ★★★★☆
Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence and Morality is essentially an impassioned plea for individual philanthropy. He addresses the people of the affluent west and asks them to offer financial help — life-saving money that can mitigate the suffering of people elsewhere in the world. The basis of his plea is the strength of the idea that decisions and actions taken by the humanity at large can prevent human suffering caused by poverty, starvation and disease. He argues that the distress and misery of the underprivileged humanity can be significantly alleviated by the goodwill and effort of their more prosperous counterparts.
Famine, Affluence and Morality is a collection of three essays published in 1972, 1999 and 2006. The title essay was written at the time of the refugee crisis in east Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971. As people were dying from hunger and disease along the Indian border, the author painfully observed that individuals around him did not respond to the crisis in any significant way — that they did not donate enough to the relief funds. He also noticed that compared to the prosperity of the individuals and the countries, the amounts of donation were disproportionately small. It occurred to him that physical distance cannot be a reason for one’s inability to distinguish between what is right or wrong: ‘….we never developed an emotional response to failing to help distant strangers’.
Singer then tries to establish, through a series of complex arguments, why it is imperative of human beings, who enjoy an elevated financial status, to help the needy even when the need is somewhere outside his immediate surroundings. Once someone decides to give, the question then arises as to how much to give. Peter Singer opines that because of our selfish nature, human beings tend to do less in these circumstances than they ought to. But ‘we ought to give until we reach the level of marginal utility’, that is the point when, by giving more, the giver causes as much suffering to himself and his dependents as he would relieve through his gift. Daring indeed!
Singer’s simple rule that can help you to decide how much to give is this: the amount of money we spend in ‘luxuries, not necessities’. However, the writer doesn’t define either of the two, nor does he give a list of the ‘luxuries’ and the ‘necessities’ although living standards vary between countries and societies. But, throughout the book, the author never fails to impress upon the reader the simple fact that they should give more, not less. Even if living such a ‘morally decent life’ ultimately proves to be ‘arduous’.
In the last of the three articles, Singer refers to the contribution of some of the richest Americans to social welfare. He argues that people in the industrialized nations enjoy ‘social capital’ — good governance, peace, protection, a conducive atmosphere in which enterprises and businesses can thrive. So, the wealth that individuals in the prosperous west create is not solely the product of their own hard labour. On the other hand, these richer people ‘buy virtually nothing that is made by the very poor’. Thus, there is no way that some benefits would trickle down to those sections of humanity who need them the most.
Would Peter Singer’s book prompt people reluctant to assist others to effect a change of mind and take a significant step towards helping others? I don’t know. But it should be the duty of every conscientious human being to read these three essays and ponder a little. What is needed is a change of perception which may not be so difficult to achieve. Peter Singer will be with you throughout the journey.
Bill and Melinda Gates, the billionaire couple whose philanthropy received considerable acclaim in the third chapter of the book, have jointly written a Foreword to these three essays.
[Singer, Peter; Famine, Affluence and Morality; OUP]