Short critical summary of Peter Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence and Poverty’


500 word critical summary of Singer’s ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’

Singer argues that his “principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance”  and suggest that while there is clearly a physiological difference in regards to the child in the pond right next to us and an Bengali child thousands of miles away, this cannot be turned into less of a moral obligation. Moreover the nearness of an action is only dissimilar in the practicality of intervening and acting, the moral obligation is arguably no different. Singer’s defence of the irrelevance of the distance from which the suffering is happening is successful enough to counter one of Bob Corbett’s criticism that Singer “goes from a few cases of helping someone directly in front of me, to claiming that each of us is responsible for the great suffering in the world.” Corbett does not explain the moral difference between the two cases and Singer convincingly states that whether a child is suffering in front of me or a thousand miles away is irrelevant; suffering is still occurring and the consequence of death is still present.

Singer is not however overly dogmatic in his approach to giving aid to the world’s needy. He advances both a strong and moderate version of his argument to appeal to those who would struggle to live according to the strong version that

“required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance”

Singer, however, in his suggestion of a moderate version is conceding that the strong version is somewhat unpractical and hard for the consumeristic and capitalist nature of western countries and Corbett raises this concession saying of Singer’s strong version, “Virtually no one will live it and Singer admits this straight up.” I am not disheartened by this admission however because Singer makes it clear throughout that his is an unpopular position due to the selfish and material-focused culture we live in and Corbett’s criticisms are not based on logic but on more of a spluttering and insular refusal to accept our global moral obligation to the poor of the world that Singer suggests. Moreover Singer’s bluntness in saying that in general people aren’t doing enough to give money to relief funds and his rejection of charity being supererogatory strengthen his argument greatly

In summation Singer is successful by his attempts to throw aside the proximity criticism and argue that as part of a global community it is not enough for us to simply look after those around us and not care for others simply because they are a great distance away, as Corbett suggests.


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