Imagine you are walking in a park and you see a child drowning in a pond. What do you do? You jump in and save the child, irrespective of any cost to yourself. A child’s life matters more than being late to a job interview or ruining your shoes. So you ought morally, to act and as you can act and it only causes insignificant harm to yourself given the consequences. So you jump in and save the child’s life.
This does not seem very controversial, but now consider the following: you receive an email from a charity which you know uses all of the money it receives on charity and not on other expensive activities. Do you donate and give the charity what it is asking for? It is an insignificant amount of money which for the sake of argument you can afford to give away, and it will save two children’s lives. Surely then, you ought morally to act in this case just as you did in the one above?
Yet, as Peter Singer points in his essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, while we will happily act in the first case, the majority of people are opposed to acting in the second case. Yet the only difference is geography. It doesn’t make sense to say that in one case we ought to act, and yet in the other we should not. So using this Singer formulates a new principle to explain this difference: “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.” In the first case this is not in doubt, and because of this it seems sensible to conclude that in the second we ought, morally, to donate money as well. Our objections are just the result of a geographical bias.
While some would argue that “ought” is too strong a word; just because we can act does not mean we ought to. Can does not imply ought. I can smoke one hundred cigarettes a day; that does not mean that I should. In the first case we ought to act because the child’s life is immediately at risk. In the second we do not have to. The act remains voluntary. Yet, however much I intuitively want to reject this principle, I find such criticisms unconvincing because they imply we have a choice to not save the child in the first case.
If so, we cannot not then refuse the plea to donate money in the email. Think of those who are dying as a result of our own inaction and selfishness, why would you not donate? So we ought to donate money to charities to save people from dyeing of Malaria or other types of diseases. If you have the money, then you ought, morally to give some of it away to save people’s lives. Surely you cannot think of something better to do with your money then saving people’s lives?
While Singer suggests we should reduce ourselves to the point of marginal utility, the point at which us giving money away makes those we give the money too better off than ourselves, such an extreme position is not necessary. Even if you just give away ten percent of your life time income, you can do a huge amount of good and save a huge number of lives.
Luckily for us here in St Andrews we have a Giving What You Can society. It is part of a larger movement which aims to get people to donate ten percent of their income to effective charities, chosen on the basis of a rigorous assessment criteria.
By giving money to the charities that it suggests you can sure that you are donating money to an ethically sound charity. For example, by donating money to the Against Malaria Foundation you can track where your donation goes and know that for every five dollars you donate you are providing a mosquito net which saves at least one life.
Given the exchange rate, with eight pounds you can save two lives. For the price of a Blackhorn burger you can save two lives. Is a burger really worth that much to you?
You have a choice between saving two lives, or walking by on the other side of the road. Which one do you choose?