Peter Singer

"Famine, Affluence, and Morality" is an essay written by Peter Singer in 1971 and published in Philosophy & Public Affairs in 1972. It argues that affluent persons are morally obligated to donate far more resources to humanitarian causes than is considered normal in Western cultures. The essay was inspired by the starvation of Bangladesh Liberation War refugees, and uses their situation as an example, although Singer's argument is general in scope and not limited to the example of Bangladesh. The essay is anthologized widely as an example of Western ethical thinking.[1]


One of the core arguments of this essay is that, if one can use one's wealth to reduce suffering—for example, by aiding famine-relief efforts—without any significant reduction in the well-being of oneself or others, it is immoral not to do so. Singer introduces the "drowning child" argument or drowning child analogy: According to Singer, inaction is clearly immoral if a child is drowning in a shallow pond and someone can save it but chooses not to;[2] nor does placing greater geographical distance between the person in need and the potential helper reduce the latter's moral obligations:[3]

It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards away from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. ... The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society. Previously, ... this may hardly have been feasible, but it is quite feasible now. From the moral point of view, the prevention of the starvation of millions of people outside our society must be considered at least as pressing as the upholding of property norms within our society.

The affluent, says Singer, are consistently guilty of failing to recognize this, having large amounts of surplus wealth that they do not use to aid humanitarian projects in developing nations.

Here is the thrust of Singer's argument:

Reception and criticism

Philosopher Gilbert Harman considered "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" to be one of the most famous articles in ethics.[6] In 1981, philosopher James Rachels said of the article: "one felt intellectual interest in the argument, but also guilt for not having contributed more money to relieve starvation".[7]

A common criticism of Singer's essay is the demandingness objection. For example, the "supposed obligation" of Singer's essay has been criticised by John Arthur in 1982,[8] by John Kekes in 2002,[9] and by Kwame Anthony Appiah in 2006,[10] and Singer's claim of a straight path from commonsense morality to great giving has also been disputed.[11]

Singer's article inspired the writing of Peter Unger's 1996 book Living High and Letting Die.[6]

Philosopher William MacAskill was influenced by the essay, which he encountered in an undergraduate seminar; MacAskill later went on to be a founder of the effective altruism movement.[12] In 2015, The New Republic noted the influence of Singer's essay on effective altruism.[13]

The "drowning child" analogy informs the title of the 2015 book Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquhar,[14] which documents the lives of various extreme altruists, some of whom were influenced by Singer's essay.[15]

In a review for the Financial Times upon the release of the 2016 book version of Singer's essay, Daniel Ben-Ami argued that the key to eradicating poverty lies not only in charitable efforts but also in fostering a sense of agency among the impoverished. He gave the example of how China lifted millions out of poverty by transforming its economy, rather than being dependent on western aid and sympathy. He argued that people who wish to aid famine relief or poverty alleviation should have the freedom to do so. However, it is important to avoid perceiving the impoverished as mere passive beneficiaries of Western charity. Such a perspective should be resisted, as it overlooks their agency and potential to contribute actively to their own betterment.[16]


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See also


  1. ^ In the preface to the book version of the essay published in 2016 by Oxford University Press, Singer said: "An incomplete list of anthologies in which it has been printed runs to fifty." (Singer 2016, p. xii) Some examples are:
    • Cottingham, John (1996). Western philosophy: an anthology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 461ff. ISBN 978-0-631-18627-4.
    • Shafer-Landau, Russ (2007). Ethical theory: an anthology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 523ff. ISBN 978-1-4051-3320-3.
    • Pojman, Louis P. (2003). Moral philosophy: a reader. Hackett. pp. 344ff. ISBN 978-0-87220-661-8.
    • Wellman, Carl (2002). Rights and Duties: Welfare rights and duties of charity. Taylor & Francis. pp. 227ff. ISBN 978-0-415-93987-4.
    • Chadwick, Ruth F.; Doris Schroeder (2002). Applied ethics: critical concepts in philosophy. Politics. Taylor & Francis. pp. 272ff. ISBN 978-0-415-20837-6.
  2. ^ Singer points out that saving the child "will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." (Singer 1972, p. 231).
  3. ^ Singer 1972, pp. 231–232, 237.
  4. ^ a b c Singer 1972, p. 231.
  5. ^ Singer 1972, p. 232.
  6. ^ a b Singer, Peter (2002). Kuhse, Helga (ed.). Unsanctifying human life: essays on ethics. New York: Blackwell. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-0631225072. OCLC 48533383.
  7. ^ James Rachels (1981). "Sociobiology and the 'Escalator' of Reason". The Hastings Center Report. 11 (5): 45–46 [45]. doi:10.2307/3561299. JSTOR 3561299.
  8. ^ Arthur, John (1993). "World hunger and moral obligation: the case against Singer" (PDF). In Sommers, Christina Hoff; Sommers, Frederic Tamler (eds.). Vice & virtue in everyday life: introductory readings in ethics (3rd ed.). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. pp. 845–852. ISBN 0155003755. OCLC 30665544. Excerpted from: Arthur, John (1985) [1982]. "Equality, entitlements, and the distribution of income". In Barry, Vincent E. (ed.). Applying ethics: a text with readings (2nd ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing. pp. 358–368. ISBN 0534036872. OCLC 10800662.
  9. ^ Kekes, John (2002). "On the supposed obligation to relieve famine". Philosophy. 77 (4): 503–517. doi:10.1017/S0031819102000438. JSTOR 3752161. S2CID 170461189.
  10. ^ Appiah, Kwame Anthony (2006). "Kindness to strangers". Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. Issues of our time. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 155–174 (160). ISBN 0393061558. OCLC 61445790. The problem with the argument isn't that it claims we have incredible obligations to foreigners; the problem is that it claims we have incredible obligations.
  11. ^ Markoč, Anton (2019). "Draining the pond: why Singer's defense of the duty to aid the world's poor is self-defeating". Philosophical Studies. 177 (7): 1953–1970. doi:10.1007/s11098-019-01293-1. S2CID 159524233.
  12. ^ Lewis-Kraus, Gideon (8 August 2022). "The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism". The New Yorker. Retrieved 15 September 2022.
  13. ^ Lichtenberg, Judith (November 30, 2015). "Peter Singer's extremely altruistic heirs: Forty years after it was written, 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' has spawned a radical new movement". The New Republic.
  14. ^ MacFarquhar, Larissa (2015). Strangers drowning: grappling with impossible idealism, drastic choices, and the overpowering urge to help. New York: Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594204333. OCLC 919691156.
  15. ^ Winkler, Elizabeth (30 September 2015). "Addicted to Altruism". The New Republic. Retrieved 15 September 2022.
  16. ^ Ben-Ami, Daniel (4 December 2015). "Book review: 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality', by Peter Singer". Financial Times.
  17. ^ a b Singer 1972, p. 234.
  18. ^ Singer 1972, p. 233–234.