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I am new here, so I apologize if this question doesn't suit this platform in any particular way. I am currently in high school. I came across this article by the name "Famine, Affluence and Morality" by Peter Singer. It has troubled me ever since. Although, it hasn't affected my daily life and studies significantly, it sits irking me at the back of my mind. I am currently undergoing therapy due to similar moral dilemmas. I do not agree with the conclusions of this essay in any way. I believe people are entitled to their rights and have the only obligation not to hurt other's rights. This I believe is kind of a libertarian perspective. Apart from extreme cases like not helping rescue a person from death when one could have done so at very little consequences to himself, I do not believe anyone has the moral obligation to spend one's life in saving/helping people. Most of us choose a career to fend for ourselves or follow our passions and not to be of service to people.

I am looking for objections to Singer's essay and ways to get rid of this irrational guilt. I am also seeking to know if my views are supported by some famous and influential contemporary philosophers. Is the majority of the philosophy community in favor of Singer's beliefs?

Singer writes: 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.

Thus, according to his utilitarian perspective it is a moral obligation to donate one's money to charitable causes until we do not reduce our condition to that of minimal necessity. It would imply that we should donate 99% of our wealth. He had changed his position, advocating for moderation with the view that if we tell people to give a much lesser amount like 5-10% then more people will participate leading to an overall greater impact. But he remains adamant on his written position. I, however, do not want to align myself with any of his propositions and firmly believe that acts of charity are supererogatory.

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    It would help a lot if you included a synopsis of Singer's relevant position. Ie. What precisely he is advocating for. Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 6:41
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    "Apart from extreme cases like not helping rescue a person from death when one could have done so at very little consequences to himself..." The cases which Singer references are just as "extreme." Every day 25,000 people die from hunger or hunger-related causes, and I've lived in places where $7 will feed a child for a month. If you feel guilty like I do maybe it's because we do have a moral obligation to help others. The 99% conclusion is reductionist, to be sure, but philosophy and pragmatism can intersect. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough.
    – automaton
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 22:40
  • With other language: You believe the premise that it is immoral not to help someone in the given extreme case; It is a fact that many such extreme cases exist, and may be remediated with little consequence to oneself; Therefore, it is logically consistent with your position to believe that it is immoral to refuse to spend some degree of one's time, effort, and resources relieving those in such circumstances. The length to which one has a moral obligation to go, however, cannot be ascertained in this limited exercise; it merely serves as a starting point
    – automaton
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 23:53
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    @BlueInfinite1729 I believe that psychological stress induced by a given claim can make it no less true. Were I dying in a holocaust concentration camp or the last person on earth after a nuclear disaster, the overwhelming despair felt would make the fact no less true. As for the latter, can you articulate why you believe physical/geographical proximity lessens moral obligation to (in our example) save a life?
    – automaton
    Commented Mar 8, 2023 at 16:17
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    Singer's argument has some holes; for example, if I am an employee of Oxfam, then how much money should I donate to Oxfam? But most of the holes are in arguments for effective altruism (EA) specifically, not for humanitarian aid or mutual aid generally.
    – Corbin
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 21:53

10 Answers 10

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I am looking for objections to Singer's essay and ways to get rid of this irrational guilt. I am also seeking to know if my views are supported by some famous and influential contemporary philosophers. Is the majority of the philosophy community in favour of Singer's beliefs?

I would not usually respond to a question with a list of my own, but I do so now as your post hints at a cognitive dissonance that requires some analysis which might be assisted via the working through of some related questions. These questions are designed to get you to examine more closely the 'irrational guilt' you want to rid yourself of. Others may provide more specific responses to the other aspect of your bolded section; objections to Singer's essay.

Turning one's analytical mind upon one's own beliefs can be challenging and confusing, but also often enlightening. You mention that you are a high-school student. You may know this already, but self-questioning is a facet of critical thinking that has the potential to assist you greatly as you proceed along many paths, including the philosophical.

So, if you haven't done so already, it might be worth asking yourself:

  1. Why you believe you might be experiencing guilt (given you '...do not agree with the conclusions of [Singer's] essay in any way').

  2. What the pros and cons of such guilt might be,

  3. Whether you have a stake in not feeling guilty and how this might influence your philosophical stances and reasoning (see cognitive ease),

  4. What impact - if it were knowable - the 'consensus of contemporary philosophers' might have upon your position, if any, (and why), and

  5. Whether or not a rationale (for or against Singer's position) provided by a single philosopher (including you) might not be at least as important as any such consensus.

  6. What other questions might you design in an attempt to resolve your apparent internal conflict?

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    Indeed. Looking for ways to get rid of the guilt suggests that one is not looking for the answer that's true and rational, but instead looking for the one with the greatest emotional appeal.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 23:42
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What Singer's dealing with is called Principle of beneficience (bold mine):

In his early work, Singer distinguished between preventing evil and promoting good and contended that persons in prosperous nations are morally obligated to prevent something bad or evil from happening if it is in their power to do so without having to sacrifice anything of comparable importance.

It seems that such initial thought caused a lot of both critics and defenders, which led him to soften it (details are in the same SEP entry I linked above). No consensus has been reached among them as of today (from the same SEP entry):

Controversy continues in philosophy about how to analyze and evaluate the commitments of a principle of beneficence, including how to formulate limits that reduce required burdens on agents’ life plans and make meeting the obligations of beneficence a realistic possibility. [..] However, it does not follow that we should give up a principle of beneficence. It only follows that establishing the moral limits of the demands of beneficence is profoundly difficult. [..] A variety of proposals regarding the limits of beneficence have been made by philosophers, but no agreement exists on even a single general principle. Given this situation, some now doubt that ethical theory and practical deliberation are equipped to establish precise conditions and limits of obligations of beneficence, especially when confronting problems of global poverty.

So there are indeed critics of even Singer's softened theory, otherwise a consensus would have been reached. For specific names, the entry cites Murphy, references are:

Murphy, Liam B., 1993, “The Demands of Beneficence,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 22: 267–92.
–––, 2000, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Cosmic Skeptic (Alex) made a video, Should You Sell All Your Possessions?, discussing this topic, and he references Timmerman's article Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown, and he also had a podcast with Singer. I'll reference and echo some of that below.


Singer's point is roughly that the life of someone on the other side of the world is no less valuable than the life of someone right next to you.

It's important to point out that this alone does not translate to you having a moral obligation towards either (although Singer also argues that you have a moral obligation). It does, however, suggest that a moral obligation towards one implies a moral obligation towards the other, and vice versa: if you'd be morally obligated to help your neighbours child, you should also be obligated to help a Bengali whose name you shall never know, ten thousand miles away.

You seem to accept that you (may) have an obligation towards "helping rescue a person from death when one could have done so at very little consequences to oneself". So, if you can, say, give $100* to a charity in order to save someone's life, you would have a similar obligation to do so.

* supposing that giving $100 would be "very little consequences to oneself", and possibly even less than what you'd be willing to give up to save the life of someone in front of you (although everyone's financial situation is different, and giving up $100 may be quite impactful to the lives of some people).

Alex presents an interesting hypothetical to argue that distance shouldn't be a consideration: Let's say there's a car next to you with an innocent child slowly being electrocuted. You have a remote with a button to switch off the electrical current. We might agree that you have an obligation to press the button. If the car starts driving away from you, does that make you less obligated to press the button? Surely it doesn't matter how far away the car is. The distance shouldn't change our moral obligation.

Should you donate all your possessions?

The above logically leads to the conclusion that one should donate all your possessions, which seems too much to obligate.

The problem is that Singer's argument is not an accurate comparison.

We could compare saving a drowning child to saving a life by giving to charity.

But since you could give any amount to charity to save any number of people, the closer analogy would be an infinite sea of drowning children (with other people also trying to save some of the children).

It's clear that we wouldn't obligate someone to dedicate their lives to saving as many drowning children as they can.

But to accept that you have an obligation to save one child, the question isn't whether to save as many as possible or to save none, but rather how many to save.

So, the question to ask, is how much you should donate to charity.

And that, unfortunately, or fortunately, is something we'd all need to figure out for ourselves.

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  • "an infinite sea of drowning children" - oww. It reminds me that the Buddha supposedly said something like, the tears of suffering are enough to fill all the world's oceans. I did donate all my possessions and give 10 years of my life to a charitable cause, without pay or healthcare. But I am not sure how to assess what was accomplished, and eventually I needed healthcare. Well, time for breakfast.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 11:17
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There is simply no correct answer to this. All values by their very nature are subjective and come down to preference. Once you realize that your preferences are no more valid than his preferences which is what his reasoning comes down to, hopefully it gives you the green light to not be bothered by this.

Are you bothered by other people preferring different kinds of foods to you? I presume not. So why be bothered by other people having different moral views than you? You cannot get an ought from an is.

It doesn't matter if a philosopher wrote books about why they prefer a certain moral theory the same way it wouldn't matter if a person who prefers bananas over other foods wrote books about them. The length of argument does not matter. The influence of the person making the argument also does not matter. Fundamentally, there is nothing to argue against in the first place.

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    Would you accept someone giving this reasoning as justification for harming you? You can't just dismiss all of ethics as being all subjective, and coming down to preference (I mean, you can, but that implies you have total indifference towards whether you're a "good" person). Singer was making an argument. The way to respond to an argument is with a rebuttal. If you don't have a rebuttal, then you aren't engaging with any of the subject matter, therefore you probably shouldn't try to involve yourself in discussion on the topic.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 23:52
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    This is very much arguing for maintaining one's personal moral status quo is. Black people being owned by others? Them not having equal rights? Women not having equal rights? People being stoned for which gender they love? People being shot or gassed due to their race? Just regular murder? "All values by their very nature are subjective and come down to preference ... why be bothered by other people having different moral views than you? You cannot get an ought from an is". Giving up your ability to object to any of those moral atrocities is a hefty price to pay for the argument you're making.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 0:08
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    @NotThatGuy. Yep. If all moral preferences are valid, they're certainly not all equally healthy or desirable from a utilitarian/wellbeing perspective. Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 1:25
  • @Futilitarian if things are not equally healthy or desirable, then it seems to me that they are not equally morally valid. What is the yardstick for 'moral' other than health and desirability?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 11:09
  • @ScottRowe. I happen to use safety/health/wellbeing/minimisation of suffering etc as my moral guides and advocate for the same, but there are some - including some religious people - who associate certain virtues/duties/beliefs that prioritise other goals with being moral. I know a Christian who believes everything here is moral, because they are the actions or advocated actions of a god. And to go against god would be to go against your wellbeing and health (& possibly that of others). Commented Mar 6, 2023 at 11:17
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Your guilt is not irrational. That you feel it, is because you are a human being with empathy, and a moral sense.

Your embrace of libertarian thinking is a common attitude among adolescents, who are facing the transition of their life form moral patients -- whose obligations to the society around them are limited because they are children, into moral agents with moral obligations to other humans and the rest of the world.

It is stressful for adolescents to learn to accept moral responsibility, and libertarian thinking provides a rationale to maintain their indifference to others. THAT libertarianism provides such a rationale, does not make that rationale correct. You have been attracted to it, because of the natural human impulse to seek confirmation bias -- finding someone who is telling you what you want to hear.

That, you feel guilt is because you actually still DO have a moral sense, and recognize that contrary to libertarian rationalizations, you DO have obligations to others.

Whether they are INFINITE obligations, as advocated by Singer, is a different question. The maximalizationalist thinking that Singer applies to morality, makes many reject his arguments. But rationally, IF principles are what we should use to guide our thinking, and Signer's optimizing utilitarianism is the appropriate theory to apply to morality, then his minimalizing conclusion is correct.

The primary objection to Singer among others who accept morality, rather than deny it like libertarianism, is a pragmatic one. If we actually cannot be confident in our principles, taking them to limit cases is itself irrational. And we CANNOT be confident in our principles. There are multiple objections to utilitarian thinking where rights are violated in the name of optimizing -- the most dramatic thought problem refutation being the minor surgery patient who ends up as an unwilling organ donor in the hands of a utilitarian hospital staff. Alternatives: Rights thinking, or Virtues thinking, or legalism -- all themselves also fail thought problems. So we have multiple useful but imperfect moral theories. Taking ANY to their limit cases, is therefore highly suspect, as limit cases are likely to be the circumstances where moral theories actually lead to IMMORAL actions!

So -- embrace your sense of guilt. You are a moral human, and feel moral obligations, and moral guilt. That is GOOD. BUT, do not feel the need to act on limit case moral thinking. Apply moral actions to lower levels of sacrifice, and lower degrees of obligation. Maximal self sacrifice may be appropriate in some cases -- generally NEAR oneself, where risks and rewards and obligations are something you can have more confidence in.

The abstract reasoning leading to commonplace maximal sacrifice Singer argues for -- should be approached with hesitancy and skepticism. Many of the world's evils were accomplished using such maximalist reasoning off abstractions.

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  • @BlueInfinite1729 -- is your therapist trying to teach you not to have a moral sense? Having a moral sense is an essential feature of being human. It is psychopaths who do not have one. See Kohlberg's tiers of moral development: simplypsychology.org/….
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 21:19
  • The guilt I feel is thus irrational as you have rightly elaborated in your answer. I do not feel that my inclination towards libertarian ideals stem from my tendency/wish to escape the moral obligations that are binding on us but to create healthy limits on those obligations. Personally, I am a very moral person and help people but not to the extent that it harms my own well-being. I value myself and my well-being above all and acknowledge other's rights to do the same. My rejection of Singer's radical claims is because I do not feel that our obligations to others reach such an extent. Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 21:25
  • I deleted my previous comment as I later realized it was imprudent. And no, my therapist isn't trying to convince me to have no moral sense. I suspect that there has been a subtle misunderstanding with regards to whether I devalue moral standards. No, I don't. My dilemma lies in determiming the limits to obligations. Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 21:41
  • @BlueInfinite1729 -- Good to hear. Moral guilt is an essential aspect of being a healthy human, BUT, we can feel it at inappropriate times. I agree the maximalization argument that Singer uses, and which is a common feature of Utilitarian thinking overall, can itself be psychologically damaging. The way I try to do morality based on pluralist models is outlined in this answer: philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/78788/…
    – Dcleve
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 22:05
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    +1 Yes, it can be. It's tough to operate as an altruist in a selfish world when everyone around you takes from you.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 6:44
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i should have make more specific here.

  • India and Bengal was the colony of GB, so all the accidents was the Gb fault.
  • If the charity found is belong to "GB" management it has interest to be involved in influence of politic GB in this country. Also capitalism has one bad side, if you got money from some activity you are interesting to make more activity in this area. So, the money for to help famine victims ll creating paradoxically more famine in the world.
  • So if you want to donate £ it make good for GB economy, not for Bengal. If you want to help Bengal economy you should to buy something cheap and useless(or useful) in Bengal - this money will go for job pay in Bengal, not for salary GB fund workers, supporting to business make more for economy then food-dependence.

i hope this info will give you a chance to do the truly good things, not "right" that feeded irrational guilt. Simple principle in postmodern world, - any activity is a food: you get more of that you feed, if you feed guilt you ll got more guilt, if you feed famine - you ll got more famine. Don't feed bad things.

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This is easy. The "philosopher" you're interested in is Ayn Rand and the philosophy she created is called Objectivism. No one is better at defending selfishness than Ayn Rand, and she has quite a loyal following among libertarians. Her sole book I own is The Virtue of Selfishness and I personally couldn't stomach finishing it. That being said, I'm going to respond to your question as an absurdist who fundamentally rejects Ayn Rand as a charlatan.

Your irrational guilt is rational insofar as its a product of biological evolution. According to sociobiology, we have a genetic heritage which predisposes us to biological and psychological altruism. Caring about others serves to make us social creatures, and eusocial impulses and behaviors, along with language, have given us virtual dominion on this planet. There are certainly psychopaths and sociopaths who don't wrestle with any form of guilt, but the vast majority of us feel guilt, and it's not to hard to figure out that if you put $100,000 in the bank instead of send it off to feed, clothe, and buy medicine for children in a war torn country, and they die, you are in some nebulous way guilty of negligence. The doctrine of supererogation was cooked up to help us cope with this guilt. Martin Luther split the church in half because he opposed it. Thus, the "irrational guilt" you feel with has a deep and colorful history.

As an absurdist, let me just offer you some philosophy that might help you come to terms with your guilt. First, as Ayers held morals aren't about reason ultimately, they are about feelings. This doctrine of non-cognitive emotivism essentially suggests that no matter what philosophy you "cook up" to try to assuage yourself of guilt, you're just trying to pretend something about yourself that isn't true. Absurdism, if you read Camus carefully, sweeps aside all of the fancy philosophical doctrines as elaborate rationalizations. Thus, if you feel guilty because you know that you could do something to save dying children and you don't, well, you can find whatever argument you want to justify not feeling guilty, but that may not convince you deep down inside that you aren't allowing children to die. This would be a form of self-deception. Because honestly, you are allowing children to die. Anyone who has any means and spends it on frivolities instead of sending it to help others is guilty of that, and that's anyone who makes more than what they need to survive.

The Christian mythos purports that God incarnated a son, performed a child sacrifice, and thereby absolved you of guilt for all sins, and letting children die by being selfish certainly qualifies. Therefore, if you are a Christian, you should find some comfort in that your original sin, your preference for your selfish behavior, in this instance, letting children in a foreign country die, will be forgiven by your maker. An absurdist, however, would point out that this is a scam just in the same way Objectivism is because all of the argumentation presented to you is just rationalization. It's pretending that a fancy logical argument is going to disabuse of your biological constitution to feel guilt when you are involved in causing through inaction others' suffering.

An absurdist, then, will simply you encourage you to accept that you are selfish, your selfishness does lead to others' suffering, and that no fancy doctrine, high philosophy, or logical argument will ever substantially change that. Just like you must accept that you will someday die, and that nothing you do has any grand cosmic significance, so too you are selfish and your existence and choices come at others' expense. To follow Objectivism or Christianity or Kant's Categorical Imperative all amount to a bunch of philosophical hooey to buy into a linguistic snake oil with the sole end of deceiving yourself.

This, of course, is not a justification to be selfish. It is a recognition, that like death, it is something you cannot prevent; at best you can influence it. You eat your vegetables and go for a run, you'll live longer; you donate some of your time to some needy people in your neighborhood, you'll feel less guilty. But you are neither immortal nor do you lack basic human decency, so you have to accept that you are simply limited. By embracing that, the guilt doesn't go away, but it doesn't distort your thinking. In fact, it makes it easier to see the distortion in thinking by the charlatans who promise you if you only believe in their philosophy, doctrine, or good book, you can find salvation. Ultimately the price of clear thinking is uncomfortable truths. Being an adult means accepting reality as it is, not as you want it to be.

So, read the Virtue of Selfishness. Maybe the words there will convince you it's not immoral to be selfish, but if you have any critical thinking skills, you'll find that what she is selling doesn't fundamentally absolve you of guilt. Nor should it. If you have the means to save lives and reduce suffering and you instead spend your time with frivolous entertainment, you are guilty. We all are.

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  • You may agree with Singer, but I do not. Neither am I an ardent advocate of Objectivism. I am quite aquainted with reasons you give here and just like your absurdism, I find then to be quite absurd. You say that we are psychologically predisposed to be altruistic which isn't totally true. Evolutionary selection entails the necessity of both egoistic and altruistic traits. What Singer claims is the extreme end of altruism which isn't healthy for human well-being. The way you claim that my guilt is deserved is insensitive and infuriating, sorry to say. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 7:07
  • The moral framework you adhere to implies that it is impossible to live morally without giving one's full life into reducing misfortune to others. I just can't live like this. Happiness is of prime importance to me. I don't care if you disagree because you seem like the type of person who would propose that I do not have the right to happiness or my life when others are suffering/dying though circumstance I did not have a hand in creating such circumstances. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 7:44
  • Rejecting Singer's claim doesn't mean that one has to adopt its philosophical antithesis. Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 10:28
  • Your misunderstanding is thorough. You asked for a philosopher opposed to Singer. I provided. Fair enough? Your logic is black and white. We are predisposed to being altruistic AND egoistic. It's inherently a conflict that must be resolved, which is precisely the nature you struggle you describe. Singer is advocating more consciousness of others' suffering which is sizeable. I don't advocate you make any choice regarding it. I respect your right to come to your authentic nature, and that means finding a philosophy to exculpate yourself, go for it. You're struggle is only novel...
    – J D
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 15:32
  • to you. I offer you no moral framework. Moral frameworks are largely shams. You know nothing about me, so to claim I'm the "type of person" is shallow analysis. Of course you have a right to happiness. Everyone does: the question is why do you deserve it when children in war torn countries are bombed and maimed? That's an answer you have to find yourself. I come claiming only that if you have a moral sense that your inaction makes you culpable, no amount of shiny words is going to help you convince yourself otherwise. You're free to disagree. I wish you the best of luck. Namaste.
    – J D
    Commented Mar 5, 2023 at 15:35
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I assume from your question that Singer is arguing that the affluent have a moral obligation to relieve the suffering of the starving. If you wish to rid yourself of a sense of guilt induced by reading his claim, you might want to consider that a) morals are no more than opinions about what one should and shouldn't do, and b) Singer's opinion is clearly ignored by billions of people. I am not sure why you would care about what other philosophers say. Suppose you found thirty philosophers who disagreed with Singer- so what? There is no absolute right or wrong here. The views of other philosophers will be just as subjective as Singer's, so why be swayed by them? The reality is that it is up to you to decide how to think and feel. Another way to assuage your guilt might be to donate about £50 to a suitable charity- that way you will be doing more than the average person in the UK donated to charity in 2020. See https://www.nptuk.org/philanthropic-resources/uk-charitable-giving-statistics/

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    To dismiss Singer's arguments on the basis that "morals are no more than opinions", suggests that one could use the exact same argument to dismiss any other moral argument (that, say, slavery is wrong). If your dismissal is valid for Singer's argument, then it is valid for any other moral argument (since no part of it is unique to Singer's argument). Otherwise, you're just engaging in special pleading to dismiss arguments you dislike for no rational reason.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 1:02
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    "Singer's opinion is clearly ignored by billions" - since slavery was a widely acceptable practice some time ago, this suggests that one could've similarly dismissed arguments against that on the same basis. This is purely a fallacious appeal to popularity. (But I'd agree that whether other philosophers agree probably shouldn't be that important, but rather what matters is what rebuttals they've provided, if any.)
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 1:05
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    @NotThatGuy I think you are missing my point. There are many modern slavers who believe slavery is quite acceptable. You and I think they are immoral- they don't. I am not dismissing the argument against slavery- I am just pointing out that others can take opposing moral views. Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 7:21
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    @MarcoOcram But what's the purpose behind pointing that out? The guilt is unlikely to come from "there's someone else who disagrees with me", but rather from "this argument seems to be good". Given that, I don't see any other way to read this answer, except as arguing that "the argument doesn't matter" or "the argument is bad", neither of which I expect you'll accept on similar grounds in the case of slavery.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 14:32
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    People definitely aren't commonly swayed by good logical arguments. This is mostly because either they don't understand the principles of logical reasoning, and why certain things are good or bad justifications, or because it's easier to stick to existing beliefs and it's hard to accept that one is wrong (and with moral arguments, one may also need to accept that you've done bad things to accept the argument). But logic is still one of the best tools we have to get as close as we can to truth.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 21:40
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A good place to start when analyzing someone argument is to list their assumptions. Singer explicitly states 2:

  1. "[S]uffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad."
  2. "[I]f 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."

What is extremely important about the first assumption is that he is assigning a moral status to outcomes. This means that this single sentence is asserting that the foundational belief of consequentialism is true. Singer flat out says that anyone who rejects his first assumption, and thereby rejects consequentialism, should not bother reading the rest of the paper:

[F]or brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.

However, consequentialism is not the only type of moral theory out there. There is also deontology, which focuses on duties and rights(1), and virtue ethics, which focuses on character traits (3, 4). By Singer's own admission, his arguments does not apply to anyone who subscribes to either of these fields.

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    A reasonable thing to note. But it's not so much that "Singer's arguments do not [at all] apply to anyone who subscribes to [deontology or virtue ethics]", and more that he merely wrote it with consequentialism in mind. You could similarly argue that people have a right to not suffer and die from a lack of food, shelter, and medical care, and that you have a duty to prevent this if possible (deontology), or that showing kindness by preventing this where possible is a virtue (virtue ethics).
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 26, 2023 at 23:57
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This answer might not be appropriate for this board, since it assumes utilitarian ethics and strategizes from there. But this low-guilt, less extremal perspective might make utilitarianism seem more reasonable. But it is an argument against Singer's exact strategy, if not his philosophy.

So from a utilitarian perspective, telling people that they must be ascetics will likely have a rather small effective. There might be a select few who willingly donate all but their necessities, but they will be few.

Consider donating money which would not make you any happier if spent on yourself.

This requires deciding whether a more expensive choice will actually make you happier.

Sometimes, there are tradeoffs where the cheaper option is better on some dimensions but worse in others. Owning old things, where you don't care whether guests or children break them, is incredibly freeing. A smaller (but not too small!) house is easier to clean and maintain, and keeps guests closer to your kitchen in a party.

Often, there are two options which take an equal amount of your time and are equally pleasurable, but one is cheaper. Beyond novelty, is what you will see of a global city in a single vacation, minus the opportunity cost of sitting on an airplane, have any more depth or humanity than a town in day-trip range? Beyond novelty, are your favorite comfort foods actually less tasty (or more processed) than molecular gastronomy? Before the novelty wears off, switch back to the cheaper option.

Sometimes, the cheaper option will make you strictly happier. Lavishing gifts on a sugar baby half your age will (beyond novelty) not be more pleasurable than maintaining a relationship with an existing partner whom you know well and have a generational milieu in common with. Death at home gives your loved ones more time with you than a protracted death at a hospital.

Essentially, maximize pleasure and minimize expenditure, rather than falling for the luxury industry's rat race of maximizing expenditure and pretending that it is pleasure. Ignoring status is not asceticism, as status provides no pleasure, even if we are masochistically driven towards it.

Arguably, being in a Pareto optimum between yourself and others is suboptimal in terms of sum total happiness. But if you live an ascetic life, you're just going to make everyone else associate donating with misery, and then they won't think to donate, so this might very well be globally better.


With regards to the guilt you're feeling: you're a kid, so you have very little to give, so don't worry about it!

More importantly, there is no libertarian (as in the political philosophy) issue with charity, only government aid. What a person is morally obligated to do on their own is largely orthogonal to libertarianism. That is to say, if your career takes off, you will not be going against your libertarian principles if you donate money that you don't need (or as I recommend, money that wouldn't really make you happy).

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