Is it Charity or my duty?
Reflections with Peter Singer
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. (Peter Singer)
This seemingly non-problematic quote from Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, is written in the context of an essay, where he differentiated between duty and charity. He used the example of the Bengal Famine of the 1970s; even today, we have many similar situations in different parts of the world.
When we have some sort of crisis in the world, there is always an appeal for the generosity of the people to share their resources. Some of them do share, and some do it in huge proportions. They are appreciated for their generosity and charity. Once in a while, we may give names to the super-rich who are not willing to donate in such occasions as misers. But it is not their duty to share. They lack the generosity to share. And that’s fine.
Many of the rich countries do help the so-called poor countries (or erstwhile colonial countries) to face various crises. These are called aids or charity, which is again an act of generosity.
Bible does have a beautiful story of a rich young man coming to Jesus and asking, what should I do to attain eternal life? Jesus’ final response is “to sell everything, give it to the poor and follow me”. The spiritual interpretations have been given to this passage; but Sebastian Kappen (an Indian radical theologian) would say, this is an act of justice.
As long as these are questions of radical following or charity, we are okay with it. But when we make these as issues of justice or duty, it becomes problematic.
Peter Singer is not demanding as much as demanded by many radical activists or leaders. He is just reminding us that we have a responsibility to give priority to alleviate the suffering of others than enjoying certain forms of luxury. He doesn’t tell us to share the entire income to the poor; he doesn’t argue for an equal distribution of money.
When I give from my abundance, it is considered generosity. He just adds that when I don’t give out of my abundance especially in difficult situations, it becomes morally wrong. Or it becomes a failure of my duty.
Add the understanding of systemic inequalities, systemic injustice to Peter Singer’s theory and I think the time has for a name change…..
Acts of Charity/generosity → Acts of Duty