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In building his case towards justifying a moral obligation Singer intended to prove that by donating a small fraction of their income, the rich lose nothing of moral significance while allowing an appreciable gain in the quality of life for the poor or disadvantaged. To further examine this thesis necessitates an exploration of Singer’s definitions of moral significance, moral obligations, and the ethical framework from which he approaches this issue of wealth or income inequality creating radically different and unacceptable living conditions. This piece will argue that while Singer’s intentions in justifying charity and donations are noble, the use of an obligation to enforce those intentions violates the autonomy of that individual.

By imposing an obligation on donation or charity, Singer unwittingly negates the definition and purpose of a donation. Donations must come from choice and a voluntary good will, not moral obligations. In other words, by the imposition of a moral obligation on an individual to donate implicitly sacrifices something of immense moral worth: their autonomy. Singer, through the dissemination of his texts, is detracting from the autonomy of individuals by pushing a narrative that increases the societal pressure to donate.


To begin, it is important to present the background of Singer’s case for the imposition of this obligation. A moral obligation implies that an individual is compelled to an action by a prescribed set of values, either from an external force, such as society, or from their own internal beliefs. Singer begins his case by presenting details and facts that illustrate the immediate and large disparity in wealth between certain individuals leading to extreme deprivation and marginal living conditions.

Again, the idea here lies in the fact that Singer is writing and appealing to an audience that is relatively well-off and educated. By drawing a connection between the idea that not donating to those in absolute poverty may be likened to not saving a drowning child, Singer creates a popular, loose philosophical narrative that is harmful to the autonomy of individuals with the means to donate. If enough people, for instance apply social pressures on the rich to donate, then the autonomy of the rich to donate and the charitable intent of the donation is lost.

Peter SingerSource

Moreover, he quotes Robert McNamara’s concept of absolute poverty to characterize this condition, “Poverty at the absolute level… is life at the very margin of existence… individuals in the poorest nations have: An infant morality rate eight times higher, A life expectancy one-third lower, An adult literacy 60 per cent less…” . A long list of deplorable social and health conditions are described as the background to what defines this condition of absolute poverty and its resultant conditions of death, misery, and a deprivation of human dignity or decency.

Relating Absolute Poverty to Moral Obligation

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Singer further highlights this need to aid the poor by illustrating a contrasting position of excess, absolute affluence. He defines an individual surviving under absolute affluence as not necessarily affluent in comparison with their peers, but as having, “…more income than they need to provide themselves adequately with all the basic necessities of life. After buying food, shelter, clothing… the absolutely affluent are still able to spend money on luxuries”. At this point, Singer makes clear that he does not apply any ethical frameworks or judgments to these circumstances, but simply is in the process of describing their existence. In any case, the key definition to take away here is the idea of the existence of an “absolutely affluent” individual in relation to an “absolutely impoverished” one.

He defines an individual surviving under absolute affluence as not necessarily affluent in comparison with their peers, but as having, “…more income than they need to provide themselves adequately with all the basic necessities of life. After buying food, shelter, clothing… the absolutely affluent are still able to spend money on luxuries”. At this point, Singer makes clear that he does not apply any ethical frameworks or judgments to these circumstances, but simply is in the process of describing their existence. In any case, the key definition to take away here is the idea of the existence of an “absolutely affluent” individual in relation to an “absolutely impoverished” one.

Absolute Poverty as a Mechanism of Social Pressure

Moreover, with these concepts in mind, Singer begins to describe the current attitudes and controversy associated with the moral implications of whether or not an absolutely affluent individual donates. The framework for these considerations borrows partially from Singer’s idea in a previous chapter regarding the distinctions between killing and letting someone die. Here, Singer specifies five conventionally accepted differences between an intentional killing and spending on luxuries rather than on aid to contextualize the issue,

“… (1) the lack of an identifiable victim…

(2) the lack of certainty that by giving money I could save a life…

(3) the notion of responsibility for acts rather than omissions…

(4) what of the difference in motivation…

(5) Finally, the fact that to avoid killing people is normally not difficult, whereas to save all one possibly could save is heroic”

These issues all relate to common considerations that individuals give to absolve themselves of the responsibility of aiding those in need by showing the non-equivalence of letting someone die and directly killing them. However, Singer argues that all of these reasons do not reduce the moral obligations on the person to donate, despite the fact that they do differentiate plain murder from a death by omission.

For instance:

(1) the lack of an identifiable victim resultant from one’s harmful actions does not justify those actions,

(2) the lack of certainty that one’s donation will save of life does not justify the wrongness of not donating,

(3) moral quandaries exist for those who believe that more responsibility exists for action rather than omission,

(4) the motivation that leads to death does not trump the fact that the death caused by any individual is bad regardless of their intentions, and

(5) the efforts of those who donate commonly not reaching the maximum possible amount of donation does not mean that one is excused from donation altogether.

At the end of these considerations, Singer suggests that a new framework that actively accounts for these differences is necessary, “These conclusions suggest a new approach. Instead of attempting to deal with the contrast between affluence and poverty by comparing not saving with deliberate killing, let us consider afresh whether we have an obligation to assist…” (229). In other words, Singer recognizes that there is a present framework that regulates moral obligations with regard to direct killing, but not one that regulates those obligations with respect to letting individuals die due to poverty. A new framework must be created in the latter case.

From this point, Singer attempts to create this ethical framework that justifies the moral obligation for an individual to assist in cases where they are not directly responsible for an individual’s death, but have the means to prevent it. This in itself is not problematic, but the dissemination and potentially widespread adoption of those ideas is problematic.

Would You Save the Life of a Drowning Child?

One of Singer’s more questionable arguments relies on the idea that if one sees that a child is drowning an one has the means to stop it, one should. This is reasonable, however, it is tied into his idea of donations where the drowning child is a metaphor for those in absolute poverty. Again, the idea of social pressure bearing on autonomous choices exists as the point of contention here.

Anyway, this framework is termed the obligation to assist. Singer considers the hypothetical situation of a child who is drowning in a shallow lake who is spotted by a professor passing along on his way to his lecture. Does the professor have an obligation to assist and save the child’s life? Singer spells out the obvious conclusions and implications here, “Would anyone deny that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting my clothes muddy and either cancelling my lecture or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but compared with the avoidable death of a child this is insignificant” .

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From this case, Singer draws out the principle that the one is obligated to assist in the cases where something of insignificant moral significance is sacrificed as a result. Singer regards that such an obligation would be accepted by both consequentialists (due to the obvious benefits of the action) and non-consequentialists, since their conditions for not accepting an action aimed towards preventing something bad only occurs when that action will result in something equally or more bad as a result.

Again, he then ties in this concept with the circumstances of the absolutely affluent and absolutely impoverished,

“For the principle allies, not just to rare situations in which one can save a child from a pond, but to the everyday situation in which we can assist those living in absolute poverty” (Singer 230).

To further explicate his case, Singer even formally defines the premises of the argument for the obligation to assist.

These premises are (1) “If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it”, (2) “Absolute poverty is bad”, and (3) “There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable more significance” (231).

Therefore, it follows from these premises and conditions that one is morally obligated to prevent absolute poverty.

Obligation vs. Autonomy

Additionally, it should be noted that Singer expects all individuals in affluent nations to donate since he believes that all or most of these individuals are capable of donations of insignificant moral value. He writes,

“I think the third primes is true for most people living in industrialized nations, on any defensible view of what is morally significant. Our affluence means that we have income we can dispose of without giving up the basic necessities of life, and we can use this income to reduce absolute poverty”

Clearly, the idea of affluence here manifests as a social pressure to donate. The argument is easy to take apart because if you are not affluent, then you are not subject to Singer’s social criticism of your lack of responsibility to the impoverished.

He brings up a list of things that may be sacrificed in a first world nation to illustrate how insignificant they are in comparison to reducing absolute poverty, such as stylish clothes or expensive dinners.

Charitable Action and Social Pressure

The apparent objection to Singer is simple: donations or related acts of charity are necessarily voluntary actions. Therefore, no moral obligations or social obligations that create a sense of moral obligation can be placed on the concept of charity without negating it. The autonomy of the individual is a key component to the idea of charity.

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The very idea of an obligation involves the stripping of an individual’s autonomy because it involves obliging or binding the individual to a moral will that it not necessarily their own. Consider this framework for the voluntarist approach to special obligation from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) that states, “Unlike natural duties, special obligations are grounded on something other than (or, in addition to) the intrinsic nature of the obligee.

The voluntarist worries support the view that special obligations can only be acquired through the voluntary actions of the agent whose obligations they are. Thus, the voluntarist will grant that special obligations are acquired through promises and contracts…” . The voluntarist position functions incredibly and robustly to defeat unwarranted obligations placed on certain actions if we limit its application to obligations on actions that are strictly and unquestionably accepted as voluntary.

Of course, it should be further clarified that these actions that the voluntarist position applies to for my argument are limited to those that allowed within a societal (and legal) context: the individual’s actions must still be bound by societal and legal obligations. In summary, Singer has no place to tell absolutely affluent individuals what to do with their money. It is only that person’s choice that dictates whether or not they should donate. We can never be morally obligated to donate because such an obligation denies Singer’s first premise as one’s autonomy is of moral significance.

Furthermore, there are quite a few issues with Singer’s framework itself. For one, his relation of the example of the drowning child and the professor who sacrifices little to save that child is not equivalent to donating to the absolutely impoverished.

Consider this: does the professor take time to ponder the moral implications of his actions before putting effort into saving that child? No, it is a split-second reaction. It would be absurd for the professor to have paused and reflected, eventually coming to the conclusion that, “My lecture time and clothes are insignificant compared to this child’s life, therefore I am morally obligated to save him”. By the time he had reached such a conclusion, the child would have already drowned.

Therefore, such impulsive situations cannot be generalized or compared to the considerations that individuals often put into donations; as such a suggestion would assume that individuals donate on split-second impulses. The action made to save individuals from life-threatening decisions arguably represent involuntary impulses that are completely incomparable from the voluntary actions and choice involved in donation.

Ultimately, Singer’s ethical framework falls apart because he sacrifices the individual’s autonomy in order to bind them to a moral obligation in performing a fundamentally voluntary action: donation. Singer’s idea of creating a moral obligation to assist is only absurd because he applies it to donation. The idea that someone in need has a claim to the money that an individual has rightfully earned through his or her own work is actually morally reprehensible and flies in the face of the altruistic intent of donation. The obligation to assist fails in every case because it ignores the moral significance of the donator’s autonomy. The suffering of another is not enough to justify the binding of free will through moral obligation.

Further Readings

Jeske, Diane. “Special Obligations.” Stanford University. Stanford University, 17 Oct. 2002. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <>.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.

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