Obligation and Charity

Carson Knox attends the Virginia Military Institute where he studies Psychology and English with an emphasis in Philosophy.  

IMG_3793This summer I traveled to Gambela, Ethiopia, a region near the border of South Sudan, to teach English, the Bible, and to help support a community of Southern Sudanese refugees. The trip was quite an eye-opening experience. I saw the vast gap between third world and first world countries, I saw how much we take for granted in America, and I saw how little the average person gives to others who are struggling. 

This lack of charity was reflected in how people treated me when I got home. I was praised for going off to help the needy in a third world country. I was told that I was an awesome person and that I was brave for doing something that not many people would do. 

While what I did was good, I found it odd to be met with such praise, and this is partly due to my exposure to the thoughts and ideas of Utilitarian, Peter Singer.

Peter Singer is a contemporary philosopher who specializes in applied ethics. He attended the University of Melbourne as well as the University of Oxford. Throughout his career, he worked at many universities and produced many publishings, most notably his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality, which covers the morality of charity.” 

The essay revolves around a simple thought experiment. If there was a child drowning in a lake next to you, would you save them? 

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The obvious answer is yes. We say yes not necessarily because we have a want to save the child, but because we feel morally obligated to save the child. We feel that if we do not save the child that it is our fault if the child dies. 

Now imagine the same scenario, but the child is drowning 1000 miles away, do you save them? Well, in this scenario many people often reply that they cannot be responsible for someone that far away. This is where Singer disagrees, 

“it makes no 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”. 

Every life, no matter how far away, is part of our responsibility as human beings. We should feel a moral obligation to help as many people as possible, whether that person is right next to us or thousands of miles away. 

Singer believes that the affluent fail to recognize that, “The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society”. 

Now, someone might argue that it is not possible for us to help the drowning child who is 1000 miles away, which is true, but it is possible for us, with modern technology, to provide means to save and help those who are in need all across the world. Singer believes that people should give to charity and support people in need not because they wanted to or because it is the “good thing” to do but because they should feel morally obligated to do so.

“If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening…then we ought, morally, to do it.”

Charity isn’t something we should be praised for participating in; it is something we should be looked down upon for refusing to participate.  While this may seem extreme, it is this intensity that is needed for change to occur. The whole mindset that one should participate in charity for tax write-offs or because you get a “pat on the back” only increases lack of giving to those in need.  A society that views charity as a moral obligation is a society that has fewer people dying from preventable things.

So, while not everyone needs to give to charity or travel to Africa, we as a society need to change our views on charity itself. Helping those in need should be seen as an obligation, like saving a drowning child, and not like something that deserves a high five. I believe this change in mindset will cause a change in the world. I appreciate the comments on my trip to Africa, but I don’t think I did anything special. I did what I was obligated to do, and so should you.


Compliment this article on with this article on virtue ethics.

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