…well, at least if you are Peter Singer, and today I am willing to be Peter Singer. Back in 1971, Singer wrote about our obligation to help those suffering through a famine half a world away. I’m not really much of a Singer acolyte, but I think his argument is a strong one and compels us to act to relieve those affected by Hurricane Harvey:
“I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.
My next point is this: 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. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one. It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important. I could even, as far as the application of my argument to the Bengal emergency [or Hurricane Harvey!]is concerned, qualify the point so as to make it: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”
I assign this article in my classes and we spend substantial time dissecting the pros and cons of Singer’s argument. Certainly there are places to critique Singer’s paper, but that is for another post. The important take away is that when people are facing a dire situation, giving of one’s time, labor, or resources is non-supererogatory.
Times like these, the Red Cross launches fundraising campaigns. If you like the Red Cross and want to donate that way, go ahead an do so. I have some issues with the Red Cross and prefer to donate to local relief agencies. If you want to find local groups who are doing relief work, here is a good place to start.