Famine, Affluence, and Morality


I have had a wonderful Christmas; less focused on the material gifts of consumer society than ever before, I have been able to enjoy the gift of giving to those that need.  Also, I have been able to partake in the joy of my best-friend having a child born on the 26th of December.  “little Baseball Face” we have nicknamed him, much to the dismay of his parents. This child is lucky to have been born in Canada, and have access to the wonders of modern medicine, which all but ensured his and his mothers’ health.  I am thankful; actually, we all are.

This realization of our luck  also brings about the thought of millions of other newborn children and mothers not having access to the same basic medical care.  At this time of holiday gift buying and sharing, this thought raises an important ethical issue.  As Peter Singer essentially asked in his essay entitled Famine, Affluence and Morality: “Isn’t there a question of what we should be spending our money on?”  I will structure the argument much the same way Peter Singer asked this question in the documentary An Examined Life.

Imagine the $200 shoes and $150 pair of new pants you just received for Christmas (or any other expensive clothing).  You have been wearing them at a party, and have left on foot to return home.  You come across a shallow pond, and as you walk past it you notice a small child drowning in the pond.  You look around and cannot see any other people, and realize that you are the person that must save this child.  The pond is shallow enough that it would not present any danger to you, so what would you do?  Most likely, you would not waste a moments thought and wade into the pond, saving the child, and in turn, ruining the expensive new shoes and pants you received for Christmas.  The financial value of the clothes would not even enter into the decision to save the child or not.

It is at this point that Peter Singer would agree with you and your decision, and yet mention, that for the price of the flashy new clothes you received for Christmas (or the iPad, or jacket, or ski ticket) Oxfam, Unicef, or Worldvision, could save a child, or many children, in a poor country where children are currently dying because they cannot receive basic medical care for very basic diseases.

The thrust of Peter Singers’ argument is that if we possess the financial ability to reduce suffering in the world, then it is immoral not to do so.  There should be no differentiation between the child drowning in the pool, and a Guatemalan child, or an Ethiopian, or any other child on this great Earth of ours.

Now, this is not meant to take away from Christmas or the joy around us; it is simply a reminder that there are those who have not, and we must remember to make a difference where we can, when we can.  It is never too late to start helping.  I am thankful to be here in this world, and I am thankful that little baseball face is happy and healthy.


Leave a Comment.