How Responsible Am I?: Addressing Our Ignorance With The Help Of Singer

A Personal Note

I believe that I am truly blessed with the ability to rationalize and feel empathy. For me, awareness of what I can do to create a positive impact as just one individual pertains some type of responsibility as a capable human being on this earth. Unfortunately, despite my knowledge of some things, I am ignorant. I know what should be done and at the same time I deliberately avoid my capabilities.

In this article, I will avail my hypocrisy and try to convince you that it’s okay to be ignorant so long as you recognize it, and perhaps allow yourself to be inspired. You are human after all; a free subject. As a human, you are easily distracted. As a free subject, you can sacrifice, you can justify, and you can choose. What you choose is always up to you, no matter the external distractions that sometimes hover too close, bemusing you so that you lose site of the good. This, I hypothesize, is where your power lies.


How Responsible Am I?

In his essay Rich and Poor, Peter Singer offers a simple thought experiment. In this thought experiment, Singer creates a scenario where he notices a small child drowning. He knows that he has two choices: he can either do something and save the child, or do nothing and allow the child to die. Given the two options and the outcome of the latter, this seems to be an obvious decision, but there is more to consider when we question the fundamentals of deciding whether or not to take action. It is a question of moral obligation.

When one hears the phrase “ought to”, she may naturally assume that “ought” automatically implies “can.” What I mean by this, is that whatever it is that you ought to do is essentially something that you can do. Although convincing, this proposition is not utterly definite. Too often our moral abilities pose unrecognized, or are otherwise taken for granted. Nonetheless, let us say for argument sake that, if given the opportunity, most people would choose to save someone’s life rather than killing them. Let us also assume that, if gifted the opportunity, most people would be more than willing to sacrifice something less valuable for something more valuable.

Said premises are forthright and pretty easy to accept in a general sense. They do however, become much more controversial when we substitute a key word “would” with “ought to”. Let us apply this exchange to Singer’s thought experiment. Instead of saying that any sane person would choose to save a drowning child rather than concede their death, we say that she ought to choose to save a drowning child rather than letting the child die. To gain further dexterity on this notion of a predestined ethical dilemma, we can substitute “ought to” with “can”; whatever you ought to do supervenes on that which you can do. Therefore, so long as we are able to make a more positive impact, it can be argued that it is essentially our moral obligation to do so.

The significance of “can” is tricky, but emphasizes the vital use of thought-experiments in justifying how we ought to behave as moral agents. It is the thin line between accepting or rejecting Singer’s Argument for an Obligation to Assist (OTA) which I will explain in a moment, as well as the determining factor on what we ought to be doing in each situation presented both directly and indirectly to us. By inserting dilemmas of moral importance into different hypothetical situations, we learn that how we ought to act is determined solely by whether or not we are actually able to act.

To understand Singer’s OTA argument, let us reckon with a more exciting thought experiment. Imagine your family wins the lottery! Before winning the lottery, your life was still very comfortable. Your parents paid your phone bill, took you out for dinner at least once a month, and brought you on a yearly vacation to somewhere warm. None of these actions are immoral in themselves (while putting aside negative capitalistic judgments). But now, with winning the lottery, your family is able to completely retire and greatly increase the amount of family dinners and vacations enjoyed together. Although these luxuries have not been earned by means of any true moral desert, let us agree that there is nothing morally wrong with enjoying them.

Imagine now, that your family is contacted by a charity organization and told that by donating 200 dollars, a child could be saved from dying. The charity organization then asks if your family is willing to donate 2 million dollars so that ten thousand children’s lives in a third world country will be saved, guaranteed. The only catch is that your family must either donate the entire amount, or give nothing at all. This is the moral dilemma: your family can choose to stop ten thousand children from dying, or they can choose to keep the won lottery money.

The main concern with this thought experiment is whether or not it is a fair use of the word “can” to advocate Singer’s argument. Surely your family could say no, and no one else would be aware of their decision. But this raises another crucial aspect of obvious moral judgment, and allows us to grasp the correlation between this and Singer’s thought experiment. If Singer chooses to save the drowning child, he will get wet and miss his lecture. If your family chooses to save the lives of ten thousand children, you will lose 2 million dollars and return to a much less glamorous lifestyle.

By comparing these two initiatives, we are able to identity the main point of the OTA argument: having the ability to stop something with a negative outcome from occurring (child drowning) without needing to sacrifice anything of comparable moral value (getting wet) means that you morally ought to do it. If Singer chooses to ignore the child, it is because he would rather keep something of incomparable moral importance to saving a child’s life. Therefore, if your family chooses to keep the money, they are also choosing something of incomparable moral importance over something with moral importance, that being the lives of ten thousand innocent children.

It has been established that if someone ought to act a certain way, then it must certainly entail that they are able to act this way. It follows then, that if someone chooses to take a certain action over an other, they are aware of the action being taken. This is an important factor when we look at the topic of extreme poverty. Most people would say that, if given the opportunity, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance they would not object to helping an innocent person who is in the vicinity of death.

Our concern here is not whether providing aid for someone dying from malnutrition or some curable disease is moral. It is whether or not it is immoral for us to live without helping someone in such a circumstance when we have the means to do so. Are we responsible for the deaths of those suffering from extreme poverty when we could easily save them? This is not a trivial question. We can however, find an answer with a more intricate thought experiment, which Singer introduces in a separate essay, The Singer Solution to World Poverty.

“Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. […] Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can’t stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed – but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.”

As Singer indicates, Bob’s decision to avoid throwing the switch is not a moral action. The child’s fate was visible, and Bob was given the opportunity to change it without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. The relevance of circumstance found in this thought experiment is extremely significant to understanding the question of responsibility. It encourages us to locate resemblance between the moral obligation of Bob and someone who finds themselves in a less urgent situation…

Let us imagine Ben, 26 years old, who has made a decent living for himself. He has his own apartment, his own car, and a career he enjoys. Ben lives without any financial worry. In fact, Ben’s monthly income is able to cover all of his essential living and car costs, leaving him with 200 dollars of extra spending money each month. Ben is a kind person, and he works hard for the money he makes. He uses his extra cash that he earns to go out with his friends, buy nice clothes, and if he has any left over, he’ll give change to the homeless. With these points alone, we cannot infer that Ben is acting immorally. One could argue that he is presumably moral because he gives something to the homeless. One day, on his way to work, Ben notices a sign. The sign reads, “Save a Child’s Life for $200. Call this toll-free number to donate $200 and stop a child from dying due to extreme poverty: (800) 367-5437.” This allows us to compare the similarities between Ben’s and Bob’s situation.

First, like Bob, Ben is given the knowledge of the potentiality of a child’s death. The only difference between this knowledge is how it is offered. Unlike Bob, Ben cannot see the child. Although Ben cannot see the child whose life is threatened, we are still presented with a second similarity, which is having the resources to stop the child from dying. Bob has a switch he could throw, and Ben has a toll-free number he could call. By applying the OTA argument’s main point, we may draw a third similarity. Bob must decide whether he is sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance if he throws the switch, while Ben must do the same when faced with the decision to call the number. Bob would be sacrificing his Bugatti and the financial comfort attached to it, and Ben would be sacrificing his 200 dollars and the financial freedom it offers. Both of these things are obviously not of comparable value to a child’s life, which officially places the two thought experiments in a state of equilibrium.

Bob has the knowledge, the resources, and the ability to save the child, yet the child dies because of a sacrifice he is not willing to make. If we accept that Bob can be held morally responsible for his decision, we must also accept the same for Ben. Like Bob, Ben has the knowledge, the toll-free number, and the money to donate so that a child suffering from extreme poverty will not die.

Accepting these three key aspects with the OTA argument, we can analyze further universal topics, such as where we stand as moral agents in regards to helping those suffering from extreme poverty, especially innocent children who were born into it. A very common objection to this may be that we are not put face to face with the children suffering from extreme poverty, thus it is out of our hands. Since we are not personally presented with a dire choice to help them, we can assume there is no dire choice to be made.

Of course, there are many facts on the damaging effects of poverty that do make us personally aware of these children’s circumstances. “According to one study, 14 million children under five die every year from the combined effects of malnutrition and infection.” By reading this fact, Singer has made us aware of something very wrong going on in the world due to extreme poverty. We are given the incentive of knowledge.

Nevertheless, as we previously decided, awareness of the possibility of death alone is not enough to be held accountable for it. Even if we are informed of an organization that claims to aid these children stuck in extreme poverty, how can we be sure of their legitimacy? To save the time it may take to research this, Singer provides two reliable resources in his second essay, one of which Ben reads on a sign on his way to work.

Still, even if we know from accurate studies that we can save a child’s life by calling and donating 200 dollars to Unicef, an objector may still feel as though choosing not to call and donate is in no way similar to choosing not to save a child’s life. By reflecting on our previous thought experiments, we may argue against this. Choosing not to act is still an action itself. If we choose not to help those in need, and we know what will happen if we do not, we are, in a sense, responsible for something that could have been prevented by this choice.

We must always keep in mind that what we ought to do is always implied by what we can do. Ben has the information of the potential death of a child, he has 200 dollars to spare if he calls Unicef, and most importantly, nothing of comparable moral importance to lose. Now that Ben can be sure that he has a reliable resource, and that his donation will in-fact have a positive moral effect, Singer would concede that he has an absolute moral obligation to use this capability.

Such thought experiments are absolutely vital for accurately understanding how we ought to behave as moral agents. By analyzing complex ethical dilemmas, a conspicuous truth can be found in our actions. What we ought to do is never asking for anything more than what we are capable of. This leaves one last question you may be hesitant to address, perhaps already knowing the answer: Just how responsible am I?