Charity – Obligation Or Choice?

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Peter Singer outlines the fact that society is severely flawed, as many human and animal lives are subject to unnecessary suffering. He argues that if it is within one’s power to prevent the suffering of others without sacrificing anything of comparable moral value, then one has a direct obligation to do so. Although Colin McGinn agrees that this suffering is immoral, he disagrees with Singer’s ultimate conclusion, as he presumes it has disturbing implications. However, it seems as if McGinn does not understand the overall applicability of Singer’s argument and takes an unmerited and extreme position.

Peter Singer begins by criticizing the reoccurring pattern of indifference when it comes to the ongoing sufferings of people in the world. Singer’s argument relies on two central ideas. The first is that suffering and death from lack of access to basic resources is inherently bad. The second is an extension, as he claims that if it is within one’s power to prevent the unnecessary suffering of others, one ought to do it, and lack of action here should be morally condemned. Singer recognizes that in society, the charitable man is often praised, but the non-charitable one is not criticized which is a serious shortcoming. He claims that the ideology that donating money or other resources is a generosity needs to be discarded and has to be considered more as a duty. To sum up the entirety of his argument, Singer believes that society needs to strive to prevent what is bad, not necessarily promote what is good.

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Colin McGinn begins his writing in a similar manner, expressing that there is a lot of unnecessary suffering that occurs, and that the world would be a better place without it. He states that he agrees with Singer on the fact that suffering is bad, and that it is morally wrong to cause the suffering and death of animals unnecessarily. He draws an asymmetry with the context and the agent’s relation to the suffering by claiming that there is no obligation to go out and prevent this suffering, but a duty to not be the cause of it. By calling on this asymmetry again, McGinn believes that when the focus is shifted towards human suffering, the solution that Singer provides encourages a way of life where individuals have to sacrifice important personal values for a generalized altruism. His primary concern lies in the fact that in order to follow Singer’s conclusion one must put a halt on their own personal autonomy and the right they have to live it as their own in order to help others. McGinn believes that the implications here are detrimental as one would have to increase their own suffering or lower their standard of life in order to support Singer’s principle. Ultimately, McGinn believes there should be no sort of obligation to relieve the suffering of others, if one was not the cause of it.

McGinn believes that there are fundamental flaws within society but fails to take a definitive stance on how to improve on them. His view that giving up small luxuries like trips to the theatre takes away from what makes someone who they are as a person frankly is selfish. He acknowledges that the stance he is taking is extreme, but refutes it by stating that weeding out the extreme cases discredits the overall argument. However is crucial to understand that the validity of a statement lies in its generalizability not its applicability to the extremes. Human beings are inherently self serving, so the likelihood that an individual would take Singer’s principle so seriously that they would find themselves in a position of requiring aid themselves are slim to none. Singer makes a very effective argument primarily because it is concrete, and people would have potential repercussions if they choose to act in a selfish manner. Since the need to fit into the social norm is such a strong motivator, people would actually be inclined to better the world, should Singer’s principle be applied.

In conclusion, Peter Singer maintains that it is one’s moral duty to prevent the suffering of others without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth. Anyone who does not do so should be looked down upon. McGinn, however tries to counteract this by stating that individuals have no obligation to relieve the suffering of others if they had no part in creating it. Although McGinn’s ideology focuses more on the reasoning behind acts of charity, it would be futile if actually applied. Although it seems cold and utilitarian, Singer’s Principle holds worth in the sense that if applied, it would produce results, and in cases of extreme suffering sometimes ends justify the means.


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