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Why we have a moral obligation to help people in need, regardless of where they live - Part II

Updated: Apr 15, 2022

In a previous article, we explained Peter Singer's Shallow Pond argument, where he argues that we have a moral obligation to help those most in need, regardless of where in the world they might live.

At this point, some people might disagree with some point or argument mentioned in that article, since it presents a significant challenge to how we usually conceive of international aid. In this article, we present some of the most common criticisms of Singer's argument, followed by our responses to such objections.

Objection 1: The inefficiency of international aid

A typical objection to Singer's argument is that charitable or philanthropic action is a not very effective use of our money.

However, the Effective Altruism movement specifically focuses on carefully analyzing the most effective actions to allocate our money, since there are actions one hundred or one thousand times more effective than others. To do this, we study intervention programs to organize which charities are most effective to have a great positive impact in the world.

Some of these NGOs, like the Against Malaria Foundation, know that they can save a life for $4,500 by distributing cheap anti-malaria mosquito nets that people can put on their beds to avoid catching this deadly mosquito-borne disease. An organization that is professionally dedicated to analyzing which NGOs are most effective when donating is GiveWell.

There is also the possibility of saving or improving the lives of thousands of animals at an extremely low cost. For those concerned about the cause of animal welfare, Animal Charity Evaluators does a great job analyzing which NGOs are most effective in this field. We recommend donating to the top charities recommended by these organizations.

Objection 2: Moral obligations only apply to our family, community, or country

Another possible line of objection is that we only have moral obligations to help people around us, in our community or in our country.

However, there is a great consensus among most scholars in ethics and moral philosophy that this is not a strong enough reason to make such a drastic distinction between some people and others. Regarding our family or community, it is not acceptable to uphold that it is ethically preferable to buy a new television for our family than to save a person's life. This is strongly arbitrary and biased behavior, where we are clearly placing too much weight on our small egoistic interests - such as having the new model of television - over the true needs of others. Ethics involves behaviors that sometimes go against our wishes. It is the very essence of ethics to coordinate our desires with the needs and lives of others.

Furthermore, at the regional or country levels, we should just remember how countries are formed, generally through military methods and after centuries of forced unification. This indicates to us the moral arbitrariness of borders when distinguishing one nation from another. As many historians of nationalism have argued, including Eric Hosbawm, Ernest Gellner, and Benedict Anderson, nations have a strong fictional narrative component. The story is told in a specific way to achieve grouping, agglutination, and homogenization of human groups in our specific societies or nationalities. [i] But this, from a moral point of view, should be irrelevant and deeply arbitrary to us.

On the other hand, the rights, deep desires, and legitimate aspirations of a person to survive, improve their quality of life, and that of their family are not reduced because they are not part of our nation. There is a great consensus that certain human desires and needs are fundamental, and this gives rise to and justifies the idea of ​​minimal but universal human rights that must be respected. People should be able to have a dignified life, where they can satisfy, as a minimum, certain vital needs as well as personal, economic, and social development, not face insurmountable barriers to their life due to the fact of being born in a certain country instead of another.

Objection 3: International aid does not correct underlying structural problems

Another line of argument is the objection when considering that monetary donations are short-term, only offering temporary relief to deeper, structural problems.

However, this does not change the substance of the argument. Considering that monetary donations are not going to change anything major is an assumption that should not be presented as an ideological argument, but as factual information that can be investigated with appropriate analysis and studies to be contrasted with reality. It would be necessary to show that this is the most effective way to act, since many social and political campaigns tend to encounter opposition from the status quo and certain sectors of society.

However, even if structural change is shown to be the world's most effective way of changing the world's social problems, we would only be changing the way we are forced to act, not the bottom line of our social commitment. In that case, Singer's argument would still stand, but the aid should be directed to different sectors. That is, instead of being morally obligated to donate money - or in addition to it - perhaps we would be morally obliged to create or support a political and social campaign, to write to our politicians and representatives, or some similar intervention. It is a mistake to think that effective altruists, like Peter Singer, are not committed to structural social change.

Objection 4: This moral obligation demands too much of us

Some, at this point, might ask: “Just how far does this argument go in terms of moral obligation? I would have to give almost all my money to people in developing countries, leaving myself on the brink of poverty".

There are several possible lines of reply that show why this counterargument doesn't work. For simplicity, we will proceed with just one. This reply consists in recalling Singer's initial principle: "If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we have a moral obligation to do so." paying close attention to the part of the sentence that says "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance."

This means that if we do have to make a morally significant sacrifice, we are under no obligation to do so. For example, if we significantly make the life of our family worse in exchange for improving the lives of several families in developing countries, it is not clear that we have a moral obligation to do so. Where exactly to draw the line of our moral obligation to those in need would require the application of some more elaborate principle of moral obligation, which would likely require a more developed theory of justice.

Singer has answered questions similar to this in interviews. He argues that there is a limit to how far we must sacrifice. If we sacrifice excessively and our personal impact on the well-being of others is reduced, then we would be performing our moral obligations wrong. We would harm ourselves, we would not help the well-being of others, and we would reduce our ability to have a positive impact on the world.


[i] Some of these works include:

  • Gellner, E. (1983/2008). Nations and Nationalism. Cornell University Press.

  • Hobsbawm, E., & Ranger, T. (Eds.). (1983/2012). The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge University Press.

  • Hobsbawm, EJ (1992). Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Program, Myth, Reality. Cambridge University Press.

  • Anderson, B. (1983/2006). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Books.

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