Is There a Moral Duty to Relieve Suffering?

I recently read Christopher Wraight’s book, The Ethics of Trade and Aid: Development, Charity or Waste?* Wraight teaches philosophy, and examines the moral issue of aid, from a philosophical standpoint.

He cites a leading thinker, Peter Singer, who argues that if you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, you’re morally obliged to save her, because it costs you less than the cost to her if she drowns; and it’s no different if the person in distress is a thousand miles away. Thus, he says, you should give your money to relieve poverty in Africa, up to the point at which giving any more would leave you suffering more than the Africans.

Wraight himself actually suggests a moral equivalence between shooting someone and not giving a donation that would save a life; indeed, he says, the moral distinction between “killing” and “letting die” is a close one. And he quotes philosopher Jonathan Glover: “deliberately failing to send money to Oxfam, without being able to justify our alternative spending as more important, is in the same league as murder.”

Are these people out of their minds?

Wraight does acknowledge that deeds of omission are infinite, and one cannot be held morally responsible for not doing all of them.

But there’s a better answer. The shooting victim has a right not to be shot. Shooting unjustly interferes with him. Withholding aid from the starving African does not unjustly interfere with him. Moral obligations do not arise out of thin air, but out of relationships. You have obligations to family and colleagues that arise from your relationships with them. You owe nothing otherwise (except leaving people unmolested).

Moreover, you have a right to things that belong to you. That’s what “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence means: the right to pursue your own quality of life, and make it better than someone else’s. Working to lift yourself is not morally wrong. It’s the essence of economics that A gets money from B by giving B something B wants more than the money. Thus A has already made a contribution to human betterment, and is morally entitled to benefit himself from his earnings from that effort. And with everyone thusly motivated, that’s how we improve life for humanity as a whole.

The Singer/Glover notion smacks of the Marxist dictum, “to each according to his needs.” Fine for the recipients; but where’s the morality in obliging someone who has earned something through his good honest efforts to give it up to someone who has not earned it? And then why bother to earn anything?

So an African you’ve never met, even if he’s starving, has no right to your money (let alone more right than you yourself). You are not morally obligated to give to the poor till you’re just as poor yourself. And you don’t owe Oxfam a justification for how you spend your money.

None of this means you shouldn’t give donations; but it’s a choice, not a duty. And people do make that choice, for the perfectly rational reason that it makes them feel good, and avoids feeling bad. Wraight’s point about the infinitude of potential good deeds supports this. It cannot be a duty to help A if that means not helping equally needy B (and C, D, E, and a billion others). If not helping B were almost equivalent to murder, then there’d be no way to avoid that culpability. This is moral absurdity. Since there’s no alternative to choosing whom (if anyone) to help, the help must be seen as a choice rather than a duty.

Such altruism is actually a fundamental characteristic of human nature. As I keep saying, we evolved living in groups, where social cohesion was vital to survival. Thus we are programmed to care about others and their sufferings, and wanting to help. We are genetically wired to feel good for doing so, and bad when refusing. That’s why my toddler daughter jumped up, handed off her ice cream cone, and ran to help a stranger’s baby who had dropped a shoe.

* I got it as a prize from Philosophy Now magazine for my answer to their Question of the Month: How does language work? Mine was one of few responses that didn’t mention Wittgenstein. I’ve always thought his work was trivial. Wittgenstein’s most quoted point was that no matter how you define the word “game” you can always come up with an example not fitting the definition. So the word has multiple meanings. So do many words. So what?

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4 Responses to “Is There a Moral Duty to Relieve Suffering?”

  1. Gregg Millett Says:

    “Moral obligations do not arise out of thin air, but out of relationships” I see it as positive that our relationships are broadening toward more of a “family of man” and I mean meaningful relationships established because of technology, from airplanes to cell phones, blogs, etc.

    But I do see work a bit differently then doing it for “things.” I see work as something beautiful and meaningful in and of itself, whether you’re digging ditches or doing brain surgery.

    And don’t value much the notion of pleasure and happiness as being attached to material stuff — at least not beyond a basic decent living level.

  2. Lee Says:

    We don’t have a moral obligation to give of ourselves until we are as destitute as those we are helping. But, beyond that, do we have a moral duty to relieve suffering?

    I suppose it depends upon what we mean by “moral duty.” When helping is better than not helping (for any of many reasons) we can call it rational individuals choosing for themselves (selfishly) or we can call it acting morally. I choose the latter terminology. That is, by my usage, “morality” is not a call to act irrationally, it is a reminder that helping can be rational.

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  4. rationaloptimist Says:

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