Richard W. Miller
The question that Peter Singer and I address gnaws at the conscience of relatively affluent people in the per-capita richest countries, on account of the staggering scale of global inequality: “To what extent am I morally obliged to make sacrifices in order to help needy people, who mostly live abroad in countries with meager resources for relieving their burdens?” An argument that Singer first presented in 1973, in “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” which he has vigorously defended in the decades since, remains at the vital center of the search for a principled answer. Singer claims that nearly all of us would be forced by adequate reflection on our own deep moral convictions to impose a huge demand in response to the gnawing question, an obligation to give that is so demanding that, for example, it prohibits spending money on clothing “not to keep ourselves warm but to look ‘welldressed.’”1 Radical though his answer is, Singer says that it follows from uncontroversial empirical claims about global poverty together with a general principle of beneficence that most people find to be “undeniable”2 if they adequately reflect on their secure convictions about moral equality and duties of rescue, as in his famous story about rescuing a drowning toddler.
I think that Singer’s project of deriving the radical from the obvious depends on misinterpretations of ordinary morality. If your deepest convictions are like most people’s, you have grounds for rejecting the huge duty to
Richard W. Miller is the Wyn and William Y. Hutchinson Professor in Ethics
and Public Life in the Department of Philosophy at Cornell University. His many
writings in political philosophy, ethics, and the philosophy of science include
Analyzing Marx, Fact and Method, Moral Differences, and Globalizing Justice:
The Ethics of Poverty and Power.