The term “philosophy” means ‘love of wisdom’, is the study of understanding fundamental truths about oneself, the world around us, our relationship with the world and each other. (n.d., FSU) The purpose or promise of philosophy is to make the world a better place by increasing our understanding of it and leading to “philanthropy” which translates as ‘the love of humanity’. Here we discuss how philosophy leads to the aspiration of philanthropy and helps to promote the welfare of others, and the world community as a whole.
Our Duty to Give
In 1972 Peter Singer ignited a philosophical debate about philanthropy through his ‘drowning child’ thought experiment. (Singer, 1972) In this study he starts with a basic principle, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.” This seems like a very reasonably sound statement. Singer illustrates application of his argument as follows; if a person is walking past a shallow pond with a drowning child, and the only sacrifice of saving the child would be getting one’s favourite or expensive clothes wet or muddy, an insignificant sacrifice in comparison to the ‘moral weight’ of saving a life, then it would be reasonable to say we are morally obligated to save the child, and not saving the child would be morally inexcusable.
Singer extends this principle a step further and what follows is quite profound. If we act on the principle that if it is our moral obligation to prevent bad things from happening, provided the implications on us are not too costly – then our obligation extends beyond just what is happening in front of us. It extends to people struggling in various other ways, or even someone starving in a different country. Here he points out the principles of impartiality, universalizability, and equality.
One can easily donate the cost of a new pair of shoes to a charity and prevent a ‘very bad thing’ from happening. Like preventing a child from starving, or preventing someone from dying from a simple disease like diarrhoea, or investing in a child’s future by paying for their education, etc. Similarly, since the cost to us is low in comparison to the moral weight of its impact, it is not just a ‘nice thing to do’ for us to donate, but a moral obligation for us to help out.
Hence, Peter Singer defends his stance that alleviating the suffering of others is not just a generous thing to do, it is our duty, and not helping others is wrong. This is in contrast with the ‘supererogatory’ view of charity in kantian terms, meaning it is praiseworthy but above and beyond the call of duty. (Singer, N.d.) Singer argues that in a world where 5 million children die before the age of five due to easily preventable reasons, and 3.8 billion people live in a level of affluence previously known only to kings and nobles, (Guardian, 2022) being of service to others is not a choice, it is a duty and we must help others however we can.
Scope of Moral Duty
Our moral obligations are not restricted by borders, as global citizens we have an obligation to the entire global community. This is especially true since advancements in technology and growing interconnectivity has made it very convenient for us to help someone miles away, through something as simple as one click online. Therefore, it is morally unethical to not put in the little effort to help someone geographically near or far away from us. Furthermore, another reason it is a moral obligation to be of service to those far away from us is because many social evils such as poverty, pollution, inequality etc are problems in which we are all equally involved.
Philosopher Thomas Pogge argued that people from rich nations have a duty to the global poor because they are partially responsible for their conditions due to decades of colonisation and enslavement of the poor. Additionally, the international global system is structured in a way that supports unjust outcomes and harms the global poor. (Risse, 2005)
Forms of Giving
The fulfilment of one’s duties can look very different for different people. It can be done through donating money, clothes, time, experienced advice, books, signing petitions, etc. it can even be done in new and innovative ways such as by providing tech solutions to problems in remote villages. There are many charities that are finding inventive ways to maximise the impact of their supporters’ donations. (The Guardian, 2022)
The Philosophy of Effective Altruism advocates we use research and use reason to evaluate means to maximise the impact of our efforts and follow those practices. This means to research which NGOs or people are doing the best and supporting them on that basis.
Peter singer believes everyone should give within their means, whether it is financial support, time, or any other resource. (Froedeman, Brister, 2020) Some people may pledge 10% of their income, some people find a fulfilling career that does good, some people go for careers in which they can earn a lot of money to utilise their profits for better use, etc. According to Aristotle, wealthy people are naturally more responsible for wealth distribution than the poor. (ibid)
The Power of Philosophy
The main take-away of this argument is that people usually believe it is a good thing to help others. Even small individual steps can accumulate into a magnanimous impact. That, is the power of philosophy. It informs our mental toolkits and justifies the lens through which we view the world. It shapes how our societies are organised, sometimes consciously other times not. Nicolar Berggruen recognises philosophy as an important activity that has a significant impact on the world. (Berggruen,2021) It provokes thought and action, hence it is deeply important to human experience.
(n.d.). What is Philosophy? FLORIDA STATE
Singer, P. (1972). Famine, Affluence,
and Morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.
“How Peter Singers chodem ‘effective
charities’ are making your donation dollar go further.” The Guardian, Guardian
News and Media, 03 June 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/the-life-you-can-save-effective-giving/2022/jun/03/how-peter-singers-chosen-effective-charities-are-making-your-donation-dollar-go-further
Peter Singer. Giving What We Can.
accessed 6th November 2022, https://www.givingwhatwecan.org/people/peter-singer
“Peter Singer: How the Concept of Effective
Giving Could Revolutionise Global Generosity.” The Guardian, Guardian News and
Media, 25 May 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/the-life-you-can-save-effective-giving/2022/may/25/peter-singer-how-the-concept-of-effective-giving-could-revolutionise-global-generosity
Risse, M. (2005) How Does the Global
Order Harm the Poor? Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
Froedeman, R and Brister, E. (2020)
The Impact of Philosophy – and the Philosophy of Impact. https://3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2020/02/the-impact-of-philosophy-and-the-philosophy-of-impact.html#:~:text=Or%20in%20the%20words%20of,it%20deepens%20one’s%20sense%20of
Nicolas Berggruen (2021) Interviews
with Nicolas Berggruen: Thought that changes the world, https://www.nicolasberggruen.com/writings-blog/interview-with-nicolas-berggruen-thought-changes-the-world