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How generous are you (really)?

The amount spent per head in the UK on Christmas gifts was around £600 this year, and fluctuates between £450 and £700 each year, whilst in the US it is close to one thousand dollars. 

In contrast, the average amount donated to charity per person in the UK is between £100 and £300 per year – and only around 50-60% of people actually donate anything at all. As families come together to relax and enjoy their presents, there are nearly 300,000 homeless people in the UK.  The UK foreign aid budget is yet to return to 0.7% of Gross National Income, having been cut to 0.5% in 2020, changes which mean that tens of thousands of children are at risk of dying. As ever, the newspapers are filled with harrowing tales of suffering from Ukraine, Gaza, and Ethiopia, to name just a few. You might stop and think for a moment if provoked by a clip online (if you aren’t already desensitised to such graphic depictions), but, for the most part, we get on with our lives. Whilst pecuniary figures aren’t the only measure of caring, the miserly amounts do indicate a certain detachment, or at least not a sufficient desire to act on feelings of remorse.  

In 1971, Peter Singer published one of the most (in)famous papers in 20th century ethics, ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, in which he argues that it is a moral imperative to donate significant amounts of money to charititable causes like famine-relief programs. The centrepiece of the argument is the drowning child analogy: the idea that, if you walked past a child drowning in a pond, you would be morally obligated to save them. Thus, he concludes:“[if] it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it.” 

Unsurprisingly, since publication, there have been innumerable responses to an argument which seems to condemn virtually everyone, not just as slightly ungenerous, but as actively doing something wrong. The main objection is ‘overdemandingness’: the idea, as the name suggests, that following this principle would be untenable – it is simply demanding ‘too much’. This coincides with most people’s intuitions: we don’t regularly think of ourselves as evil people. As Singer notes: “People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief.” But just because something  contradicts our intuitive morality, it isn’t necessarily incorrect.  

A continuation of this objection is to ask: ‘where do we draw the line? At what point have we done enough?’ Singer’s answer is that we must keep going until we “sacrific[e] anything of comparable moral importance” – if you neglect caring for your children because of your devotion to famine relief, for example, you have gone too far, though the point at which something becomes of comparable importance is clearly hard to determine. 

Another point of contention is to do with distance: perhaps the drowning child must be saved, but we aren’t walking past drowning children every day. This also seems unconvincing, however, as it’s not clear why geographical separation changes moral responsibility – if I bomb someone in another country, the distance doesn’t change where the blame lies. Even if you believe you have a greater moral duty to your local area, the UK has plenty of suffering – on average two homeless people die each day, and they have a life expectancy more than 30 years lower than the UK average. Further, it doesn’t seem plausible to argue that just because others around you aren’t doing their duty, you shouldn’t – even if people around you are content to watch a child die, you’re still as blameworthy as ever. 

Christmas might be a time for family but a (much-debated) quote from Margaret Thatcher illustrates the dangers of retreating into closed-off familial units: “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Debates about what ‘society’ really means are largely unresolved, but thinking only in terms of those people close to you will almost surely lead to an apathy or lack of action in response to suffering elsewhere.  

For most, Singer’s arguments will seem too extreme. Yet they illustrate something probably felt on occasion – a truth noted by that little guilty feeling you get when asked for donations on the street but walk on by. Whilst you might not decide to give away your disposable income if and when you have one, Christmas – that celebration of giving and community – seems as good a time as any to reflect on how it could best be spent. 

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