deficiencies. We can and will overcome the challenges facing humanity. Many regard this sort of talk as ‘unrealistic’; it would be nice to solve the world’s problems, but we should hardly feel obligated to rise to such an insurmountable task. The following essay will consider an excuse of the ‘realist’: the distinction between duties and virtues. We will see that this distinction is unsound, and leads to apathy and defeatism. Clarification of these terms is needed. Duties are those acts which are morally obligatory; breach of duty is impermissible. Virtues are ‘supererogatory’, i.e. beneficial but not obligatory – not acting virtuously is permissible. Consider the difference between murder and failing to give to charity: not murdering is a duty, something we must do; giving to charity on the other hand is a virtue, something beneficial but not expected. It is easy to see how this doctrine sustains inaction regarding political, environmental and social problems. If such action is supererogatory, then many will see no reason to act charitably. Furthermore, if even insufficient action is held as laudable simply because it is ‘better than nothing’, then those who give insufficiently will continue to do so and those who don’t give will be unlikely to start. Many are too ready to pass the buck onto government or hide in the masses; so long as everyone is inactive, no-one feels in the wrong, which explains common affection for the duty-virtue distinction. What justification is there for this doctrine? Very little. As Singer (2005: 150) argues: When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look “well-dressed” we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving.
If we accept that the suffering caused by famine, war, factory farming etc. is of more moral importance than a marginal reduction in our comfort, then it is wrong not to help as much as we can. We are obligated to help because the reasons for not helping are morally insignificant. If I were to abstain from saving a drowning child in order to avoid getting wet and ruining a nice pair of shoes (Singer 2005: 147), this would be utterly
reprehensible; I would have made a critical error in the ranking of my concerns. The emotive distance of those suffering elsewhere should not alter our response; we should be moved to action even when the crisis is hard to sympathise with.
In opposition to my argument, many people think our moral code cannot demand of us more than what we feel capable of; it seems unreasonable to condemn the majority for their psychological weakness. However, we should not confuse responsibility with condemnation. As Nielsen (1972:149) aptly states, ‘[i]t is understandable that people should act in [a] morally evasive way but this does not make it right’. The second complaint: some argue that morality is about ‘prohibit[ing] behaviour that is intolerable if men are to live together in society’ (Singer 1972: 151), in which case, the job of morality is to prevent us harming one another, but not to require us to help each other; morality is not about making nice people, only acceptable ones. But surely if my failure to give to charity, at little relative cost to myself, results in someone’s prolonged, death, then I am not merely failing to be nice to them; I am doing that person a very serious harm. The distinction between duty and generosity is unjustified. Now, increasingly many issues are acknowledged as practical and ethical problems; our treatment of the environment, of animals and of the poor is scrutinised as never before. Despite this, however, this awareness often fails to trigger change, especially when that change is a matter of personal rather than political responsibility. People are too ready with excuses. On the other hand, despite the commonness of apathy and inactivity, the situation is improving. People are becoming more aware of the ethical repercussions of their lifestyles, and despite widespread inactivity, increasing numbers are changing their lifestyles appropriately. We should not stop trying to make a difference - 3 -
In this issue of VOX, topics covered include climate change, foreign aid and the raise of multination firms.