How far do our obligations stretch

Although it may be the case that our responsibilities to others and our proper concern for our own wellbeing are both essential components of a life well lived, in practice the demands of being good to others and being good to ourselves will sometimes clash. What can humanists say about how to balance these sometimes conflicting demands?

The humanist philosopher Peter Singer argued that we have much stronger moral obligations to others than most people suppose. He asks us to consider this example.

‘If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

Recognising this, he says, seems to commit us to the following principle:

‘If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.’

That principle, however, if we are serious about it, means that we ought to do much more than most of us do to prevent avoidable suffering, in particular by supporting and donating to organisations which combat global poverty and starvation. We could all of us contribute to saving lives by devoting more of our resources to such charities instead of to acquiring relative luxuries for ourselves. Singer himself has taken this very seriously. He has published further books about it, he tries to live up to it himself, and he set up an organisation called ‘The Life You Can Save’ to encourage people to donate at least 1% of their income to charities tackling global poverty.

This looks very demanding, and Singer doesn’t deny that. But how far does it go? Does it mean that we ought to impoverish ourselves in order to rescue others from poverty and starvation? Singer recognises that, of course, there are limits. If you impoverish yourself you will no longer be in a position to help others. Of course, also, we have moral obligations to those close to us, including our own families, and in practice our efforts to do good in the world can sometimes be more effective when we are working to help those whose lives we can most directly affect. We do nevertheless have to decide how to spread our efforts, and Singer’s answer to the problem is a broadly utilitarian one. We have to ask what will, in the end, do the most good.

Richard Norman below offers a rather different way of addressing the question.

The way to think about this, I suggest, is to look at the overall shape of one’s life as a whole, and what would make it a life well lived. We find ourselves living in a structure of nested relationships, ranging from the most intimate loves and friendships, through our place in larger communities, to global networks of interdependency and finally to the whole of humanity. A meaningful and satisfying life is one in which we can find the right balance between these, and in which individual fulfilment and responsibilities to others come together as inseparable aspects of a good life.

There will necessarily be a personal dimension to all this. Who our friends are and what we do for them will depend in large part on the contingencies of our and their lives. We don’t choose a partner by looking for the best person available, we find ourselves falling in love, and in doing so we take on new relationships and responsibilities. We find ourselves located in a larger society which is not of our choosing, which requires certain loyalties of us and may also give us a sense of obligation to try to change it for the better.

Likewise, our endeavours to make the world a better place will reflect the contingencies of our individual lives. Someone might devote time and energy to raising money for cancer research in order to honour the memory of a close friend who died of cancer. Someone else might happen to have watched a television programme about famine in East Africa and recognise that this is something they ought to work for. To questions about which moral obligations to focus on, and how much to do, it may be that the only possible answer is ‘Well, you can’t do everything’. But behind it all will be some sense of who we are, what matters to us, and whether the different aspects of our lives hang together in a meaningful way.’

Question: Do we have an obligation to do everything we can to help others, or is such a moral requirement too demanding of us?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK