Are We Morally Obligated to Help Others?

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Modern media coverage bombards us constantly with reports of charitable acts by those in the public eye, as well as advertisements that encourage us to share what modest wealth we possess. Our society teaches us from a young age that if we are given any kind of expendable resource, we need to share it with those less fortunate, those who cannot afford or even fathom the basic necessities. This can be seen early on with the very basic concept of sharing toys in the sandbox and continues through adulthood by rewarding participation in philanthropic endeavors like food drives or Relay for Life. Those who are passionate about these causes are not above even using guilt as motivation... the sad eyes of famished orphans in Africa coupled with pleas for aid leaves one who is sitting on a comfortable couch with their hand deep in a bag of chips remorseful enough to reach for their wallet with their free hand. Peter Singer’s Utilitarian theory highlights this phenomenon and argues that people living in abundance while others are starving is “morally indefensible”. His reasoning is that if you are already living a comfortable life, purchasing anything to pursue more comfort is morally reprehensible and lacks virtue. To his credit, Singer supports his theory through practice, as it is reported that he donates 25% of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF, and is a member of Giving What We Can, an international society for the promotion of poverty relief. As a result, Singer feels that people who are able to live in excess should work towards reducing poverty among others, not enhance their own comfortable conditions. According to Singer’s Utilitarianism, the proper course of action is one that maximizes utility. This is defined specifically as maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. According to extreme utilitarianism, the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, thereby focusing primarily on the consequences of the action. However, can that compromise conventional morality? Consider the popular story of Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. Certainly assaulting the rich and generally violating their rights would contravene conventional principles of morality yet most Utilitarians would applaud the ultimate consequence of these questionable acts.

Another belief exposed by Singer is that the more people you can aid to reach a level of comfort, the greater your personal happiness will be. This is known as “greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” an ethical philosophy in which the happiness of the greatest number of people in the society is considered the greatest good possible. However, where does the modern individual draw the line? Theoretically, could that not mean that every resource one has at his very disposal should go to help others until that individual's funds are so depleted that he now is in need of assistance himself? The greater good would be served, but at the extreme expense of the individual, leading opponents to assert that Utilitarianism forces us to act against our own interests. Other objections to Singer’s theories are extremely prevalent. A popular opposing opinion is that people will not learn to provide for themselves if society holds their hand. Outside of charitable organizations, common examples are the government welfare programs, which have become a political lightning rod. Those who take this stance feel it encourages people to expect money to be given to them instead of having to earn it for themselves. They become dependent upon handouts and charity, and quickly begin to feel entitled to it. Therefore, they have no drive to get where they need to be in life, nor develop any life skills to be able to enhance their existence on their own. In psychology, this theory is known as “Learned Helplessness.” Most notably pioneered by Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, the study involved training dogs to become unable to respond to the environment around...
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