Peter Singer: Famine, Affluence, and Morality

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Lauren Formulak
Professor Mrozinski
Human Rights: Consequential or Deontological View? Consequential ethics and deontological ethics (DE) mutually maintain that there is a right action that we morally ought to do. However, these normative ethical theories differ in the derivation of what is valued. In the case of human rights, both accounts are supportive of human rights, but for different reasons. Deontological ethics has as its basic thrust, the concept of a duty to do what is right. For one’s actions to be in accordance with DE, those actions must be realized out of a “notion of right (that) is not derived from a prior notion of good”, as explained by Illies (Illies, 2011, p. 107). A person should choose to perform an act solely because it is the right thing to do, irrespective of the act’s outcome or the consequences thereof. According to Illies transcendental argument, human beings have, by their nature, the inherent ability to distinguish between, the concepts of good and bad. Humans possess the capability to have an “active pro-attitude” toward good, as well as the freedom to act toward the same (Illies, 2011, p. 108-109). This translates to the concept of moral freedom in that the ability to perform free action toward this good specifically is simply, and unarguably, inherently good. Because of this fact, one should purpose, as it is one’s duty, to promote the moral freedom of another unequivocally, regardless of whose moral freedom one is promoting or as importantly, from a DE viewpoint, what the resulting potential outcome might be. Illies does stress that it is imperative to obtain as much information as possible surrounding the facts as to why a certain peoples’ rights are being suppressed, in order to promote those rights in the most lasting and efficient manner (Illies, 2011, p. 114). When one examines human rights, the concept of personhood is of paramount importance. DE calls for the treatment of others as an end and not as a means. This requires the respect of persons for whom they are as individuals and never as conduits through which one might accomplish a goal or achieve a benefit on their own behalf. In this light, one who holds to the DE concept of human rights has at his imperative the treatment of all individuals with equal respect, and the duty to promote their freedom with an “active pro-attitude”. Why does one do this? One does because this action, an “active pro-attitude” is good and the action of good is inherently good. As opposed to the deontological account, the consequentialist believes in the prior conception of the good. If something is good then it is right to promote something good according to consequentialism (Lillehammer, 2011, p. 90). Moreover, the actions with the best end results or consequences are what are to be evaluated as good. It must be clear that good intentions are not, at all, of value to consequentialists. Further, it is important to note that in decision-making, a consequentialist must hold to the demands of impartiality. Consequentialism upholds the idea that no one person is worth more than another (Lillehammer, 2011, p. 90). As we read in “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” Singer asserts that suffering from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad. If we accept this assumption, and if we can, by our actions, prevent this bad from occurring, we are morally obligated to do so unless in so doing we sacrifice something that is of “comparable moral importance” (Singer, 1972, p. 500). Not all consequentialists agree with giving to Singer’s suggested “level of marginal utility” but there is basis for supporting human rights in consequentialism. According to consequentialists, human rights should be promoted because the rightness of supporting those rights is what is best for the world. It is clear that suffering is bad, and if we can alleviate suffering by supporting human rights then we clearly should promote them....
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