Peter Singer’s main theme throughout the work is focused on moral obligations concerning sacrificing one’s wealth for the livelihood of others. He specifically refers to donations towards causes that assist children in less privileged countries with food, living spaces, medical care, and other necessities. Singer outlines a real problem, that the majority of individuals with excess financial resources, those that are not spent on necessities, rarely donate this money and often choose to spend it on luxuries. Here he proposes his approach to that which is morally impressible and obligatory. Though he provides several examples, both theoretical and practical, he believes that choosing to utilize additional resources in a way that does not help others survive or overcome poverty or any other life-threatening obstacle is morally impermissible. Additionally, he believes that using these extra financial materials to improve the lives of others is morally obligatory. However, he also poses the question of whether there is a standard for what is considered adequate amounts of sacrifice.
The trolley problem described by Singer provides a scenario in which a man with a car that he considers an investment for a future comfortable retirement is offered two choices. His car is on a railway while at a distance, a child is playing on a track that is being approached by a train. Since the man cannot call out to the child, he must either let the train kill the child or sacrifice his car by throwing the switch.
The different elements in the story act as symbols for the dilemma of donating additional financial resources. The car refers to all the unnecessary but present luxuries and the train acts as the incoming and unavoidable hardships such as disease, poverty, or other hazards. The child is a symbol of all those that are at a disadvantage and lack opportunities and the lever is the taken or untaken action of donating adequate money to a cause. Singer refers to sacrificing certain privileges such as restaurant dinners to donate up to $200 a month as a real-life example.
Utilitarianism by definition refers to something completely focused on function, utilitarianism is an ideology in which good actions are defined by their benefit to a majority. Singer’s thesis is utilitarian as it embraces the sacrifice of the luxuries of the few for the benefit of an underprivileged majority. The concept of opportunity cost is also present in his thesis and is usually either the adherence to one’s moral obligation or the opportunity to advance one’s comfort or wealth.
Because opportunity cost refers to losing alternatives when a selection is made, several things can fall under the definition within Singer’s examples. In the case that an individual decides to sacrifice luxury for the benefit of others, the opportunity cost becomes the more tangible real-world wealth, resources, or experiences. On the other hand, in the case that the luxuries are kept, the opportunity becomes the failure to comply with the moral obligations as defined by Singer. Though this cost is less tangible, it has several consequences in the realm of ethics and the social climate.
Singer provides two opposing responses to his definition of moral obligation in the realm of sacrifice. The first is concerned with what is considered adequate donations or sacrifices and whether these are universally defined. He immediately rejects the notion that these factors can be morally argued by majority opinion and as such makes it clear that there is no distinct measure by which to regard whether donations quantities are morally correct or not.
The second argument against his thesis is that in such a populated world, small sacrifices from everyone would substantially cover the necessary expenses needed to improve the lives of the underprivileged. Similarly, governments could improve their quotas for spending on aid allocation internationally. Singer illustrates that while this theoretical framework may be logically viable, it is practically non-existent in the real world. Individuals do not make any form of donations and many governments do not meet the quotas proposed by the UN.
Supererogatory, meaning to give more than is morally obligatory, is a term that is referenced in Singer’s work. In essence, it relates to the issue of judging what is considered sufficient donation quantities. Singer refers to the issue of the railway and states that many would consider the man’s sacrifice supererogatory if he would lose something more vital, such as a body part. Here he outlines that the sacrifice of one’s wellbeing and security may begin to hint at being unnecessary to following moral obligations.
Though I find that Singer’s approach has merit in discerning the ethical components that reflect in our choices or sacrifice and assisting others, I find it largely impractical. Essentially, it promotes unrealistic solutions that are largely limited to the theoretical work of ideologies. It would be incredibly hard to embrace if put into practice, as he mentions that altruism is not inherent to human character. Even his proposal of forgoing restaurant dinners is an impractical application of his moral outline in the modern world as it currently functions. As such, I agree with Singer’s statement regarding human behavior and willingness to help others but find his premises and solutions to be inherently impractical and surface-level, even as examples.