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Does Charity Exist? Applying modern philosophical approaches to sustainability and society

by Emily Ladewig

April 12th 2021


Does Charity Exist? Applying Modern Philosophical Approaches to Sustainability and Society

by Emily Ladewig

Do you donate to a charity?

If you do, well, props to you. If you don’t, well, no worries, right?

This is the thought process of nearly all people in developed societies today. Charity is defined in the Oxford Languages Dictionary as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” Giving voluntarily means the power to help others is in our hands, but only if we so choose to. If we don’t give to charity, we aren’t doing something bad. Thus, this act has only good or neutral outcomes. We’re free to live our lives without guilt. 

Unless charity–– as we think of it today–– doesn’t actually exist.

In the early 1940’s, the Famine of East Bengal ravaged the underdeveloped country, resulting in the death of 2.1-3 million inhabitants. Disease and starvation were exacerbated by severe malnutrition and unsanitary conditions. This is just one of the many tragic and horrific events of human history, so why does it deserve special attention? Philosopher Peter Singer tells us the answer.

In the essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Peter Singer describes the moral duty that he believes all humans should be pursuing. This is more than just a suggestion of how to improve your behavior–– a moral duty means that citizens should be sacrificing some level of time, effort, comfort, and commodity to do what is right for others. In plainer terms, we as individuals–– along with our government systems–– should be taking actions to mitigate suffering around the world. 


Singer defends the principle that if it’s in our power to help those who are in need (and it doesn’t require any sacrifice of comparable moral significance to do so), we are morally obligated to do so. Something of “comparable moral importance” would be something equally as bad, something inherently wrong, or something that fails to promote some moral good in a way that’s comparable to the preventable bad thing. For example, sacrificing your own time to study for a test by wanting to help someone else study would be an event of comparable moral significance.

“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.”

-Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, 1972

The first premise of his argument is simple: that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad”. This is a fairly obvious statement that many would struggle to disagree with. The next premise says that if we as citizens are capable of preventing something bad from happening, then we ought to do so. Singer makes an important point by stating that this second premise does not make a distinction between helping someone who is nearby and someone who is far away. Thus, if one agrees that preventing suffering and death in their own community is one’s moral duty, they should hold this same belief when it comes to starving children in Bengal. 

Singer’s moral point of view requires us to look beyond our own society and view the prevention of starvation of millions of people as equally as important as upholding those standards in our own communities. He tells us “there would seem... to be no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds” 

So why don’t people think or act out of moral duty? There are a few reasons. The first is a psychological effect describing how people feel less guilty about doing nothing (a.k.a not donating) if there are others they can point to who are also doing nothing. People are able to deflect responsibility and avoid any sense of guilt. The second reason is our upset traditional moral categories. Nowadays, people see actions like giving to the Bengal Relief Fund as acts of charity, not acts of duty. 


Yet, if one agrees with Singer’s main principle, then donating to the relief fund would indeed be an act of moral duty. This disparity results in the charitable man being praised, but the uncharitable man remaining neutral. 

In order to contextualize Singer’s principle in terms of sustainability, let’s look at our frequent use of cars as an example. Many people own cars and use them daily, which contributes highly to carbon dioxide emissions and therefore global warming. However, there are sacrifices that can be made to reduce this harm. Riding a bike when traveling shorter distances or carpooling are some alternatives, yet these are inconvenient, and many people simply prefer to use a car and ignore the environmental consequences. In this case, sacrificing the car’s commodity and comfort is not of comparable moral significance to having an inhabitable planet. Therefore it would be our moral duty to ride a bike or walk short distances in order to reduce carbon emissions. 


Another way we can apply Singer’s theory to sustainability is by thinking about the idea of environmental justice. When we consider how our actions affect others, it’s often hard to think about it on a large scale. Certain people in certain locations experience the effects of climate change more intensely, even if they don’t contribute nearly as much to it as others do. For example, Bangladesh is a country that is especially vulnerable to sea level rise and natural disasters due to its low elevation, high population density, and insufficient infrastructure. Although Bangladesh will experience some of the worst consequences of global warming, they are among the least-guilty in terms of contributing to emissions. By looking at just one country out of countless, we see the importance of Singer’s argument that we must help people in need, regardless of whether or not they belong to our own communities and especially if we are contributing to the worsening of their situation. 

The realm of sustainability requires a scope beyond just one’s own community. We must not only have empathy for others, but create and follow through with solutions that help ALL people. We must understand sustainability not as an act of ‘charity’, but rather as a duty: something that must be taken seriously in order to restore the Earth and allow humans to continue inhabiting it. From this perspective, sustainability is an action that is society’s moral duty as a means to prevent suffering and death. Although it requires sacrifice, it is not a sacrifice of comparable moral significance. The main idea is to see the bigger picture of our actions. If Peter Singer’s argument is sound, then we must change the way we live.

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Meet the creative

Emily Ladewig

Hi everyone! I’m Emily Ladewig and I’m an ASU student studying Sustainability, Fashion, and Business. I’m interested in how sustainability can apply to everyday human life, the psychological facets of urban development, culture, and art. I’m also interested in health and wellness, and I’m a huge foodie! On Human, I’ll be sharing my interests and how I interpret things I’ve learned in my studies, so follow along for all different types of content!

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