There are many ethical approaches to charity and altruistic behavior that state how individuals should embark on helping others, whether any kind of help is necessary, and to what extent. Thus, such theories as utilitarianism and libertarianism present opposing views on charitable behavior and whether individual members of society and society as a whole should be charitable. This essay will consider Peter Singer’s and Jan Narveson’s views on charity and discuss the ethical principles on which they base their approaches.
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Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, subscribes to the idea of utilitarianism. The utilitarianism theory, which states that the aggregate well-being of society as a whole should be prioritized above all, was introduced by Jeremy Bentham in the 18th century (Kahane et al. 131). The theory is rooted in the principle of the greater good and insists on its achievement and maximization, asserting that “deontological rules and constraints must be rejected when they stand in the way of achieving this goal” (Kahane et al. 139). Within the utilitarianism framework, a murder of a disabled person or child would be acceptable if it helped aggregate overall well-being. Utilitarianism requires people to do the best possible and states that people should help others to the point of undergoing financial difficulties, making substantial sacrifices to help strangers in need (Everett and Kahane 132). Thus, Singer’s approach to altruistic behavior can be argued to be extreme as he advocates for self-sacrifice in the name of charity (Kahane et al. 132). Overall, Singer is viewed as one of the most prominent contemporary supporters of the utilitarianism theory.
In contrast, Canadian philosopher Jan Narveson argues against utilitarianism and universal benevolence that values the common good over the life and well-being of individual members of society. Narveson subscribes to the ideas of anti-radicalism and libertarianism and claims that people have no obligation to help others (Seipel 2912). The libertarian approach values individual freedom and autonomy above all and is based on the principle of a human right to personal liberty. Thus, within libertarianism, “no adult individual initially has any right to any sort of positive treatment or aid from others” (Torpman 4). Nevertheless, as liberty and freedom are the foundation of the philosophy, choosing whether to do charity work or help other people is private. Thus, if a person engages in altruistic behavior to the point of self-sacrifice, Narveson views it as a personal choice that should be discouraged. Similarly, an individual cannot be forced into charity as it is their right. Overall, Narveson argues for personal choice and freedom when discussing charity and altruistic behavior.
Considering utilitarianism and libertarianism, it can be argued that the latter has more convincing arguments. Although utilitarianism presents a compelling worldview in which the community addresses the needs of all people, it is unsustainable. Utilitarianism encourages self-sacrificial charity from people, requiring the persons innocent of certain world events to pay with their money and time to support others. Thus, it disregards the rights of people if their happiness is viewed as a hindrance to aggregate well-being. Meanwhile, libertarianism aims to protect individuals, urging only those who desire to help others to engage in altruistic behavior. It respects the rights of the charitable people and those who need charity, discouraging people from sacrificing themselves in the name of others but helping when they can afford to do so.
In summary, Peter Singer and Jan Narveson have opposing views on charity and altruism. Singer subscribes to utilitarianism, the philosophy that demands all people to be charitable towards others and help all people in need regardless of whether they can afford it. In contrast, Narveson supports the tenets of libertarianism and the freedom of individuals to choose how to spend their money and time and whether to help others in need. Both philosophies offer compelling arguments; however, it can be argued that libertarianism affords a more sustainable approach to charity.
Everett, Jim A., and Guy Kahane. “Switching Tracks? Towards a Multidimensional Model of Utilitarian Psychology.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 24, no. 2, 2020, pp. 124-134.
Kahane, Guy, et al. “Beyond Sacrificial Harm: A Two-Dimensional Model of Utilitarian Psychology.” Psychological Review, vol. 125, no. 2, 2018, pp. 131-164.
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Seipel, Peter. “Famine, Affluence, and Philosophers’ Biases.” Philosophical Studies, vol. 177, no. 10, 2019, pp. 2907-2926.
Torpman, Olle. “Libertarianism, Climate Change, and Individual Responsibility.” Res Publica, 2021, pp. 1-24.