I. This is one of the unpalatable conclusions that I was forced to accept based on the following principle: the extreme suffering of others matters as much as mine does.
Certainly I think it is very, very bad that I suffer in an extreme manner – say, feeling hunger or being sick to the point of not being able to think about much besides the hunger or the sickness, or feeling hopelessness to the point of being depressed, or losing multiple loved ones in the short time span of a few years. It matters greatly whether I suffer this much or not. I cannot just accept that it matters to me, and this is the crucial step of the reasoning, and I feel very compelled to hold that it matters objectively, meaning that it is inherently very bad and very undesirable, not just that it is very bad and very undesirable to me.
Having said this, I want to explain why I think the principle stated above is so compelling to me. I do not think I am special or deserve special moral consideration, for what I recognize in myself as attributing me worthiness of moral consideration is present in other people as well: I am capable of suffering. This means I am capable of being subjected to something that is objectively and in itself very bad and undesirable. Because of the intrinsic badness of suffering, it seems I have a right not to be subjected to it. That makes it so other entities that are eligible to the status of moral agents have the duty not to subject me to this great suffering
But how would this translate into a duty of the affluent to prevent or discontinue the extreme suffering of the extremely poor?
The core idea is this: if my interest or my suffering counts, then every similar interest or suffering counts too. Now, this idea of ‘counting’ needs some unpacking. I have not zeroed-in at a carefully articulated account of it yet, but the following remarks might put some luminosity into it.
Here it goes: If something counts morally, and specially if something really counts morally (say, because it is a very bad form of suffering, or a very radical violation of a (legitimate) interest), then it is something that deserves concern.
So now I take the crucial step: The fact that I am very concerned with my extreme suffering obliges me to accept, if I am to intend my concern to have any moral legitimacy and not just be morally unjustified self-interest, that I should be very concerned with your extreme suffering, and that you should be very concerned with my extreme suffering. This is because there are no more grounds to be concerned with my own interest/suffering than to be concerned with the interest/suffering of others.
This is where you may go: Aha! That is where you go wrong! The fact of the matter is that every person has some considerable moral warrant to be concerned with their own suffering above that of others, to a limited extent! And this is where we part ways, for to the best of my reasoning capabilities the conclusion in the preceding paragraph flows naturally from the idea that sufferings are bad in themselves, for what they are: suffering. Meaning that, if there is nothing intrinsic to your and my suffering that differs one from the other (and the fact that one is mine and the other is yours is a relational, extrinsic fact, and not an intrinsic one), then it follows that both deserve equal levels of concern, whatever level that may turn out to be.
II. Now I should consider what seem like heavy-weight objections (considering the level of intellectual sophistication I am in) to my moral theory. The first one can be stated as follows:
Objection 1 – Weak Version: Your moral theory has the intuitively semi-absurd conclusion that we should be, as long as there is any extreme suffering or strong violations of interest in the world, what can only be labeled as ‘slaves of the collective’: much like I am concerned enough with my own extreme suffering that I would put it on the top of my priorities, then if I am to act morally I ought to put the extreme suffering of others on the top of my priorities. This means living with the bare minimum necessary (which, granted, might in some far-fetched cases not be so bare) to maximize my attendance to other people’s strong needs.
Sincerely, I gather that we must accept this conclusion. Consider the following thought experiment, due to Peter Singer (I think): suppose you or a third-party own a U$300.000,00 house it has taken you great effort to buy – in fact, something akin to 15 years of saving. You had just enough money to buy it, without being able to afford any insurance. When getting close to home, back from work, you notice that a meteor is homing in your house, with a supreme chance of utterly destroying it and blowing all your investment. Happily, you could avert the destruction to your house and any other damage to anyone’s property of well-being using an anti-meteor missile installed in your roof, except for a single thing.
Right in the front of your home, there is a lake where children often swim, and this time a child (but it could be an innocent adult, to the same effect) is in a slow process of drowning, and is in great pain due to cramps. Nobody else is around – you life in a far away place, and the child’s parents were temporarily knocked-out by fear when they saw the aforementioned meteor. Would it be morally permissible for you to neglect the child and fail to rescue it from its slow and painful death, so that you may protect your hard-earned savings?
I think not. And I don’t think your duty would change if there were thousands people looking at the lake and you were dead sure none of them would jump in to save the child.
Likewise, there is hardly any justification to keep our material goods and our use of expensive services, exemplified by the great house in the thought experiment, while there are people in a situation analogous to that of the child’s. It’s a desperate situation, and every individual that dies or suffers extremely constitutes a desperate situation you ought to be very concerned about – more so than you’re concerned about your material comfort.
Now, there is more to be said about this. What if, in that scenario, saving the child would permanently cripple, to a considerable extent, your capacity to enjoy life and be happy? Doesn’t it seem like sacrificing your own happiness for the happiness of others (such as the child’s parents’) is really not something anyone ought to do, so that this new scenario would be a strong counter-example to my moral theory? (Recall that my moral theory wouldn’t ascribe a higher importance to my happiness over the happiness of others, to any extent.) I am inclined to think so.
But what if your happiness was to be sacrificed to secure the lives and minimal well-being of hundreds of other human beings? Can our self-interested moral intuitions justify that? I don’t know. Currently, I am inclined to state that, while saving one child wouldn’t be worth sacrificing my satisfaction with life, saving thousands of people would. And I think this is precisely the case with affluent people in the West: if such a person were to dedicate their life to alleviating world extreme poverty, thereby probably severly limiting their enjoyment in life, they would save that many people.
The previous statement, however, is misleading. Every unit of effort I add to my mission of saving lives has some marginal benefit: let’s define it arbitrarily so that one unit of effort corresponds to one life saved. Nothing states that the optimal solution requires situation S: me putting in as many units of effort as possible, thereby saving as many lives as possible, with the consequence of me being as miserable as possible. This can be the case because one unit of effort does not, every time, subtract the same amount of happiness from me: I suppose that every unit of effort added deprives me of more happiness than the previous one. So at some point before situation S, it could be the case that I would sacrifice too much happiness with one more unit of effort, so much that I would thereby be freed from the duty of putting in that unit of effort.
So, let’s say every affluent person must dedicate some large amount of effort to alleviating world poverty, but not so much that they become utterly miserable as a result. I am now of the position that people have some right to happiness almost independently of how much other people are suffering. (Of course, there are imaginable limits: no person A would have the right to fail to rescue someone from eternal suffering in hell just for the sake of that person’s A modicum of happiness.)
Now, let us consider a much stronger objection, for the one we’ve been considering has still allowed me to draw radical conclusions about how much wealth we can keep to ourselves.
Objection 1 – Strong Version: Your moral theory has the intuitively absurd conclusion that we should be, as long as there is any suffering or violations of interest in the world, what can only be labeled as ‘quasi-slaves of the collective’: much like I am concerned enough with my own interests and needs that I would put it high on my priorities ordered by strength of need, then, if I am to act morally, I ought to put the interest and needs of others as high on my priority list as I do mine of similar strength. This means living with the bare minimum necessary (which, granted, might in some not so far-fetched cases not be so bare) to maximize my attendance to the needs of other people that are stronger than the needs of mine I haven’t already satisfied.
This does seem to follow from my stated equivalence of interests, needs, and sufferings. And it seems killer.