A friend alerted me to this article by Stephen T. Asma, which is very much worth reading:
‘One of the architects of utilitarian ethics, and a forerunner of Singer’s logic, was William Godwin (1756-1836), who formulated a famous thought experiment. He asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?” Singer has famously pushed the logic further, arguing that we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness. In the utilitarian calculus, needs always trump enjoyments. If I am to be utterly impartial to all human beings, then I should reduce my own family’s life to a subsistence level, just above the poverty line, and distribute the surplus wealth to needy strangers.’
(Read the complete article here.)
I tend to agree with Asma, I respectfully dissent from Singer. There is no moral obligation to help strangers, our resources are limited, so we make choices, meaning if we help stranger A we won’t be able to help stranger B. And it’s perfectly understandable and justifiable that we help our family members first before we help strangers.
We should try to limit the harm we inflict on others. That’s our moral obligation.