05(04): Ordinary People Are Evil

Nicholas Loh Avatar


The provocative title warrants meticulous examination.

Recently, I encountered a video containing that title, and it made me wonder: what could possibly justify such a bold statement? In an attempt to satiate my curiosity, I opted to watch the video to hear what the video creator had to say.

While I certainly didn’t attempt any slow and careful reading of Peter Singer’s controversial 15-page paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” that constituted the basis for the video’s title, I have indirectly learnt that the paper unveils a moral challenge. More than half a century after the publication of Singer’s paper, the paper remains a classic text in the study of ethics.

The paper invites reflection on one’s own privilege, echoing the myth of Narcissus (from which we get the word ‘narcissistic’ that has wended its way into psychiatric terminology, and unfortunately – common parlance too where it’s commonly inappropriately used at the expense of actual patients suffering from narcissistic personality disorder), whose inability to recognise his reflection led to his downfall – a fall resulting in more than a mere benign splash in a body of water. In this blog post, I hope to briefly share what I learnt about Peter Singer’s work.

Singer’s argument

Singer presents a cogent argument that probes the moral obligations of those of us in relatively affluent societies towards those beleaguered by poverty and preventable diseases. The crux of his argument appears to be that providing help to those in need is incumbent upon us, particularly when doing so necessitates relatively minor sacrifices on our part.

To illustrate his point, Singer employs an allegory reminiscent of the Good Samaritan: if one were to encounter a child drowning in a pond, with the capacity to save the child at virtually no personal cost, a moral obligation to intervene would arise. Singer maintains that this principle should extend to assisting those in need, irrespective of geographical location.

Another example closer to home

To make this argument more relatable for those of us in this tiny city-state, consider yet another example.

While routinely strolling along Orchard Road on a swelteringly hot afternoon, you see a person suddenly fall to the ground and astutely recognise the clinical features of a potential heart attack (especially so if you’re a medical professional): excruciating crushing chest tightness, dyspnoea, a grimace, Levine’s sign, etc. All that jazz happens while his wife with whom he was previously walking comfortably just moments ago tells you rapidly that he has a personal history of longstanding hypertension, dyslipidaemia, and diabetes.

If you’re a bystander trained in basic first aid, you’d have the skills to help this person and potentially save their life. In this situation, most of us would concur that a moral obligation exists to intervene and help out. Singer’s argument extrapolates such a moral duty to encompass everyone in need, regardless of spatial or national boundaries.

The Moral Obligation to Help

Singer’s argument challenges us to rethink our moral obligations in an increasingly globalised world where, I would dare say, we have less of an excuse to disregard the predicament experienced by those who live far far away.

He asserts that geographical distance and nationality should not be factors in determining our responsibility to help others. Rather, our moral obligation stems from our ability to prevent suffering and death without compromising our own basic needs.

Component of Singer’s argumentDescription
Moral ObligationIndividuals have a duty to help those suffering from extreme poverty and preventable diseases.
Geographical DistanceDistance should not factor into our moral responsibility to help others.
NationalityNationality should not determine our responsibility to help those in need.
Personal SacrificeWe should be willing to make reasonable sacrifices to aid those suffering from preventable harm.
Table – Key Points in Singer’s Argument

Actionable Steps for All

One must begin by expanding one’s knowledge and remaining informed about global health inequalities and the challenges faced by developing countries and marginalised populations. This awareness serves as a solid foundation for taking meaningful action.

Next, it is crucial to engage in volunteer work and collaboration, seeking opportunities to contribute time and skills towards improving healthcare access and outcomes for underserved populations, both locally and internationally. Working together with others who share a similar passion can yield significant benefits for those in need. For medical students, there are often abundant opportunities in going on OCIPs (overseas community involvement projects).

Advocacy is another essential component in addressing global health disparities. By using one’s voice to promote policy changes that tackle the root causes of inequality, such as poverty and lack of access to education, one can contribute to creating a more equitable world. Using one’s voice could manifest in many ways: it could be starting your own CIP or OCIP, publishing a relevant journal article to raise awareness, having your views aired on national platforms such as The Straits Times forum.

Supporting effective charities is also an important step in making a tangible difference. When donating to charitable organisations, it is crucial to make informed choices by researching their effectiveness and impact. Singer himself relies on organisations like GiveWell, which evaluates and identifies the most effective charities to support. Think of it as a ‘meta-charity’.

Finally, reflecting on Singer’s argument, we should consider the personal sacrifices we may be willing to make to help those in need. This could include donating a percentage of one’s income, cutting back on nonessential spending, or dedicating a portion of one’s time to volunteering or advocacy work. By making a personal commitment to alleviate the suffering of others, one can actively participate in the collective effort to create a more just and compassionate world.

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