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Peter Singer and Liam Murphy represent two opposite academic streams in bioethics that illustrate the distinct camps in the ethical inquiry of the moral obligations of people in the globalized society of risks. Singer stresses the unlimited moral necessity to help people throughout the world with no reference to the actions of other moral agents due to the increasing danger and sufferings because of floods, famine, and poverty. On the contrary, Murphy considers such an approach to be an example of the problem of the over-demanding beneficence. Instead, Murphy suggests follow the Cooperative Principle of beneficence, which seems to be more plausible and acceptable than the Singer’s project. At the same time, Singer fails to justify the necessity to accept his ethical principle due to the abstract notion of obligation and increasing number of duties if no one follows it. Alternatively, Murphy is more successful in the justification of the Cooperative Principle of beneficence that is easier to fulfill.
According to Singer, “the whole way we look at moral issues - our moral conceptual scheme - needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be taken for granted in our society”. It means that in the globalized world, every person has a moral duty to help those who need support. If an individual possesses an opportunity to prevent something awful from happening, and such action will not lead to sacrificing “anything of a comparable moral importance”, then he is obliged to act so as to realize this moral obligation. In this formulation of the imperative, Singer defines a sacrifice as a consequence of the deed that violates the principles of morality but not as the rejection of personal interests and profit. Therefore, if we do not sacrifice anything morally significant, we have a moral duty to help other people.
According to this universal duty of beneficence by Singer, the distance does not define the priorities of material support: “The moral point of view requires us to look beyond the interests of our own society”. It means that if a person lives in the USA and knows that a great number of people from Africa are suffering from the lack of food and fresh water, he or she has to make attempts so as to send financial help to those people with the help of charitable organizations. If the inhabitants of other continents face such a problem, the moral obligation will remain the same.
Therefore, Singer’s imperative presupposes the consideration of the whole humankind in terms of any activity because of the responsibility of every person towards others. It is immoral to care only about the friends and people who live next to our houses. On the contrary, the duty of beneficence prescribes every moral agent to do as much as it is possible in order to make the life of indigents better. Such a statement seems to be acceptable because “technology has made it not only easier to give but easier to give effectively”.
In addition to that, the philosopher perceives the duties of beneficence to be unconditional. According to Singer, it is wrong to commensurate personal moral decisions with the persuasions and intentions of others. It is significant to understand the necessity of moral rules even if other people choose to neglect it. Without any doubt, the efforts of only one person will not bring about the occurrence of the prosperous society but can lead to fewer sufferings and sorrow. This maxim resembles Kant’s categorical imperative, which emphasizes the universal moral obligation of every person to act as if such action could become a universal rule, thus, presupposing the moral permissibility of it in the global context.
In the same way, Singer emphasizes the subjective responsibility and self-consciousness as the source of realization of duties by beneficence. According to the author, there is no need to think how others act. The main thing is how morally the person acts and fulfills the duties with the aim to make a contribution to the welfare of the whole humankind.
According to Singer, the unconditional character of the duties of beneficence can be subjected to critique. For instance, some individuals may argue that helping the people who are suffering from the lack of food, material resources, etc., does not guarantee the disappearance of such disasters in the future due to the limited nature of the earth resources.
However, Singer does not perceive it to be a valid argument. It is not fair to judge people that are suffering now in accordance with the probable future developments. It is necessary for everyone to face the existing challenges and solve real problems that the society faces in a particular historical period. Therefore, Singer does not stress the opportunity to set limits in the definition of duties of beneficence, presupposing that people always have to contribute greatly to the welfare of others.
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Therefore, according to Singer, if we accept an assumption that “suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad”, we perceive the ethical doctrine suggested by him to be valid. Moreover, this conception possesses practical significance, making people follow the universal principles of morality and realize the duties of beneficence without any limitation, which can result in designing their future in a more prosperous global community and higher moral collective consciousness.
However, even though the analyzed conception seems to be plausible, the critiques argue for its over-demandingness. That means that Singer fails to give a precise definition of the duties of beneficence and argues for the unlimited necessity to sacrifice something significant for the sake of others. Among the critics is a philosopher Liam Murphy, who is the author of the Cooperative Principle and Compliance Condition as the detailed notional elaboration of duty of beneficence. According to Murphy’s conception, the “principles of beneficence should not demand more of agents as expected compliance by others agents decreases”. It means that, unlike Singer, who argued for the indefinite necessity to contribute to the maximization of the common good, Murphy possesses more moderate views and defends the principle of restriction of the duties of beneficence.
According to the author, ethical theory lacks the conception of the morally permissible limitation of the demands of beneficence. Therefore, with the view to fulfill this gap, Murphy widens the understanding of the beneficence, considering it to be a cooperative project rather than a single enterprise that presupposes more efforts in case the others give up fulfilling their moral duties. Murphy contrasts the cooperative approach with the Simple Principle of beneficence that “would for the First World require of each that she give up most of her energies and resources for the sake of others”. Such understanding is peculiar to Singer. However, Murphy perceives it to have weaknesses, where the central is its over-demandingness. Therefore, the program statement of Murphy’s approach is that “no one is required to sacrifice more than a given percentage of his/her well-being”. Such a formulation is a Compliance Condition that the author suggests in his article.
Apart from that, Murphy adds the interpretation of the Cooperative Principle that transforms the Simple Principle of beneficence into the justified ethical rule that has to regulate people’s behavior. According to the Cooperative Principle, “each agent is required to sacrifice only as much as would optimally be required of him/her under full compliance”. It can be understood as the fact that it does not matter how many people join the collective moral activity, because there is always a limit for the duties of beneficence. The main thing is that a moral agent always presupposes others, who realize the duties of beneficence. Such attitude enables everyone act optimally.
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It must be acknowledged that the Cooperative Principle does not resemble Singer’s justification of the moral duties because according to Murphy’s argumentation the moral agent does not have to pay attention to the activity of others. On the contrary, the task of every individual is to cope with the necessary number of moral liabilities that define his or her level of ethical consciousness.
At the same time, a person in Murphy’s doctrine does not exist with any reference to others. According to the author, “each sees himself as working with others to promote the good”. That means that even though the philosopher defines the duties of beneficence with the help of the limitations and conditional character of their formulation, an individual still exists in the social context and has to consider the aims of the ethical activity to be collective and cooperative, because the mutual efforts can contribute to the wider range of improvements in the global community.
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Therefore, the foundation of the validity of the Cooperative Principle and Compliance Condition is the “mutual advantage”. The former implies that Murphy’s conception does not rely on the notion of personal profit even, though, the author stresses the rights of every moral agent to know the precise boarders of his/her obligations so as not to have too many demands to fulfill by sacrificing something significant. On the contrary, the statement of the philosopher supports the idea of the cooperative efforts and maximization of the common good which can lead to the mutual advantage of those, who take an active part in the moral activity.
Based on the analyzed conceptions it is evident that the second approach is more plausible because Murphy endeavors to justify the moral obligations of people not with the help of abstract notions of sufferings that are bad but appealing to the real practice and pragmatic consciousness. In addition to that, Murphy’s approach is more realistic because it does not demand too much from a moral agent, whereas Singer emphasizes the unbounded moral duty that makes everyone sacrifice too much and even more when there are fewer people, who are ready to realize these duties of beneficence.
Moreover, Murphy’s conception better corresponds to the chosen philosophical tradition of empirical ethics, in particular, conventionalism with a pragmatic emphasis. Even though both Singer and Murphy are the representatives of such ethical branch, it seems that Singer also maintains deontological ethics with the central notion of unconditional moral obligation. On the contrary, Murphy is stressing that “nobodoy should not be required to do more than one’s fair share of the demands of beneficence”, argues for the rights and freedom of every person that possesses the reasonable quantity of obligations that do not increase at any time.
In addition to that, one more distinct feature of the analyzed conceptions is the character of the moral activity. Contrary to Singer, who argues for the personal nature of the moral action that has to be the same in any contexts, Murphy emphasizes the social foundations of morality and the necessity to presuppose others while realizing the duties of beneficence. At the same time, the only point that both ethical positions share is the necessity to act morally to achieve the maximization of the common good. Such an idea is peculiar to the whole consequentialist theory.
To sum up, the analyzed ethical conceptions of Peter Singer and Liam Murphy deal with the problem of defining the duties of beneficence; they, however, approach the issue from different sides. Singer puts an emphasis on the unlimited and unconditional obligations of every individual towards the whole humankind that does not depend on the moral activity and level of consciousness of other people. Murphy, in turn, appeals to the practical life and endeavors to justify the Limited Principle of the duties of beneficence, adding the Cooperative Principle and Compliance Condition to them so as to overcome the objection of the over-demandingness. Therefore, Murphy’s approach is more plausible and realistic.