Americans and their moral obligations to help

There are billions of people the world over who are suffering in ways that are easily preventable today. We have a moral obligation to help.

by Jason Ketola

Hurricane Katrina has been in the news for more than two weeks now, and yet I continue to feel dumbfounded seeing its effects. The loss of New Orleans and its vibrant history is certainly tragic, but it’s the human suffering that got to me. The suffering got to lots of Americans, who responded by donating even more than they did in response to the tsunami last winter.

These major events in the past year led many Americans, including myself, to reconsider our relations with the literally billions of people whose day-to-day lives are filled with the misery of disease, poverty, oppression and more. What, if anything, do we owe these people is a question many of us have grappled with recently.

Through reflection on what it means to have an abundance while others face severe lack, I’ve become convinced that using our resources to help the suffering people of the world is not just a star-studded fad popularized by Bono and others, it’s a moral obligation. I’m not just talking about the obligations of wealthy governments; I’m talking about you and me. Let me explain.

Billions of people are suffering in the world for reasons too numerous to list here. Hurricane Katrina, ongoing genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and famine in Niger are some of the latest and most well publicized, but there are many others. Nearly half of the world’s population lives on the purchasing-power of less than $2 a day, and, needless to say, health care is largely unknown to these people. One billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. By the close of 2004, around 40 million people had AIDS with another 5 million being infected that year.

The number of people suffering in the world is tremendous. Some of the suffering may be perpetuated by corrupt governments that squander aid, but a great deal of it is preventable, as humanitarian organizations prove each day.

Although written in 1972 and focusing on a dire situation in East Bengal, philosopher Peter Singer’s arguments from his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” are apt and can help us to reflect on how we ought to respond. The following example and conclusion are adapted from Singer’s classic article.

Consider this scenario. Imagine you’re enjoying a walk around Lake Calhoun and you’re sporting some brand new, expensive shoes. Further imagine that you hear the screams of a child and witness her flailing in the water, apparently unable to swim and too far out for her feet to touch. Nearly everyone would agree, you ought to jump in and save the girl. Sure, your new shoes will be ruined, but the death of the girl would have been much worse.

In general, if it is in one’s power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing so much that something equally horrible happens, then one is morally obligated to prevent that bad thing from happening.

Turning our attention back to the real world, our moral duty is clarified. If, for instance, I have the power to help someone in Ghana get clean drinking water, which can help prevent river blindness and diarrhea (a deadly disease in developing countries), then it would be wrong for me not to do so. In fact, there are many organizations that dig inexpensive wells where other water supplies are not safe; a small donation can help dozens of people get clean water. The fact that these Ghanaians aren’t physically near to me is immaterial. They’re still people and are suffering in a way that I can prevent.

Having discussed this argument with friends, they frequently argue that they are “poor” and would love to help but don’t have time or money to give now. Frankly, I don’t buy this argument. Anyone who has the money to hit the bars each weekend or stay current with the latest movies has money to spare. It doesn’t take a $60,000 salary to be able to spare $20 here and there. Even deciding to cook a few more meals per month at home versus dining out or renting movies instead of seeing them in the theater can save some money that can be donated. Just a few dollars can pay for a vital immunization that will benefit the recipient for her lifetime; to save that money, all a person has to do is get a drink at a fountain rather than buy bottled water.

Given our busy schedules, donating money is the most effective way for most of us to help the suffering people of the world. How does one know that one’s money is actually benefiting suffering people? Many organizations have well-established track records of helping people and keep tight budgets that are publicly available. I suggest donating to Oxfam International (, a confederation of a dozen organizations with a diverse approach to solving world problems, or the Grameen Foundation (, a bank started in Bangladesh but which now offers micro-loans to individuals in extreme poverty all over the world. Their efforts have helped millions of people make new lives for themselves by helping them to pay for education, health care, housing and more. Do some research on your own to figure out how your money can best help when you donate.

It’s not just when disaster strikes that we should donate our time or money. There are billions of people the world over who are suffering in ways that are easily preventable today. Most of us have the ability to help a great deal at very little cost to ourselves. It’s not just an admirable thing to donate, it’s the moral thing to do.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]