Ethicists have been struggling with this question for decades, primarily because there is no single, easy answer. Why people do what they do is an extremely complex issue that has filled libraries. In the past several decades, however, the question of why we refrain from helping others in certain instances but not in others has become an increasingly pressing issue as access to information increases and we realize just how much we could be doing.
For example, Peter Unger, in his book Living High and Letting Die, explains how, with a $100 donation to the UNICEF Oral Rehydration Therapy Program, a person could save over thirty children from dying in the third-world. That information is stunning. But UNICEF, after sending out tens of thousands of requests for donations, received only about 3% of the quick return envelopes back with donations.
Why weren’t the rest returned? Why do we buy extra cable channels, eat out at fancy restaurants, or buy large houses when that money could save hundreds – if not thousands – of dying children in a third-world country?
The question prompted Unger to write his book, and has stimulated the work of many other ethicists. Some postulate that the fault is our own: we simply do not have the imaginary capacity to understand the suffering that currently exists in poorer countries and, because we can’t imagine it, we do not feel compelled to do something. If we come across a child drowning in a pool, we can see the child, and see the very real repercussions if we don’t do anything to help. But if we throw an envelope away that asks for money to save children, we never see the children who die because we did nothing.
Unger, for his part, compares this issue to that of slavery several hundred years ago. Even though we consider it morally abhorrent now, in the day it was an accepted mode of behavior. Unger thinks that our disregard for the downtrodden today will be seen in a similar light in several hundred years, and that historians will look back and wonder about a society that had so much wealth but ignored their responsibility to use it to relieve the suffering of others.
Certain moral philosophies (such as objectivism) would take extreme exception to the idea of an individual being responsible for others, proving that the issue is not likely to be solved soon.