Bankei wrote:The reason I ask this question is that I had been reading some writings by Peter Singer who is a modern philosopher. He argues that it is also unjustifiable to not help someone who you can see suffering. But he takes things further.
e.g. there are people starving right now in many places of the world.
e.g. There are people dying because they can't afford medicine etc.
Do we have a moral obligation to help these people (even though they may be located far away)?
Could there be any karmic affects of not helping them - there is no real conscious decision as there would be with watching someone drown in front of you. Most people would not give a moments thought to these issues, so how could there be Karma?
I think the key to your dilemma, Bankei, is to remember there are many ways to help people. Feeding the starving and curing the sick are certainly way to help people. The Buddha-to-be left his home and strove diligently in the forest to solve the deeper problem of repeated birth and death, repeated hunger and sickness. He found a solution and then spent the rest of his life sharing what he found with others. This too is a way to help people.
I think if one says to themselves "I know there are sick and hungry people in the world but I'm not going to try to help them" then this is rooted in unwholesome mental states.
I think if one says to themselves "I know there are sick and hungry people in the world and I will try to cure and feed them" then this is rooted in wholesome mental states.
I think if one says to themselves "I know there are sick and hungry people in the world. I believe this is a symptom of a deeper problem of being trapped in a never-ending cycle of birth, hunger, sickness, and death. I will strive to solve this deeper problem and help teach other people to solve it as well" then this is also rooted in wholesome mental states.
To put it another way...
Bankei wrote:Do we have a moral obligation to help these people (even though they may be located far away)?
"Moral obligation" is a strange phrase in a Buddhist discussion. Who would we be obligated to? I think to put it in a Buddhist context we might say:
Actions which are focused on ignoring suffering are rooted in unwholesomeness.
Actions which are focused on ending suffering are rooted in wholesomeness.
The means by which a Buddhist might focus on ending suffering might seem strange to a non-Buddhist but that doesn't change the intention.
I hope this is helpful.