Singer's Argument

Class notes for 30 March

Main points

Singer is trying to show that we are wrong to think that giving famine aid is optional. He believes that he can show it is a requirement. More specifically, he thinks he can show it is as much of a requirement as saving the drowning child is.

We focused on his argument for his Moral Principle (2). The argument is that (2) best explains the reason why saving the drowning child is a requirement. We considered whether there could be another principle that could do two things.

  1. Do as good a job as (2) in explaining why I would be required to save the drowning child
  2. without implying that I am required to give famine aid

Jim’s alternative principle

We considered several alternative principles. The two that got the most attention were Jim’s Principle, that I am required to prevent suffering and death if I am the only who can do so, and Nathana’s Principle, that I am required to prevent suffering and death that is nearby. Both alternates seem to explain why I must save the drowning child without committing me to thinking that I must give money to famine relief.

Nathan objected to Jim’s Principle on the grounds that it is too weak: if two people are beside the pond, neither one is obliged to save the child, according to Jim’s Principle. If that objection succeeds, then Singer’s Principle (2) does a better job of explaining why one should save the drowning child than Jim’s Principle does. Jim amended the Principle to avoid the problem.

Nathana’s alternative principle

I ended the class with a quick discussion of Nathana’s Principle.

I said that I think that Singer is on the right track in saying that the limitation to those who are nearby is arbitrary. The reason why it is mandatory to save the drowning child is that suffering and death are bad, not that suffering and death nearby are bad: suffering and death are just as bad when they are far away from me as when they are close by.

But, at the same, time, I don’t think that Singer has done much to explain what makes a distinction morally arbitrary. The drowning child and famine cases alone do not show that it is morally arbitrary to discriminate on the basis of distance: that requires an additional “principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever” (p. 232) that is not itself explicitly spelled out or defended in this article.

So I find myself agreeing with Singer’s argument, and rejecting Nathana’s Principle. But I also think that there is more to be done to explain this additional principle, whatever it is, that shows why it is morally arbitrary to discriminate between people based on distance.

One point is worth repeating (I think Danielle said this). It is that even if we concede that there is a principled distinction based on distance, it is irrelevant to the case at hand, since we are close enough to famine victims, given current technology, to be obliged to help them. Just google “famine” and you can find all you need to know.