Singer's Principle

Class notes for 4 April

Main points

The Moral Principle (2) says that we should prevent suffering and death unless doing so would involve some sort of moral sacrifice.

Today’s class was devoted to two possible specifications of “some sort of moral sacrifice”, the strong version and the moderate version of the Moral Principle (2).

The drowning child case

The most important question we raised was whether the drowning child example supports a formulation of the Moral Principle that, in turn, would lead to Singer’s conclusions about famine aid.

For instance, the strong version says that we should prevent suffering and death unless doing so would involve sacrificing something of comparable moral importance. But the drowning child example didn’t involve that. There was no question of my having to bear a significant risk of death, for instance.

The moderate version is less clear. Singer takes it to involve giving up a wide variety of luxuries. Again, it isn’t clear to me that the drowning child example is enough to prove the point. Even if I concede that I am required to rescue the child in an emergency, does it follow that I agreed that I was required to accept a life without luxuries, small and large? Did I tacitly agree that I should become a poorly paid lifeguard at the botany pond, for instance?

If agreeing that I am required to save the drowning child does not commit me to a fairly strong Moral Principle, then Singer will have difficulty showing that I am committed to accepting his conclusions about famine aid.

Is it a failure?

It seems to me that Singer has a good point about the similarity of the drowning child case with famine aid. It also seems to me that he hasn’t effectively drawn the line between what I am required to do and what I am not required to do to relieve famine. But I think the former is enough to call his argument a success.

Here’s an analogy. Red and orange are clearly distinct colors. There is a part of the color spectrum between red and orange where I cannot say whether the color is red or orange. But even though there are borderline cases where I cannot distinguish between red and orange, it doesn’t follow that I can never distinguish red from orange or that I don’t know the central cases.

Singer has made a powerful case for thinking that giving some money to famine aid is morally mandatory: it is like other things that we think we are required to do, such as saving the drowning child. It is unclear just how much we have to give. There are many cases where it isn’t clear whether giving is morally mandatory or optional. But it doesn’t follow that giving is never mandatory.