Singer’s argument Notes for September 2

Main points

We tried to find a role for the drowning child example. How does Singer use it? It’s supposed to show that there is a kind of inconsistency between thinking that one must save the drowning child and that it is optional to give money to famine relief. But how does it do this? What are the steps of reasoning that lead us from “it’s obvious that you have to save the drowning child” to “you must give more to famine aid; it’s not optional at all”?

How does he use it?

It’s clear that it’s supposed to do something for the moral principle in the following argument.

  1. Suffering and death are bad. [Moral Assumption]
  2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it. [Moral Principle]
  3. We could prevent suffering and death by giving aid without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. [Empirical Assumption]
  4. Therefore, we ought, morally, to give aid. [Conclusion]

Singer’s text isn’t clear about what, exactly, the example is supposed to do. You might take him to have meant that the moral principle (2) is just as obvious as the moral assumption (1). If that’s right, the drowning child doesn’t do much. You can’t make anything that’s obviously true more obviously true.

We proposed something more sophisticated. Most people think it’s obvious that you must save the drowning child. They don’t have a fully articulate reason why it’s something they must do. The moral principle (2) supplies that reason. It explains why it is imperative to save the drowning child. Since it is obvious that you must save the child, and the principle explains why this is so, we have reason to believe in the principle.

The principle, in turn, explains why I would be wrong to regard famine relief as optional.

Distinctions and differences

We got about six distinctions between the drowning child case and the famine aid case up on the board. That was fast! What we need to know is whether those distinctions make a difference. After all, red and blue are distinct colors. But there’s no difference between the requirement to save children wearing red clothes and those wearing blue clothes.

Here is the threat to Singer. He has a good case for thinking that his principle explains why we must save the drowning child. But he has to do something more. He has to show that it’s the only or at least the best explanation for why we must save the drowning child. If there is a competing principle that explains why we must save the drowning child that does not yield his conclusions about famine aid, the strategy of using the drowning child to establish his conclusions about famine aid will fail.

Did we come up with such a principle? Not yet. We briefly considered one: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening that we can see, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally to do it.” But while that did split the two cases apart, it didn’t seem likely to withstand scrutiny. What if you hear the kid but don’t see the kid, for instance. Are you off the hook?

But we didn’t try very hard either. We’ll give it a more determined effort on Monday.

A preview of moral relativism

Incidentally, while the world’s cultures disagree about many things, there is near unanimity, at least among the chin stroking set, about drowning children. Consider, for instance, the fatwa issued by Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden’s mentor in Afghanistan, in 1984.

Azzam’s fatwa draws a distinction between a fard ayn and a fard kifaya. The first is an individual religious obligation that falls upon all Muslims, like praying and fasting. One cannot avoid such duties and be considered a good Muslim. If nonbelievers invade a Muslim land, it is fard ayn — a compulsory duty — for the local Muslims to expel them. If they fail, then the obligation expands to their Muslim neighbors. “If they too slacken, or there is a shortage of manpower, then it is upon the people behind them, and on the people behind them, to march forward. This process continues until it becomes fard ayn upon the whole world.” … Fard kifaya, on the other hand, is a duty of the community. Azzam gives the example of a group of people walking along a beach. “They see a child about to drown.” The child, he suggests, is Afghanistan. Saving the drowning child is an obligation for all the swimmers who witness him. “If someone moves to save him, the sin falls from the rest. But if no one moves, all the swimmers are in sin.” Thus Azzam argues that the jihad against the Soviets is the duty of each Muslim individually, as well as of the entire Muslim people, and that all are in sin until the invader is repelled.** Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower (Knopf, 2006), pp. 102-3.


Saving a drowning child helped to make William Safire poular at the New York Times.

He had a rough time with his transition from the Nixon White House to The Times. He told me that many of the liberal reporters stiffed him for the first couple of years until he dove into a pool to save a drowning child at an office party. †† Maureen Dowd, “On Safire,” New York Times, September 29, 2009.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted September 2, 2009.
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