Singer’s Principle Notes for September 7

Main points

Singer tried to show that it is inconsistent to believe both that anyone would be required to save the drowning child and also that giving famine aid is not mandatory. In order to do that, he invokes a moral principle. The principle is supposed to explain why we believe that saving the child is mandatory. Having shown that we are committed to the principle by virtue of believing that saving the child is mandatory, Singer hopes to show that we are committed to his conclusion that famine aid is mandatory. Given reasonable assumptions about how the world works, the principle should lead to the same conclusions in either case.

So the moral principle is the chief device he uses to show that his targets, namely, us, have inconsistent beliefs. We talked about two sorts of objections to his principle.

One kind of objection looks for a different moral principle that would get the right result in the drowning child case but not have the implication that famine aid is mandatory.

The other kind of objection concerns the relationship between the drowning child case and the two formulations of the principle that Singer gave.

Alternative principles

We spent most of our time discussing a proposal by Phoebe that we have obligations to those who are near to us, either socially or geographically, that we don’t have to those who are far away.

I said that I didn’t think Singer had explained why this is wrong. On the face of it, it has two advantages: it explains two things that we believe rather than just one. Phoebe’s alternative explains both why we are required to save the drowning child and why we are not required to give money to famine aid. Singer’s principle, by contrast, has implications that very few people accept. So why think that we are committed to believing it?

Well, maybe we are committed to believing it but we just don’t live up to our principles. It’s possible. All I’m saying is that I don’t see where Singer proved this. He chucked out a lot of big words like “universalizability,” “equality,” and “whatever.” But that doesn’t prove anything.

Of course, if we subjected Phoebe’s principle to the same kind of scrutiny that we gave to Singer’s principles, we might decide that it really isn’t something that we believe or that, if we do believe it, that we shouldn’t. We would have to answer Adam’s question about what to do with a foreign tourist who fell into our fountain. And we would have to deal with Harley’s point that there is no longer a meaningful difference between being close and being far away. That is, we would have to define a kind of proximity that hasn’t been rendered irrelevant by modern communications and transportation.

So it seems to me that the matter remains unsettled. Singer hasn’t proven that Phoebe is wrong, but Phoebe hasn’t proven that she is right either. (Of course, we didn’t ask her to do so.)

Strong and moderate versions of the principle

The strong version requires us to prevent bad things from happening even when the costs to ourselves or others would be very high, almost as high as the suffering that we are supposed to relieve. That is what his talk about “the level of marginal utility,” on page 241 means.

If we came to believe the strong version, I think he is right to say that we would have to make radical changes in our behavior. Perhaps we should. But I don’t think the drowning child example shows that we are committed to believing the strong version. The drowning child example involved only trivial sacrifices on the part of the rescuer but the strong version of the principle demands much more than that. To show that we’re committed to the strong version, the drowning child example would have to involve a very risky rescue, such that the rescuer would suffer serious injury or a high risk of death. Do we think it’s obvious that a rescuer would be required to suffer a serious injury or run a high risk of death to save a drowning child? Again, maybe we should. But it isn’t obvious and most of us think we are not required to do this sort of thing, though, of course, there is no prohibition on risky rescues. If so, the drowning child example doesn’t prove that we are committed to the strong version.

Singer also proposes a more moderate version of the principle. This would require us to prevent bad things from happening unless doing so would involve any morally significant sacrifice. This formulation of the principle, however, is too weak. If we took it seriously, we would think that we aren’t required to save the drowning child if doing so would mean missing an appointment or if we had to take someone’s boat without permission in order to save the child. Speaking for myself, I think that’s ridiculous: of course you should break the lunch date or take the boat. The kid is going to drown if you don’t!

In my opinion, the correct principle lies somewhere between the strong and the more moderate versions. We are required to prevent suffering and death whenever we could do so without making a sacrifice that is close to the significance of suffering and death. We didn’t do the work to make a precise formulation. But I’m sure there is one.** Note that I took out “something bad” because I think it’s too broad. I’m not required to prevent your girlfriend from dumping you in a mean way, for instance. That’s her responsibility.

All I meant to say is that neither of Singer’s formulations struck me as satisfactory. The strong version isn’t proven by the drowning child case and the more moderate version is refuted by the drowning child case.

Lessons learned

We learned several lessons about moral argument from the Singer article.

  1. Moral argument generally begins with something that the target of the argument believes. It tries to show that there is an inconsistency in two things that the target believes.
  2. You can believe an argument’s conclusion while not believing that the argument proves that the conclusion is correct.

Finally, despite my reservations about the argument, I have to confess that I find it persuasive. Every time I read this, I find myself thinking that he’s basically right. We do give too little to help the poor and the drowning child example does illuminate what is wrong about our behavior. It’s interesting that I should be persuaded despite finding the argument lacking. Of course, you may have had a different reaction. As I said, I don’t think the argument can prove that you should have been persuaded or not have been persuaded.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2009. It was posted September 8, 2009.
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