Singer’s argument Notes for September 1


We began with a short discussion of what arguments are, why they might be interesting, and a few of the ways that they can go wrong. Philosophy classes are all about arguments. When we talk about the readings, we’re going to translate prose into premises and conclusions. Then we’re going to try to determine whether the conclusions follow from the premises.

We’re going to talk about cool stuff about ethics, religion, and death too. It’s just that this is how we’re going to talk about them. Obviously, it’s not the only way to talk about these things. And, in many circumstances, it’s not the only or even the best way to talk about them. But for many purposes, there’s no better way.

Singer’s argument

After talking about arguments in general, we talked about Singer’s argument in particular. We did two things.

First, we identified two contentious premises in his argument for the conclusion that we have a moral duty to contribute aid to famine victims. One is his moral principle and the other the empirical premise.

I said that we would have little to say about the empirical premise. That doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Quite the contrary! It just means that philosophy does not have the resources to answer it. Remember, we look at arguments, not at facts.

Instead, we’re going to concentrate on the moral principle. I said it’s very strong: if it’s true, you’re morally required to do a lot more for others than you, in fact, do. Think of how often you could prevent “something bad” from happening (and “bad” doesn’t have to be as bad as starving to death).

Singer tries to establish his moral principle with the drowning child example. It’s difficult to say exactly how this example would establish the principle, though. I proposed the following.

  1. “I ought, morally, to save the drowning child” is true.
  2. The moral principle [2] explains why this is true.
  3. Only a true principle can explain why I ought to do something.
  4. Therefore, the moral principle [2] is true.

As a member of the class pointed out (sorry, I’ll get names soon), point 6 isn’t right. It should be “Only the moral principle [2] explains ….” But it’s hard to establish that: you have to show that there aren’t any competing principles that could also explain why you should save the drowning child.

Next time, we’ll talk about possible alternative principles. Is there an alternative that has three features?

  1. Explains why I should save the drowning child
  2. Does not require me to contribute to famine aid
  3. Is otherwise acceptable, has plausible implications for other cases besides these two.
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2010. It was posted September 1, 2010.
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