Ethical Theory Spring 2019

Singer on Famine

Overview

Singer is trying to prove that giving famine aid is morally mandatory. His argument relies on a principle, that is, an abstract, general proposition:

  1. If (a) it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, (b) without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, (c) we ought, morally to do it.

His argument for this principle involves an example of a drowning child. His idea is that it is obvious that you should save the drowning child and that the principle is the best explanation of why you should do so. This is evidence that the principle is correct. If the principle is correct, in turn, he can use it in his argument about famine aid.

Our discussion

We spent most of our time looking for alternative principles. The alternatives we considered would have two features:

  1. They would explain why you should save the drowning child.

  2. They would not support Singer’s conclusion about famine aid.

We did this not because we necessarily disagree with Singer about the importance of famine aid. Rather, we wanted to see if his argument for his conclusion about famine aid holds up. Singer’s argument depends on showing that his principle is the best explanation of why you should save the drowning child. So the argument fails if there is an equally good or better explanation that does not support his conclusions.

For example, Chris suggested that an alternative moral principle might go something like this:

If (a) it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening that is nearby, (b) without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, (c) we ought, morally to do it.1

The idea is that the drowning child is close to you but that famine victims are far away. So the revised principle would explain why you should save the drowning child but not support Singer’s conclusions about famine aid. The alternative has at least this much to be said for it: it reflects the way we actually behave.

Singer doesn’t see how proximity could matter. I am of two minds about what he says. On the one hand, I think he has a point. It’s hard for me to see why being close to an emergency matters, other than as a proxy for being able to do something. On the other hand, I don’t think that Singer has done much to explain why he is right. He says that this is what follows from accepting “any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever” (Singer 1972, 232). But those are just big words. They don’t establish anything.

Jacob proposed that there could be a difference between the two cases based on fault or causation. You should save the drowning child because the child’s being in the fountain is an accident. But if the famine has human causes, such as a civil war, then the people who caused it have more responsibility for relieving it than you do.

We are going to talk about the problems raised by this sort of principle and the ideas Hutch was talking about in our next class. Cassy raised the most important question: even if we grant that those who caused a problem bear primary responsibility for solving it, what happens if they do not act to solve the problem that they caused?

Strong and moderate versions

At the very end of class, Simon noted that there are two versions of Singer’s principle: a strong and a moderate version.

Here is what that means. Singer’s moral principle has two parts:

  1. A part explaining why we have duties: we have to prevent suffering and death.

  2. A part that makes exceptions to those duties: we do not have to prevent suffering and death if doing so means making a specified kind of sacrifice.

The strong version is: 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 (Singer 1972, 231).

The exceptions are for cases where preventing something bad would come at the expense of something of “comparable moral importance,” such as sacrificing another life. When that is so, we are not required to prevent the bad thing from happening.

The moderate version is: if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it (Singer 1972, 241).

Here the exception to the duty is triggered at a much lower level. If saving the drowning child meant violating a promise to meet someone for lunch, that would be enough to show that you do not have a duty to do so.

Each version has problems. The strong version appears to claim more than the drowning child case can establish. If the drowning child example involved a significant risk of the rescuer’s death and people still thought it was morally required to save the drowning child anyway, then it might support something close to the strong version. But that is not how the example is phrased and so I don’t see that Singer has made his case for the strong version.

The moderate version has the opposite problem. Would you really say that the duty to save the child could be trumped by a lunch date?

So it seems to me that more work remains to be done to formulate and argue for a persuasive version of Singer’s principle.

Key Points

These are the points that you should know from today’s class.

  1. Singer’s principle.
  2. How Singer uses the drowning child example to support his principle.

References

Singer, Peter. 1972. “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (3): 229–43.


  1. Actually, Chris added more than “that is nearby.” He also added these terms: “and we are the only ones who are either capable or qualified to prevent it.” I’m leaving that out mostly for the sake of simplicity. But I also suspect that these additions might be redundant with a clause that is in Singer’s principle, namely, “If it is in our power …”.

Handout

There was a handout for this class: 02.Singer.handout.pdf