Singer’s argument Notes for September 1

Main points

Singer is trying to show that we are wrong to think that giving famine aid is optional. He believes that he can show it is a requirement. More specifically, he thinks he can show it is as much of a requirement as saving the drowning child is.

We focused on his argument for his Moral Principle (2). The argument is that (2) best explains the reason why saving the drowning child is a requirement. We considered whether there could be another principle that could do two things.

  1. Do as good a job as (2) in explaining why I would be required to save the drowning child
  2. without implying that I am required to give famine aid

An alternative

Building on Yavor’s suggestion, we talked a bit about one alternative: that we are required to prevent suffering and death of those near to us, provided that doing so will not be costly and so on.

I said that I sympathize with Singer’s point. It sure seems to be the distress and suffering that explains why we’re obliged to act. What does proximity have to do with it?

At the same time, I said, I don’t think that Singer has made much progress in explaining his point. If I think I should save the child but that I’m not required to give a lot to famine aid, where’s my mistake? Remember, that’s what he set out to show.

Of course, as several of you noted, there’s another way around this. In the modern era, everyone counts as being “nearby”. So the alternative principle doesn’t really distinguish between the drowning child and famine aid cases.

Next time

On Monday, we will follow up Patrick’s point about the strength of Singer’s principle.

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2006.
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