Singer’s principle Notes for September 4

Main points

Today’s class was devoted to the differences between what I called the strong and moderate versions of Singer’s principle.

The strong version requires giving to famine aid unless doing so would require sacrificing something of comparable moral importance.

The moderate version requires giving to famine aid unless doing so would require sacrificing anything morally significant.

What do those words mean?

I think that “importance” and “significance” are synonymous, for all intents and purposes.

Barrett noted that different people consider different things morally important. I think that’s right, but I tend to agree with Mike that there are at least some clear cut cases, where there’s little serious doubt that what one wants is not morally important. So long as there are enough clear cut cases, perhaps Singer could grant Barrett’s point and escape without giving up too much of his argument.


I closed the class by arguing that Singer hadn’t proven the strong version of his principle. For the drowning child example to lead us to such a conclusion, it would have to involve a serious risk of death. But if it did involve a serious risk of death, saving the child would not be something that Singer’s audience would agree is morally required.

Tom’s point

Tom said something that probably didn’t make it onto your radar screens, so I would like to repeat it here. Tom proposed amending the strong version of the principle to require sacrifices that fall short of what Singer calls “the level of marginal utility.” That is, give until you’re quite uncomfortable, even if you’re far from starving.

But I’m not sure that would address the problem. I think people would still be unsure about whether they’re obliged to save a drowning child at great risk to their own lives, even the risk is not as great as that facing the child. If my hunch is correct, then it still wouldn’t serve his purposes.

In order to argue for his principle, he needs: (1) a case in which his audience is quite sure it’s obliged to help others that is (2) explained by his principle. I think that meeting the first condition is difficult.

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