Singer’s principle

Notes for September 5

Main points

We talked about possible alternatives to Singer’s principle. We were attempting to identify a principle that would explain why there is a duty to save the drowning child without also giving us a duty to give famine aid.

At the end of the class, we briefly touched on the two versions of the principle that Singer himself proposed: the strong and moderate versions. We will have to revisit this in our next session.


We canvassed a number of alternatives to Singer’s principle. Most of them did not reach substantially different conclusions about famine aid. That’s not to say that they were wrong (quite the contrary). But it is to say that they did not raise a challenge for Singer’s general position.

Franklin’s alternative did seem to pose a genuine challenge. His proposal was that we are required to save those who are both in distress and close to us. We considered a number of ways of spelling out what “close” means: spatial proximity, social proximity, and so on. The proposal has this much going for it: it explains both why we should save the drowning child and also why our implicit attitudes towards famine relief are correct.

I said that Singer rejected the suggestion that proximity in any sense is morally relevant. But I expressed dissatisfaction with his explanation of his view (see pp. 231–32). As far as I can see, it amounts to saying that if we accept that we have to treat all people equally then we can’t treat them differently. That is true but it hardly refutes Franklin’s proposal. He noted that we do not, in fact, treat everyone equally. The challenge is to explain why we’re wrong to think that way. I don’t think Singer met that challenge.

At the same time, I have a lot of sympathy with Singer’s position. So I suggested a few arguments that he might have made. For instance, I noted that we do not think that proximity is relevant to the permissibility of hurting others: it’s equally wrong to kill someone thousands of miles away with a missile as it is to shoot someone standing next to you. Maybe Singer could use this observation to bolster his case.

Of course, as Sam observed, it is common to draw a distinction between harming and not helping: we treat the former as much worse than the latter. Perhaps that can be worked into a reply to my defense of Singer.

Key concepts

  1. How the strategy of finding an alternative principle works.
  2. The strong and moderate versions of Singer’s principle. (We will talk about this next time.)
This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 5, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy