Singer outline

Notes for September 5

Goal and strategy

Singer is trying to show that the wealthy should do more to help those who are desperately needy, such as those suffering from famine. More generally, he wants to show that we are mistaken in thinking that morality does not typically require us to make significant sacrifices in cases like these. We think that giving to famine relief is a good thing to do but that it is optional. Singer thinks it is mandatory: morality requires us to save others, just as it requires us not to kill others.

He argues for this conclusion by proposing an analogy between the victims of famine and a drowning child who can be rescued at little cost: getting muddy pants.

The strategy goes like this: most of us believe we would be morally obligated to save the child and the two cases are similar in the relevant ways, therefore, we should accept the conclusion that we ought to do more to help people suffering from famine.

Brief outline

  1. Introduction to the problem (229-31).
  2. Two versions of the principle he wants to defend and the basic argument in its favor (231–32).
  3. Objections to Singer’s basic argument for his principle: the famine case is unlike the drowning child case (232–35).
  4. Radical consequence of the argument: many acts that, according to commonsense ideas of morality, are merely matters of charity are in fact moral duties (235–36)
  5. Objections to the principle itself. The objections maintain that an argument that conflicts too much with our commonsense understanding of charity and duty must be mistaken. Singer argues that we should admit that our commonsense understanding of these matters is indefensible (236–39).
  6. Objections to the practical steps Singer recommends. These objections accept the idea that we’re required to give to those in need but they express doubts about whether privately provided famine relief will meet this goal. The “third point” isn’t really an objection but more of a question: how much should we give? (239–43)


Where is East Bengal and what happened in 1971?

Answer: it’s called Bangladesh now. Here’s the history of the conflict Singer was writing about.Skip to “The Pakistani Period, 1947–71”

Apparently, there was an American angle that I wasn’t aware of: the US could have discouraged Pakistan from provoking the crisis that led to the famine but did not do so. If so, the real story goes beyond a matter of providing aid. It involved the much less controversial principle that you morally ought not to cause famines.

Aren’t his facts out of date?

Sadly, no. Famines and the other effects of dire poverty are easy to find. Meanwhile, foreign aid has plummeted following the end of the cold war.

“The 21 rich countries of the OECD gave a record low share of their national income in overseas aid in 1997. Only four countries met the UN target of 0.7% of their GDP.” The Economist, 6-12 February, 1999

This is unfortunate because we have decent evidence that foreign aid actually works to alleviate poverty and other sources of human misery.

Singer contrasted the amount of aid given to the famine with the amount spent on two other projets: the Concorde supersonic jet and the Sydney Opera House (229–30). The Concorde has been cancelled. It was a commercial failure. On the other hand, the Sydney Opera House is widely recognized as a masterpiece. Does success make a difference?

This page was written by Michael Green for Problems of Philosophy, Philosophy 1, Fall 2013. It was posted September 2, 2013.
Problems of Philosophy