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6. Singer's Argument

VI. Peter Singer's Argument: Consequences, Rights, and Obligations

While directly concerned more with famine relief than with the children's health issues just highlighted, it was Peter Singer who first thought to argue, seriously and systematically, that it's the first response that's on target. Both early on and recently, he offers an argument for the proposition that it's wrong for us not to lessen distant serious suffering. His argument's first premise is this general proposition: 'If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it.'

So that it may help yield his wanted conclusion, Singer has us understand this premise in a suitably strong sense, with its consequent, 'we ought to do it,' entailing 'it's wrong for us not to do it,' not just 'it's better for us to do it than not.'

Singer, too, believes that the general proposition should appeal to utilitarians and non-utilitarians alike, 'because,' as he says, 'the injunction to prevent what is bad only applies when when nothing comparably significant is at stake. Thus, the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions that [human rights activists] strong disapprove: serious violations of individual [human] rights.' Again, as he Singer says, if anyone who cares deeply about human rights regards 'these violations as comparable in moral significance to the bad thing that is to be prevented, they will automatically regard the principle as not applying in those cases in which the bad thing can only be prevented by violating rights . . .'

Girl Drawing Water, Cambodia

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February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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