VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?
Singer acknowledges that the non-controversial appearance of the
'that we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without
anything of comparable moral significance is deceptive. If it were
seriously and acted upon, our lives and our world would be
changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in
can save a child from a pond , but to the everyday situations in
which we can
assist those living in absolute poverty. In saying this [Singer]
absolute poverty, with its hunger and malnutrition, lack of shelter,
disease, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy, is a bad thing.
assumes that it is within the power of the affluent to reduce absolute
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. If
assumptions and the principle . . . are correct, we have an obligation
those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to
drowning child from a shallow pond.' More formally, the argument
makes looks like this:
'If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to to do it.'
'Absolute poverty is wrong.'
'There is some absolute poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.'
'We ought to prevent some absolute poverty.'
But if we examine Singer's third premise more closely, it may, on
examination, prove to be less deceptive and controversial than it first
As Singer says, the third premise 'only claims that some absolute
be prevented without the sacrifice of anything of comparable moral
significance. It thus avoids the objection that any aid I can give is
in the ocean" for the point is not whether my personal contribution
make any noticeable impression on world poverty (of course it
whether it will prevent some poverty. This is all the argument needs
sustain its conclusion, since the second premise says that any
is bad, and not merely the total amount of absolute poverty.' So, as
argues, 'if without sacrifice anything of comparable moral
significance, we can
provide just one family with the means to raise itself out of absolute
the third premise is vindicated.'
Singer's talk of an obligation to assist those who are in absolute
easily be translated into talk of an obligation to assist children in
instance, by sending $100 to UNICEF, you need not
think that your
contribution will or must 'make any noticeable impression' on
childhood deaths in the developing countries, only that it will
more children from dying.
And this brings us full circle, back to a consideration of the larger
What might morally ground judging John's conduct in the case of the
Shallow Pond negatively, but not judging your conduct in the case of
It is certainly true that there are any number of significant
between the two cases. The issue before you, however, is to ask and
for yourself whether any of these differences are moral differences.
It is one
thing to explain our moral intuitions and responses; it is quite
justify them. Do any of the differences enumerated and expanded
below not only explain but also justify our moral judgments of John's
conduct in the one case and your conduct in the other?
February 14, 1998
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Oxfam America and CARE
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