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7. Is Singer's Argument Deceiving?

VII. Is Singer's Argument Deceptive?

Singer acknowledges that the non-controversial appearance of the principle 'that we ought to prevent what is bad when we can do so without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance is deceptive. If it were taken seriously and acted upon, our lives and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle applies, not just to rare situations in which one 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] assumes that absolute poverty, with its hunger and malnutrition, lack of shelter, illiteracy, disease, high infant mortality, and low life expectancy, is a bad thing. [He] assumes that it is within the power of the affluent to reduce absolute poverty, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. If these two assumptions and the principle . . . are correct, we have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty that is no less strong than our obligation to rescue a drowning child from a shallow pond.' More formally, the argument Singer makes looks like this:

First Premise:
'If we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to to do it.'

Second Premise:
'Absolute poverty is wrong.'

Third Premise:
'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 closer examination, prove to be less deceptive and controversial than it first appears. As Singer says, the third premise 'only claims that some absolute poverty can be prevented without the sacrifice of anything of comparable moral significance. It thus avoids the objection that any aid I can give is just "drops in the ocean" for the point is not whether my personal contribution will make any noticeable impression on world poverty (of course it won't) but whether it will prevent some poverty. This is all the argument needs to sustain its conclusion, since the second premise says that any absolute poverty is bad, and not merely the total amount of absolute poverty.' So, as Singer argues, 'if without sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance, we can provide just one family with the means to raise itself out of absolute poverty, the third premise is vindicated.'

Singer's talk of an obligation to assist those who are in absolute poverty can easily be translated into talk of an obligation to assist children in need. For instance, by sending $100 to UNICEF, you need not think that your contribution will or must 'make any noticeable impression' on preventing childhood deaths in the developing countries, only that it will prevent thirty more children from dying.

And this brings us full circle, back to a consideration of the larger question: 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 The Envelope negatively?

It is certainly true that there are any number of significant differences between the two cases. The issue before you, however, is to ask and answer for yourself whether any of these differences are moral differences. It is one thing to explain our moral intuitions and responses; it is quite another to justify them. Do any of the differences enumerated and expanded upon below not only explain but also justify our moral judgments of John's conduct in the one case and your conduct in the other?

Woman Weaver, India

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February 14, 1998
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