html LANG="en"> PHIL 19A: Human Rights
Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Spring 2008
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 19A

Human Rights

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber


Taking Subsistence Rights Seriously

As a start or to begin with, consider the following:

The path from John's dorm room to Pollack at the bottom of the Brandeis University Campus passes a shallow ornamental pond. On his way to the Philosophy class, John notices that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. If John wades in and pulls the child out, it will mean getting his clothes muddy and either missing the Philosophy class or delaying it until he can find something clean and dry to wear. He is also wearing a brand new pair of Gucci shoes which he is "breaking in" for the first time. Assume that it is evident from the circumstances that there is no time for John to take off his shoes if he has any hope of saving the child and that John himself can "see" that this is so. John's shoes will become wet and be ruined beyond repair. To replace the shoes will cost him $100. If John passes by the child, then, while he'll make the Philosophy class on time, the child will die straightaway. John heads straight for the Philosophy class and, as expected, the child dies.

Has John behaved badly?

What do you think?

What is your immediate, intuitive moral judgment about John's behavior?

Many think that if a person is walking past a shallow pond and sees a child drowning in it, he or she ought to wade in and pull the child out. If that means getting one's clothes muddy and one's shoes wet, even if it means having to pay a sizeable cleaning bill or having to purchase a new pair of shoes, this is insignificant when the death of the child is presumably be a very bad thing.

And not unsurprisingly, it so happens that almost everyone's intuitive moral judgment is that were that person to pass by, that person's conduct would be abominable.

This case and cases like it, Peter Singer* claims, illustrate the intuitive appeal of the following moral principle: "if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it." In the case of the Shallow Pond, this would appear to be sage moral advice or so it would seem. If muddying his clothes and getting his "new" shoes wet, saves the life of an innocent child, then it is time for John to send the Cleaners and the Shoe Store some business.

You receive a letter appealing to you to contribute $100 of your own money. In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty children will soon die of starvation. But, you throw the material in your wastebasket, including the convenient return envelope provided. You sends nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have died had you sent in the requested $100.

According to Singer, you ought to send the money and it is "wrong" for you not to do so," but almost everyone reacts to this example that your conduct isn't wrong at all. As Singer himself acknowledges, most people think "if you send a check, you will be thanked for your generosity.

Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable [person] may be praised, but a [person] who is not charitable is not condemned. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it," in this case, to UNICEF.

But Singer believes "this way of looking at the matter cannot be justified."

What do you think? Is it wrong for John to fail to aid the drowning child in the first case, but not wrong for you to fail to prevent thirty children from dying in the second?

If so, what is the moral difference between the two cases?

Drawing on your own most reflective and considered opinion, what is the moral difference (if any) between the two situations that explains the moral judgments of John's conduct in the first case and your conduct in the second case.

One difference, of course, is that the first case involves a pond and a drowning, both of which are absent from the second case. But this surely is not a significant "moral" difference! And the second case involves the postal system, but not the first. But this difference can't makes a moral difference, no? No doubt there may be any number of differences between the two cases, psychological, cultural, and geographical that help to explain peoples' differing responses to the two cases, but are any of these differences moral differences? Some effort was made to pull together the variety of considerations and concerns that prompt people to try to "explain" the differences in the two cases in such a way that these differences are able to provide reasonable persons with rational grounds for believing that it is wrong to fail to save the drowning child but not wrong to fail to send the hundred dollars.

You may wish to take a peek at the STUDY GUIDE posted on Harvard's Web Pages that focuses on precisely this question or, rather, this issue.

What are the significant moral differences, if any, between the two cases that might help to justify the different judgments of John's and your own conduct? Or to put the matter another way what might morally ground a negative judgment of John's behavior in the first case and a favorable judgment of your own behavior in the second?

These are in some respects, preliminary questions. Many of you have already given some thought to Singer's examples of the Shallow Pond and Envelope Cases. Many of you have already formed some opinion. Whatever might be said for or against Singer's argument, it is clear he believes that we, all of us, and that includes you and me, each of us individually, have a duty, a responsibility to those who are "suffering and [dying] from lack of food, shelter and medical care" and he (apparently believes that this is so no matter who these people are, whether they are Americans or Bengalis or dying of hunger in Darfur.

Henry Shue in his book BASCIS RIGHTS appears to come to a similar conclusion, although via a different route. He, too, believes we owe a duty of care to those in need of subsistence.

And Onora O'Neill also appears to believe that we, each of us, has a duty of care to those in need of subsistence and who are dying from preventable deaths due to starvation.

Do you believe, as Shue apparently does, that subsistence rights ought to be taken as seriously, be seen "as genuine as fundamental [human] rights of other kinds are?" Shue believes that a certain set of subsistence rights ought to be given "the highest priority," along with the priority we give basic rights to liberty, to the right, say, not to be assaulted or attacked against one's will, the right not to be tortured if one is innocent of any wrongdoing and perhaps not even then. What do you think? Do you agree with Shue? Or do you agree but believe the duty that is owed to those in need of subsistence is owed by others, i.e., is not your responsibility, but the responsibility, say, of governments or the responsibility of one's own family and neighbors.

And do you agree with Onora O'Neill? If so, why? And if not, why not? She appears to raise a question that the world in which e live has grown so complex that it is no longer possible to isolate those perpetrators of human rights abuse singled out, for example, by the South African Truth and Reconciliation process. She seems to think that "the economic and technological interdependence of today alters this situation." And she seems to suggest that it is not reasonable to think "that serious harms can only count as human rights violations if we can identify the perpetrators of these violations, that is, the agent or agents specifically responsible for the serious harms particular victims have suffered." The causal connections among our various activities on the planet are such that serious human rights violations can and do occur indirectly and are brought about as a result of decisions that we unreflectively make but that lead, nonetheless, to serious human rights violations. O'Neill believes "we cannot fail to face up to [these] long-range implications."

Drawing on the reading, in particular on Peter Singer's "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Onora O'Neill's "Lifeboat Earth" and Henry Shue's Basic Rights, make a case for or against treating subsistence rights as fundamental, as basic as the most central liberty (or security) right and for our having duties beyond our own borders to those whose basic human right to subsistence is subject to violation and abuse, think of the most powerful objections you can imagine that might be made against your argument and respond to them.





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