Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2013
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A


Professor Andreas Teuber
Andreas Teuber


Saving the World's Children
from Dying of Starvation

"Granted, in normal circumstances, it may be better for everyone
if we recognize that each of us will be primarily responsible for
running our own lives and only secondarily responsible for others.
This, however, is not a moral ultimate, but a secondary principle
that derives from consideration of how a society may best order
its affairs, given the limits of altruism in human beings. Such
secondary principles are, I think, swept aside by the extreme evil of
people starving to death." - Peter Singer, Famine, Affluence & Morality


Consider the following:

The path from John's dorm room to the Mandel Center passes a shallow ornamental pond near the Three Chapels. On his way to the INTRO TO 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 wet and 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 that 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 his shoes off 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 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 straightaway.

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 set against the death of the child which is presumably a very, 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.

But now Peter Singer also claims that this example shows we have a serious moral obligation to relieve world hunger.

But how can this be? Does this case reflect a strong obligation to aid that's quite general?

Many think that our intuitive moral responses to examples like the case of the Shallow Pond do not reflect anything very general at all?

But now consider the following:

In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. It's a letter appealing to you to contribute $100 of your own money. After reading it through, you correctly conclude 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 send nothing, and, instead of living many years, over thirty more children soon die than would have lived had you sent in the requested $100.

According to Singer, you ought to have sent the money and it was "wrong" for you not to have done so, "but almost everyone reacts to this example that your conduct wasn't wrong at all.

"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 for failing to give. 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."

And yet 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 make 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 people's differing responses to the two cases, but are any of these differences moral differences?

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?

Drawing on the reading, your own considered opinion and good judgment, make a case for or against there being a moral difference between the shallow pond and envelope cases, think of the most powerful objections that someone might offer to your case, and respond to them.

In arguing for your position, think of the arguments that might be made against it, and respond to them. In defending your position, offer what you believe are the most principled arguments you can make.

In thinking of objections to your argument, think of the best possible objections that someone on the other side might be able to come up with, that is, give yourself a hard time. If you can respond to the other side at its strongest rather than at its weakest point, that can only help to strengthen your own opinion and make it that much more persuasive.

In the course of giving your answer how does it square with, help to explain your judgment of John's conduct in the Case of the Shallow Pond described above? Does the theory and principle or principles you propose that best support and explain your position in that case also support and explain your position in the Case of the Envelope?

Recall, too, some of the cases we have already discussed - at least to some extent - in class. Here I am thinking about the Trolley Problem, the first paper topic and handouts: "The Trolley Problem", The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, "John on a Botany Expedition in the Amazon" "Baby Theresa" , Michael Levin's "Case for Torture", and "Queen v. Dudley (1884)".

Do your views of "The Trolley Problem", The Case of the Speluncean Explorers, "John on a Botany Expedition in the Amazon" "Baby Theresa" , Michael Levin's "Case for Torture", and "Queen v. Dudley (1884)" cohere with your view of the Shallow Pond and Envelope Cases?

One reason to ask and try to answer this question is to uncover whether your view can capture your intuitions in each of these cases. Such questioning and answering can serve as a test of the consistency of your principles.

In the course of writing your paper, make it plain which moral philosophy - utilitarian or Kantian? - you believe comes closest to grounding your own moral views?

Which moral theory - utilitarian or Kantian? - makes the most sense of and best explains your own considered moral judgments in these cases?

How so and why?

You may find the different positions taken by Onora O'Neill in her Kantian Approaches to Some Famine Problems and by Peter Singer in his "Famine, Affluence and Morality" hgelpful in this regard since O'Neill takes a Kantian position and Singer a utilitarian one. Both readings are also included in the Perry, Bratman and Fischer Introduction to Philosophy text.

So, too, you may wish to take a peek at Onora O'Neill's "Lifeboat Earth" with its suggestion that we, all of us on earth, may be in the same boat together as well as Garret Hardin's "Lifeboat Ethics" which makes a case against helping the poor and then give a listen to Peter Singer's short talk on "Saving the World's Children".

You may also, in light of this, also wish to take a look at an essay by Peter Singer in the New York Times Sunday Magazine that follows up and develops some of his reflections in "Famine, Affluence and Morality" that appeared in the Sunday Magazine section in 1999 and in some ways even more than the earlier essay focuses on issues raised by the final exam question.


So, too, you will probably find the STUDY GUIDE especially created to help you prepare for the FINAL EXAM to be especially useful.










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