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Philosophy 1A

Drawing on the reading of and your own considered opinion and good judgment, answer the question on the following pages. 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, i. e., 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.

Papers should be between 5 and 6 pages but may be longer. They are due on Monday, December 17th, by 4:30 PM (although papers may be handed in later if you arrange via e-mail to do so. Papers may be handed in on Tuesday, December 18th or Wednesday, December 19th or (even) Thursday, December 20th by 4:30 PM on each day by special arrangement. Papers should be dropped off (when done) in the Philosophy Department Main Office (Rabb 305).

Final Paper Topic

Consider the following:


The path from John's dorm room to Shiffman 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, intutive moral judgment about John's behavior?

Most of us 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 would presumably be a very bad thing. And not unsurprisingly, it so happens that almost everyone's intutive 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? Take the following, for instance:


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. 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 the reading and 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? 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?


"Famine, Affluence, and Morality"

New York Times - "[Peter Singer] Draws a Stir"

New York Times Sunday Magazine - "The Singer Solution to World Poverty"

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Page last edited: December 6, 2001