This essay claims that Singer’s argument at hand is valid but unsound. I acknowledge his overall purpose to alleviate absolute poverty, and his more recent attempts of rewriting the concept to make his conclusion less demanding and thereby more appealing to a broader audience. Nevertheless, this essay will solely focus on the strong version of his initial argument (Singer, 1972), which can be spelled out as:
Premise 1: Death and suffering due to lack of food, shelter and basic medical care are very bad
Premise 2: If it is in one’s power to prevent something very bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, then one ought, morally, to do it
Premise 3: It is in one’s power to prevent death and suffering due to (among other things) lack of food, shelter, and basic medical care without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance (e.g. contributing to charities)
Conclusion: Therefore, we ought, morally, to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance First, this essay explains and briefly evaluates each premise, showing that the first and third premise are true and relatively uncontroversial, and that Premise 2 is flawed. Second, this essay elaborates two issues with Premise 2, namely its vagueness regarding non-financial sacrifices and its flawed justification in form of the ‘Drowning Child’ example. This essay argues that either Premise 2 is not justified or wrong, which renders Singer’s whole argument unsound.
As outlined above, it is obvious that Singer’s argument is valid. But in order for it to be sound, all its premises must be true. In the following, I explain how Singer justifies his premises and whether or not his justifications are convincing.
First, it is undeniable that Premise 1 is true. To reject Premise 1 would require defending that death and suffering are not bad things, which is humanely impossible. Singer does not explicitly explain why death and suffering are bad, but most people agree with Singer and accept Premise 1.
In order to justify Premise 2, Singer uses the ‘Drowning Child’ example to make the reader intuitively agree with the example and therefore accept Premise 2. The ‘Drowning Child’ example can be summarized like this: if there is a drowning child in a shallow pond, and I can rescue it by only making my clothes wet, then I ought to do so, since my clothes are not of comparable moral significance as the child’s life (Singer, 1972). As presented, people intuitively agree with it and thus accept Premise 2. To Singer, this premise is as uncontroversial as the first, but it is actually not. Critics claim that the phrase ‘prevent something without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance’ is much more demanding than the ‘Drowning Child’ example illustrates (Timmermann, 2015). If appropriately described, people would intuitively disagree with Singer and would not accept Premise 2. More on that in the next section.
Considering Premise 3, it is important to mention that Singer gave an example to show that we can prevent death and suffering by donating money to aid organizations, which is not of comparable moral importance as a child’s life (Singer, 1972). Critics attacked him on this by providing empirical evidence that in many cases aid organizations have caused more harm than good in poor regions. For example, in Zambia providing free clothing for the poor has destroyed the local manufacturing industry and has caused more poverty due to mass unemployment (Schmidtz, 2000). A better alternative is to target capitalist institutions that cause absolute poverty, rather than fighting the symptoms of the economic system. Then, donating money to charities would even be harmful, as it distracts from contributing to better solutions for the chronic problem (Gomberg, 2002). Nevertheless, I think these objections miss Singer’s point. He is not as much focussed on how we fight absolute poverty, but rather wants to show by giving an example that we can prevent death and suffering without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance. Premise 3 is supposed to show that affluent people have the ability to prevent death and suffering without sacrificing something of comparable moral importance regardless of how exactly they should do it. Since Singer has provided an example on how to do it, Premise 3 has to be true as well.
Issues with Premise 2 – its vagueness and its justification
Critics who claim that Singer’s conclusion is too demanding have to object Premise 2 since it is the phrase ‘without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance’ of that premise that makes the conclusion so demanding. It has two major problems. First, it is too vague regarding non-financial sacrifices, such as bodily sacrifices. Second, its justification, the ‘Drowning Child’ example, does not appropriately illustrate what is demanded by that premise and thus deceives the reader to intuitively accept Premise 2, even though most people would intuitively disagree with an appropriately illustrating example.
The vagueness of non-financial sacrifices can be depicted by considering bodily sacrifices (Barry, et al., 2013). It seems obvious that we should be morally obliged to sacrifice a hair in order to save a child’s life. But what about a leg? Everyone would agree that a leg is not of the same moral importance as a child’s life. Still, most people would disagree that we are morally obliged to sacrifice our leg in order to save a child. Singer’s Premise 2 does not specify what exactly is of comparable moral significance to a child’s life. Since arguably only another life is of comparable moral significance to a child’s life, the premise either does require us to sacrifice all our limbs to save a child, which would make it too demanding and realistically unacceptable, or it does not provide a guidance for the required sacrifices and thus would be meaningless since everyone could individually decide what is of comparable moral importance to a child’s life.
The second issue with Premise 2 addresses the ‘Drowning Child’ example, which is used to make the reader intuitively agree with it and thereby justify the acceptance of Premise 2. But the ‘Drowning Child’ example is flawed because it does not appropriately illustrate what is demanded by Singer’s conclusion and thereby deceives the reader to accept Premise 2 even though it is not intuitively acceptable (Timmermann, 2015). While it seems in the ‘Drowning Child’ example that someone has the moral obligation to sacrifice their clothes in order to rescue a child, the strong version of Singer’s argument actually requires affluent people to sacrifice everything to prevent death and suffering until the point of marginal utility, until one would have to sacrifice something of comparable moral importance (Singer, 1972). The point of marginal utility in a financial context means that by donating any more, the donating person would make herself worse off than the person receiving the donation would be. Effectively, this means that, according to Singer, we have the moral obligation to have the same living standard as the poorest person in the world. Intuitively, most people would disagree that this could or should be a moral obligation. The role of intuitions is crucial here because Singer relies on an intuitive acceptance of Premise 2 in order to make his argument sound. Since people would intuitively disagree with any thought experiment that appropriately describes what is demanded by Singer’s conclusion, they would not accept Premise 2, and consequently his argument would be unsound. The only way to not reject Premise 2 is to not accept intuitions as a sufficient justification for accepting or rejecting premises in general (Timmermann, 2015). This would leave Singer without any justification for Premise 2, as he relies on intuitions as much as any other example that illustrates the true scope of the sacrifices that is demanded by his conclusion. That is why Premise 2 is either not justified or wrong.
- Quote paper
- Tim Windbrake (Author), 2020, Comment on "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" by Peter Singer. A brief evaluation, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1128118