Peter Singer: Part I

I have been thinking about the strength of Peter Singer’s ‘basic argument’ in The Life You Can Save, on and off, for almost two years now. I take almost every chance I can get to discuss it with people that I think will have something insightful to add to my understanding of it because I think it is one of the tightest, most compelling, and yet one of the simplest arguments that I’ve ever heard. Most of the people that I discuss the argument with have the same sort of reaction: a quick and almost hostile objection, usually on the grounds that Singer’s analogy–the core of his argument–fails in some way or another. In what follows I will briefly outline his argument and reply to one of the most appealed to objections.

Here is the ‘thought experiment’ that generates Singer’s argument:

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”

The obvious answer, so Singer thinks, and so my interlocutors confirm, is that you should save the child. The reasoning behind this answer is that the value of some expensive material object is greatly diminished when compared with the suffering and possible death of another human being. But, Singer claims that at almost every moment of our day, we (those of us living in affluent societies) are faced with a morally equivalent situation: almost two-billion people in the world are suffering in extreme, absolute poverty, and there are aid organizations that can (and do) save lives; by spending money on unnecessary clothing, bottled water, etc., we are neglecting suffering human beings. Since, in agreeing to help the drowning child, we have committed ourselves to valuing human life and non-suffering over material objects, it follows that we hold inconsistent beliefs if we do not choose to donate large portions of our income to aid organizations. Singer Says:

“By donating a relatively small amount of money, you could save a child’s life. Maybe it takes more than the amount needed to buy a pair of shoes—but we all spend money on things we don’t really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. It [is true] that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved.”

I think this analogy is fantastic for two reasons:

(1) When most people argue, they invite the reader to step into their world, and see things from theirperspective; here, Singer is simply asking his reader–us–to make explicit our own intuitions about a simple moral problem. In this way, we choose our own fate. Anyone is free to say that they would not help. Save for the nihilist, it just never happens.

(2) Once we affirm that the value of the drowning child is higher than the value of most material objects, I think it is extremely difficult to maintain that one does not have the obligation to donate large portions of one’s income to aid organizations. I think, on pain of holding contradictory beliefs, it must be maintained that we are doing something wrong if we do not donate.

The most common objection to this argument is the following: “As a human being, I have evolved to feel an emotional pull toward the suffering that I see in front of me. It is for this reason that I help the drowning child. The starving people of the world are not in front of me. Thus, Singer’s analogy fails: there is a relevant difference between the ‘drowning child’ scenario and the ‘Starving children in extreme poverty’ scenario.”

Unfortunately, with a little bit of inspection, this objection fails. The objector confuses an anthropologicalissue–what humans actually do–with a moral issue–what humans should do. It certainly seems true that most people feel an emotional pull toward the suffering of others if that suffering is in front of them; people care a lot less about people that suffer on the other side of the world. But Singer is interested in asking whether that is morally permissible. I don’t think there is anything morally relevant about one’s distance from suffering. If you believe that alleviating suffering is more important that material objects, then distance should have no bearing on your decision to act.

If, after my brief outline of Singer’s argument, you are not convinced of his conclusion, I urge you to blame my reconstruction.  Read The Life You Can Save and challenge your belief that he is wrong. Our best beliefs are those that withstand the most scrutiny. If, upon reading The Life You Can Save, you are still unconvinced of Singer’s conclusion then you have exercised a great intellectual virtue–a sincere challenge of an important belief. On the other hand, if you become convinced of his conclusion (or have already been convinced by my reconstruction of the argument) then know that you are not alone in feeling real anxiety about what it might mean to live a good life (at least one other person feels such anxiety…). The good news is that Singer has constructed a practical plan that, according to conservative estimates, puts the end of world poverty within reach. Visit for more information on this practical plan.


1 Comment

Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Utilitarianism

One response to “Peter Singer: Part I

  1. Pingback: Peter Singer: Part II (with an Excursion into The Brothers Karamazov) | bzaharatos

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