Dan Gaskill’s LECTURE NOTES on
Peter Singer “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”
Singer describes a hypothetical situation in which Bob has invested his life savings in an uninsured car – a Bugatti – which he parks on a railroad siding before going on a walk. Bob sees that a distant child is playing on the railroad tracks in the path of a runaway train. Rather than using a nearby switch to divert the train onto the siding, Bob chooses to allow the child to die (throwing the switch and sacrificing his car is the only way that Bob can save the child). In Singer’s view, Bob was wrong to make this choice, and most of us would not hesitate to condemn him for it. Bob was wrong, according to Singer, because he could have –but did not-- save the child’s life by sacrificing his Bugatti, which is only a luxury and is less valuable than the child’s life. Singer claims that Bob’s situation is analogous to our own. We have the means to save the lives of starving children by sacrificing some of our luxuries and donating money to organizations like UNICEF. But, like Bob, we choose not to sacrifice our luxuries to save the lives of children. Therefore, like Bob, we are not living up to our moral obligations.
Our money is unlikely to reach its target, given all of the obstacles and uncertainties involved (objection to premise 4).
Reply: $200 is already a conservative estimate that takes into account the fact that much of the money won’t get there.
Premise 3 does not follow merely from the fact that Bob could have helped the child by sacrificing something less valuable. What is needed is an additional premise to the effect that he is the only person who could do so. This is true in the case of Bob, but is false as it applies to any of us (it is not true that only you can save a child). Therefore, the argument is unsound.
Reply: Singer denies that the additional premise is required. He says that since we know that most others won’t step up to the plate, we can be sure that our donation would save a life that would not otherwise be saved. This is enough to show that we have a moral obligation. To think otherwise is to be guilty of follow-the-crowd ethics.
Our own situation does differ from Bob’s, in that Bob was the only person able to save the life of the child, whereas we, as individuals, are not. In light of this, the analogy might be strengthened if we modify the thought experiment so that there is another person standing near the switch, but the person in question has no interest in throwing the switch and seems to be amused at the prospect of the child’s death. Intuitively, if Bob’s failure to throw the switch is wrong in the initial thought experiment, then it is equally wrong in the modified thought experiment. Thus, Singer’s argument by analogy does not seem to be weakened by the fact that others are in a better position to help the needy than we.
It is unrealistic to expect people to live up to their moral obligations if their obligations require large sacrifices.
Reply: So what? No one said that meeting our moral obligations is easy. Moreover, if we recognize our moral obligations and choose not to meet them, then that is still better than not even recognizing them –
Singer: “knowing where we are going is the first step in heading in that direction”.
It would be better if foreign aid were all handled by the government. That way, the burden would be spread more fairly across all taxpayers.
Reply: Perhaps that would be better, but our moral obligations are determined by facts in the actual world. In the actual world, the government will not do enough to aid starving people in other countries. So, unless the situation changes, we each have an obligation to sacrifice.
Negative Responsibility and Diminishing Marginal Utility
According to utilitarianism, we have an obligation to maximize happiness. It follows that if an action would maximize happiness, and, knowing this, we fail to take that action, then we are morally responsible for our failure to act. Thus, according to utilitarianism, people are responsible not only for outcomes that they deliberately cause, but also for outcomes that they knowingly fail to prevent (this is sometimes called the “Doctrine of Negative Responsibility”). In the case of Bob, he failed to save the life of the child, even though he knew what the outcome of his choice would be. So, Bob is morally culpable for his failure to act, despite the fact that the he did not cause the child to die (the runaway train did). Similarly, utilitarianism seems to imply that we are morally culpable for our failure to sacrifice our luxuries and save the lives of children, even though we are not the ones causing the children to die. (Whether utilitarianism really has this implication depends on whether sacrificing our luxuries to save children really would maximize utility in the long term. As we shall see, this is debatable).
The principle of Diminishing Marginal Utility states that for any good or service, the marginal utility of that good or service decreases as the quantity of the good increases. In other words, the more of something you have, the less additional benefit you get from having more of it. Singer’s argument can be seen as an application of this principle. His idea is that our excess resources would be more beneficial to starving children than they are to us. $200 that we don’t need for survival could make a desperately poor person much happier, whereas it would only increase our happiness a little bit.