Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality” and Moral Impartiality Themes in Ethics and Epistemology Shane Ryan [email protected] 02/10/13 The Issues ● ● Overt issue: Are we morally obliged to do much more to end death and suffering from lack of food, shelter, and medical care? Underlying issue: What is the status of our moral obligation to unknown people in distant lands? – Are we just as morally obliged to help such a starving person as we are to help someone from our own community or family? Structure 1. Background Information 2. Singer's Argument 3. Moral Impartiality 4. Non-Moral Considerations 5. Conclusion 1. Background Information Peter Singer ● ● ● A utilitarian philosopher Research areas include: utilitarianism, global justice, animal ethics, bioethics. Singer gives 25% of his income to NGOs, most is to help the poor. 1. Background Information Statistics - According to the UN, the world already produces enough food to feed everyone and could feed 12 billion people. (“PROMOTION AND PROTECTION OF ALL HUMAN RIGHTS, CIVIL, POLITICAL, ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING THE RIGHT TO DEVELOPMENT” - Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, 2008, Jean Ziegler.) - On average, 36 million people die each year as a direct or indirect result of poor nutrition, which is more than 1 death each second. (Ziegler report.) - 1. Background Information Statistics - More than 3 million children died of under-nutrition in 2011, according to research published by Lancet (http://www.thelancet.com/series/maternal-and-child-nutrition) - US$30 billion a year could end world hunger. In 2006 the world spent US$1 200 billion on arms. (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/news/2008/1000853/index.h tml) - Information on interpreting hunger statistics: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22935692 1. Background Information Famine, Affluence and Morality ● ● Written in 1971, in response in part to a humanitarian disaster in East Bengal (now Bangladesh), but to people suffering and dying from lack of food, shelter, and medical care more generally. The paper is a seminal work in the global justice field. 2. Singer's Argument ● ● Singer argues that we should be doing much more to stop suffering and death due to lack of food, shelter, and medical care. To do so he draws alternatively on one of two principles – Strong Principle: If we can prevent something bad from happening without having to sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. – Weak Principle: If we can prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. 2. Singer's Argument Stronger Principle ● ● What does “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” mean? Singer means “without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad that we can prevent.” 2. Singer's Argument Weaker Principle in Action ● “If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.” 2. Singer's Argument Argument with strong principle P1: Suffering from hunger, lack of shelter and medical care are bad; P2: People are suffering from these things; P3: Strong Principle: If we can prevent something bad from happening without having to sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance then we should act to do so; P4: We can prevent something bad (P1) from 2. Singer's Argument Argument with weak principle P1: Suffering from hunger, lack of shelter and medical care are bad; P2: People are suffering from these things; P3*: Weak Principle: If we can prevent something morally bad from happening without having to sacrifice anything of moral significance then we should act to do so; P4*: We can prevent something bad (P1) from happening (P2) without having to sacrifice anything of moral significance; C1: Therefore, we should act to do so. 2. Singer's Argument ● ● On Singer's principles: – Proximity or distance doesn't make a moral difference. – Whether others are also in a position to help doesn't lessen one's moral obligation. Key Point: We are just as morally obliged to save a starving child in a far away country as we would be to save the drowning child. 2. Singer's Argument Other Points ● Doing what one can in accordance with Singer's principle(s) is morally required, it's not supererogatory. – ● While people are dying or suffering from a lack food, shelter, and medical care it would be morally bad of us to spend money on, say, nice clothes, if that money could be used to prevent or reduce such death or suffering. We should be working full-time to relieve the 2. Singer's Argument Other Points ● ● Following the strong principle would seem to reduce those giving, and perhaps their families, to the level of marginal utility. Following the weak principle would lead to a slowing down of and perhaps the disappearance of the consumer society. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● Should we be doing as much as Singer is suggesting? Two bases for disagreement: – (i) Denying moral impartiality – (ii) Denying moral considerations trump all others 3. Moral Impartiality (i) Denying moral impartiality ● If morality doesn't always require impartiality, then: ● – it's not clear that we should be giving up to the point of marginal utility; – our current giving practices may be morally justified. 3. Moral Impartiality ● Impartiality needn't imply moral impartiality – ● Serial killer example (Jollimore, 2011). “A is impartial in respect R with regard to group G if and only if A's actions in respect R are not influenced at all by which member(s) of G benefit or are harmed by these actions” (Gert 1995). 3. Moral Impartiality ● Where is the impartiality in moral impartiality located? ● Options – The application of moral rules; – In benevolence that may be used as a direct guide to practical decisions; – The content of first-order moral rules. (Hooker 2010). 3. Moral Impartiality ● Impartiality of benevolence seems to be assumed as a requirement of morality by Singer – Hence his comment that to him it seems that morality requires reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● But is such an impartiality a plausible requirement of morality? If it's true then one can't morally favour one's self, one's family, or one's community/country. – And yet loyalty to one's family and community are commonly seen as virtues. (Jollimore, 2011). 3. Moral Impartiality If moral impartiality is not required ● ● If morality doesn't require the sort of impartiality that Singer seems to assume, then the implications of Singer's principles are not as they first appear. Accepting the strong principle would not necessarily lead to accepting that one should live at the level of marginal utility. – What is of “comparable moral importance” differs depending on whether moral impartiality is a moral requirement or not. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● ● The weak principle may also not have the implication Singer takes it to have. Weak Principle: If we can prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it. Supposed implication: Following the weak principle would lead to a slowing down of and perhaps the disappearance of the consumer society. 3. Moral Impartiality ● If morality does not require the impartiality described, i.e. if it's morally permissible to be partial to one's self, family, country, etc., then giving to the extent Singer suggests might involve a morally significant sacrifice. – The answer will depend on what level of partiality is morally permissible. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● Defenders of Singer's position may draw on the drowning child analogy and say: A position according to which it is permissible not to save the drowning child in the shallow pool is not a moral position. If the drowning child and starving child cases are relevantly analogous morally, then the same holds for the starving child case. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● But are the cases relevantly analogous morally? More obviously analogous: – Many starving/malnourished children, many drowning children. – Presumably if one dedicated one's whole life to the task, foregoing, say, romance, reading novels, developing friendships, one would still not have completed the task. 3. Moral Impartiality ● ● If one holds that it's morally permissible to be partial to one's self, then presumably having to forego the niceties of life throughout one's whole life does represent a significant moral sacrifice. We may still say that giving in the way Singer describes is good, but insist that it's supererogatory. 3. Moral Impartiality Response ● ● Surely there could be circumstances which would be sufficiently bad such that we would be morally required to make significant sacrifices (to a level that Singer's argument seems to implies). – For example, in a just war against an evil enemy; – opposing genocidal tyranny. Why think that a situation in which millions die every year from lack of food, shelter and medical care is any different? 4. Non-Moral Considerations (ii) Denying moral considerations trump all others ● ● ● (i) One may accept the requirement for moral impartiality; (ii) and generally accept the moral argument Singer provides; (iii) while rejecting the conclusion that we should be doing much more than we're currently doing. 4. Non-Moral Considerations ● In other words, one may agree that morally we should be doing much more but deny that what morality demands trumps all other considerations. – ● Therefore, just because morally we should do p, doesn't necessarily mean that we should do p. For more see Susan Wolf (1982). 5. Conclusion ● Singer argues that we are morally obliged to do much more to end death and suffering from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. ● His argument draws on: – The plausibility of his two principles; – His arguments as to the irrelevance of distance and the inactivity of others; – The drowning child analogy. 5. Conclusion ● Argument against his claim that we should be doing much more: – The denial of the requirement of moral impartiality – and arguing for the moral permissibility of partiality to self, family, country, etc.; – highlighting the demanding nature of what Singer's principles require – and denying the analogy of the drowning child case.