Notes on Singer, Practical Ethics, chapters 8-10

Notes on Peter Singer,
Practical Ethics, 3rd
ed., chapters 8-10
Chapter 8: Global Poverty
Relative vs. Absolute/Extreme Poverty
Poverty and Murder
The Drowning Child Thought Experiment
Singer’s Basic Argument for Assisting the Global Poor
Objections to Giving
Thomas Pogge’s Alternative Response to Global Poverty
Objections to the Drowning Child Thought Experiment
Relative vs. Absolute Poverty
Relative poverty = “poor by comparison to others in [one’s own] society” (p. 192).
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in 2010 the nation’s official poverty rate was
15.1 percent, up from 14.3 percent in 2009 ─ the third consecutive annual increase
in the poverty rate. There were 46.2 million people in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6
million in 2009 ─ the fourth consecutive annual increase and the largest number in
the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published. In 2010 the number
of people without health insurance was 49.9 million or 16.3%.
Absolute (or extreme) poverty = = “not having enough income to meet the most
basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health
care or education” (p. 191). The World Bank has established an absolute “poverty
line” of an income of $1.25 per day per person, below which the total number of
people has varied from 1.8 billion in 1981 to 1.3 billion in 2005. As of 2008, 950
million people in the world were malnourished. The annual death toll from povertyrelated causes is 18 million, or one third of all human deaths.
Rising Economic Inequality in the United States
“The top 1 percent of households have secured a very large share of all of
the gains in income—59.9 percent of the gains from 1979–2007, while the
top 0.1 percent seized an even more disproportionate share—36 percent. In
comparison, only 8.6 percent of income gains have gone to the bottom 90
percent. The patterns are similar for wages and capital income. As they have
accrued a large share of income gains, the incomes of the top 1 percent of
households have pulled far away from the incomes of typical Americans. In
2007, average annual incomes of the top 1 percent of households were 42
times greater than incomes of the bottom 90 percent (up from 14 times
greater in 1979) and incomes of the top 0.1 percent were 220 times greater
(up from 47 times greater in 1979).”
(From Lawrence Mishel and Josh Bivens, “Occupy Wall Streeters are Right about Skewed
Economic Rewards in the United States” [].)
Poverty and Murder
Is extreme poverty the moral equivalent of murder? Possible
differences between killing vs. allowing to die:
Different motivations
Difference in duty to avoid killing as opposed to duty to save
Different likelihood of the outcomes
Who are the individual victims?
I am not responsible for the plight of the extremely poor
Singer’s response to these objections
The Drowning Child Thought Experiment
“On my way to give a lecture, I pass a shallow ornamental pond and
notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. I
look around to see where the parents, or babysitter, are, but to my
surprise, I see that there is no one else around. It seems that it is up
to me to make sure that the child doesn’t drown. Would anyone deny
that I ought to wade in and pull the child out? This will mean getting
my clothes muddy, ruining my shoes and either cancelling my lecture
or delaying it until I can find something dry to change into; but
compared with the avoidable death of a child none of these things are
significant” (p. 199).
Singer’s Basic Argument
(1) If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of
comparable significance, we ought to do it.
(2) Extreme poverty is bad.
(3) There is some extreme poverty we can prevent without sacrificing
anything of comparable moral significance.
(4) Therefore, we ought to prevent some extreme poverty.
Objections to Giving
Taking care of our own
Property rights
Population and the ethics of triage
Leaving it to the government
Too high a standard
A Different Perspective:
Thomas Pogge on Global Poverty
• As opposed to Singer, Thomas Pogge (especially in his book World Poverty and Human
Rights, 2nd edition [Cambridge: Polity Press, 2008]) denies that duties to the poor are
positive duties to lend assistance; he reframes them as negative duties not to harm.
• According to Pogge, we are not responsible for doing something about global poverty
because we are bystanders who have simply stood by and done nothing as an unjust
state of affairs has developed. On the contrary, if we don’t act to help the world’s poor,
then we have failed in our negative duty to stop bringing about the injustice. As a result,
we have responsibilities because of our previous actions rather than our inaction. The
heart of Pogge’s position is that global poverty is the direct responsibility of the richer
world: we have caused the poverty and directly harmed the poor. We should stop
causing this harm!
• Objection: Poverty is not primarily caused by the international order but rather by
unstable—and often brutal and corrupt—regimes governing poorer and developing
• Pogge’s Response: Even if we haven’t directly caused the poverty in other countries,
we still have positive duties if we continue to recognize, trade, or interact with their
Another Thought Experiment
“There was once a village along a river. The people who lived here were
very kind. These people, according to parable, began noticing increasing
numbers of drowning people caught in the river’s swift current. And so
they went to work devising ever more elaborate technologies to resuscitate
them. So preoccupied were these heroic villagers with rescue and
treatment that they never thought to look upstream to see who was
pushing the victims in.”
—Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal
Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, 2nd edition (New York: Da
Capo Press, 2010), p. ix.
An Objection to
the Drowning Child Thought Experiment
Singer’s analogy is weak: Singer fails to identify the structural obstacles
that prevent the child from being rescued. A better analogy would point
out that there is an intricate apparatus (e.g., netting or scaffolding) above
the pond that not only (a) prevents the child from escaping on its own but
also (b) makes it extremely difficult for individuals alone to know how to
extricate the child from this apparatus; what is needed is combined and
collective action to free the child. In other words, politics and not just
charity is required to solve the problem of world poverty.
Chapter 9: Climate Change
The scientific evidence for human-caused climate change
The likely consequences of “business as usual”
Stages of climate change denial
What is an equitable distribution?
Climate change as a form of aggression
What ought individuals to do?
The Complicity Principle
Stages of Climate Change Denial
It isn't happening.
Okay, it's happening, but it isn't human-caused.
Okay, it's happening and human-caused, but maybe it's a good thing
Okay, it's pretty frightening, but technology (or God) will save us in the
It's too late--there's nothing we can do.
What is an Equitable Distribution?
The Polluter Pays Argument (“You broke it—you fix it!”)
The Equal Shares Argument
The Ability to Pay Argument
The “From We to I” Argument
Luxury vs. Subsistence Carbon Emissions
The Polluter Pays Principle
“You Broke It—You Fix It!”
“Since 1850, the developed world is responsible for a total
of 76 per cent of carbon-dioxide emissions, while the
developing world has contributed just 24 per cent (Source:
James Garvey, The Ethics of Climate Change, p. 70).
The Polluter pays Argument:
“You Broke It—You Fix It!”
People should contribute to fixing something in proportion to their
responsibility for breaking it.
The developed nations have “broken” the earth’s climate system.
Therefore, the developed nations owe it to the rest of the world
to fix the problem with the earth’s climate system.
Objections to the Polluter Pays Argument
The damage was done by previous generations.
The damage to the Earth’s climate has been an accident or
an unintentional outcome.
The Equal Shares Argument
1. Everyone is entitled to an equal share of greenhouse gas
emissions that flow into the global “carbon sink.”
2. Rich nations like the U.S. have already used more than their
3. Therefore, rich nations like the U.S. should immediately
begin to cut back on their greenhouse gas emissions.
The Ability to Pay Argument
1. The greater the ability to do what is right, the greater the
obligation to do what is right.
2. The developed nations have a greater ability to take action
on climate change.
3. Therefore, the developed nations have a greater obligation
to take action on climate change.
“Cap and Trade” in Greenhouse Gas Emissions
“Emissions trading works on the simple economic principle that if you can
buy something more cheaply than you can produce it yourself, you are
better off buying it than producing it. In this case, what you buy will be a
transferable quota to produce greenhouse gases, allocated on the basis of
an equal per capita share. International carbon trading means that cuts in
carbon emissions will be made at the lowest possible cost, thus doing the
least possible damage to the global economy. Moreover, a carbon trading
scheme gives countries with few greenhouse gas emissions – generally,
poor countries – an incentive to keep their emissions low, so that they
have more emissions quota to sell to rich countries that are over their
quota. Thus, an international emissions trading scheme could contribute
towards solving the problem of poverty discussed in the previous chapter.
It would involve the transfer of resources from rich nations to poor ones –
not as altruism, but as payment for a valuable commodity” (p. 226).
Objections to “Cap and Trade” Schemes
Would such a scheme be verifiable?
Would payments to poor countries actually benefit their people?
There would be a “perverse effect” on altruistic actions.
See Annie Leonard’s video The Story of Cap and Trade
The Complicity Principle
“I am accountable for what others do when I intentionally
participate in the wrong they do or the harm they cause” (p.
Another Argument: “From We to I”
If we in the industrialized world are wrong to do nothing to stop
uncontrolled climate change, even though we can, then I as an
individual am also wrong to do nothing—especially if I can.
But we in the industrialized world are doing (virtually) nothing to stop
uncontrolled climate change, even though we can.
Therefore, I as an individual am also wrong to do (virtually)
nothing—especially if I can.
Climate Change as a Form of Aggression
“When we think of ‘aggression’, we imagine troops moving across a border, or planes
bombing enemy positions. In emitting high levels of greenhouse gases, the rich nations
are not deliberately attacking another country, but their actions may be even more
devastating than conventional forms of aggressive war. Because of what the rich nations
are doing, lands that now grow crops will become barren, glaciers that for millennia have
fed rivers will dwindle, the sea will take over fertile fields, tropical diseases will spread,
and people will starve or become refugees. For at least the past twenty years, the rich
countries have known that their actions risk causing these effects; and from some time in
the first decade of the twenty-first century, they have known that their actions very
probably will have these effects. The fact that these harms are an unwanted but
unavoidable side effect of pursuing otherwise innocuous goals, like giving people the kind
of lifestyle they desire, is no justification for causing such harms. According to the doctrine
of double effect, knowingly causing harm can be justified if the harm is not intended, the
goal is suf- ficiently important to outweigh the harm caused, and there is no other way of
achieving the goal without causing at least as great a harm….What we are doing to the
people most at risk from global warming, therefore, is similar in its impact to waging
aggressive war on them. It differs in its motivation, but that will be little consolation to
them. Moreover, because we know what we are doing and yet do not stop doing it, we
cannot shirk responsibility for it. We are culpable for the harm we are doing to them” (pp.
What Ought Individuals to Do?
How to reduce one’s carbon footprint:
The Limit of Personal Change
“Would any sane person think dumpster diving would have stopped Hitler, or that composting would
have ended slavery or brought about the eight-hour workday, or that chopping wood and carrying
water would have gotten people out of Tsarist prisons, or that dancing naked around a fire would
have helped put in place the Voting Rights Act of 1957 or the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Then why
now, with all the world at stake, do so many people retreat into these entirely personal “solutions”?
Part of the problem is that we’ve been victims of a campaign of systematic misdirection.
Consumer culture and the capitalist mindset have taught us to substitute acts of personal
consumption (or enlightenment) for organized political resistance. An Inconvenient Truth helped
raise consciousness about global warming. But did you notice that all of the solutions presented had
to do with personal consumption—changing light bulbs, inflating tires, driving half as much—and
had nothing to do with shifting power away from corporations, or stopping the growth economy that
is destroying the planet? Even if every person in the United States did everything the movie
suggested, U.S. carbon emissions would fall by only 22 percent. Scientific consensus is that
emissions must be reduced by at least 75 percent worldwide….
I want to be clear. I’m not saying we shouldn’t live simply. I live reasonably simply myself, but
I don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political
act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change….
The good news is that there are other options. We can follow the examples of brave activists
who lived through the difficult times I mentioned—Nazi Germany, Tsarist Russia, antebellum United
States—who did far more than manifest a form of moral purity; they actively opposed the injustices
that surrounded them. We can follow the example of those who remembered that the role of an
activist is not to navigate systems of oppressive power with as much integrity as possible, but rather
to confront and take down those systems.” (From Derrick Jensen, “Forget Short Showers: Why
Personal Change Does Not Equal Political Change,” Orion Magazine, July/August 2009:
Chapter 10: The Environment
Singer’s criticisms of the monotheistic “dominion/stewardship model”
of creation
Appreciation of nature and moral obligations to future generations
The value of non-sentient beings
Reverence for life
Deep ecology
Developing an environmental ethic
The Dominion/Stewardship Model of Creation
Singer’s criticisms of Genesis 1-3
But in her article “Common Ground: An Ecological Reading of
Genesis 2-3” (Earth Story in Genesis, edited by Norman C. Habel and
Shirley Wurst [Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2000] Carol Newsom
reminds us that there is a wordplay on the name for humankind in
Hebrew (adam) and the name for Earth (adamah): “we share common
ground with the Earth because we are common ground…so to call the
creature adam is to recognize its solidarity with Earth” (p. 63).
Likewise, The Bible and Ecology (Waco: Baylor University Press,
2010) Richard Bauckham argues that “the earthiness of humans
signifies a kinship with the Earth itself and with other earthly creatures,
plants and animals. Human life is embedded in the physical world
with all that that implies of dependence on the natural systems of life”
(p. 21).
An Alternative Model of Human Dominion
“Does God’s mandate to humans at creation encourage us to become
controllers and managers of the whole of creation on this planet? No. It
ascribes to God’s gift the unique degree of power within creation that
realistically our species has, and we should neither underestimate nor
exaggerate that if we are to exercise it responsibly, as the mandate
Granted our limited place within the God-given order of creation, the
power we do have is to be exercised with loving care for the rest of
creation. Our right to use the Earth’s resources for human life and
flourishing is strictly limited by the responsibility to conserve and by the
rights of the other living creatures who share the Earth with us.
A role of caring responsibility for other living creatures, our ‘dominion’,
is not a role that sets us above creation but a specific role that humans
have within creation. It is rightly practised only when we recognize it to be
dominion over fellow-creatures” (Richard Bauckham, The Bible and
Ecology, pp. 33-4).
Appreciation of Nature and Future Generations (1)
“Can we be sure that future generations will appreciate wilderness? Not really; perhaps they will be
happier playing electronic games more sophisticated than any we can imagine. Nevertheless, there
are several reasons why we should not give this possibility too much weight. First, the trend has
been in the opposite direction: the appreciation of wilderness has never been higher than it is today,
especially among those nations that have overcome the problems of poverty and hunger and have
relatively little wilderness left. Wilderness is valued as something of immense beauty, as a reservoir
of scientific knowledge still to be gained, for the recreational opportunities that it provides, and
because many people just like to know that something natural is still there, relatively untouched by
modern civilization. If, as we all hope, future generations are able to provide for the basic needs of
most people, we can expect that for centuries to come, they too will value wilderness for the same
reasons that we value it.
Arguments for preservation based on the beauty of wilderness are sometimes treated as if they
were of little weight because they are ‘merely aesthetic’ – even though we go to great lengths to
preserve the artistic treasures of earlier human civilizations. It is difficult to imagine any economic
gain that we would be prepared to accept as adequate compensation for, for instance, the
destruction of all the art in the Louvre. How should we compare the aesthetic value of wilderness
with that of the art in the Louvre? Here, perhaps, judgment does become inescapably subjective; so
I shall report my own experiences. I have looked at the paintings in the Louvre, and of many of the
other great galleries of Europe and the United States. I think I have a reasonable sense of
appreciation of the fine arts; yet I have not had, in any museum, experiences that fill my aesthetic
senses as they are filled when I hike to a rocky peak and pause there to survey the forested valley
below, or if I sit by a stream tumbling over moss-covered boulders set among tall tree ferns growing
in the shade of the forest canopy. I do not think I am alone in this – for many people, wilderness is
the source of the greatest feelings of aesthetic appreciation, rising to an almost spiritual intensity”
(pp. 343-4).
Appreciation of Nature and Future Generations (2)
“It may nevertheless be true that this appreciation of nature will not be shared by people
living a century or two hence. If wilderness can be the source of such deep joy and
satisfaction, that would be a great loss. Moreover to some extent, whether future
generations value wilderness is up to us; it is, at least, a decision we can influence. By
our preservation of areas of wilderness, we provide opportunities for generations to come;
and by the books and films we produce, we create a culture that can be handed on to our
children and their children. If we feel that a walk in the forest, with senses attuned to the
appreciation of such an experience, is a more deeply rewarding way to spend a day than
playing electronic games, or if we feel that to carry one’s food and shelter in a backpack
for a week while hiking through an unspoilt natural environment will do more to develop
character than watching television for an equivalent period, then we ought to do what we
can to encourage future generations to have a feeling for nature.
Finally, if we preserve intact the amount of wilderness that exists now, future generations
will at least have the choice of going to see a world that has not been created by human
beings. If we destroy the wilderness, that choice is gone forever. Just as we rightly spend
large sums to pre- serve cities like Venice, even though future generations conceivably
may not be interested in such architectural treasures, so we should preserve wilderness
even though it is possible that future generations will care little for it. Thus, we will not
wrong future generations, as we have been wronged by members of past generations
whose thoughtless actions have deprived us of the possibility of seeing such animals as
the dodo, Steller’s sea cow, or the thylacine, the striped marsupial also known as the
‘Tasmanian tiger’. We must take care not to inflict equally irreparable losses on the
generations that follow us” (pp. 344-5).
The Value of Non-Sentient Beings
Intrinsic vs. instrumental value:
“Something is of intrinsic value if it is good or desirable in itself, in contrast
to something having only ‘instrumental value’ as a means to some other
end or purpose. Our own happiness, for example, is of intrinsic value, at
least to most of us, in that we desire it for its own sake. Money, on the
other hand, is only of instrumental value. We want it because of the things
we can buy with it. If we were marooned on a desert island, we would not
want it. Happiness, however, would be just as important to us on a desert
island as anywhere else” (p. 246).
Reverence for Life
Albert Schweitzer and Paul Taylor on extending value to all living
Singer’s objections
Deep Ecology
Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and Arne Naess
Three basic principles for a deep ecological ethic (p. 251):
The well-being and flourishing of human and non-human Life on Earth have
value in themselves (synonyms: intrinsic value, inherent value). These values
are independent of the usefulness of the non- human world for human purposes.
Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values
and are also values in themselves.
Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital
Singer’s objections
Developing an Environmental Ethic
“An environmental ethic rejects the ideals of a materialist society in which success is gauged by the
number of consumer goods one can accumulate. Instead, it judges success in terms of the
development of one’s abilities and the achievement of real fulfilment and satisfaction. It promotes
frugality and re-use, insofar as that is necessary for minimising the impact we have on the
planet….An environmental ethic leads us to re-assess our notion of extravagance. In a world under
environmental pressure, this concept is not confined to chauffeured limousines and Dom Perignon
champagne. Timber that has come from a rainforest is extravagant, because the long-term value of
the rainforest is far greater than the uses to which the timber is put. Disposable paper products are
extravagant if ancient hardwood forests are being converted into woodchips and sold to paper
manufacturers. Motor sports are extravagant, because we can enjoy races that do not require the
consumption of fossil fuels and the emission of green- house gases. Beef is extravagant because of
the high methane emissions that are involved in its production, not to mention the waste of most of
the food value of the grain and soybeans that are fed to beef cattle.
In Britain during the Second World War, when fuel was scarce, posters asked: ‘Is your
journey really necessary?’ The appeal to national solidarity against a very visible and immediate
danger was highly effective. The danger to our environment is harder to see, but the need to cut out
unnecessary journeys, and other forms of unnecessary consumption, is just as great. The emphasis
on frugality and a simple life does not mean that an environmental ethic frowns on pleasure, but that
the pleasures it values do not come from conspicuous consumption. They come, instead, from
loving relationships; from being close to children and friends; from conversation; from sports and
recreations that are in harmony with our environment instead of harmful to it; from food that is not
based on the exploitation of sentient creatures and does not cost the earth; from creative activity
and work of all kinds; and (with due care so as not to ruin precisely what is valued) from
appreciating the unspoilt places in the world in which we live” (pp. 254-5).

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