Peter Singer on Q&A, 4/5/15

The philosopher and ‘ethicist’ – we in the trade prefer the term “moral philosopher” – appeared on the ABC programme Q&A last night. I will comment here on two the topics he discussed. At the very end of the programme he was asked about an attempt in the US to elevate chimpanzees to the status of persons. This does not mean, as was pointed out, that the proposal is that chimps be thought of as persons like us. What it does mean is that they are to be according a certain status. Having said that, I believe it is intended that they have a certain legal status, though I am not entirely sure. However, Singer and a good number of other philosophers, including Jeremy Bentham as far back as the middle of the nineteenth century, have argued that sentient animals, which includes chimps and many more besides, should be given some moral standing. Bentham argued that since sentient animals can feel pain and hence can suffer, as we do, this should be enough for us not to treat them any old how. We should consider their feelings, just as we should consider the feelings of other people. I agree with all of this. It does not mean that we should treat animals the same as we treat humans – they do not, so to speak, deserve the same standing as humans, but they deserve some. Just how this is to be worked out is a complex matter. Singer is, or used to be, a vegetarian and does not wear leather or anything made from an animal. I’m not so strict, by any means.

I agree with a great deal of what Singer has written about animals and I think he has done splendid and important work in the field. I don’t however subscribe to his overall moral system, consequentialism, and it is that which was the basis of his seemingly strange remarks about not giving money to institutions that train guide dogs. It is also what has led him to maintain the everyone who can afford it, and that is nearly everyone by his lights, should give away a proportion of their income. The origin of this concern is an essay he published in 1972 called “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, which has been quite extraordinarily influential. I will outline part of the argument here. It’s easy to find if you want to read the whole thing


Suppose you are walking past a shallow pond where a child is drowning with no other hope of rescue – one has to accept the scenario, so don’t ask, where are her parents, or how did she fall in. You can easily rescue the child, but at the cost of spoiling your new shoes, which will need to be replaced at the cost of $40 (mine would cost much more of course!). It would, says Singer, be morally wrong not to rescue. (Aside: this is all about morality, as usual. I won’t try to explain here what is wrong with actions, etc,. that are morally wrong, but there is more on this subject on the website.) The cost, so to speak, of the child’s life is $40 and surely we should be willing to pay that? The next step maintains that the life of all children is worth essentially the same: the life of an unknown malnourished child in a far-off country is worth the same as the local girl that you pulled out of the pond, so if it is morally wrong to refuse to ‘pay’ $40 to save the local child, then it is also morally wrong to refuse to send $40 (or a bit more) to save an unknown child in a far-off country. But there is more than one poor starving child, or teenagers or adolescents, in the world. So it seems you must send more than just $40. How much? $80, $120,…? There is no clear or logical cut-off point until you reach a state of impoverishment that is comparable to those who you are saving. This is the startling conclusion to the argument.


The crucial step is the proposition that by neglecting to save the child you are guilty of moral wrongdoing, and that is typically consequentialist – in fact consequentialists must accept that actions and omissions to act are on a par from the moral point of view. This is because they are consequentialists (!) and hold that it is only the consequences of actions that count. Once again the idea is this: we are continually confronted by the need to make choices and decisions, and the consequentialist weighs up the moral worth, as it were, of our choices and decisions in terms of how much good follows on from them – how good the consequences are. In the case of the child in the pond, you have a choice of walking on by or rescuing her. Walking on by precludes rescue, so here there is a clear sense in which this action ensures the omission of the alternative. In other cases, simply doing nothing can be an omission.


I don’t agree with the moral equivalence of acts and omissions in all cases. If I have a duty to do certain things and omit to do them, then I should be held to account. If I am a lifeguard and fail to attempt to rescue a child in my pool when I am on duty, then whatever else is the case, I have done wrong. I do not have the same obligation if I am not a lifeguard. In the Singer’s example, I do not think you have a duty to rescue the child – you did not, after all, cause her to fall in. So I do not think you do a moral wrong by not rescuing here. There is certainly something about the ‘in one’s face’ nature of the example to make most people think you are a lousy person for not rescuing, but that is not quite the same as a moral demand. So to conclude, Singer’s demand or request that we give away a proportion of our income stems from his basic belief that if we do not do so, then we are guilty of moral wrongdoing, again because he accepts that there is no moral distinction to be made between acts and omissions. On the other hand, I believe we should give something to charity because that is  the right thing to do – it is to be kind, it is to do the morally right thing, not to avoid moral wrongdoing. This, in my view, is a better perspective. 

Write a comment

Comments: 0