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What Peter Singer Wants of You

Derek Goodwin
Peter Singer at Farm Sanctuary, a shelter in upstate New York for animals that have been rescued from stockyards, factory farms, and slaughterhouses, August 2006


We all want to know how to live. That includes not only knowing how to get what we want, but knowing what to want, and what we should and shouldn’t do. Peter Singer is prepared to tell us, and because his advice would require most of us to change our lives, and because it is offered with such force and clarity, he is an important figure in moral philosophy. He has also had a larger practical impact on the world than any other philosopher of our time. His 1975 book, Animal Liberation, led to effective movements to reduce the suffering of animals in factory farming, scientific experiments, and the testing of commercial products such as cosmetics, and it has persuaded many people to become vegetarians to one degree or another.

Singer’s claims about what well-off people in affluent societies should do to help those living in poverty elsewhere in the world have had less effect so far, but he hopes to remedy that with his latest book, The Life You Can Save. “The ultimate purpose of this book,” he says, “is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” But making the reader feel guilty is one of his specialties, and a key to his effectiveness as a writer. Whether he is describing cruel and pointless experiments on heroin addiction in monkeys or the devastating effects of easily reparable obstetric fistulas on impoverished third-world women who have given birth in their teens, he acts on our emotions, and the impact is heightened by his calm, cerebral style.

Singer’s exchanges with critics in Peter Singer Under Fire cover the full range of his views, but I will start with what he says about affluence and poverty. The Life You Can Save repeats and develops an argument he originally offered in 1972, in an article that has probably been read by more students of moral philosophy than any other text, ancient or modern. 1 He begins with an example: You are walking past a shallow pond, and you notice that a small child has fallen into the water and is about to drown. Should you wade in and rescue the child, even though it will ruin your shoes and get your clothes muddy?

Most people agree that anyone who didn’t rescue the child would be a moral monster. Even if the case is more demanding—the child has to be taken to a hospital, and that will make you miss a flight for which you have a nonrefundable ticket—it would still plainly be wrong not to save the child’s life. The next question is, what is the principle that explains why failing to rescue the child would be wrong? Singer argues that any plausible explanation of what is wrong in this case has vast implications. He offers the following simple principle: “If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.”

The Life You Can Save is mainly occupied with drawing the implications of this principle for people who have more money than they need to lead a decent life, in a world like ours where a billion people suffer from malnutrition and millions die from easily preventable diseases. He needs only two other premises: (1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. (2) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important. It is typical of Singer to spell out the first of these two premises, just to make sure that the reader is not a complete moral idiot. But most of the book offers detailed empirical support for the second premise, describing and evaluating what aid agencies do, how effective it is, and how much it costs.

The facts are complicated, and there is controversy over the most useful forms of aid. Singer is fully aware of the problems posed by corruption in recipient countries, the importance of self-sustaining development rather than handouts, and the difficulty of ensuring that medical care and preventive measures are actually delivered to those who need them. He acknowledges that sometimes conditions may be so bad that there is nothing we can do.

But he makes a strong case that private aid has done a lot of good, and could do a lot more if it had more resources. He quotes estimates that programs to provide safe drinking water cost $250 per life saved; programs for mosquito nets against malaria cost $820 per life saved; surgery to cure cataract blindness, obstetric fistulas, and deformities like cleft palate costs from $500 to $1,500. And the per capita annual development aid that would enable people in extreme poverty to reach self-sustaining subsistence is estimated to be less than $200.

If you accept these estimates, what should you do? How much of your income and wealth could you contribute to the prevention of death, deformity, and chronic hunger “without sacrificing anything nearly as important?” According to The New York Review, the median household income of its subscribers is $123,600 a year. If that is your pretax income, my guess is that Singer’s principle applied literally would require you to give away more than half of it. You could survive perfectly well on what was left, though you’d have to move to cheaper housing, give up travel, restaurants, wine, opera, taxis, private schools, and cable television, and perhaps buy your clothes at Wal-Mart.

But you and I know that you are not going to do this, and so does Singer. In fact, Singer says he himself doesn’t give away as much as he thinks he should (a New Yorker profile ten years ago reported that he gave away 20 percent of his income). And that poses the question whether any of us believes Singer’s principle, plausible though it sounds. Does Singer himself really believe it? Or rather, in the sense in which he believes it, does it mean something different from what it appears at first to mean—something less radically demanding? The answer to these questions depends on the relation between morality and human motivation, a difficult topic in moral philosophy, for which Singer’s claims are crucially important. Singer’s principle seems to explain why we must rescue the drowning child. On the other hand, it seems to require us to do much more, in order to save hundreds of distant children. Most of us accept the first demand and balk at the second. Does that show that there is probably something wrong with the principle, even if we cannot easily say what it is?


There are three possible responses to this problem. The first is to say that the principle is correct, that it tells us we have a decisive reason to give away most of our income, and that our resistance, however natural, is due to motives of self-interest that do not provide reasons that outweigh the impartial demands of morality. The second is to say that the principle is incorrect, and to look for an alternative principle that explains why it is wrong not to save the drowning child but not wrong to keep most of our income. The third is to say that the principle is correct, but that it tells us only what morality requires us to do, not what we have decisive reason to do. What we have most reason to do, all things considered, depends on how much we care about not doing what is morally wrong; and since most of us care about many other things as well, we have significant reasons not to act in accordance with Singer’s principle.

You might think that Singer’s answer would be the first. That is what made his 1972 article so electrifying. But in later writings he explains, though with some ambivalence, that his answer is the third. This means that his position is more philosophically complex and less threatening than it at first appears. But before examining this aspect of his view, let me say something about the second type of response, which Singer clearly rejects. Responses of the second type are based on a different conception of morality from Singer’s, one according to which moral principles attempt to say how we should act in relation to other people, all things considered, by identifying and taking into account the full range of reasons bearing on our choices.

Someone who thinks of morality in this second way still faces a serious challenge from Singer’s argument, because Singer makes you feel that even for a person of modest means, the very strong reason to accept a sacrifice in the case of the drowning child does not disappear when we focus instead on an anonymous distant child. And efforts to explain away the latter reason often seem like lame excuses for a patent inconsistency. The question is whether there can be moral principles that include impartiality but are not dominated by it—principles that acknowledge both that everyone’s life is of equal value and that everyone has his own life to live.

One example of such resistance to Singer’s argument is the proposal of the moral and legal philosopher Liam Murphy that our responsibility to aid those in desperate need is a collective responsibility, and that each of us is required only to do our fair share. What makes Singer’s principle so demanding is that most affluent people contribute nothing to alleviate extreme poverty, 2 so that anyone who acknowledges a reason to do so is faced with the apparent demand to fill the gap and empty his pockets. If all well-off people gave a modest amount, the problem would be solved, and that, Murphy argues, is what each of us should contribute, whether or not others do their share. Morality should not make us hostages to the bad behavior of others. 3

This seems to distinguish the drowning child case from the case of generalized aid, but Singer points out that it doesn’t seem to work if one is faced with a dozen drowning children and a dozen bystanders. If all the others do nothing, it isn’t acceptable for you to rescue just one child and let the others drown. You have to help as many as you can. If the “fair share” limitation is to survive, it probably has to be coupled with a more stringent requirement of immediate rescue. But Singer would reply that it is morally irrelevant whether someone who needs help is right in front of you or halfway around the world.


Singer rejects all moral theories that, as a matter of principle, limit the subordination of our personal interests to the requirements of strict impartiality. He holds that you would be morally justified in keeping most of your income only if, improbably, doing so would promote the general welfare better than giving it away. 4 He is an adherent of utilitarianism, the moral theory developed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, and favored by Singer’s teacher R.M. Hare. According to utilitarianism the rightness or wrongness of actions or omissions depends on their contribution to the overall balance of happiness minus unhappiness for all those sentient creatures affected, with the benefit or harm to any creature counting the same as comparable benefit or harm to any other. Your own happiness and that of the people you love do not count any differently than the happiness of strangers.

  1. 1

    Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Spring 1972).

  2. 2

    What they contribute through taxes is trivial. The US foreign aid budget is 18 cents per $100 of national income, and only one fifth of that amount goes to countries classified by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as “least developed.”

  3. 3

    See Liam Murphy, Moral Demands in Nonideal Theory (Oxford University Press, 2000).

  4. 4

    One example Singer cites with approval is Warren Buffett, whose brilliance in reinvesting almost all of his income has left him with much more to give away at the end of his life.

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