Philosophy 1305F/G Lecture Notes - Supererogation, David Hume

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Week 7: On the Duty to Contribute to Famine Relief
Peter Singer “Famine, Affluence and Morality”
Thesis:
The way people in affluent countries respond to famine natural disasters poverty
etc. is immoral. We are morally obliged to do much more to help relieve the
suffering of other people. This involves the forgoing of luxury items and giving away
our disposable income.
Strategy:
1) Introduces the claim he thinks most people will accept
2) Introduces a moral principle that most people accept
3) Introduces a case we agree the principle applies
4) Provides an argument from analogy to justify the applications of the principle to
famine relief
Argument from analogy
Attempts to justify the demand for the obligatory status of a moral practice
by comparing it with another moral practice that we think is obligatory
Show there is no relevant moral difference between the two practices.
First Claim:
Suffering and death from lack of food and shelter and medical care are bad,
Singer’s moral principle:
If it is our moral power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby
sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance we ought to do it
Without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance:
Not causing anything else comparably bad to happen, not doing something
that is wrong in itself or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in
significance to the bad we can prevent.
Weaker Version of the Principle
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby
sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought to do it (Not interfering with the
promotion of, or acting contrary to, another obligation or good)
Do we accept Singers principle?
Case of the drowning child:
Do you have an obligation to rescue the child?
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Strong version:
If it is our power to prevent something bad from happening, without causing
anything else comparable bad to happen, not doing something that is wrong in-
itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad
we can prevent, we ought to do it.
Weak version:
If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby
sacrificing anything morally significant (without interfering with the promotion of,
or contrary to, another obligation or good) we ought to do it.
- Seems to relieve us of some duties, but is also counter-intuitive
Assuming that we accept Singer’s principle (either version) there will be radical
changes to our moral practices
1st The principle takes no account of distance or proximity (may not be able to
swim to save the child but obligated to get some form of help)
Duties are binding whether the discharge of them is at arm’s reach or
thousands of miles away
Proximity may make it likely that we will save the closer person in need
But this does not show that we ought not to save the person further
away or that our obligation is somehow stronger to the closer person.
We are a global village; we have access to relieve stress far away just as we
would be able to in our local community.
2nd The principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only
person who can help and cases in which a vast number of persons can help.
There may be a psychological difference: one may feel less guilty about not
contributing if millions of others similarly fail to contribute
But this psychological difference makes no difference to our moral obligation
Are you less obligated to save the drowning child if others similarly situated are also
failing to rescue?
Singer believes numbers don’t matter. WE are still obligated to help.
Consider the following (plausible) argument:
If everyone in circumstances similar to mine were to give $100 then there would be
enough food, and supplier o relief the suffering cause by suffering\There is no
reason why I should give more than $100
Consider another argument
If everyone gave what they were required by the strong principle they would
cause hardship for themselves and their families
If everyone does this, however, there will be more than enough to benefit the
refugees or victims of famine and some of the sacrifices be unnecessary
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