Peter Singer gave a famous argument in Famine, Affluence and Morality that made an analogy between saving a drowning child in a pond at the expense of getting your clothes wet, and donating the equivalent amount of money to save children from dying in developing countries. The cost of getting new clothes to save a child is equated with the cost of donating money to save a child elsewhere.

What would be the Singer response to the following counter-argument:

Suppose that it takes $10 to buy new clothes and that we can afford the $10, and that for that amount, when donated, one could also save a child in a developing country from dying of hunger. Then by Singer's analogy, we ought to give the $10. Suppose now that there's a second child that can starve and can be saved for an additional $10, that we can also afford comfortably. Then clearly by the same logic, we should give another $10.

If we iterate this N many times for N-many children (with the safe assumption that there are always more children that can be saved from death of hunger in the current state of world affairs), then eventually we cross the point where we can no longer give comfortably or where we run out of money. Therefore, giving money to the Nth child is less morally pressing or important (and in some cases, impossible) than giving money to the Mth child, if M < N. Similarly, giving money to the Mth child is less important than giving money to the Lth child, where L < M.

We can iterate this argument back until we get to the first child. By the same logic, giving $10 to the second child is less morally pressing than giving money to the first child. We can ask, what makes the first child anymore important than the rest? The ordering is arbitrary.

For this reason, it can't be that giving money to the first child is as important as saving the child drowning in a pond.

What would be a Singer-like response to this argument? I'm not necessarily convinced by this argument, but would like to hear the response.

  • I don't see much distinction between this statement of moral resposibility and the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teaching about the centrality of almsgiving to the good life. Is there distinction? The stories read like rabbinical parables from the 1st or 2nd century ce.
    – user4548
    Oct 6 '13 at 21:07

Singer already addresses the issue, albeit indirectly:

it follows that I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one's dependents - perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one's dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal

That is, it's not that children are more or less important than each other, it's that you and those who depend on you can suffer too, and they will if you give too much. (He also addresses the issue of needing to maintain yourself/the economy in a state where you can generate a surplus to give away.)

The text of Famine, Affluence, and Morality is available online. This and other questions and objections one might have are likely to be addressed there; it's a well-written article and Singer is (as typical) thoughtful. One may ultimately disagree with him, but it will probably be for relatively complex reasons (or because of complexity in the world that Singer failed to adequately account for).


Therefore, giving money to the Nth child is less morally pressing or important (and in some cases, impossible) than giving money to the Mth child, if M < N.

What's your justification for this step?

I think Singer would argue that giving money to the Nth child is just as morally pressing and important, up until the point where you can no longer give any more-- at which point is is still just as morally pressing and important, but no longer possible for you to give.

  • 1
    Well, Singer advocates giving 10% of income is a fine contribution if you can afford it. He claims that if you can give 10% of your income, since that's sufficient if everyone were to do that (or many people), then you're still "morally decent" if you give only 10% even if you could afford to give 15 or 20% of your income. So it is true that if you save N many children, there's less of a reason/imperative/etc. to save even more.
    – user3076
    Jan 30 '13 at 19:52
  • 1
    @user3076: As defined by Singer, "morally decent" does not mean "fulfilling all moral obligations." It means something like "fulfilling as many moral obligations as we could 'reasonably' expect".
    – Xodarap
    Feb 1 '13 at 23:38

I think you understood Singer's argument wrong, or maybe the argument looks different than in his other books. The pond analogy as I know it has nothing to do with buying clothes or the number of actually starving children.

Suppose you see a child drowning in a relatively small pond. There's no one else but you, and you can swim. The "costs" of saving the child are small - you're going be late to work and your clothes are going to be ruined. Still, as Singer points out, every one would agree that it's your responsibility to save that child, and probably even your duty.

The analogy goes like this: We know that at every point there's someone suffering from the effects and consequences of extreme poverty. Extreme poverty can be relieved by very small donations. If we don't donate, those people are going to die. As we know that, it is our responsibility. Therefore we are obliged to donate as long as nothing with equal moral value is sacrificed. Singer makes clear that he doesn't ask people to donate their last shirt, he doesn't ask them to take their own children out of college. Actually, there can't be an objective evaluation of what's equal. But whoever doesn't donate at all, not even contemplating... well. As Singer points out elsewhere, he sees no moral difference between killing and letting die. People who aren't donating although they have the means to save lives - they're the person who watches the child drown because their clothes would get wet.

In the version I know, it's not about the number of children starving, therefore your counterargument doesn't count. According to Singer you have to donate until you can't afford to without losing something that has an equal moral value to you as the lives of strangers (No one can ask you to donate more than that). It doesn't matter if, with your resources, you can save m or n children. But the value of every one of their lives if the same, and the obligation doesn't sink, it's there, and then it's not.

The problems with Singer's analogy lie elsewhere, imo, namely with the responsibility and the deduction of the obligation.

  • Why the downvote?
    – iphigenie
    Jan 31 '13 at 8:42

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