Peter Singer argues that if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. I am debating the parameters of this argument.

Suppose that you have enough money to send your own child to college. Are you acting immorally by paying for college tuition for your own child while other children in other countries have no opportunity for even basic education?

  • Is Singer a proponent of "effective altruism"?
    – Frank
    Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 20:28
  • Are you suggesting that his moral responsibilities to strangers is the same as his moral responsibilities to his own children? Commented Mar 2, 2023 at 21:20
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    @frank: "Prominent philosophers influential to the movement include Peter Singer" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effective_altruism I'd go further, he was foundational to it's emergence.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 0:19
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    It's hard to be confused in the presence of such clarity, no?
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 10:33

6 Answers 6


Singer doesn't negate kin-selection. He says rather that the direction of moral progress, is towards expanding the circle of our moral concern. Our first concern is descendents, then kin, then people like us, then people like us at all, then any humans, then all sentient beings. We are going to preference things in this kind of order, just in relation to what systems are stable and the replication of replicators, including memes. See: Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

Singer goes extensively into parameters, eg in the 'drowning child in a pond' analogy in Famine, Affluence, and Morality. I see his point as being that, treating the distant people as fundamentally lacking the worth and rights to dignity of people you know, is the kind of reasoning that gave us chattel slavery, and tolerance of that way of thinking is on a short fuse, because we need moral progress to increase social capacities, see discussion of why here: Studies exploring the rationale of gender equality. Joseph Tainter identifies failure to do this, to keep up with increasing the capacity to face challenges, as critical to civilisational collapse, or 'rapid simplification'. Discussed here: What will humanity do IF and when technological progression ends?

I would say, yes value getting your children to college. But do so as part of valuing all children having the opportunity to go to college. And contribute some amount of effort, at all scales. Support not only your children, but debt-forgiveness and funded access to college - that has net benefits to society as a whole that far outweigh the costs. Support the UN & UNESCO & UNICEF missions to bring education to all. And if you find you have achieved your minimum personal and family goals, give money and time you have spare toward the values you believe, which clearly include further education - eg volunteer directly yourself, or support youth volunteers like your own children, to build schools.

It's not either-or. It's about which direction is more moral, more ethical. Open your mind, and your heart, and it might be critical to saving the children you want to educate, from the civilisational collapse they will face this century, from unprecidented troubles even as our collective power to address them has never been greater. It will not be selfishness that holds us back from the brink, but the power we only gain by acting for each others interests.

  • I don't think kin selection is a significant aspect of this dilemma. OP could easily ask "what if you help your affluent neighbor instead of someone in the poor part of town".
    – Jessica
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 18:48
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    @Jessica: I do. I'd argue it's the basis of our 'default' unreasoned intuitions about how to behave, as it's literally rooted in our biology, in our genes. In crisis, like war, our 'nearest & dearest' will be our first priority, & that's not immoral. The question asks about parameterising, rather than specific dilemmas. & that means looking at the dimensions of our choices. But we should think consistently about our values, & use our resources appropriately, rather than only use moral intuition
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Mar 3, 2023 at 23:49

Singer's recipe doesn't solve the underlying problem, which is that of balancing competing objectives. If you had billions of dollars lying unused in a bank account, it would be easy to see that they would do more good if they were donated to help children get an education. The case you cite is far less clear-cut. There are hundreds of millions of children in the world, less than a mllionth of a percent of which are yours. Most people would take the view that out of all of those children, you have the greatest duty of responsibility for your own, since it was you who brought them into the world, so that suggests you should look after your own kids first. Then you have to determine at what point the imperative to direct resource towards your own children stops becoming the dominant factor. Imagine that in sending your kids to college you also give them a lavish allowance to live on, plus an expensive car to drive to and from college, plus you rent a luxurious apartment for them to live in etc etc etc. There comes a point at which some of that expenditure seems hard to justify on moral grounds when it could be used instead to give fifty kids a basic education. However, determining where the dividing line might be is ultimately a matter of personal judgement.

  • Money in a bank account is not "lying unused". The bank uses it to make loans that allow people to buy homes and start businesses.
    – nanoman
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 4:00
  • @nanoman Under a mattress, then.
    – J.G.
    Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 8:42
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    @J.G. cheers! I meant unused by the billionaire. Thankfully we can always trust the banks make up for the moral shortcomings of the billionaire by ensuring that the deposited money is only ever used to finance projects to help the poor and starving. God bless them! Commented Mar 4, 2023 at 9:36

Let's modify your question slightly, so that we address the situation in which children not only lack access to education, but to the bare minimum standards of what most of us in privileged communities would consider a dignified life. We should do this because it better delves the true importance of Singer's work and more thoroughly exposes the ramifications of our behaviour. With this in mind:

Suppose that you have enough money to adequately feed, shelter and provide medical care for your child. Are you acting immorally by making such provision while many, many children elsewhere in the world have no access to a safe minimum of water, food, shelter and medical care?

We gain insight into this 'dilemma' by recognising that much of Singer's morality rests, at its foundation, on the concept of fairness.

When we examine questions such as this one through the lens of fairness, it can (should?) prove illuminating and troubling.

Why? Because most of us, if asked, would agree that fairness is a virtue. Many would go further and claim that it is a duty to pursue fairness where possible. We expect or at the very least desire to live in a fair and just world. For some, this fairness is represented by some imaginary equality of outcome. For others it is merely equality of opportunity. Regardless, relatively few people, would argue - if confronted - that children deprived of adequate sustenance, shelter and medical care are being provided either equality of outcome or opportunity. Life for such unfortunates is clearly not 'fair' in the sense most of us typically use the word.

This is a stark disparity; a disparity that we ignore or fail to adequately address despite our own relative wealth.

Singer employs the analogy of a child drowning in a puddle and asks why - if we would be willing to ruin a pair of fine shoes by wading into the puddle to save the child - we are more often than not unmotivated to spend the same money as we would replacing the ruined pair of shoes on a charity providing for children who suffer in circumstances we, by sheer good fortune, have been spared.

It is a powerful analogy, but even without Singer's reminder, it is one many of us already subconsciously intuit or consciously consider and ignore. Many of us using this site likely have what we call 'disposable' income; that is, we not only have an income which satisfies not only our immediate and future needs (in the form of superannuation perhaps, or retirement savings), but enough cash to buy take-away coffee instead of making our own. Enough cash, perhaps, to buy alcohol and cigarettes, to visit cinemas, go on holiday, improve our homes. Some of us have a holiday home and/or investment properties. Many of us buy unnecessarily fine/expensive clothes and food, unnecessary quantities of clothing and food. Some of us even gamble money at odds which we know ensure we will in the long run be certain to lose. (I do not diminish addiction to substances/gaming here. I'm referring to those who are not medically compelled to indulge).

It seems that regardless of what philosophical manoeuvres we are capable of making, it is difficult to deny that for those of us who subscribe to an ideal of fairness:

  1. Given there are reputable, proven, independently-rated charities via which we can demonstrably provide for the wellbeing of people who are truly destitute,

  2. Given that we have the means to donate to such charities far more than we already do,

  3. Are contributing - via neglect - to the ongoing, preventable death, disease and sadness of many people we have the capacity to help in transformative ways.

  4. In doing so, we are failing to pursue an ideal of fairness intrinsic to what our own moral code or compass.

So, "Are you acting immorally by making such provision while many, many children elsewhere in the world have no access to a safe minimum of water, food, shelter and medical care (and education)?".

Few would argue that a person is immoral in providing for their own. It is when we have the means to provide for our own and for others yet fail do do so that we should recognise in ourselves an internal inconsistency which might reasonably be deemed 'immorality'. It would be interesting to know how many of us in such a situation might confess to such immorality. We have enormous self-interest in viewing ourselves as good people who do the right thing by others, for only then can we reasonably expect similar courtesy in return.

Note: There are statistics available for the donation rates of many countries, but it is harder to find material which compares the rate of donation vs 'disposable income'. Many may in fact donate (Eg: 56% of US citizens donated to charity in 2021, at a rate of $574 per person), but it seems fair to assume that given clear enormous annual expenditure on 'luxury products', what people give is a tiny fraction - on average - of what they could afford to give.

  • 1
    Perhaps the reticence has something to do with our commonsense ideas from game theory: that there is no point in doing something unilaterally which reduces things for me when others will not bother? If people saw lines down the block of people donating, maybe they would join in? Perhaps, contrary to what Jesus said, donation could use a few trumpets to announce it?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Mar 27 at 17:26

Your premise already answers your question: Probably not.

Peter Singer argues that if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. I am debating the parameters of this argument.

The dilemma you pose is a bit imprecise, but I assume you mean something like:

  • You have only $100k
  • It costs $100k to put your own child to college
  • It costs $100k to put a child in X poor country through basic education

By paying for the other child's basic education, you are also depriving your own child, which is of comparable moral importance. You are robbing Peter to pay Paul, something Singer is specifically trying to exclude.

You could argue here that basic education is more vital than college education. For example, a high school graduate could go to the library and read college textbooks for free, but an illiterate person will have great difficulty learning how to read. However, even if basic education is in fact more important, the premise isn't phrased in a strict utilitarian fashion. It says comparable. So it would only apply if college education was vastly less important than basic, which is not a common position.

You could give a slightly different example where you are comparing spending $100k to take a class in tasting expensive wines vs. schooling a poor child. This is what Singer is talking about. Learning to taste expensive wine may be fun, but it's not something that would ruin your life if you couldn't do it. This is obviously not comparable to a basic education. Moreover, if you're willing to spend $100k just to learn about drinking wine, you are probably planning to spend even more on the wine itself. The idea here is, buy some cheaper wine and help the poor instead.

Also, this is a tangent, but I think your question is a bit misprioritized. You jump to weighing a critical need of yourself vs. a critical need of another. Understandable; the drama of it captures the imagination. But in everyday life the dilemmas people face are rarely a close decision between two moral goods where they must struggle to choose the greater moral good. Even for Sophie it happened once in a lifetime. Most of the time, people struggle to choose a clear moral good over abject, indefensible selfishness (and fail). Singer's concern is addressing these cases. Hence he qualifies: without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance. I'm sure he's not really that concerned with you adhering religiously to his principles, so long as you adhere most of the time, or even at all. It's probably not a big deal to him if the one time you must truly choose between sending your own child to school or someone else's, and you happen to "selfishly" choose your own. Before you can jump to a "my child or someone else's" situation, you first have to exhaust the many wastes and luxuries the modern person typically accrues, such as taking your 6th cruise that year vs. sending anyone to school at all. Of course, that's the rub - for many people, it is easier to resolve a true moral dilemma, than to deal with a moral no-brainer where it's their own selfishness vs. charitable behavior.

NB: I am not a proponent of effective altruism and disagree with Singer, generally as well as in this particular case. I like my cruises and expensive wine :) However I am taking the premise as a given here.


This is a false dilemma.

Why limiting your children, or not, is the only option, and not working towards changing the social conditions in order for others to get fair chances?

To me, this is a false dilemma that overshadows a number of effective alternatives that might have way more far-reaching consequences overall without sacrificing others.

If you give someone a fish, you feed them for one day. If you create the conditions for them to be able to fish, they can feed themselves each day.

-- Anonymous


Nah. Such systems negate the possibility of holding values. And that negates morality.

Moral values are, no surprise, values.

The question "What value is a thing?" requires the corresponding questions "To whom?" and "For what?"

A moral code is a systematized set of values. This is preferable to that. That is, a value structure. But it is held by an individual.

Other humans are values. Potential values in most cases. Actual values in the case of people we know and care for. Family are, naturally and reasonably, more valuable than unrelated strangers. Unrelated strangers are not zero value, but they are lower.

Self destruction as such cannot be a value because it destroys the ability to hold values. Denying of what is valuable to you cannot be a value.

The sacrifice of a value for a lesser value, or no value, is immoral.

Moral behavior towards others rests on moral principles. Those principles are, themselves, pillars of value. Without such principles holding values becomes incredibly difficult.

So, if you have the ability to contribute to charity, and you find the object of the charity to be worthy, and you have evaluate the methods and process of the charity and evaluate it to actually achieve good, then a contribution is moral. The amount is that amount which you deem worth it. Worth it to you considering your personal situation and how much you value the object of the charity, and taking into account the harm it may do to you to make the contribution.

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