If you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it.

The second principle, as quoted above, is the link between the seemingly obvious claim that: starvation and death are morally bad, which forms the first principle in Singer's famous paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality" published in the year 1972, and the apparent obligation of the affluent to donate money and other material objects to alleviate the suffering of anyone regardless of emotional and geographical proximity.

I attempt to make a refutation of this logical calculus, separate it out from its purely isolated framework and look at the extended implications such a logical deduction can further entail. John Arthur in his paper: "World Hunger and Moral Obligation: A Case Against Singer", makes some good points in this regard. My take on this is greatly informed by his arguments and I think I am obliged to give him due credit. I shall also pay my gratitude to the arguments of Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah (New York University), whose work "Cosmopolitanism" contained some convincing vantage points on this subject.

I shall try to keep this brief in view of the fact that this is merely a post and also because length is seemingly negatively correlated to the number of views a post gets. My refutation of Singer's argument is based on the logical inconsistency that his second principle potentially has with some of our firm principles: namely those of consent and liberty.

(2) If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing anything of equal moral significance, we ought, morally, to prevent it.

This claim appears to have some unpleasant consequences which I shall elaborate as follows:

Let's say Lisa is a college student aged 19. Professor Gnomes is her professor. The person of Gnomes, though apparently very pleasant in his behaviour, possesses a predatory mindset and has his eyes on Lisa, in desire of sexual intercourse. Gnomes, aged 76, is suffering from a terminal disease and in his recent visit has been informed by his doctor that he has less than 6 months to live. Gnomes makes a request to Lisa for sexual intercourse with him as his last wish. Lisa, who is an avid reader of contemporary philosophy while initially disgusted at such a proposal, is struck with a moral dilemma while she is on the verge of tearing the letter.

Of course, her momentary physical and psychological discomfort is not as important as the last wish of a dying man. If one agrees with the Singer principle, one must, in order to be logically consistent, urge her not to tear the letter and give the consent. But such an insistence would appear to be horribly disgusting to even the worst of us. How does then the Utilitarian dispense with such flagrant moral stakes that arise from the second principle?

Nota bene: I am just a 17 year old high school student from India, so I ask for apology for any mistake that I have made in my analysis and also for any language errors that went unnoticed.


2 Answers 2


Kudos for posting interesting materials.

This is not, so much a forum for philosophical debate as one for brief, factually driven Q&A about the philosophical canon. Peter Singer is certainly an admissible topic, and philosophy, while logically consistent tends to ask people to make sacrifices they don't want to make. In the simple case, asking people to forsake consuming bacon because pigs are smarter than dogs is very rational, but Ayers was onto something explicating on the notion of non-cognitive emotivism in how people make judgements.

If you can prevent something bad from happening at the cost of something less bad, you ought to do it.

What does it mean 'prevent something bad from happening' I wonder, and this sort of phrase is the essence of subjectivism. Thus, your attempt to refute Singer's position amounts to attack on 'preventing bad' which is an entirely ambiguous notion. You can add provisos and conditionals of various stripes, but essentially your alleged dilemma is no dilemma at all if the young lady in question merely recognizes that the suffering of an old man needn't trump her suffering. There is an annoying tendency of people perpetrating the subterfuge that 'doing X is moral' is nothing more than a claim for 'I want X and you should do it for me'.

You talk about utilitarian principles, ethical decisions, and seem to allude to the vapid claim 'taxation is theft', but miss the greater point that Hume's Is-Ought problem is a guiding principle. Your scenario lists a series of facts, and then you attempt to draw an 'ought' out of them.

I attempt to make a refutation of this logical calculus, separate it out from its purely isolated framework and look at the extended implications such a logical deduction can further entail.

  1. A philosopher spends their life attempting to refute and establish consistent logical calculi. The notion it could be done in a Q&A post is at best questionable.
  2. Logical deductions are overrated and overreported. Human reason is by and large defeasible (SEP). It's epistemological naivete to claim that deductive reasoning is the best approach to solving a moral dilemma.

Therefore, the best way for a bright young lady to get out from under the manipulations and machinations of a lecherous old man are simply to put ethics in its proper place and realize that no-one actually lives by an onerous deontological aparatus like the categorical imperative. While it's good to think things through, the human notion of right and wrong isn't an engine of ratiocination, but rather is a gut feeling in balance with a (typically half-hearted) attempt to reason through experience.

Once Lisa recognizes this, she can admit the obvious truth that like most young females, the thought of conducting sexual activities with a frail, sickly, ancient man on a deathbed is at least off-putting. Should she choose to do so to assuage her own conscience because of her reasoning, she of course is free, but these sorts of decisions, ones that attempt to wrangle and wrestle deep psychological impulses like disgust (an adjective I suspect would find consensus among her demographic), are better characterized as psychological rather than merely logical, a point that rails against a deep and misguided belief in anti-pschologism and one that extends from a natural epistemology.

  • Presumably, you came to vet your logic. Many arguments have solid inference, but rest on shaky grounds. Reason dictates that both inference and grounds must be examined, so my motivation is not to dismiss your efforts, but to redirect your energies towards scrutinizing intuitions, even those with a long history affirmation from the canon. Good luck!
    – J D
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 15:08

Freedom, Responsibility, and Modes of Persuation

There are voluntary relations in which Freedom and Responsibility are reciprocal rights and duties. This means one is not subject to coercion and has a moral value to not coerce others. See for example Jack and Jill and the Two Kinds of Freedom audio https://youtu.be/YyNIWY7BOWg and/or link to article https://www.libertarianism.org/publications/essays/excursions/jack-jill-two-kinds-freedom.

Normative arguments, over whether a person or group should or should not do what we assert under utilitarian disputes, are just modes of persuation unless one is willing to force others to cause the desired outcome by deception, threats, coercion, etc. As others have pointed out people are not easily persuaded within disputes concerning the utilitarian analysis of a hypothetical or factual case.

Tort Law Analysis - The Burden to Avoid Harm - Public Cost-Benefit Analysis

Judge Learned Hand articulated a principle in Tort law that is represented by the following formula:

B < p * L

where the burden B, to prevent a loss L, can be less than, equal to, or greater than the probability of the loss p times the magnitude of the loss L. In terms of human reasoning concerning actions and outcomes this is an arbitrary yet informative math model.

This type of legal analysis applies to a person who undertakes voluntary action but who cannot gain the consent of all the other persons whose interests might be involuntarily and adversely affected by that undertaking. So there is freedom to undertake action coupled to the legal responsibility (duty) to prevent foreseeable harm to others.

In the context of social policy, rather than individual action, there is the principle of cost-benefit analysis, which is the practical application of utilitarian philosophy in a political arena. Hard core libertarians accept a minimal State but they hate the idea of compulsory charity, taxes, burdensome government regulations (restrictions on liberty), and wealth redistribution.

The cost benefit analysis in the basic argument given is that the burden imposed on society B to prevent such loss is much less than the probability of the loss p = 1 times the objectively large magnitude of the loss L (many dead people). This is reasonable under utilitarian reasoning unless there is another value in conflict with the desire to save many lives via imposing charitable duties under social policy.

Libertarians reject any argument that public utility outweighs their moral right, and often the right of others, to be free from coercion. Libertarians want all moral relations to be voluntary and regard government institutions as inherently coercive.

Regarding production and distribution of resources, observing the Great Depression, Albert Einstein remarked, "Capitalism solves the production problem but not the distribution problem". This is because, as Karl Marx observed, the workers in aggregate are paid less in wages than the price of output goods with the markup over wages, and this means debt must be used in society to support profits. When the debt system causes a price bubble in assets it results in a pattern of overshoot and collapse. Then systemic debt default, bank failures, and persistently high rates of unemployment, manifest as attributes of the Great Depression. Socialism, historically, has not even managed to solve the production problem, and there are always shortages of goods, if not famines.

  • Socialised healthcare in the UK is an example of successful Socialism, & the UKs second largest political party is formally Socialist. Portugal is constitutionally Socialist, & their economy grew 6.7% last year. The Nordic Model fits most people's definition of Socialist while covering some of the richest-per-capita & happiest nations in the world. See: 'Isn't socialism a form of democracy?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/83135/… for discussion of the definition. Einstein wrote 'Why Socialism?' clearly defending his Socialist views.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 19:16
  • @CriglCragl If there are no private property rights in the structure of capital ownership (on a balance sheet that would be land, plant, property, and equipment) that are somewhat protected by political principles under "rule of law" then I would entertain the label "socialism". Otherwise it is a marriage of capitalism with redistributive government to which I personally do not object provided there are human rights, respect for liberty, and incentives for industry based on individual rather than social ownership of capital. Capitalism has socialist attributes through public goods and finance. Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 20:30
  • As I detail in my linked answer above, that is an unsustainable way to define Socialism, that arose in "Red Scare' era USA, where political imperatives conflated Socialism with Marxist-Leninist Communism.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 20:50
  • @CriglCragl Define socialism any way you want I am using the term as originated by Marx where the ownership of capital is socialized. Folk psychology is the underlying issue in any debate anyway since the political-economic problem reduces to making joint decisions and taking joint actions in small or large groups. Democracy with social aspects or some other adjective suffers from the problem of the "Tyranny of the Majority" because the minority can be oppressed by the majority. Capitalism has been the imperfect engine of wealth production in a system where the government is not dysfunctional. Commented Jun 17, 2023 at 20:51
  • 1
    @CriglCragl - I am getting flagged to move the discussion to chat. Thank you for the link to the article by Albert Einstein which is very well composed and compelling. This paper by my legal philosophy professor, Hugh Gibbons, is also compelling - The Purpose of Law (is to protect and expand freedom) biologyoflaw.org/Purpose/PurposeLaw.pdf. My maternal grandfather and father owned equipment as independent contractors that would be vandalized by shady characters in Unions or the Mob. Private property gives some power to fight back only if the police and courts are not corrupt. Commented Jun 18, 2023 at 17:30

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