Peter Singerís famine relief argument.

(Premiss 1) Principle, weak form: If we can prevent a great harm to someone without sacrificing anything morally significant, we should do so.

(Premiss 1*) Strong form: If we can prevent a great harm to someone without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we should do so.  The utilitarian will accept the strong form.

Premiss 2: Death is a great harm.

Premiss 3: We can prevent some deaths due to famine by giving money that we would otherwise spend on morally insignificant luxuries such as new clothes (when the old still protect us from the cold) or CDs.  We can prevent more deaths by giving up things that are not of comparable moral significance.

Conclusion: We should do so.  By the weak principle, should sacrifice all luxuries.  By the strong principle, should give until one is more harmed by giving than the starving are by starvationóSinger thinks this involves giving until weíre at their level.

In favor of the principle, gives the example of the child drowning in a shallow but muddy pool.  You have a duty to wade in to the rescue even though it will get your clothes muddy.  Therefore, the principle (in the weak form) is correct.

Singer considers some objections, and others have given others.

How much should one give?  Consider a famine.  If every American gave $10, this would solve the problem.  So maybe itís enough if you give $10.  After all, why should you give more than anyone else?  That would be unfair.

Singer notes that this kind of argument is fallacious.  The first premiss is: ďif every American gave $10Ē.  So the conclusion should be that if everyone gave $10, then one would not have to give any more.  But because you know that they wonít all give even $10, this argument does not apply.

Singer gives the example that there are a bunch of insensitive folk standing around watching the child drown.  This may make you feel better about not saving the child, but surely is no excuse!

Or imagine that there are three children drowning in the shallow pond, and two other people besides you standing around.  If all did their share, then you would only have to pull out one child.  But they donít, and so you have to pull out all three.  Surely it would be wrong to pull out only one, if you can easily pull out three!

Yes, it is unfair of the other people not to do their share, but you have your own responsibility to help people.

Singer himself apparently gives 20% of his income.

Giving to charity is a good thing, but not a moral duty.

Singer says that the term ďcharityĒ is a misnomer, because it makes it sound like you donít have to give.  But if the principle and the rest of the argument are right, then you have to give.  Itís not charity, but duty.  (In Thomas Aquinas, charity at least to some extent is a duty.)

This should be done by government rather than by private organizations.

If the government isnít doing it, it should be done by private organizations.  The government, if it sees how interested people are in this, will then weigh in.

There are better ways of helping, e.g., by acting for political change.

Singer says that if you think so, then you had better act for political change.  But why not do both?  After all, your example of giving to charity will make you more credible.

Saying there are better ways to help but not helping in them is like the following joke: A poor person comes up to Mr. Smith and asks for some help.  Mr. Smith says: I have a father who has Alzheimers and who needs to be in a nursing home;  I have a sister whose husband has just died leaving her penniless with ten children;  I have a daughter whose business has just went bankrupt leaving her destitute.  If I donít help my father, sister and daughter, why should I help you?

The case of the drowning child is different.  The drowning child is closer to you physically, and so her plight matters more to you.

Obviously, that she is closer to you may make you feel her plight more.  But this does not make her plight be any bigger.  Why should physical distance make any difference to your duties?

In the old days, of course, it did, because you could only have solid knowledge of what is happening close to home, and could only be effective close to home.  This is no longer so.

Note how Singerís strong principle puts everyone in the world on an equal level with your loved ones.

You might think, however, that although physical distance makes no difference, your relationship to the victim makes a difference.  You see the drowning child.  If you neglect her plight, you neglect heróthat particular individual there.

Singer answer that the fact that a specific individual is at issue is irrelevant.  Selling tainted fish example.  However in that example itís not a question of rescue, but of neglect.

Or imagine that you are on a ship.  Overboard there are a thousand people drowningóthe ship refuses to stop for them.  You have one life preserver.  If you throw it overboard, youíll save the life of one person, but itís a matter of chance as to which one will get it.  You still have a duty to throw that life preserver, despite the fact that you donít know whose life will be saved.

But besides the specific identity of the child, maybe there are other issues.  If the person is physically closer, you have a more direct relationship with the person.  If you have a relationship-based ethic that says, e.g., that you should not act in a way that distorts your relationship to a specific person in a way contrary to love, then the consideration whether there is a relationship there to be distorted is a relevant consideration.  If you have no relationship at all with the starving, then perhaps your duty towards them is smaller than that towards the drowning child with whom you have a relationship by virtue of the fact that she is directly depending on you for help.  The directness of this might be relevant.  With the drowning child, you are already implicated.

Would it help?

Singer thinks itís obvious it would help to give.  But letís consider one person giving, say, $10,000 per year to feed five million people.  That works out to a fifth of a penny per starving person.  It is expected that U.S. rough rice in 2001 will cost about $.055 per pound from the farmer.  This works out to 0.58 oz of rice per starving person.  Would this actually make any felt difference?  (Note: Non-U.S. rice might be cheaper, but I havenít take into account processing costs, transportation costs, etc.)

But what if one gives to an organization that serves a smaller number of people, say only 500,000.  Then, one would actually be feeding each person for an extra day or two.  And that seems a great good!

And maybe that is not how the famine relief organizations work.  Maybe instead they give out full meals to as many people as they can, rather than spreading the food around equally.  Thus, even giving ten dollars will surely easily produce twenty meals, and that seems worth it.  So, $10,000 would make a big difference for many people.

It follows from Singerís account, at least on the stronger principle, that it is immoral for one to give to literacy projects in the U.S., or indeed to help the homeless in the U.S.  For, it is obvious that the illiterate and homeless in the U.S. are much better off than the starving in the third world.  In giving to help the starving I am preventing a very bad evil at the cost of a smaller evil to Americans.  Therefore, I should always do that.

It also follows that if Beethoven lived nowadays, it would be immoral for his parents to pay for his piano lessons.  For even if Beethoven caused much happiness to many people, she couldnít know that he would cause so much of it.  And so his parents should instead give the money to famine relief.  Imagine a world where this always happens.

Some people think that all this shows utilitarianism is too demanding.  The argument has been made that if you make morality too demanding, people will quit trying to be moral at all. 

Singer responds that having high moral ideals will make people come at least somewhat closer to them.

Singerís argument is hard to refute if you are a utilitarian.  Some people think this shows utilitarianism is false, because it conflicts so much with our moral feelings.  Singer thinks this only shows that our moral feelings are badly flawed.

All this is not a theoretical question.