Singer discussion doc

PHIL 102, Spring 2018

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Singer’s main argument from “Famine, Affluence, Morality”

See document camera in class

Evaluate Singer’s argument:

  1. Premises true?
  2. Conclusion follows with certainty or high probability?
  3. Anything else that should be taken into account in evaluating the argument?


Right side of room when facing front

Christina (1):

Yes, that’s definitely the case (what’s highlighted above). He notes towards the end of his article that he deliberately left this open so that people with differing views on what counts as morally significant could still agree to the argument. Because, for him, on any view of moral significance the argument would require many people to be doing much more than they are.

Even if one does not sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance, they may, and in most cases will be sacrificing the capability of preventing bad things from happening in the future. 

Christina (2):

Interesting point highlighted here! I wonder if this would be part of the calculation of moral significance for Singer. For example, if you gave so much time and money that you could not afford to help feed your own family if times got tough/you lost your job, etc. It seems like that should be part of what counts as “moral significance.”

  1. Morally significance can differ among people.

Not to mention that that for people of different economic       classes, the same amount of sacrifice may be of different significance

  1. The premises are mostly true but require more definition to make a stronger case.
  2. The conclusion does logically follow and is delivered with certainty
  3. We have to understand exactly what moral significance means in order to have this argument.

Middle of room

I think that the premises are not true because it puts forward two possibilities of doing something good to a person by either doing something which is morally significant or not insignificant which poses a bit of uncertainty . This can bring harm to others around you in either case and hence I feel it is a bit unclear.

I believe the premises are true and the conclusion follows with certainty but just is not universalizable to all people because not everyone can afford to sacrifice the way he calls us to

Christina (3):

This is definitely true (what’s highlighted), that not everyone can afford to sacrifice this way. I tried to frame the outline of the argument to help address this--the idea is that those who could prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything morally significant should do so. But that also means those who can’t are not being called to do so! That is my understanding of Singer’s view.

This argument makes sense based off the fact that what is morally significant varies from person to person. As long as this is accepted, then the rest of the premises follow suit and the conclusion directly stems from the accepted and valid premises, making the argument true.

Premises is true to some extent, however it is very subjective because what people think is a morally good act can differ. Meaning, doing something for someone else may not be someone’s ideal way of doing a morally good act.

Christina (4):

I think I see the point here, that people differ on what they think is morally right. What Singer is doing in this argument, though, is starting with premises he thinks everyone could accept and then moving from those to determine just what is morally right. So the idea here is that even if you have a different idea of what is morally right, if you accept his premises and the conclusion follows from the premises, you should accept the conclusion as to what is morally right.

Isn’t it a paradox to give money until your situation mirrors that of the people you are helping? If you give money until you’re at their level, then the money will begin to help them and they will actually end up above your level. [at which point they will have to donate to you etc] -Infinite donation chains!

Christina (5):

I do think that his stronger principle, which is to help unless by doing so you would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, is highly controversial and possibly problematic without some further clarification/argumentation. But I’m not sure you would have to give until they end up better off than you; the point is to help prevent very bad things, not to get people to a high level of living. He’s really just talking about helping people avoid starvation and death. But I do agree that if you give until you would have to give up something of comparable value that would mean, on the face of it, giving until you could almost reach the point of starvation and death yourself. Which is definitely going quite far!

The first premise works but it’s hard to say we “ought” to do something without another argument aside from “its bad”. Maybe some people think it’s not their problem, so they don’t think we need to do anything. I feel it’s a reach from 1 to 2.

Christina (6):

Interesting point. I guess he’s thinking that morally we would all agree that if something is bad and we could stop it without sacrificing anything of moral significance, then it should be our problem. Maybe it depends on the “bad” thing, but if we saw a small child drowning in a shallow pond and just walked by because it’s not our problem, many would think there’s something wrong with that. And he’s trying to extrapolate and say, well, should it matter if the child is right in front of you or far away? I’m not saying he’s right...just trying to explain how I’m understanding his reasoning. And there may be a legitimate rebuttal to his point here!

I feel that the argument fails to take into account that technological progress, which provides the means to help a lot more people in need, is generally only possible with excess resources. Therefore I would argue that only the weaker principle should be followed.

Christina (7):

I think I follow the first part of this point--are you saying a country or a place can only help a lot of people if there are excess resources in that place? Maybe I’m not getting it. But if that’s the point I’m not sure only the weaker principle needs to apply; Singer is mostly talking about what individuals who do have excess resources already should be doing. But please respond back if I’ve misunderstood!

Left side of room when facing front

i think singer’s argument is both valid and sound. i try to live up to this standard as a middle class canadian (mitigated by my momentarily impecunious life as a student). there are some compelling counterpoints from the bystander effect, i guess.if i wanted to take this argument down, i would start there.

The premises are true and the conclusion follows with certainty. Despite this, I still have some issues with the argument.

I think singer premises are true and the conclusion follows.

I don’t agree with the stronger version of premises 2 as I feel it is too extreme and doesn’t entirely make sense to have everyone in the world living close to poverty. I also believe that people's views on what's morally significant can vary.

Christina 8):

Regarding the last comment above, I think some of the comments I’ve made previously are applicable (about the stronger version of the principle and the different views about moral significance; see Christina (1) and Christina (5), above)). One more thing about the stronger version of the principle, though: I think that one has to take into account what happens if more people start to help--it wouldn’t be the case that later people also have to help just as much and give away just as much...because the situation would be better by then. So I don’t think his view would have to end up with most of the world living close to poverty.


The premises assumes a prior obligation and responsibility to X problem IE famine, etc. I think many people would say, “I wasn’t involved in creating the problem, why should I be tasked with cleaning it up”. Additionally, The scope of the problem you’re trying to address needs to be taken into account. If you’re looking to solve world hunger, and you decide to donate money you would have spent on a coffee, well, you’re really not making a dent of any conceivable proportion.

Christina (9):

On the first point here, one of my responses above addresses it (see Christina (6)). On the second point, about scope--it’s true that one $5 donation won’t make a great deal of difference, but there’s a collective action problem here: if everyone thinks that, no one donates. If everyone thinks, well, I am doing what I can and all I can do is encourage others to do so too, then eventually those little donations can add up. And charity funding campaigns do work when people are asked to donate just small amounts...given enough of them, they can make a big difference!

From Learning Catalytics answers


A number of people thought Singer’s argument seemed strong in terms of the premises being true and the conclusion following from them, but thought there was a problem because it is unlikely very many people will actually follow what he says is morally right.

Something to consider: Arguments about what is morally right and wrong are about what people ought to do, morally, not about what they want to do or are likely to do. So whether people are likely to follow the suggestion isn’t as important as whether the argument works to show what is morally right. If there were a conclusion given about what is morally right that were actually impossible for people to do, then that would be a problem because we shouldn’t be morally required to do something that is actually impossible to do. But since what Singer is suggesting isn’t impossible, then I think this objection doesn’t really apply (unless one means something else by the objection that I haven’t addressed here, in which case it might apply!).