PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Tuesday April 1, 2014


continuing the notes on Singer and poverty…


[6.8.3.] Objections and Replies.


Objection #1: This objection to Singer’s Bugatti Argument will consist of attempt to say how Bob, who chooses to save his car, is different than Americans (and other Westerners) who spend money on their own relatively trivial desires rather than sending that money to charity. In other words, it will try to answer the question: what is the morally relevant difference between Bob and us?


The relevant disanalogy is this: Bob is certain that throwing the switch will save the child’s life, whereas we are uncertain how much of our donated money will actually go toward saving lives rather than to unnecessary expenses, padding the pockets of foreign dictators, etc.


Singer’s original response: Peter Unger (the utilitarian philosopher who originated the “Bob’s Bugatti” thought experiment) estimates that it costs $200 to finance the survival of an impoverished 2-year-old for four years, helping carry her through the most dangerous years of her young life. This estimate assumes that not all of the money will actually go toward aid and that some of it will go toward unnecessary expenses.


Singer’s more recent response: In his 2009 book The Life You Can Save, Singer advocates using the information provided by GiveWell at its website GiveWell researches many different charities and recommends those that it has found to be the most efficient at directing donated funds against the problems they try to alleviate.[1] As of this writing, one of GiveWell’s top three recommended organizations are:

·         Give Directly, which transfers cash to households in the developing world via a mobile phone-based payment service. It targets extremely low-income households and aims to deliver at least 90 cents directly to recipients for every $1.00 in total expenses.



Objection #2:  There will always be impoverished children whose lives can be saved with such donations. So if Singer’s view is correct, we will be obligated to continue giving any time that we have extra money, until we and the people we are trying to help are equally well-off. But this demand is too great—so Singer must be wrong. (Compare this to the Excessive Demand Argument, one of Rachels’ arguments against utilitarianism.)


Singer’s response: He accepts this seemingly objectionable consequence but denies that it is too much to except. He defends his acceptance of it by asking: what additional sacrifices would we require from Bob in order to save the child’s life?


How far past losing the Bugatti should [Bob] go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the track of the siding, and if diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?

As absurd as the Bugatti scenario gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most people could be wrong; we can’t decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice that is roughly equal to that. It’s almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could easily be more like $200,000. (RTD 151)



Objection #3: It is unrealistic to demand so much from people. Most people in the developed world will not respond to Singer’s arguments by giving away all of their extra income. They will simply shrug off his criticisms.


Singer’s 1999 response: He does not expect the majority of people to begin donating all, or even most, of their extra income. “When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior.” (RTD 152) So he will not “go out of his way to chastise” wealthy Americans who give away only 10% (for example) of their wealth. But that doesn’t mean that those wealthy Americans are not obligated to give more… and it doesn’t mean that ordinary, middle-class Americans are not obligated to give what they are able.


Singer’s later response: In The Life You Can Save, Singer offers an even lower, more practical standard: give just 1% of one’s net income.



Objection #4: There is another relevant difference between Bob and us: Bob is the only one who can save the child on the tracks, but there are hundreds of millions of different people who can donate money to aid organizations.


Singer’s response: Most of those people aren’t donating anything. The fact that there are hundreds of thousands who could donate but choose not to does not imply anything about whether you are obligated to donate. Suppose there are a number of different people along the tracks, each with his own Bugatti, and each decides to let the train kill the child. This does not imply that it is moral for you to make the same choice.




[6.9.] Utilitarianism and Animal Rights.[2]


[6.9.1.] Singer in Defense of Animal Rights.


One of Peter Singer’s best known works is his book Animal Liberation (1975).


In today’s reading, an excerpt from that book, Singer argues for a recognition of the moral relevance of animal suffering, and he does so from the point of view of utilitarianism.


Singer’s arguments are especially relevant to anyone who consumes meat raised on factory farms, where animal suffering is widespread and extreme. This includes factory farms where chickens are raised, and the state of Georgia is the leading producer of chicken in the U.S.:

·         In 2012, “more than six billion pounds of chicken were produced in [Georgia], the product of 1.2 billion heads of chicken. If Georgia were a country unto itself, it would have the sixth largest chicken industry in the world, behind China and Brazil.”

·         “An average slaughterhouse here can kill and process nearly a quarter-million chickens in a workday. At any given moment, there are more than 240,000,000 chickens living here, almost 25 times the human population.”[3]

·         Georgia ranks 10th among egg-producing U.S. states, with approx. 8,771,000 “layers”.[4]


In an earlier publication, Singer gave the following description of the miserable lives of factory farmed chickens:


In order to have meat on the table at a price that people can afford, our society tolerates methods of meat production that confine sentient animals in cramped, unsuitable conditions for the entire durations of their lives. Animals are treated like machines that convert fodder [something fed to domestic animals] into flesh, and any innovation that results in a higher “conversion ratio” is liable to be adopted. As one authority on the subject has said, “cruelty is acknowledged only when profitability ceases.” So hens are crowded four or five to a cage with a floor area of twenty inches by eighteen inches, or around the size of a single page of The New York Times. The cages have wire floors, since this reduces cleaning costs, though wire is unsuitable for the hens’ feet; the floors slope, since this makes the eggs roll down for easy collection, although this makes it difficult for the hens to rest comfortably. In these conditions all the birds’ natural instincts are thwarted: they cannot stretch their wings fully, walk freely, dust-bathe, scratch the ground, or build a nest. Although they have never known other conditions, observers have noticed that the birds vainly try to perform these actions. Frustrated at their inability to do so, they often develop what farmers call “vices,” and peck each other to death. To prevent this, the beaks of young birds are often cut off.[5]


For a graphic illustration of the sort of abuse of “layers” (chickens that lay eggs) that Singer describes here, see:



For an even more graphic illustration of the abuse to which “broiler chickens” (chickens raised for meat) are subjected, see:



Singer argues that a common-sense moral judgment shared by most people is wrong. This point of view is called speciesism:


speciesism (df.): the view according to which a being’s moral status, including its rights and moral importance, depend on the species to which it belongs.[6]


According to Singer, speciesism is no more justified than racism or sexism.



[] Human Rights vs. Animal Rights.


Singer does not believe that animals have all of the same moral rights that humans have. (It is obvious that they do not have all of the same legal rights that humans do… Singer is not making that trivial point; rather, he is concerned with moral rights.)


For example, my dog Murphy does not have the moral right to vote, to freedom of speech, or to freedom of religion. It is absurd to think that a dog has such rights. But this is because he does not have the rational capacities needed to make such rights meaningful. Murphy cannot understand voting; he is incapable of expressing opinions through speech; and he is incapable of worshipping or engaging in other religious behavior.


So to say that a dog has these rights is like saying that a man has a right to have an abortion. It would amount to attributing to him a “right” that it is impossible for him to exercise.


But the fact that Murphy belongs to a species other than homo sapiens is not the direct reason that he does not have these rights. Singer’s view implies that if dogs had different mental capacities and were able to understand voting, to speak, and to have a religion, then Murphy would have the relevant rights.


Says Singer: “There are obviously important differences between humans and other animals, and these differences must give rise to some differences in the rights that each have. Recognizing this evident fact, however, is no barrier to the case for extending the basic principle of equality to nonhuman animals.” (RTD 117, emphasis added)


The notes on Singer and animal rights will continue next time.


Stopping point for Tuesday April 1. For next time, study today’s lecture notes and read RTD ch.15 (“Torturing Puppies and Eating Meat: It’s All in Good Taste” by Alastair Norcross).



[1] See Singer, The Life You Can Save, 2009, pp.84 ff.

[2] For a general overview of the issue of the moral status of animals, see Lori Gruen, “The Moral Status of Animals,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >.


[3] Wyatt Williams, “The Future of Big Chicken,” Creative Loafing, June 27-July 3, 2013, URL = < >, accessed October 28, 2013.


[4] American Egg Board, “Egg Industry Fact Sheets,” URL = < >, retrieved October 31, 2013.

[5] Singer, “All Animals are Equal,” Annual Proceedings of the Center for Philosophical Exchange 1, no.5 (1974): 103-11; excerpted in Rachels, ed., The Right Thing to Do, 4th ed., 166-76; quotation is from pp.173-74 of the excerpt.


[6] This term was coined not by Singer but by Richard Ryder, a British psychologist.

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