PHIL 2030: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Monday October 27, 2014


[8.4.] Utilitarianism and World Poverty.


Peter Singer (b. 1946) is a controversial Australian bioethicist who teaches at Princeton University.[1] He is also a utilitarian and a founder of the animal rights movement.


One of his first publications was “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1972).[2]


The article you read, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” (The New York Times Magazine, Sept. 5, 1999), updates the views taken in that earlier work.


Singer thinks, not simply that it is a good thing for people to donate to famine relief, but that for most Americans, it is obligatory. Here Singer disagrees with most Americans, who seem to think that donating money to famine relief is supererogatory.



[8.4.1.] The Central Station Argument.


In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one—knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need? (RTD 148)


Singer believes that there is no moral distinction between the two. Since selling a homeless child to an organ peddler in order to buy yourself a new television is immoral, it is also immoral for a middle-class American to spend money on a new TV instead of giving that money to a charity that would use it to save the life of a child (or the lives of many children).


This kind of reasoning is called an argument by analogy (df.): an argument that begins by pointing out that two or more things have a number of traits in common and concludes that those things have some further trait in common, e.g.,


1.      Transformers I, II, III and IV were about giant robots and was directed by Michael Bay.

2.      Transformers V will also be about giant robots and will be directed by Michael Bay

3.      Transformers I, II, III and IV were commercially successful.

4.      Therefore, Transformers V will be commercially successful.


Here is how Singer is reasoning about the Dora story:


1.      Dora has the choice between spending money on something that she does not need (a new TV) and spending that money in order to save the life of a child.

2.      Most ordinary Americans are in the same situation: they can choose to spend money on something they don’t need or to spend that money to save the life of a child.

3.      It would be immoral for Dora to spend the money on the TV.

4.      Therefore, it would be immoral for ordinary Americans to spend their money on things they don’t need.


An argument from analogy is never logically valid… but it is not intended to be. It can be logically strong without being valid: the truth of the premises would give us very good reason for thinking that the conclusion is true without guaranteeing that it is true.


Objection: it is a very different thing knowingly to give a child who you know and who is standing right in front of you over to organ peddlers in exchange for a new television, than to spend money on a new television rather than give that money to a charity, who would use that money to save the life of a child you don’t know and who you will never meet.


In other words, there is a relevant disanalogy between Dora and us: she is dealing with a child who she knows and who is standing right in front of her. We are not.


Singer’s Response: if you are a utilitarian like him, then there really is no moral difference, because the consequences are the same in each case: a child dies needlessly.


But Singer realizes that not everyone reading his article is a utilitarian, and he writes:


…one doesn’t need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer’s behavior as raising a serious moral issue. (RTD 149)


So Singer has another argument to offer in support of his utilitarian position, one that may be stronger than the “Central Station” argument…


The notes on Singer will continue next time…


Stopping point for Monday October 27, 2014. For next time:

·         no new reading… study for your exam (one week from today)!

·         if we have a pop quiz, it will cover the terms in section I of your study guide.



[1] Singer’s web page at Princeton: . Wikipedia, which is not always very trustworthy, has a good article summarizing many of Singer’s ethical views: .


[2] For an analysis of the arguments that Singer gives in this article, see section 2.1 of Michael Blake, “International Justice,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = < >. The entire article is an overview of the positions recent philosophers have taken on various aspects of the issue of international justice.

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