T Nation

Peter Singer


Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton and he holds some very controversial views (he supports infanticide and is a prominent academic behind the animal liberation movement).

Has anyone read anything he's written?


He came up a few times, I think Intro to Political Philosophy and then again in, I think, Phil of Science.

The article or discussion I remember was about proximity and moral imperative. He believes that proximity to something didn't matter and only the ease of remedying it matters. So if mailing a dollar a day to WHO or something like that can save 15 kids in Africa or someplace far off, you have just as much moral force to do that than saving one kid drowning in front of you if it means getting ruining expensive clothes/phone etc in the process.

Interesting discussion, but I don't think he's correct.

He started PETA too, I believe.

And that's all I know off hand about Peter Singer.


Well that settles it. If he started PETA then he is automatically evil.


I read an article he wrote called "famine, affluence, and morality" in my Ethics class where he made this argument. He argued that if we would have an obligation to save a drowning child (who you could easily save and your only loss would be monetary, like ruining clothes) this obligation extends to giving aid to Africa. I agree with him that proximity should not matter (or matter very little). However, the main problem I see with his argument is diffusion of responsibility, i.e. there are millions of people who could give aid to Africa, but in the case of the drowning child you are (presumably) the only one who can help.


There is the diffusion of responsibility, and I think causation has something to do with it too. In real world applications, how much of your money is going towards more mailouts and overhead and how much is actually lifesaving is another concern.


Part of Singer's point is that with recent technology, the overhead has become increasingly small. Even though this still is an issue, surely 75cents on your dollar will do more for an african than the full dollar would do for someone in poverty near you (when you take into account the concept of declining marginal utility).


True, but I think that just because the beneficial aspects are dependent on someone else acting morally it lessens your moral imperative. Even given that these are truly beneficient organizations, there is still a break in causation between mailing in cash and saving lives that isn't a problem with pulling a baby from a pool.

Not that giving money to these charities isn't good, just that not giving to them doesn't make you the monster that letting a baby drown in front of you does.


Your dollar or 75 cents never makes it to the one that needs help in Africa due to corruption and incompetence.

In the abstract his theory is correct but when reality rears it's ugly head it falls apart.


I don't know about evil: Pol Pot and the guy who invented the metric system are evil.

He IS a major-league DoucheBag, though.


heres a link to a Peter Singer interview


I've read some of Singer's writings to the issue of proximity, but think he is in part incorrect. The thing that I take issue with moreso than anything else is the fact that he completely skirts the issue of the potential for creating structures of dependancy through the provision of aid as it is carried out by a number of prominent aid organizations.

More specifically, to my knowledge the majority of the work done by the WHO and similary charities and organizations consists largely of providing sustinance and innoculations to populations on the edge. These actions are surely ethical in and of themselves - but the question is if it ethical to establish a system wherein people become dependent upon this aid while little is done to remedy any underlying problems.

Would it not be far more ethical to give to programs that perhaps do not feed as many people but provide micro loans or build infrastructure that allow groups of people to become self-sufficient? In this respect I think there is some variation with respect to the ethical value that can be placed on donations to different organizations.


In his book "practical ethics" he does speak to this issue (although somewhat indirectly). He deals with the idea of triage applied to nations that are overpopulated (or at least cannot feed their current population). The concept is that the countries would fit into one of three groups:

  1. able to regulate and feed the population without outside help
  2. would be able to create a situation where they could feed the population with outside help
  3. would never be able to create a situation where they could feed the population

Most agree that we should help nations that fall under #2. When it comes to #3, Singer says that not helping is still morally wrong (even though they would become dependent and the problem will never be solved) because we have the ability to prevent suffering.

I'm not sure I agree with Singer on how to deal with nations like #3, but I do believe that it is wrong to do nothing.


An interesting thread.

About the nation #3 that will never be able to support itself:

IF we are to help them, it must be to get them out of there, and nothing more. If they don't want to leave, then they die. Mother Nature figured this shit out a very very long time ago. If a bunch of people started a "nation" in Antarctica, we do not have the moral responsibility to continue to deliver food, water, heat, etc., to them because that doesn't make sense. A moral person would do what he could to rescue them from the danger they are in.

This is the same for a nation whose primary natural resource is sand. Some places on our planet are uninhabitable, and it is not our moral responsibility to change that, it is a choice we can make if we wish. That's all... just a choice. NOT a responsibility.