Notes on Peter Singer, Uehiro Lecture #3

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PHILOSOPHY 104 – FALL 2008 (TED STOLZE)
NOTES ON SINGER, LECTURE 3
In this lecture Singer considers several objections to his general philosophical position:
(a)
It is contrary to our moral intuitions; in particular, the demand for impartiality is just too demanding
Singer’s response: we need to be skeptical about our very intuitions, e.g., studies regarding number to be
saved or whether information presented statistically (rooted in our rational ANALYTICAL processing system) or
in narrative form (rooted in our emotional EXPERIENTIAL processing system); a legacy of our evolutionary
pasts limited to our close kin, our longstanding moral intuitions have failed to keep up with our contemporary
situation in which it is now possible to assist others, despite their distance from us
(b)
Human nature is just not put together in the way that Singer thinks, e.g., we should care more about personal
relationships than strangers
Singer’s response: he agrees that even if our human nature falls short, our moral ideals should remain highly
demanding
(c)
“Ought implies can”
Singer’s response: but if some can indeed make the sacrifices involved in aid, then the aid principle is not
pointless
(d)
Too high a standard is counterproductive, e.g., because people become too easily discouraged that they fall
short
Singer’s response: not clear if this is true, but even if it is true, then we should make the standard as high as
possible to maximize the number of people who comply (e.g., those who give 10% of their income), perhaps
there is a distinction between what we think is the morally right thing to do in general as opposed to what we
should publicly advocate for other to do => the PARADOX of Singer’s publicly proclaiming what shouldn’t be
publicly proclaimed!
(e)
I shouldn’t have to take up the lack; why should I do more just because others are doing too little? I should
only have to do my fair share.
Singer’s response: yes, doing one’s fair share would go a long way, but even if others don’t do their fair share,
I’m still morally obligated to do as much as I can (EX: Ten children are drowning in a pond and there are ten
bystanders. How many children should I try to save, even if others remain indifferent? Singer’s answer is: as
many as I can. How much you should do depends on how bad the situation is. Fairness is important but not
absolute; sometimes we have to do more than fairness alone demands. There is even an important moral
intuition about fairness: no one wants to be played for a sucker.) Need to make it easier psychologically for
people to give, by establishing a “culture of giving,” and make it necessary to “opt out” rather than to rely on
“opting in” (EX: Organ donation in Austria vs. Germany => or even a 1% automatic employer
deduction/donation). Singer’s adapting of Marx: “In terms of demandingness, the philosophers have only
interpreted our moral obligations in the world as we find it; the point, however, is to change it.”
There are two distinct strands in Singer’s view regarding DEMANDINGNESS:
(1)
The Aid Principle in the strong sense remains morally correct.
(2)
However, we should publicly advocate for the demand that will lead to the best consequences.
A final point: Singer thinks that one can be rational but still not act morally. Morality simply may not be rationally
required. Each of us needs to empathize with others rather than limit ourselves to the pursuit of own individual selfinterest. This is a further question of our ultimate choices about how we are going to live our lives. This is not itself a
moral question but a question about morality.
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