guilt

11 Reasons to Let Peter Singer's Child Drown

Every time you buy anything fun, Peter Singer drowns a child

I don't hate Peter Singer because he's wrong, stupid, or foolish. I hate him for being persuasive, convincing, and demanding the utterly overwhelming from me.

If you have never read his essay "Famine, Affluence and Morality" you should. Sitting at it's heart is a hypothetical: if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.

Singer goes on to argue cogently that every developing-world starving child is essentially the same as his hypothetical drowning child and that the only moral course is to rescue that child, and as many others as possible. Singer suggests that we are obliged to rescue as many of these drowning children as possible. He extends a "Reductio ad absurdum"1 line of reasoning to the conclusion that we are obligated to donate nearly all of our money to the most effective charity we can find. Then he doesn't dismiss it as "absurd", but instead takes that conclusion seriously, and leaves each of us staring at that ethical reality.

I can't handle that moral reality because it feels correct, and it leaves me in an eternal state of guilt about every non-optimal action I take. The emotional context: "Every time I go to a concert, Singer's child drowns" is just not sustainable.

With awareness that these arguments are born not from unbiased investigation, but rather from self-interest and the need to wiggle my way out of a moral prison, I present 11 arguments against. You should read this with the same incredulity that you read the bankers argument that he is underpaid.

In his example Singer conflates several intense moral issues. It involves children, suffering, urgency, and death all at once. If we break these things apart, we start to see different answers.

What would our moral inclination be if we eliminated death and lowered the stakes: you are walking to work and see a child with a skinned knee crying. You could pause on your way for just a moment and comfort the child (and in this example, you know it would work) but it would make you a moment or two late. The moral imperative becomes much less clear in this case. It does seem like it would be nice to comfort the child, but it doesn't seem like an obligatory moral response.

What if we raise the stakes again...

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