Marquis on Singer on Poverty


What’s Wrong? is grateful to Don Marquis for sharing some of his latest thoughts about Peter Singer’s work on poverty here (image: poverty).


I’m a member of a reading group that recently has been reading the third edition of Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics.[1] Of course, I had read parts of earlier editions previously, some parts many times. However, this is my first attempt to read through the book as a whole. I have two reactions. 

My first reaction is that this is a really wonderful book. Practical Ethics was first published in 1980. It combines important discussions of ethical theory, important discussions of issues in applied ethics, and very interesting discussions of how the first bears on the second. It is readable throughout. Singer goes the extra mile to make his arguments for his views clear. It is a wonderful book to teach. Practical Ethics was viewed as an important contribution to ethics when it was first published. It is as relevant now as it was when the first edition appeared. Think of virtually all of the published academic ethics in the 20th Century. How much of it seems nearly as important now as it seemed to some when first published? Indeed, entire forests have been destroyed for no enduring reason. By comparison Singer’s achievement is amazing. We are all in his debt.

My second reaction is that, in spite of all of the thoughtful and relevant discussions in the third edition of Practical Ethics (to which I shall henceforth refer as ‘PE’) many of the analyses are much weaker that I had previously thought. In this short note, I want to comment on Singer’s defense of the claim that we have a duty to ameliorate the conditions of those who live in absolute poverty.

Peter Singer’s first and famous foray into this issue was in the 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” an essay that most of us have read, that many of us have taught, and which is available on the web.[2] In that essay, Singer famously argued that we have a duty to aid in a very significant way people anywhere in the world who live in absolute poverty. In PE, Singer defines ‘absolute poverty’ as having an income of $1.25 per day or less.

In PE, Singer, in his characteristically clear manner, lays out his argument for the duty to aid the impoverished.

  1. If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.
  2. Extreme poverty is bad.
  3. There is some extreme poverty we can prevent without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.
  4. Therefore, we ought to prevent some extreme poverty. (PE, p. 200)

Let’s look carefully at this argument.

Singer claims that premise 1 is uncontroversial. His argument for that claim is that “it is not denied by any plausible ethical theory.” Is this true?  Well, one could “make” premise 1 true, by simply refusing to accept as plausible any ethical theory that does not include it. However, such a defense trivializes Singer’s argument for premise 1. We need some independent criterion for what counts as a plausible ethical theory. I shall count ethical theories that are taken seriously, either by philosophers, or by the general public, as plausible.

Many people would say proudly “I live by the Ten Commandments”. When one turns to the enumeration of those commandments in Exodus XX one finds absolutely no mention of duties of beneficence. Thus, we seem to have one counterexample to Singer’s claim.

Now consider the ethics of Immanuel Kant. Kant regarded the Categorical Imperative as the sole principle of ethics. The first formulation of the Categorical Imperative states: “Act only on that maxim that you can at the same time will to be a universal law”. Kant claimed that a duty of beneficence can be derived from the Categorical Imperative. He considers the case of a person for whom things are going well, but who sees that others are struggling with great hardships. Does such a person have an obligation to contribute to the well-being of those who are struggling? Kant asks if such a well off person can adopt the maxim that he has no obligation to help others struggling with great hardships and adopt the Categorical Imperative. Kant claims that:

A will that resolved in this way would contradict itself, inasmuch as cases might often arise in which one would have need of the love and sympathy of others and in which he would deprive himself, by such a law of nature springing from his own will, of all hope of the aid he wants for himself.[3]

Obviously, it is often prudent for me to cooperate with others to pay taxes to support projects that benefit all in my community. However, there is nothing especially beneficent about that. Otherwise, many of us are sufficiently well to do that we can get along without the aid of others. If we need aid, we can purchase it. Kant’s derivation of a duty of beneficence is plainly unsound. Thus, we have another counterexample to the Singer’s claim that a duty of beneficence can be based on any plausible ethical principle.

It is worth noting that Kant’s derivation of a duty of beneficence, even if successful, will not get us close to a duty to help those living in extreme poverty in the middle of Africa. A universal law of non-beneficence to the impoverished will not deny me the aid of such impoverished people. They are in no position to aid me.

We may conclude that there is something badly wrong with Singer’s defense of premise 1. Still that does not show that premise 1 is false or (which is different) that there are no arguments for the view that premise 1 is true. (Actually I believe there are such arguments, but that is another matter.)

Both Premise 2 and Premise 3 are indisputably true. No remotely plausible deficiency in Singer’s argument can be found by an examination of either.

This leads to the following question: Will a duty of beneficence that most of us accept, when added to premises 2 and 3, entail a duty prevent some extreme poverty? There is a rather significant difficulty with a ‘yes’ answer. There are a lot of bad things in the world. On the one hand, if such a duty of beneficence supported a duty to prevent all of them, then it would entail a duty to prevent extreme poverty. However, such a duty of beneficence is totally implausible. It surely violates the famous principle in ethical theory that ‘ought’ implies ‘can’. On the other hand, if such a duty of beneficence supports a duty to prevent some of them, then it does not support a duty to prevent extreme poverty in particular.

This general statement of a difficulty in Singer’s argument can be, perhaps, made clearer by an example. Some people who have acquired a good deal of wealth give what you and I would consider a lot of money to support cancer research. Cancer is bad. Such people can give a lot of money to cancer research without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. It certainly seems that such an action is, not only in accord with, but entailed by premise 1. Therefore, it seems such people have done their duty without doing anything at all to alleviate extreme poverty. Apparently, we can conclude that it is entirely possible that Singer’s premises can be true and his conclusion false. Wealthy people can donate substantial amounts to cancer research, continue to live in their Manhattan apartment when the weather is warmer, keep their winter home in Florida for use in the winter months, donate absolutely nothing to alleviate extreme poverty and be happy that they have lived up those moral obligations that are entailed by the premises of Singer’s argument in his chapter “Rich and Poor”.

Can Singer wiggle out of this difficulty? Actually there is a move he can make, and analysis of the move is quite interesting. Consider the wealthy couple with the Manhattan apartment and the winter home in Florida. Suppose, after their generous donation to cancer research, they reflect on Singer’s premise 1. As a result they consider giving up their sumptuous winter home in Florida and contribute the proceeds to research on Alzheimer Disease. After all, Alzheimer Disease is bad. In addition, there is some progress in dealing with Alzheimer Disease to which they can contribute without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. Their action corresponds with their obligations in premise 1.  This donation to Alzheimer Disease conforms to the “spirit” of Singer’s argument in “Rich and Poor” without yielding one dime directed to the alleviation of extreme poverty. On the one hand what this example shows is that, given premise 1, the donation to cancer research will not be enough to show that the wealthy couple will have fulfilled their obligation to prevent something bad. So far, so good for Singer. On the other hand, the trouble is, however, that the wealthy couple will not yet have done anything to alleviate extreme poverty.

We are now in a position to realize that our formerly wealthy couple can make donations to various other good causes with the result that they are forced to live in a Manhattan homeless shelter. They will still have done nothing whatsoever to alleviate extreme poverty.   This seems to me to be a disaster for Singer’s argument. In particular, it shows that there are two problems with it. First, it seems to impose on us obligations of beneficence that are so great that they are not remotely plausible. Second, it is possible to live up to those implausibly onerous obligations of beneficence and still not contribute one dime to the alleviation of extreme poverty. Singer’s view seems both too strong and too weak to justify the view that he wishes to defend.

I would be the last person in the world (obviously!) to defend the view that it is never possible to generate, from ethical premises we all accept and some trivially true statements, a conclusion that is controversial. Nevertheless, an argument of this sort should certainly be examined with skepticism. Singer’s argument is an argument of this sort, and the skepticism can be shown to be justified.

I should add that nothing I have said should be taken to rule out the claim that we have an obligation to ameliorate extreme poverty. Indeed, my intuitions tell me that we do have such an obligation. In addition, I believe that an obligation to ameliorate extreme poverty can be derived from utilitarian ethical principles and utilitarian principles are principles Singer accepts and defends.

Nevertheless, utilitarian principles are controversial. Neither my intuitions nor Peter Singer’s intuitions should have any philosophical weight whatsoever. Singer has attempted to make his case without appealing to either. That case does not seem to be successful.

— Don Marquis


[1] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[2] Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no.1, pp. 229-243.

[3] Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, tr James Ellington, Indianapolis, Hackett, 3rd ed. 1993, AKA 423.

One response to “Marquis on Singer on Poverty

  1. Interesting stuff. If we consider opportunity costs, it’s no longer so clear that “people can give a lot of money to cancer research without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance.” Those marginal dollars could have gone a lot further if better targeted, and that better result is therefore “sacrificed” if we opt for suboptimal philanthropic spending instead.

    (Of course, it’s an open question whether global poverty alleviation is optimal. Perhaps, as Bostrom argues, we should focus on global catastrophic risk mitigation instead.)

    Having said that, I agree with the criticism that Singer’s “comparable moral significance” principle is implausibly strong. The weaker, “any moral significance” version seems more compatible with common sense, and still yields significant (although not significantly self-sacrificing) duties of beneficence.


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