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Michael Peyton Jones
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First off: great article. Although I would say that since I mostly agree with you! I think the key point where things go wrong is where you are discussing the maligned "sonofabitch". Now, you say that he is not a sonofabitch because he [i]does[/i] a bad thing. This I would agree with (I think moral luck considerations clearly rule that sort of evaluation out). However, this doesn't mean that the evaluation of his character must rest upon some non-moral ground. Even had he stayed at home, he still [i]would[/i] have let the child drown, had he gone out. That is, his character is bad precisely [i]because[/i] of his tendency to do Bad Things. Dostoyevsky's version might well have had [i]good[/i] character in that respect, even if he was so paralysed by something that he would in that instance have let the child drown. Singer's argument then is just that not giving to charity is as much of a Bad Thing as is letting a child drown. The logic seems inescapable. You proceed from being directly present while the child drowns, to being nearby but [i]knowing[/i] that the child is drowning, to not being nearby but being able to phone someone to save the child, to being able to pay someone to save the child... and then you're there. The main difference I can see is that in the charitable case you are not saving a specific child. If there was a man with a gun in Africa with a website declaring that every hour he would shoot a child (videoed, of course) unless he was sent some money, I suspect people's sense of how immoral it would be not to pay would increase. There is also the consideration that with charitable giving, other people may stick up the cost. If our favourite sonofabitch was on his way to an important meeting and there were several other people in the vicinity of the child, including a trained lifeguard (read: billionaire), it no longer seems so immoral to pass on by. However, in the case of charity, any given child might well be saved by someone else, even though in the aggregate, your contribution may lead to more children being saved. What conclusion can we draw from this? Myself, I think that this is a case where philosophical ethics is genuinely prescriptive. I think this reasoning reveals (as Singer would have it) that we are indeed all people of fairly bad character. We [i]should[/i] be giving far more of our money to charity. However, I think the lack of specific engagement in the charitable case tends to confuse our intuitions. Also this idea is at odds with the psychological base of morality, which is more about protecting one's own community, and so our intuition tells us that people far away are less important.
Toggle Commented Sep 8, 2009 on The Good, The Bad and Peter Singer at
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