photograph of boys filling water jugs from a ditch in Kenya

The economic slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic is likely to reverse a global trend of poverty reduction. This crisis should renew interest in our moral obligations to the poor. And there is no better place to begin thinking about those obligations than the work of Peter Singer. He argues we are morally required to give a lot more expendable income to the poor:

“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. … [You] are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond […] it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. […] The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy.”

Clearly, we should save the child. And we could save many people from sickness and death from lack of food, medicine, and shelter by donating a lot more of our expendable income to the poor: you could live a happy life, visit Starbucks less often, and donate the money instead to the poor. Singer argues not donating is morally no different than letting the child drown. Much of our spending on goodies doesn’t contribute to our well-being: we would likely be as happy, going to fewer movies, and buying fewer fancy coffees (and perhaps none). The goods and services we buy with our expendable income don’t compare morally to the lives we could save.

Up to this point, Singer makes a good case. But it doesn’t end there: Singer argues that we are morally required to give substantially more than we (likely) do:

“Suppose you have just sent $200 to an agency that can, for that amount, save the life of a child in a developing country who would otherwise have died. […] But don’t celebrate your good deed by opening a bottle of champagne, or even going to a movie. […] You must keep cutting back on unnecessary spending, and donating what you save, until you have reduced yourself to the point where if you give any more, you will be sacrificing something nearly as important as a child’s life.”

Here Singer is stressing the extent of our moral obligations to the poor: when we decide to go to a movie, or buy a fancy coffee, we could have instead donated that money to save the life of a poor person dying from lack of food, medicine, and shelter. When comparing something trivial, like a caramel macchiato, to a life we could save, we should part with the money. But this line of thinking may lead to overly demanding moral requirements.

We should take a step back to think about moral overdemandingness. Moral requirements can be hard — admitting we lied to a friend may be hard, but morally required — but they can’t be too demanding. Suppose Nathan has a few beers during Monday night football. He does nothing obviously wrong. Any moral theory that says otherwise is too demanding; we should be leery of any moral theory or view that demands too much. Unfortunately, it looks like Singer’s argument may do that. We can explore this with a sorites paradox.

We should first introduce sorites paradoxes. And like with most philosophical ideas, they sound more complicated than they are. An example of a sorites paradox would help. Consider a heap of sand. Taking one grain of sand won’t destroy a heap. And that’s true of every individual grain of sand. If we apply this rule over and over, we will eventually destroy the heap. But if taking a single grain of sand doesn’t destroy the heap, we could take a single grain of sand, over and over, and on this rule, and we would still have a heap — but we know taking one grain at a time, over and over, will eventually destroy the heap. We can formulate this paradox as follows:

(1) A pile of one trillion grains of sand is a heap.

(2) A single grain of sand isn’t a heap.

(3) Taking one single grain of sand won’t create/destroy a heap.

This is a paradox: a set of individual statements that seem right, but taken together cannot be true. If we took a single grain of sand from a heap over and over, according to (3) we wouldn’t destroy the heap. But we intuitively know that isn’t right: if we took enough individual grains of sand, over and over, until a single grain remained, it wouldn’t be a heap.

We can frame Singer’s argument as a sorites paradox:

(4) Saving an innocent person, with a modest donation, isn’t morally too demanding.

(5) There are millions of people we could save with a modest donation.

(6) A moral requirement to save everyone we can with a modest donation is too demanding.

Consider a defense of (4): a cup of coffee or a new pair of shoes doesn’t morally compare to the life of an innocent person; if we could save them, by not buying goodies, and instead donating the money, then we’re morally required to do that. This isn’t morally too demanding: it is as reasonable as saving a child drowning in a shallow pond. However, there are millions of poor folks who need saving, and could be saved by a few modest donations. And individually, these acts of sacrifice wouldn’t rise to the level of overdemandingness; in each case, we could argue the life of a child is morally more important than watching a football game buzzed.

However, if we apply this line of argument over and over, there will eventually come a point where we won’t be able to watch a football game with a few beers because it would be wrong. We could work overtime instead and donate that money to charity. This isn’t to say Singer thinks we should never rest and recover, or earn money to pay our bills. We can still do those things, but only if they have comparable moral worth to the life we might otherwise save. And that looks like it demands too much of us; if a moral claim is overly demanding, we should be suspicious of that claim. This overdemandingness calls attention to an implicit assumption: that moral reasons trump other kinds of reasons — like, say, the value of enjoying a football game with a few beers — to act. And while moral reasons should be weighty in our rational deliberation, it isn’t obvious they override other kinds of reasons, such that those reasons don’t count.

How many poor folks are we morally required to save before it becomes too demanding? Most of us could, and likely should, do more to help the poor than we do, up to the point where it’s too demanding. But where exactly that point is located remains fuzzy.

Jimmy Alfonso Licon received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Maryland. His research interests are at the intersection of ethics and epistemology, and in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE). He also dabbles in philosophy of religion and time. He resides in Baton Rouge, and teaches ethics and critical thinking. He is the host of ‘The Good Life Podcast (with Dr. Jimmy)’. His website: sites.google.com/site/jimmyalicon