yourself that this is a sufļ¬ciently extraordinary case that you are justiļ¬ed
in making an exception. But it is precisely the fact that you believe it is
an exception requiring special justiļ¬cation that proves my point. If you violate
the three cardinal rules of justice, you will probably feel guilty about it
and try to hide, deny, or rationalize it. The only time you would do it con-
sistently and regularly would be when you do it in concert with others,
and even then you will probably invent a myth or story to justify what you
This suggests in what sense we might here be dealing with a disconnec-
tion from publicly endorsed morality. The vast majority of us routinely
observe the rules of justice as I have described them in our everyday deal-
ings with people, but the farther the affected people are from us, the
less scrupulous we can tend to be in observing them. And the large and
anomalous arena of human life we tend to regard as a complete excep-
tion is: politics. Consider: you probably endorse, tacitly if not explicitly,
violations of all three rules of justice in political action. Do you endorse
policies or politicians who take money away from one group of people,
whether they agree or not, and give it to another group of people? Do
you endorse policies or politicians who restrict the range of acceptable
behavior persons can engage in even when they neither do nor pose a
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 123
threat of positive harm to others? Do you endorse policies or politicians
who prohibit persons from making voluntary contractual arrangements
with others even when they neither do nor pose a threat of positive harm
If you think about it for a moment, my guess is that you will probably
realize that you do in fact support such policies or politicians, at least
in some cases. Most likely you will support some restrictive policies and
oppose others, and you may have a story to tell about why in political
matters you selectively enforce only the rules that you far more consis-
tently observe, and demand others observe, in your own private life. You
may, for example, think of yourself as subscribing to a kind of Robin
Hood morality, whereby it is all right to steal from āthe richā to give to
āthe poor.ā Or perhaps you will, like FBI sniper Lon Horiuchi, claim that
assassinating unarmed, innocent people may be necessary āfor the good
of the countryā and justiļ¬ed if one is ājust following orders.ā
people are people
During an armed standoff between federal agents and the Weaver family
in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992, Federal Bureau of Investigation Special
Agent Lon Horiuchi, who was hiding in the woods outside the Weaversā™
cabin under the orders (of questionable legality) to shoot any armed man
he saw, spotted through a window Vicki Weaver, the wife of the owner of
the property. She was not under suspicion for any crime, was unarmed,
and, when Horiuchi saw her through the scope on his riļ¬‚e, was standing
in the doorway of the cabin holding her ten-month-old baby. Horiuchi
shot her through the head, killing her instantly, whereupon she collapsed
in a heap on top of the baby. The baby survived, but after more than a
decade now of unsuccessful attempts to prosecute Horiuchi for murder
or even manslaughter, he is not only still a free man, but the federal
government has provided him tens of thousands of dollarsā™ worth of
20 An instance of this that has just come across my desk: A man in New Hampshire recently
engaged in a deliberate act of civil disobedience, and was duly jailed. His crime was to
give another adult a mutually voluntary manicureā”but without the ālicenseā that the
New Hampshire Board of Cosmetology (yes, there is such an agency) legally requires
before anyone may give another a manicure. See P. Gardner Goldsmithā™s āNailing Free
Enterprise,ā http://www.fee.org/vnews.php?nid=7110 (accessed March 15, 2005). The
number of cases wherein the state prevents otherwise willing adults to engage in peaceful
exchanges is surprisingly large. For overviews, see James Bovardā™s Lost Rights and Peter
McWilliamsā™s Ainā™t Nobodyā™s Business If You Do.
Working Out the Position
taxpayer-funded government attorneys, has paid all his other legal bills,
and has maintained its ofļ¬cial defense of his actions that whether what he
did was wrong or not is irrelevant, since all that matters is whether he was
acting under the authority granted him by the relevant federal agencies.
But we should not need recourse to the Nuremberg trials and the My Lai
courts-martial to tell us that āI was just following ordersā is not a justiļ¬able
excuse to kill unarmed, unaccused, and unthreatening noncombatants.
Though some doughty souls are still trying to bring Horiuchi to justice,
the federal government has pledged its continuing support of him and
its continuing intention to shield him from any prosecution. At the time
of this writing, Special Agent Horiuchi continues to be on the payroll and
an employee in good standing of the FBI.21
I raise this troubling case for two reasons. The ļ¬rst is that it supports
my claim that we would not endorse violation of the three central rules
of justice unless we had a rationale at hand that we believed justiļ¬ed tak-
ing exception to the rules. I say this on the assumption and expectation
that you will share my view that if Horiuchi had not been in the employ
of a federal agencyā”that is, if he had not been part of the stateā”there
is no question his actions would have been punished as crimes. Oth-
erwise, the gravity of deliberately assassinating an unarmed, innocent
civilian requires condemnation and punishment, regardless of what else
was going on in the situation. I predict that if you have any inclination
at all to defend Horiuchiā™s actions or any sympathy for what he did, it
will be motivated by your belief that government agents either do or per-
haps should enjoy an exception to the standard rules of justice by which
you hold yourself and everyone else accountable. Would any civilian be
able to walk away unprosecuted and unpunished from having done what
The second reason I bring it up is because it is indicative of what I
believe is the danger of making such exceptions. There is a handful of
rationales that have been used throughout history to justify horriļ¬c and
otherwise unimaginable injustices, āfor the good of the countryā and āI
was just following ordersā principal among them. These have served as
cover for acts far surpassing in scope and scale Special Agent Horiuchiā™s
actions. Take a moment to survey in your mind several of human his-
toryā™s most notorious and brutal raids, wars, or other large-scale criminal
actions, and ask yourself how many of them were justiļ¬ed at the time, both
21 For a range of perspectives on the Horiuchi case, see Aronson, āBack to Ruby Ridge,ā
Blackman and Kopel, āThe Ruby Ridge Prosecutions,ā and Bovard, Lost Rights.
A Matter of Principle, II: Personhood Writ Large 125
by those who perpetrated them and by the groups they represented, by
just such rationales. Conļ¬ne, even, your consideration to only those more
spectacular atrocities that took place during the twentieth century.22 You
may well be surprised at what you discover. When you hear, then, politi-
cians or government agents making recourse to these familiar choruses,
it seems prudent to be on alert and mark well what they are meant to
I would like to submit for your consideration the proposition that we
should not make any moral exceptions for state action, and that we should
hold politicians and other government agents to the same standards of
conduct, to the same standard of ā˜justice,ā™ to which we hold ourselves,
everyone we know, and indeed everyone else who is not an agent of the
state. Being part of the government gives one no special exemption from
the rules of morality, and it gives one no special wisdom to know how to
adjudicate the difļ¬cult cases from afar. And in any case the mandate to
respect peopleā™s personhood is still in place. Individuals may make bad
or foolish or even absurd decisions, but until they begin to impinge on
your rightful arena of freedom, or on that of others, you have no more
justiļ¬cation in forcibly restricting them than they do you. Government
agents are people just like everyone else: they are just as prone to self-
ishness, passions, stupidity, short-sightedness, superstitions, and bigotry
as everyone else is; if history is any indication, we should probably add
to this list a susceptibility to megalomania, and, given their positions of
power (not to mention all the bombs and the really big guns), a capability
of mass destruction to boot. These are all reasons we should, if anything,
be more exacting in our oversight of the actions of state agents and in our
insistence that they follow the rules of justice to the letter.
Poor people are ā˜personsā™ too, however, and so the nagging question
recurs: what are wealthier peopleā™s obligations to them? If respect for per-
sonhood forbids state-sanctioned violations of the rules of justice, even
when the ends that the violations would serve are good, then we would
seem to have a large and important concern as yet unaddressed. How
do poor people fare under a state strictly limited to respecting person-
hood? What are our duties toward poor people? What are poor peopleā™s
22 For a rehearsal of the grisly facts of the twentieth century, see R. J. Rummelā™s Death by
Working Out the Position
prospects under the classical liberal state? Let us ļ¬nally take up this cluster
of questions in the next chapter.
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FBI Agent Lon Horiuchi.ā FindLawā™s Legal Commentary, December 29, 2000.
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Working Out the Position
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The Demands of Poverty
I argued in chapters 2 and 3 that only the limited, āclassical liberalā state
is consistent with respecting peopleā™s personhood. In that way I claimed
to have made a āprincipledā case: because respecting personhood is the
bedrock moral principle, disrespecting it is wrong regardless of other
considerations. At the end of chapter 3, however, I suggested that the
argument left one central question as yet unaddressed: What about the
poor? I argued that respect for personhood meant allowing only social,
not political, power to be employed to help others. But perhaps restricting
the state so that it secures and enforces ā˜justiceā™ will beneļ¬t only those
who already have (substantial?) private property. Again, where does it
leave the poor? What exactly is our obligation to give to those who have
less than we? If the poor suffer unduly under the classical liberal state,
perhaps āgeneral welfareā ought to supersede or trump the āprincipledā
case made earlier.
I propose to tackle this cluster of questions in two ways. First I examine
philosopher Peter Singerā™s inļ¬‚uential argument about our moral duty of
famine relief. Singer argues that wealthy people in the West are morally
obligated to give a large portion of their money to poor people elsewhere
in the world, and the reach of the obligation Singer presses is surprisingly
extensive. The inļ¬‚uence of the Singerian argument warrants scrutiniz-
ing it closely, which we will accordingly do to see what we can make of
it. The second way to address these questions, which follows naturally
from the ļ¬rst, is to investigate the empirical matter of which institutions,
political structures, and programs do actually and in fact beneļ¬t the poor
mostā”that is, which allow the poor to themselves become wealthy. In the
next chapter I survey the considerable research done in the last several
Working Out the Position
decades into precisely this question by economists, political scientists,
and historians, and see what it can tell us. In this chapter, let us look at
the singerian argument
Peter Singerā™s famine relief argument has come to be enormously inļ¬‚u-
ential since its ļ¬rst publication in 1972.2 His argument is widely antholo-
gized, frequently assigned in undergraduate ethics classes, and has been
the subject of a number of (largely sympathetic) philosophical treat-
ments.3 The argumentā™s inļ¬‚uence is easy to understand: it is a simple and
powerful statement of an ethical position that many ļ¬nd intuitively attrac-
tive, if hard to adopt. Indeed, some opposition to the Singerian position
focuses not on any ļ¬‚aws it might have but only on the impracticality of
the position it encourages. But the position has its ļ¬‚aws. After summariz-
ing Singerā™s argument, I lay out three problems with it: (1) the principle
on which the argument is based requires knowledge that people cannot
reasonably be supposed to have; (2) the position relies on an untenable
notion of āvalueā; and (3) the position conļ¬‚ates two notions of morality
that ought to be kept separate, namely, justice and virtue. Although I
principally address Singerā™s formulation of this position, I note that the
problems I raise are generalizable and apply to similar positions adopted
by a number of others.
Singerā™s argument is motivated by this single, fundamental principle:
āif it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, with-
out thereby sacriļ¬cing anything morally signiļ¬cant, we ought, morally,
1 What follows is based in part on my āLimits on Our Obligation to Giveā; see also my
āPrivate Judgment, Individual Liberty, and the Role of the State.ā
2 Peter Singer, āFamine, Afļ¬‚uence, and Moralityā (hereafter referred to as FAM). Singer
has somewhat enlarged his argument in his Practical Ethics, pp. 218ā“46.
3 FAM is included, to take one example, in Feinberg and Shafer-Landauā™s popular text-
book Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. Peter Ungerā™s
Living High and Letting Die is a book-length elaboration and defense of Singerā™s position.
Ungerā™s book was the subject of an also largely sympathetic symposium in Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research in 1999; see in particular Fred Feldmanā™s āComments on Living
High and Letting Die.ā James Rachelsā™s The Elements of Moral Philosophy, chap. 6, defends a
Singerian position, as does Garrett Cullityā™s āInternational Aid and the Scope of Kind-
nessā and The Moral Demands of Afļ¬‚uence (though Cullity is also critical of parts of the
Singerian argument); see also Susan Jamesā™s āThe Duty to Relieve Sufferingā and John
M. Whelan Jr.ā™s āFamine and Charity.ā For discussions of several of these issues from a
variety of viewpoints, see Aiken and LaFolletteā™s edited collection, World Hunger and Moral
The Demands of Poverty 131
to do itā (FAM, p. 24). Accepting this principle means Singerā™s battle
is already partly won. There is in fact great suffering going on in the
worldā”āsuffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical careā
(ibid.)ā”and anyone reading Singer is most likely in a position to help
if he chose. So the argument applies to you and me: if either of us can
alleviate the suffering and dying of others with only a relatively insigniļ¬-
cant sacriļ¬ce, then, according to Singerā™s principle, we ought morally to
do so. Singer drives the point home with what I called in chapter 1 the
Pond Case: āif 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 insigniļ¬cant, while the death of the child
would presumably be a very bad thingā (ibid.). The Pond Case4 purports
to show that all of us already accept Singerā™s principle, since, as Singer
maintains, this principle is what motivates our intuitive agreement that
a passerby ought to save the child. All that remains, then, is to point out
the many other cases that fall under the scope of the principle.
Before raising my objections, I should note that Singer himself
addresses a few obvious ones. The ļ¬rst is that the Pond Case and the case
of starving poor people in East Bengal (Singerā™s example, which I will
call Overseas Aid Cases) are in fact dissimilar because in the latter the
people in question are very far away from us. Singer concedes that his
principle takes āno account of proximity or distance,ā but he argues that
this is irrelevant because a personā™s physical distance from us is itself irrel-
evant to whether we ought to help him if we can (FAM, p. 25).5 I argue
in chapter 9 that psychological propinquity, which is not unrelated to
physical distance, is indeed a relevant factor for determining obligations.
But letā™s table that for now and instead consider the second objection
Singer entertains, that the cases are dissimilar because in the Pond Case
the passerby is, by hypothesis, the only person who can help the child,
whereas any number of people might be in a position to help a starving
Bengali. Singer concedes this fact as well, but he argues that it too is
irrelevant: if we changed the Pond Case so that there were, say, twenty
passersby, Singer argues that each of them would still be morally obligated
to save the child, regardless of what the others did. And the same holds
true for people starving in Bengal.6
4 Unger has a number of cases intended to make points similar to that of the Pond Case;
see Living High and Letting Die, chap. 2.
5 Cullity argues more thoroughly for the irrelevancy of distance than does Singer; see
āInternational Aid and the Scope of Kindness,ā pp. 108ā“9.
6 FAM, pp. 25ā“6.
Working Out the Position
Another objection is vagueness. Singer says that we should help as long
as our helping does not sacriļ¬ce āanything morally signiļ¬cant.ā But what,
one might ask, counts as āmorally signiļ¬cantā? One person might think
that saving his clothes from getting muddy is morally signiļ¬cant, while
another might think that nothing short of giving away almost everything
would count. Singer addresses this concern by distinguishing a āstrongā
from a āmoderateā version of his principle (FAM, p. 32). The strong ver-
sion maintains that one ought to prevent suffering āunless in doing so we
would be sacriļ¬cing something of a comparable moral signiļ¬canceā; the
moderate version maintains that we ought to prevent suffering āunless, to
do so, we had to sacriļ¬ce something morally signiļ¬cantā (ibid.). Although
the strong version is the one Singer thinks is correct, he proposes instead
the moderate versionā”which he thinks is āsurely undeniableā (ibid.)ā”to
allow for some variation in personal judgments of moral signiļ¬cance.
Thus the Singerian position can be restated this way: one ought to pre-
vent the suffering of others unless in oneā™s judgment doing so would sac-
riļ¬ce something morally signiļ¬cant. This version simultaneously avoids
the slippery-slope-style objection and nevertheless maintains the radical
change in most of our lives that Singer believes is required.
A ļ¬nal common objection is raised by John Arthur, who argues that
two important concepts of common moralityā”rights and desertsā”are left
out of Singerā™s account.7 We have a right to our bodies, for example, which
entails rights to the fruit of our bodiesā™ labor; that means no one else has
a right to that fruit. Moreover, common morality acknowledges that we
deserve the fruit of our labors. Although we are often called on to share
that fruit with our family or close friends, common morality usually does
not oblige us to share with strangers what we have legitimately acquired
or made. Arthur argues that not only do the poor have no right to othersā™
money, but the nonpoor also need not feel guilty for not giving to the
poor what the nonpoor legitimately acquired and hence deserve. But the
Singerian need not argue that the poor have a right to someone elseā™s
honestly acquired wealth, and he may concede that a person deserves
what he honestly acquired. All the Singerian needs to argue is that a
person with wealth is morally blameworthy if he does not voluntarily give
some of it to people who desperately need it. It is perfectly consistent
to hold that, on the one hand, A has no right to Bā™s money, while, on
the other hand, that B is nevertheless blameworthy if he gives none of
it to A.
7 In āWorld Hunger and Moral Obligation: The Case against Singer.ā
The Demands of Poverty 133
central problem number one: knowledge
Let me now turn to the problems I believe defeat the Singerian argument.
The ļ¬rst is that one thing that distinguishes the Pond Case from Overseas
Aid Cases is the knowledge that the agent in question can reasonably be
supposed to have in each case. In the Pond Case, the agent canā”in
just the few moments he has to evaluate the situationā”ascertain with
reasonable certainty whether the child has any hope to live or any better
means available to survive, other than by his hand. He can know this
whether others are passing by or not, simply by scanning quickly to see
whether anyone else is preparing to wade in. The agent can also know with
a high level of certainty just what help is requiredā”whether, say, wading
in to grab the child, using the nearby shepherdā™s hook, or throwing him
a life preserver. Finally, the agent can also be sure that his help would
indeed be help: he can be certain that no unintended and unforeseen bad
consequences would ensue from his saving the child (barring of course
the exotic possibilities that the saved child might, for example, grow up to
be the next Stalin). It is partly because of the certainty with respect to these
considerations that we would judge inaction as morally blameworthy. In
Overseas Aid Cases, however, one cannot have anything like the same level
of certainty in regard to any of the three considerations: one cannot know
whether those who are suffering have other means of help available, one
cannot know precisely what help is required, and one cannot be certain
whether the help one is contemplating would indeed be beneļ¬cial.
Now these may initially seem like quibbles, but reļ¬‚ection shows they
arenā™t. Take the ļ¬rst consideration. One of the things that makes the Pond
Case so powerful is the knowledge that without the agentā™s action the
child will die. But this knowledge is itself powerful because one assumes
that the child has no other, and hence no better, means available to
survive: if I do not wade in to rescue the child now, the child will die.
But such knowledge is absent in Overseas Aid Cases. You typically will
not know whether there are other, perhaps better, ways to aid starving
people far away than by giving money to the charity presently asking
for it. There are, after all, any number of ways in which help might be
given: there are numerous relief agencies, many supplying different kinds
of help (food, shelter, medical supplies, books); there are government
agencies providing various kinds of help; and there are often local groups
working to help. Moreover, some aid agencies might be more efļ¬cient
than others, or even less corrupt than others. Recent scandals of United
Way charities are a case in point. William Aramony, former president
Working Out the Position
of United Way, was convicted in 1995 for stealing some $600,000 from
the charityā™s funds to subsidize a lavish personal lifestyle.8 And several
heads of local United Way chapters have come under ļ¬re for taking a
salary and beneļ¬ts package that seems exorbitant for a nonproļ¬t charity,
often worth in excess of $200,000 per year.9 If there are in fact other,
better means of helping, then giving to this charity might thus in fact be
counterproductive: giving money to an inefļ¬cient charity would mean
less money available for an efļ¬cient charity, which could mean that less
total suffering is alleviated.
It is not that one could not commence an investigation of the matter
and become better acquainted with some of the facts, but I do maintain
that one cannot reasonably be supposed to know all the relevant facts, as
one can be supposed in Pond Cases. Such an investigation would be, ļ¬rst
of all, a time-consuming process that many are simply not in a position
to undertake. More important, however, some of the relevant facts would
remain stubbornly unavailable to any given potential donor. Some details
of local conditions, circumstances, and needs will be ascertainable only on
a ļ¬rst-hand, local basis. And because they change frequently, any informa-
tion gathered and sent to an American donorā”even with the quickness
of the internetā”may well be outdated by the time the potential donor
is able to take action. Hence the vast majority of people who are tapped
for donations to overseas aid agencies cannot be reasonably supposed to
have the facts that are necessary to make a properly informed judgment
about what is best to do. And that means they cannot know whether this
particular request from this particular agency represents the only or even
the best way to help suffering people. Indeed, if an American is in pos-
session of facts that allow him to know how he can help locally, then the
uncertainties accompanying Overseas Aid Cases may mean that he should
not give the money to overseas aid agencies, even if there is a chance that
the overseas suffering is greater than what he can help to alleviate locally.
Now why exactly is the degree of certainty such an important factor?
I may not know whether I am the best swimmer around, after all, but I
should still wade in to help the drowning child. True enough, but that
8 See āEx-President of United Way Guilty of Fraud,ā Chicago Tribune, April 4, 1995; and
āUnited Way Admits to ā˜Excesses,ā™ Says Laws May Have Been Broken,ā Chicago Tribune,
April 4, 1992.
9 See, for one example, āSalary of United Wayā™s Detroit Chief Questioned,ā Chicago Tribune,
March 18, 1992. Another case has been the misappropriation of donated monies for the
recent tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia. See āGraft Fears Stalk Indonesia Tsunami Aid
The Demands of Poverty 135
point fails to bring Pond Cases and Overseas Aid Cases together. Regard-
less of other circumstances, in the Pond Case there is little doubt that
I will accomplish what needs to be done, namely, saving the child; but
I cannot even be reasonably sure that my giving money to this charity
will in fact prevent suffering. My money might help, but it might also go
to paying staff or administrative costs, or it might support an otherwise
inefļ¬cient charity. I cannot know for sure. One might respond here that
to avoid the force of my objection, one need only add the requirement
that, in addition to helping overseas poor, my moral obligations include
ļ¬rst investigating which relief agencies are efļ¬cient at getting money to
the people who need it. This is a reasonable suggestion, but note two
things. First, there are no similar additional requirements in the Pond
Case: we donā™t require the passerby to investigate whether his wading
in would be more efļ¬cient than anotherā™s doing so. Hence the cases
are still differentiated by this criterion. Moreover, the requirement that a
person investigate the relative effectiveness of relief agenciesā”aside from
being a time-consuming activity that, as I suggested above, not everyone
is reasonably in a position to undertakeā”does not in the end eliminate
the uncertainty; it only relocates it. The United Way charities, for exam-
ple, made impressive claims about their efļ¬ciency while its leaders were
spending on themselves. Perhaps their similar claims today are in fact
credible, but I would not know for sure. And how could I ļ¬nd out? Not,
obviously, by simply asking the charities themselves. By contrast, however,
it is immediately obvious what help the drowning child requires, and it
will be readily ascertainable whether there are other, better means of
helping the child. Although it might be true, then, that the differences
in certainty in the end are merely matters of degree, the different degrees
between these cases can justify different actions in each.
Turn now to the second consideration: is it always clear exactly what
should be done about the suffering in third-world countries? Unfortu-
nately, no.10 To begin, different kinds of suffering require different kinds
of aid: where one natural disaster might leave the local residents most
in need of potable water, another might leave them in need of peni-
cillin or other medical supplies. In one place foodstuffs are required,
elsewhere seeds for future crops are best. In one place building materials
for storm shelters are needed, elsewhere building materials for irrigation
10 To be contrasted with the Singerian position on what is to be done is, for example,
that of economist Julian L. Simon; see Simonā™s āIntroductionā to his edited The State of
Humanity, esp. pp. 24ā“7.
Working Out the Position
or damming systems. And this is not just a matter of some having more
knowledge than others. Among charitable agencies claiming ļ¬rst-hand
knowledge, some will argue that what is best for the residents of one loca-
tion is birth control devices and fertility education, others that books and
school supplies are most important, others again that scholarships for for-
eign study are in their best long-term interests. Still others will argue that
what is most required is political actionā”lobbying oneā™s own government
for trade sanctions or aid, perhaps, or protesting the needy peopleā™s gov-
ernment for greater respect for human rights. Indeed, some will argue
that in some cases what is required is no action whatsoever.11 This partial
list offers an already bewildering array of choices, and it is exceedingly
difļ¬cult to know which is best. In Singerā™s example of Bengal, one could
make plausible arguments for any one of these options as the best for help-
ing current and future Bengalis. For a potential American donor, then, it
is anything but clear whether giving money to the organization now ask-
ing for it is the best thing for him to doā”especially considering that some
groups argue not only that their own is the best strategy for helping, but
that othersā™ strategies are in fact counterproductive, or even immoral.
Similar uncertainties do not beset the agent in the Pond Case. There
can be little doubt that what is required is bodily taking the child out of
the water. A few thoughts might still occur to the passerbyā”whether he
should take off his coat, whether he should take the child to the north
or south edge of the pondā”but these can be assessed and decided in
the few moments it takes to reach the child. The uncertainties attendant
on Overseas Aid Cases are far more numerous, involve indeļ¬nitely more
possible courses of action and resulting effects, and hence cannot be
assessed in the same on-the-spot fashion.
Finally, the third consideration is the degree to which the passerby in
question can know that his help would in fact be beneļ¬cial. A person who
wishes to alleviate the suffering of others must think about which factors
affect the suffering of the people in question, and he must hence investi-
gate which causes, including which actions he himself might undertake,
would mitigate the suffering. It follows that such a person must recognize
the distinction between the long-term and short-term effects of available
courses of action, and recognize the importance of considering both.
Any course of action that leads on balance to an increase in suffering in
the long run would seem prima facie to be avoided, even if it led to a
11 See John Kekesā™s āOn the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine.ā
The Demands of Poverty 137
A potential American donor must therefore consider, for example, the
real possibility that sending money might sustain a moribund political
system, leading to perhaps a short-term decrease but long-term increase
in the number of people that die. Monetary aid now might temporarily
buoy an incompetent government, with the result that the government
extends and entrenchesā”rather than retracts or abolishesā”its inefļ¬-
cient policies. A few months or years later, then, the country is in worse
shape than it was and more people are suffering than would have been
if the government or citizens had heeded the early warning signs and
made or demanded the necessary changes. Tom Bethell, for example,
argues in his The Noblest Triumph that the U.S. policy of giving money
to third-world countries has actually āretarded economic developmentā
there for just these reasons.12 A similar scenario is possible with a corrupt
rather than an incompetent government: in this case foreign aid might
assuage the citizensā™ suspicions about their leaders, putting off a change
of leadership until after more damage has been done.13 Red Cross and
other well-intentioned Western aid to Leninist Russia in 1921 is a case
in point. As StĀ“ phane Courtois catalogues in gruesome, grisly detail in
his edited The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, over the
two subsequent years, more than ļ¬ve million Russians died of hunger
from a famine deliberately created by the Russian government.14 But,
again, there are no such worries in the Pond Case: wading into the pond
will save the childā™s life, which is good; no further considerations are
Singerā™s Pond Case is also powerful in part because of the unstated
assumption that the child is innocent. What could a child have done to
deserve such a fate? Similarly, what could far-away, starving children pos-
sibly have done to deserve their suffering? Yet money given to charities
does not always go to starving children; sometimes it does not even go to
their parents. Sometimes it instead goes to childless adults, or ends up
in the hands of government ofļ¬cials, military ofļ¬cers, or business con-
glomerates. But those people may not deserve the money. They might,
after all, be the reason why children are suffering: their corruption, plun-
dering, or other irresponsibility might be exactly what has caused the
conditions that lead to poverty. In such a situation, giving money might
12 See chap. 13.
13 See also David Osterļ¬eldā™s āThe Failures and Fallacies of Foreign Aid,ā http://www.
fee.org/vnews.php?nid=2191, and āLeftist Uses U.S. Aid for ā˜Dictatorship.ā™ā
14 See esp. pp. 122ā“31.
Working Out the Position
in fact exacerbate the problem of starvation and suffering rather than
And again this is no mere rationalization. We know, for example, that
there is enough food produced in the world today to feed every single
inhabitant adequately, all six-billion-plus of them.15 Moreover, there is
strong empirical evidence suggesting that a chief cause of poverty world-
wide is inefļ¬cient or counterproductive governmental policies, evidence
I present in detail in chapter 5. The annually published Economic Freedom
of the World 16 shows the strong correlation between economic prosper-
ity and certain kinds of governmental policies (can you guess which?),
and between economic privation and other policies: almost all countries
approximating one kind of policies are wealthy or becoming so, almost all
not approximating that kind of policies are poor or becoming soā”and
their relative wealth or poverty closely tracks the degree to which they do
or do not have proper government policies. It is thus reasonable for a
person to be more skeptical about giving money to relief agencies work-
ing in foreign countries than he would be to wading in and pulling a
child to safety, especially when considering places such as Bengal, where
governmental policies are a principal cause of the poverty. In its 2004
report, Economic Freedom of the World ranks Bangladesh (where East Bengal
is located) 83rd out of 123 countries examined in having governmen-
tal policies favorable to economic prosperity; since 1975, Bangladeshā™s
ranking has been as high as 69th and as low as 93rd. Given such poli-
cies, Bangladesh is one of the worldā™s poorer countries: according to the
World Bank, its per capita gross domestic product in 2001 was $1,610
(for comparison, that of the United States, which ranks third on the EFW
index, was $34,320). Neighboring India, which contains West Bengal,
was ranked 68th on the index, and it had a per capita gross domes-
tic product of $2,840. So how could morality possibly require that we
simply send money over, without ļ¬rst straightening out these political
mattersā”or at the very least investigating them? The point again is not
that such an investigation is not possible: it is instead to underline the dif-
ferences between the Pond Case, where no such investigation is required,
and the Overseas Aid Case, where such an investigation is required. The
15 Singer recognizes this; see Practical Ethics, p. 236. For current evidence, see the FAO Quar-
terly Bulletin of Statistics or the FAO Monthly Bulletins, both put out by the United Nations
Food and Agricultural Organization. See also Lomborgā™s The Skeptical Environmentalist,
16 Http:/ /www.freetheworld.com.
The Demands of Poverty 139
implication is that the basis for moral judgments about the former do
not necessarily apply to the latter.
Before leaving this third consideration, I should note that Peter
Ungerā™s response to what he calls the āthought of the disastrous further
futureā does not answer my argument.17 The objection Unger considers
in his Living High and Letting Die is that giving starving children food
now will only allow them to grow up and have more starving children
in the future. Unger has two responses. First, he says that actual popu-
lation statistics show that āthe thought of the disastrous further future
is little better than an hysterical fantasyā; second, he says that even if
that thought were true, it would be irrelevant to the case at hand. Unger
supplies no argument for the ļ¬rst response; he cites an article by Nobel-
laureate economist Amartya Sen on the topic and then reasserts that it is
nevertheless irrelevant. But why is it irrelevant? I have argued that a con-
sideration of long-term consequences is closely connected with a concern
for alleviating suffering. If it turned out that one course of action could be
seen by reasonable prediction to lead to an increase in overall suffering,
then this would seem to be a good reason to avoid that course of action.
Thus we have to look at the population data after all, and here Unger
stands on shaky ground.
In the article cited by Unger, Sen summarizes his own and othersā™
research data that suggest that, contrary to Malthusian predictions,
increasing economic prosperity leads to decreasing, not increasing, birth
rates.18 Sen argues that the data suggest that despite increasing worldwide
populationā”although the rate of increase is decreasing: in fact, accord-
ing to the World Bank, estimates are now that worldwide population will
ultimately stabilize of its own accord, perhaps even sometime in this cen-
tury19 ā”there is no reason to think that we are in for a global disaster.
Indeed, the production of food has stayed ahead of the production of
human beings, despite the fact that human beings have been reproducing
17 Unger, Living High and Letting Die, pp. 36ā“9. Cullity (āInternational Aid and the Scope of
Kindness,ā p. 125) and Whelan (āFamine and Charity,ā p. 156) also consider and reject
this objection on grounds similar to those of Unger.
18 Amartya Sen, āPopulation: Delusion and Reality.ā Citations of Senā™s article are on the
page given in parentheses. For Malthusā™s argument, see his 1803 Essay on the Principle of
19 World Development Report 1994, pp. 210ā“11. For a dissenting discussion, see, for exam-
ple, http:/ /www.prb.org/Template.cfm?Section=PRB&template=/Content/Content-
Groups/Datasheets/2005 World Population Data Sheet.htm, accessed December 13,
Working Out the Position
at breathtaking speeds, and despite the further fact that the majority of
the reproduction is taking place in some of the poorest areas of the world,
such as China and India. But Senā™s data do not support Ungerā™s case. In
the ļ¬rst place, they suggest that, if anything, we should be less concerned
about the impending fate of people presently in conditions of poverty,
since, as economist Julian Simon was fond of putting it, things are look-
ing better and better. In addition, Sen argues that what continues to keep
poor nations poor is neither lack of food, for there is more than enough,
nor overcrowding, for there are more crowded places that are never-
theless richer. Instead, the problem has to do with āpolitical disruption,
including wars and military ruleā (p. 65). Sen argues that contraceptives,
better education, and better health care would all decrease birth rates,
but that even a decreasing birth rate would not alleviate suffering until the
āfood problem . . . [is] seen as one part of a wider political and economic
problemā of third-world countries (p. 66). Thus Senā™s argument substan-
tiates my claim that the concerns of an Americanā”even one otherwise
committed to helping alleviate sufferingā”of exacerbating the situation
by unintentionally propping up an inefļ¬cient or corrupt government are
legitimate and can justify hesitation to give.
The argument, then, is that there are uncertainties in Overseas Aid
Cases that cannot be overlooked and quite possibly cannot be avoided,
and that these uncertainties can justify inaction that in Pond Cases would
be unjustiļ¬able. Depending on the particulars of the Overseas Aid Case at
hand, giving money to the charity asking for it might be morally required,
not giving money might be morally required, or an (indeļ¬nite) suspen-
sion of the decision of whether to give until more facts become available
might be morally required. Or, indeed, perhaps nothing whatsoever is
morally required. In light of the combined effect of these sources of
uncertaintyā”even if any one of them were overcomeā”one cannot main-
tain in advance, as Singerians do, that giving to overseas aid agencies
is always morally required. Even a weak and qualiļ¬ed claim, such as
although one cannot know for sure, one can be reasonably certain that
giving money to one of the more reputable charities will probably lead to the
reduction in suffering of someone in the relatively near future, is falsiļ¬ed
by the three kinds of uncertainty. But none of this uncertainty applies to
Pond cases. That means that the cases are different. It also means that
Singerā™s principle that one ought to prevent something very bad from
happening if one can do so without sacriļ¬cing something (comparably)
morally signiļ¬cant fails as well. Maybe the people suffering something
very bad deserve to suffer it; maybe our preventing the very bad thing
The Demands of Poverty 141
would lead in fact to worse consequences down the road; maybe the peo-
ple suffering it do not want help; and so on.20 Surely we should not simply
ignore such possibilities. Because we cannot know these things in Over-
seas Aid Cases, Singerā™s principle is false, and the Pond Case therefore
does not sufļ¬ce to show that we are morally obligated to give.
I emphasize that I have not shown that one should not give to charities.
My argument is rather that the immorality of inaction in Pond Cases
does not entail the immorality of inaction in Overseas Aid Cases, because
the cases differ in signiļ¬cant ways. Effective charitable giving remains
based on local knowledge, and if Singerā™s Pond Case shows anything, it
is that moral action itself requires individual judgment based on local
central problem number two: value
One source of the Singerian positionā™s strength is the fact that we intu-
itively think that a wealthy personā™s enjoyment from, say, buying a new
compact disc simply cannot be so valuable that it outweighs the suffer-
ing of a person starving. Singer construes the comparison in economic
terms: $15 is worth much more to the starving person than it is to the
music lover. Singer gives the following list of items that he thinks are less
important to a wealthy American than their monetary value would be to a
poor foreigner: āstylish clothes, expensive dinners, a sophisticated stereo
system, overseas holidays, a (second?) car, a larger house, private schools
for our children, and so on.ā21 Such interpersonal comparisons of value
intuitively seem unproblematic, especially when such extreme cases are
compared. But can one articulate this notion of comparative value in a
In a word: no. One of the central discoveries that led to modern eco-
nomics was what is called the subjective theory of valueā”the notion that a
thingā™s āvalueā be sought not in the thing itself or in any objective criterion
or standard, but, rather, simply in what any individual is willing to sacriļ¬ce
in order to get it. This notion of value allows us to understand otherwise
paradoxical phenomena. For example, two people with exactly the same
amount of money may make entirely different judgments about whether
the product they are contemplating is worth the price. I may be willing
to spend $5,000 for an Amy LeJeune Harper painting, but not $5,000 for
20 See Kekesā™s āOn the Supposed Obligation to Relieve Famine,ā esp. pp. 506ā“7.
21 Practical Ethics, p. 232.
Working Out the Position
an autographed Nolan Ryan rookie baseball card; on the other hand, you
would not pay $5,000 for a Harper, but you would gladly pay $5,000 for
the Nolan Ryan card. One employer might be willing to pay a worker only
$7 per hour to do something for which another employer is willing to pay
the same worker $10 per hour. What accounts for these differences? The
longtime mistake was to think that there is some objective value in the
painting, card, or work that the prices are trying to approximate. On
the contrary, discrepancies in judgments about what things are worth
merely reļ¬‚ect the fact that a thingā™s āvalueā just is whatever a person is
willing to give up for it. Thus a Harperā™s value is at least $5,000 to me,
while at the same time less than that to you; the Nolan Ryan card is worth
less than $5,000 to me, but at least that to you. The values, then, are
determined by the valuing agent, not the valued object. Hence the name
The case for this concept of value was made by a series of Austrian
economists in the nineteenth century who broke with the Ricardian and
Marxian notion that labor was what gave things their value.22 Although
labor had seemed promising as an objective criterion of value, examina-
tion revealed that it in fact contained a host of problems. To start, labor
is difļ¬cult to measure, and it varies from person to person: two people
who worked for the same amount of time on something might not have
expended the same amount of ālabor,ā and it might take different people
different amounts of ālaborā to create precisely the same thing. Moreover,
a labor theory of value has some recalcitrantly odd results: in easily imag-
inable cases it can turn out that a person expended a great deal of labor
on something most people would agree is quite worthless. And what do
we do about the location of a thingā™s value? Do we say that the labor cre-
ates value in a thing, meaning that the thing is what is now valuable, not
the labor? Would this mean that an idle person is without value? Or do
we say that labor itself is what is valuable? Then what is the metaphysical
operation by which the labor infuses itself into an object? When I buy a
Harper, I am buying a painting, not ālabor.ā If it was Harperā™s labor that
had value, however, then her labor must somehow be in the painting. But
how, and what is the metaphysical entity that is or contains the value as it
is being transferred?
22 See Ricardoā™s 1817 On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, esp. chap. 1; and
Marxā™s 1867 Capital, esp. Part I, in Tucker, Marx-Engels Reader, pp. 302ā“29. Adam Smith
also seems to rely on labor as a determinant of value: see his Wealth of Nations, esp. bk. I,
chaps. 4 and 5.
The Demands of Poverty 143
Beginning with Carl Mengerā™s 1871 Principles of Economics and pro-
ceeding through the work of Christian von Ehrenfels, Eugen von BĀØ hm- o
Bawerk, Friedrich von Wieser, and Ludwig von Mises, the āAustrian
Schoolā of economists argued that the notion of inherent value imbued in
an object by labor was incoherent.23 In its stead, they set out the detailed
and systematic case of their new discovery, the principle of diminishing
marginal utility (PDMU), and the subjective theory of value it entailed.
The PDMU holds that for any good or service a person wants, the n + 1st
unit he receives is ceteris paribus less valuable to him than the nth unit.24
This principle is meant to be a description of human valuing, and it is
based on the belief that people tend to put the ļ¬rst unit of any good or
service to what they judge to be its most important use, the second unit
to its second most important use, and so on, until eventually another unit
is worth practically or actually nothing to them. Think of glasses of water
for a thirsty person: the ļ¬rst is worth a great deal to him, the second is
worth less, and so on, until, say, the ļ¬fth glass is worth nothing to him;
perhaps the ļ¬rst two glasses he himself drinks, the third he gives to you,
the fourth he uses to water his plant, and the ļ¬fth he dumps out.
What is important about the PDMU for our purposes is that it posits
individual valuation. It shows that human beings value things based on
personal preferences, and this valuation is what creates and determines
a thingā™s value. As Ehrenfels argues, āwe do not desire things because we
grasp in them some mystical, incomprehensible essence ā˜valueā™; rather, we
ascribe ā˜valueā™ to things because we desire them.ā25 Similarly, there is no
ājustā price, as for example St. Thomas Aquinas argued in the thirteenth
century, and no āintrinsicā price, as for example Richard Cantillon argued
in the eighteenth.26 A single thing can in fact simultaneously have indef-
initely many values, each indexed to a particular valuing agent. Because
the use to which a thing will be put is determined by an individualā™s
unique circumstances and unique schedule of preferences, it makes no
sense to speak of one personā™s valuation of the thing applying to another
23 For a good discussion of the Austrian Schoolā™s lineage and its development of the sub-
jective theory of value, see Barry Smith, Austrian Philosophy, chap. 9. For discussions of
how this school has inļ¬‚uenced modern economic thought, see James M. Buchanan, Cost
and Choice, and Karen I. Vaughn, Austrian Economics in America, esp. chaps. 1ā“3.
24 See Carl Menger, Principles of Economics, pp. 122ā“8, esp. the chart and Mengerā™s expla-
nation of it on pp. 126ā“7. For critical discussion of the PDMU, see, for example, Harry
G. Frankfurt, āEquality as a Moral Ideal.ā
25 In System der Werttheorie (1897ā“8), as cited in Smithā™s Austrian Philosophy, p. 283.
26 See, respectively, St. Thomasā™s 1266ā“73 Summa theologica, Question 78 on āUsury,ā and
Richard Cantillonā™s 1755 Essay on the Nature of Commerce in General, pp. 15ā“17.
Working Out the Position
person: even if two people in a particular case are willing to sacriļ¬ce the
same amount for something, their respective valuations will be the result
of different calculations based on different variables; hence oneā™s valua-
tion cannot substitute for the otherā™s (and no third partyā™s valuation can
substitute for either of the otherā™s). It follows that the value of the thing
to one person cannot be compared to its value to the other.
Each act of valuation is relative, then, to a particular agent. That means
that not only might two agents value a given thing at different rates, but
they might value it relative to other things differently. So I value the
Harper more than you do, and we both value a Harper more than, say,
an Elvis-on-black-velvet print for sale in front of Wal-Mart, which means
that we would both trade an Elvis print for a Harper. But how many Elvis
prints would we be willing to give up for a Harper? I would presumably
trade more than you would, but how many more? The subjective theory
of value says that there is no single āobjectively correctā answer to how
many should be traded, and that there is no way to calculate an exact
value of a Harper based on the number of Elvis prints, because people
do not judge value in terms of an objectively quantiļ¬able criterion. They
judge, rather, on the basis of their unique set of preferences, as driven
by their present desires. Thus the actual value of a Harper to me may
not only not be the actual value of a Harper to you, but because our
respective judgments of its value are informed by our respective unique
sets of preferences, the judgments themselves are not commensurable on
any single standard or criterion. Their value may not even be the same
to me at one time as compared with a later timeā”there was a time, for
example, when I did not appreciate Harpers as much as I do now. Thus
the valuations simply cannot be compared. Asking which is āobjectivelyā
worth more is, then, incoherent.27
How does this relate to giving money overseas? The ļ¬rst step is to
show that the Singerian position needs the āstrongā version of Singerā™s
27 I have given only a sketch of the subjective theory of value and the problems attendant on
rival theories. For further investigation, see, for seminal classic accounts, Ralph Barton
Perry, General Theory of Value, and Ludwig von Mises, Human Action. For more recent
studies of various aspects, see Mark Addleson, ā ā˜Radical Subjectivismā™ and the Language
of Austrian Economics,ā Israel M. Kirzner, āAnother Look at the Subjectivism of Costs,ā
and Gerald P. Oā™Driscoll Jr. and Mario J. Rizzo, āSubjectivism, Uncertainty, and Rules,ā
all in Israel M. Kirznerā™s edited Subjectivism, Intelligibility, and Economic Understanding ;
and Eric Mack, āAgent-Relativity of Value, Deontic Restraints, and Self-Ownership,ā in
R. G. Frey and Christopher W. Morrisā™s edited Value, Welfare, and Morality. For criticism
of this theory of value, see Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations, pp. 403ā“570 and
the references contained therein.
The Demands of Poverty 145
principle, which involves comparisons of value. Recall that the āstrongā
version requires that one help if, by helping, one does not sacriļ¬ce
anything of comparable moral signiļ¬cance, while the āmoderateā version
requires that one help if, by helping, one does not sacriļ¬ce anything
morally signiļ¬cant. The subtle change in wording makes for a substantial
change in meaning. But the āmoderateā version turns out to be insufļ¬-
cient because its operative notionā”āmorally signiļ¬cantāā”is too vague,
allowing for too broad a range of interpretation. People will have sharply
different views about what level of sacriļ¬ce begins to be āmorally sig-
niļ¬cant,ā and until one can locate a speciļ¬c, concrete criterion, one
would have to live with some people, perhaps most people, not giving any
money to overseas relief agencies on the (plausible) grounds that their
own local concerns are morally signiļ¬cant. So if one wants to motivate
real change in peopleā™s behavior, one will have to resort to the āstrongā
version of the principle after all. (Singer seems to recognize as much,
by the way: in later writings his principle is given in only the āstrongā
One might think that the āstrongā version of the principle provides the
necessary objective criterion we have been looking for, namely, comparable
moral signiļ¬cance. The second step in the argument is now to suggest
that Pond Cases provide support for Overseas Aid Cases via the āstrongā
principle only by relying on an interpersonal comparison of value that
the above discussion shows to be incoherent. For it relies on the readerā™s
being moved by a rhetorical question such as this one: Is that trinket you
are about to spend money on worth more to you than getting a meal is
worth to a hungry Bengali? The intended answer is, of course, clear. But
no such direct comparison can be made, and the Singerian argument
trades on a crucial ambiguity. What the Singerian wants the reader to ask
himself is whether, if the reader were in the Bengaliā™s shoes, the reader
would want some other wealthy person to buy another trinket or pay
the same amount to feed him. Again the answer is obvious. This kind of
comparison of cases is coherent, however, because it relies in both cases
on the readerā™s own personal valuations. But the question the Singerian
asks instead is whether the trinket is worth more to the wealthy person than
the meal is to the Bengali. This kind of comparison is what the subjective
theory of value disallows as incoherent because it calls for comparison of
28 Cp. Practical Ethics, 1st ed., p. 168, and Practical Ethics, 2nd ed., p. 229. Cullity agrees that
Singerā™s argument requires the āstrongā version; see Cullity, āInternational Aid and the
Scope of Kindness,ā p. 126.
Working Out the Position
incommensurable subjective judgments of value. There is simply no way
to answer the question of which is āobjectivelyā worth more.
To clarify my argument, let me pause for a moment to address a cou-
ple of potential objections.29 First, it may be thought that my argument
necessarily implies an ethical subjectivity: if I cannot compare my valu-
ations to your valuations, is there nothing more to be said about moral
judgments than that I value certain things at one level, whereas you value
them at another? So, for example, perhaps I value other peopleā™s ā˜per-
sonhood,ā™ but you donā™t. Is there no way to resolve such an impasse? This
is a good question, but the answer is unequivocally: No, the incoherence
of interpersonal comparisons of value (ICVs) does not necessarily imply
a subjective theory of morality. It does not follow from the fact that one
cannot compare the value of $15 to A to its value to B that therefore there
is no basis for judging, say, that the genocides conducted in Russia under
Stalin were (1) morally execrable and (2) morally worse than (proba-
bly) any morally bad thing you or I have ever done. The argument that
ICVs are incoherent might imply that one cannot compare the value of
preventing future such genocides to me with its value to youā”that is,
what I would be willing to sacriļ¬ce to ensure their prevention as opposed
to what you would be willing to sacriļ¬ce for the same thing, declaring
one of us ācorrectā and the other āincorrectā in his valuationā”but it
does not imply that one cannot make moral judgments like (1) and (2)
above. Moral judgments such as these might be based on any of several
criteriaā”perhaps the judgment of an imagined impartial spectator or
an objective utility calculation30 ā”and thus are distinct from, and can be
entirely independent of, subjective judgments of value.
A second potential objection is that perhaps Singerā™s argument
depends not, in fact, on an ICV, but rather only on the reader comparing
his own respective valuationsā”that is, their value to himself onlyā”of, on
the one hand, $15 for a trinket and, on the other, $15 for food when he
is hungry. Iā™m not sure that suggestion rescues Singerā™s argument. Con-
sider that whichever judgment were reached would by hypothesis apply
29 For an interesting discussion of the topics that follow, see J. C. Lesterā™s Escape from
Leviathan, chap. 4. See also my review of Lesterā™s book, http://www.independent.org/tii/
content/pubs/review/books/tir61 lester.html. (You might also be interested to see
Lesterā™s reply to my review, http:/ /www.khcc.org.uk/la/otteson.htm, both accessed
December 13, 2005.)
30 I say āobjectiveā utility calculation to emphasize that, whatever other problems such
calculations might face, it need not be based on subjective judgments of value. Such a
calculation might instead be based on what actually and in fact leads to greater happiness
for all concerned, what actually and in fact allows more people to ļ¬‚ourish, and so on.
The Demands of Poverty 147
only to the person making the judgment: it would mean that I value
money for food over money for trinkets when the two conļ¬‚ict, but it says
nothing about anyone elseā”and in particular nothing about the person
who really counts for Singer, namely, the hungry person overseas. But
Singerā™s argument is meant to motivate me to take action with regard to
others, not just myself, and for that I will have to compare, or at least
draw an analogy between my valuation of my own case and what would
be another personā™s valuation of his case. That brings us right back to the
problem of ICVs. So if it is true that the Singerian argument relies only on
a single personā™s making two subjective valuations and comparing them
with one another, then the argument would not in the end motivate the
conduct that the Singerian wants to motivate, namely, sending money to
help overseas poor. Otherwise the argument faces the problems I have
suggested with ICVs.
Now it may well be that a wealthy person who spends his money
on trinkets is engaging in a viciousā”though not unjust (more on that
momentarily)ā”waste of money. My argument here is only that to the
extent that the Singerian position relies on this kind of comparison of
value, the argument fails. The extreme nature of Pond Cases calls up
intuitive sentiments that are strong enough to mask the philosophical
problems underlying the use to which they are put, but that does not
mean the problems go away. There is no coherent way to compare one
personā™s judgments of value, or his schedule of values, with those of any
other person; and there is no single objective criterion of value by which
both can be judged that is not beset with fatal problems. Regardless of
our intuitions to the contrary, there is no way to decide whether money
spent in one way is worth more or less to one person than the same money
spent another way is to another person. It may still be proper to blame
the wealthy person for spending money on trinkets rather than helping
the poorā”that is, to repeat, there may well be objective moral grounds
on which to base a negative judgment of such a person. But that judg-
ment will have to be on grounds other than the wealthy personā™s making
a morally culpable mistaken judgment of value.
central problem number three: vice versus justice
The ļ¬nal problem I wish to raise with the Singerian position is that it
conļ¬‚ates two central notions of moral philosophy that should be kept
separate: justice and virtue. The Singerian says that a person who does
not save the child in the Pond Case is immoral, full stop. Drawing on the
Working Out the Position
distinction drawn in chapter 1, however, I suggest that the person would
be vicious, but not unjust; and it is only injustice that warrants initiating
coercive action against a person. The same judgment applies to Overseas
Aid Cases: the worst we could conclude about the wealthy person who
does not give to overseas relief agencies is that he is vicious. We are not,
however, thereby licensed to conclude that he is acting unjustlyā”and,
hence, we are not justiļ¬ed in adopting anything other than rhetorical
weapons against him.
This distinction between virtue and justice is based on the account
given by Adam Smith in his 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments (hereafter
referred to as TMS). Smith argues that the rules of other virtues are like
the rules of style, whereas the rules of justice are like the rules of grammar:
the former are multiple, vague, and indeļ¬nite; the latter are few, precise,
and well known. Indeed, we can capture ā˜justiceā™ adequately with just
three simple rules: do not invade another personā™s life, do not impinge
on another personā™s liberty, and do not transgress on another personā™s
property (TMS, p. 84). These rules are all negative, and it is true, as Smith
puts it, that one might fulļ¬ll them all completely by sitting still and doing
nothing (TMS, p. 82). That does not mean that a person doing nothing
would be particularly virtuous, however, for full virtue requires indeļ¬nitely
many positive actions, all situation-speciļ¬c and guided by judgment and
not by precise rules. As I argued in chapter 3, because no society can
exist in which its members do not respect the rules of justice, society is
justiļ¬ed in enforcing them, coercively if necessary. On the other hand,
society is not justiļ¬ed in enforcing other virtues with coercive measures,
because doing so would lead to inquisitions, public battles, division, and
strife, not to mention ongoing violations of peopleā™s personhood.
Since I have already defended this conception of justice and virtue,
I wonā™t do so again here. But let me point out two considerations that
recommend it in the present context: ļ¬rst, it ļ¬ts with our everyday moral
judgments better than the Singerian picture does; second, it avoids a
distasteful consequence of the Singerian position. Take these in turn.
Singer talks of a personā™s ādutyā to give (FAM, p. 27), he speaks of
great personal sacriļ¬ce not as supererogatory but as obligatory (FAM,
p. 28), and he thinks the state ought to take money from private hands
and redistribute it if voluntary private donations are not forthcoming
(FAM, p. 23). All of this suggests a single-place conception of morality:
either one is moral or one is immoral. If one does not help suffering
people, one is immoral; if one does, one is (at least on this count) not
immoral. As I argued in chapter 1, however, we routinely recognize a
The Demands of Poverty 149
two-place conception of morality in our everyday dealings with people.
We say that I think your words are vile, but you have a right to say them;
we say that what you have done with your life is a waste, but that is your
business; we say that you are making a mistake to pay that price for that
car, but it is your money. We do not say, however, I think you should not
kill an innocent person, but that is your business; we do not say I think
you should not rape a person, but that is your business; we do not say I
think you should not steal from others, but that is your business. This way
of looking at people and their actions assumes the distinction between
justice and injustice, on the one hand, and other virtues and vices, on
the other: we allow people to be otherwise vicious as long as they are not
unjust, but the moment they cross the line of injustice we feel justiļ¬ed in
stepping in. We express disapproval of viciousness, but we do not initiate
force because the vicious person is doing no āreal and positive hurtā to
anyone. On the other hand, murder, rape, and theft all do āreal and
positive hurtā to others, thus are all breaches of justice, and thus justify
Relate this now to the Pond Case. Singer would have us judge the
passerby simply to be immoral if he does not help the child. I suggest
instead that the proper judgment is that the person is vicious but not
unjust. Because he did no āreal and positive hurtā to the child, he deserves
only disapprobation; since he is not unjust, we would not be justiļ¬ed in
initiating force against him (by, say, ļ¬ning him or throwing him in jail).
Causing a personā™s suffering is another matter, of courseā”that is indeed
to act unjustlyā”but that is not what we are considering here. We imagine
a case only of neglect or indifference, which, assuming there was no previ-
ous obligation in placeā”it was not the childā™s parent, for example, or the
childā™s paid, on-duty lifeguardā”could not turn into injustice.31 However
discreditable the idle passerbyā™s actions would be, and however we might
justiļ¬ably shun and publicly execrate him, his actions remain within the
bounds of justice. Therefore, out of respect for his personhood, we are
not allowed to force him to do otherwise or coercively punish him.
Besides ļ¬tting our everyday moral judgments better, the distinction
between virtue and justice is also germane to the Singerian position in
another way. Advocates of this position typically think that governments
should pick up where private donation ends. This tends to be the practi-
cal import of Singerā™s saying that giving in the Overseas Aid Case is our
āduty.ā Almost all defenders of Singerian positions make similar calls for
31 I defended this notion of causation in chapter 1.
Working Out the Position
state action; a typical example is Onora Oā™Neillā™s Faces of Hunger, which
asks for state-enforced worldwide wealth redistribution. But this would be
to advocate coercive measures to punish people for insufļ¬cient virtueā”
which is disallowed as inconsistent with respecting peopleā™s personhood.
Because the Singerian tends to think that a person not giving money
to overseas aid agencies is immoral, period, he believes he is therefore
justiļ¬ed in calling on governments to secure from otherwise unwilling
private parties the money that he judges necessary to alleviate suffering.
How much money would that be? Singer mentions ā40 percent of our
Gross National Productā (FAM, p. 32). Now, federal, state, and local gov-
ernments already consume more than one-third of Americaā™s GNP. Esti-
mates vary, but one conservative estimate reports that the total effective
tax rateā”that is, including federal, state, and local taxesā”was 32.7 per-
cent in 2001.32 But putting that complication to one side, the Singerian
ends up here in effect arguing for a substitution of his own judgment
about whether, to whom, and how much one should give for everyone
elseā™s, backing his judgment up with the coercive apparatus of the state.
This is the distasteful consequence to which I referred earlier, distasteful
because it disrespects othersā™ judgment and thus their personhood.
I suggest that such a governmental policy is inconsistent with a society
of ā˜personsā™ (1) because it violates the sanctity of private property by not
allowing people to do with their own whatever they want, so long as they
do no āpositive hurtā to others in the process, and also (2) because it
violates the sanctity of oneā™s private judgment by not allowing people
to contribute their time, money, or other help as they privately judge
proper. The decision to give is, after all, based on oneā™s beliefs about
deeply important thingsā”such as what constitutes the good life and how
one should attain itā”and thus falls within the scope of the sanctity of
oneā™s private judgment. Advocating government action in this regard
ignores the violation of these two central building blocks of a just society.
And I suggest this violation is especially incautious given the uncertainties
attendant on giving money to overseas aid agencies and the impossibility
32 See http:/ /taxfoundation.org/ļ¬les/8aeOffb685f381da2b2fc6c035513ac7.pdf. For
comparison, in 1925 it was 9.3 percent, in 1950 it was 24.6 percent, and in 1975 it was 28.9
percent. Others calculate that the total government cost is much higher; see, for example,
economist Robert Higgsā™s āLies, Damn Lies, and Conventional Measures of the Growth
of Government,ā http:/ /www.independent.org/tii/media/pdf/tir 09 1 9 higgs.pdf,
and Stephen Mooreā™s āThe Most Expensive Government in World History,ā
E3B3E90495EC86256B4D003EB1A9 (all sites accessed December 13, 2005).
The Demands of Poverty 151
of making the kind of interpersonal comparison of value on which the
Singerian bases his judgment.
It should also not go unmentioned in this connection that one consid-
erable virtue of the society entailed by the concept of personhood I have
defended is its limitations on the power of the state over the individual.
The twentieth centuryā™s string of the most bloody political regimes in the
known history of the world is a potent reminder of the importance of cir-
cumscribing the power of government, particularly as it pertains to private
property and private conscience. Just how bloody the twentieth century
was is shocking and arresting. R. J. Rummel, the political scientist who
has done the most to get the hard numbers, refers to the phenomenon
as ādemocideā: in his Death by Government, Rummel estimates that during
the twentieth century a total of 169,198,000 noncombatants were killed
for political reasons by their own governments. Re-read that last sentence.
These are not soldiers killed in wars: these are people who were targeted
and eliminatedā”Leninā™s word was āliquidatedāā”solely for reasons of
political expediency, by their own governments, those very institutions
supposedly charged with ensuring their well-being. As bloody as previous
eras or regimes in history have been, no other century in history comes
close to this level of carnage. Now there might be cases in which we think
that impinging on peopleā™s freedoms is proper or required. But prudence
indeed dictates that those cases should be few and carefully, publicly scru-
tinized. And in light of the risks that were horriļ¬cally realized during the
last century, we would do well to mind the maxim that whatever power
we give the state to do for us we also give it to do to us. One conclusion I
think is therefore justiļ¬ed is that not being beneļ¬cent enough is a dubi-
ous justiļ¬cation for an undertaking as dangerously precedent-setting as
asking the government to use force against those who do not agree with
or measure up to one personā™s, or one groupā™s, judgment of ābeneļ¬cent
Lest I be misunderstood here, I am of course not suggesting that Singer
or any others who support Singerian positions are advocating the creation
of a brutal totalitarian state. My suggestion is rather that there are often
unintended consequences involved in state action. This is not an idea new
to me. In his 1888 essay āDemocracy and Plutocracy,ā William Graham
Sumner wrote: āHence we see one fallacy of nearly all the popular propo-
sitions of ā˜reformā™: they would not be amiss, perhaps, if the change which
they propose could be made and everything else remain the same. . . . In
the proposition it is assumed that everything else is to remain the same.
But it is inevitable that other things will not remain the same; they will all
Working Out the Position
of them adjust themselves to the new elements which are introduced.ā33
In his 1884 essay āThe Coming Slavery,ā Herbert Spencer made a similar
argument when he wrote:
Legislators who in 1833 voted Ā£30,000 a year to aid in building school-houses,
never supposed that the step they then took would lead to forced contributions,
local and general, now [in 1884] amounting to Ā£6,000,000; they did not intend
to establish a principle that A should be made responsible for educating Bā™s off-
spring; they did not dream of a compulsion which would deprive poor widows of
the help of their elder children; and still less did they dream that their succes-
sors, by requiring impoverished parents to apply to Boards of Guardians to pay
the fees which School Boards would not remit, would initiate a habit of applying
to Boards of Guardians and so cause pauperization. . . . But the āpracticalā politi-
cian who, in spite of such experiences repeated generation after generation, goes
on thinking only of proximate results, naturally never thinks of results still more
remote, still more general, and still more important than those just exempli-
ļ¬ed. . . . [H]e never asks whether the political momentum set up by his measure,
in some cases decreasing but in other cases greatly increasing, will or will not have
the same general direction with other like momenta; and whether it may not join
them in presently producing an aggregate energy working changes never thought
of. Dwelling only on the effects of his particular stream of legislation, and not
observing how such other streams already existing, and still other streams which
will follow his initiative, pursue the same average course, it never occurs to him
that they may presently unite into a voluminous ļ¬‚ood utterly changing the face
Adam Smith had expressed the same idea in a famous passage from the
1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments:
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit;
and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of
government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He
goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either
to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems
to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as
much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon the chess-board. He
does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle
of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the
great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion
of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to
impress upon it. (pp. 233ā“4)
And as I argued (with examples) in chapter 2, government agencies reg-
ularly tend to grow and extend their power and authority, and often end
33 In On Liberty, Society, and Politics, p. 139.
34 In The Man versus the State, pp. 40ā“3.
The Demands of Poverty 153
up going well beyond what their original descriptions and justiļ¬cations
would allow or predict. Hence I think we must keep that strong tendency
in mind when we ask the state, as Singer and others do, to mind our obli-
gations of beneļ¬cence. Who can say for sure where an agency created
with such purposes would end up?
I should also point out that the objection I am here raising to Singerā™s
argument targets only one part of Singerā™s overall argument. He is most
interested in reforming individual behavior; state action is a secondary, if
still real, concern. The objection I here raise stymies only the call for state
action. The previous two objections I raised target the larger, central part
of the Singerian argument.
living, and dying, by intuitions
The three clusters of problems I have raised with the Singerian position
each focuses on a particular part of it: the absence of the knowledge
required to make competent judgments about whether and how to help,
the incoherent notion of value employed in comparing what something
is worth to one person to what it is worth to another, and the failure to
distinguish justice from other virtues in evaluating a personā™s conduct.
Let me now close the discussion of this position with a more general
challenge to the intuitions on which the position is ultimately based.
Singer argues that employing the ācomparable moral worthā criterion
of giving means that one must give to the point of āmarginal utilityāā”
that is, to the point at which the next unit given will make the giver
worse off than the recipient (FAM, p. 32). This would for most Americans
mean a drastic change in lifestyle, considering how great the difference
is between their own standards of living and that of most third-world
nations. But Singer says this sacriļ¬ce would not be supererogatory, or
above and beyond the normal requirements of everyday morality, but,
rather, morally required of everyone. This level of sacriļ¬ce, according to
Singer, is entailed by the principle and the ācomparable moral worthā
criterion, each of which he supports by an appeal to common intuition.
An implication of the Singerian position is that I am immoral if I buy
a gift for my wife on her birthday, or if I pay for my son to have piano
lessons, or if I buy a ribbon for my daughter to put in her hairā”let alone
if I send my children to college, buy them a car, or pay for them to study
abroad. For none of these things would seem to pass the ācomparable
moral worthā test. I have few intuitions, however, as strong as that which
tells me that a person who does such things is not immoral because he
Working Out the Position
does so. And I bet you have the same intuition. A person who relies on
common intuitions as justiļ¬cations for moral principlesā”as do Singer,
Peter Unger, James Rachels, and many others who take similar positions
based on what they guess or assume will be our intuitive reactions to var-
ious hypothetical scenariosā”must, then, take this as a serious challenge.
Indeed, a moral position that makes a father immoral for buying his
daughter a ribbon for her hair so stretches the limits of common moral
intuition as to suggest a refutation by reductio ad absurdum. If we then
add the fact that the Singerian position renders immediately immoral
virtually every American, including even Americaā™s poorā”according to
the federal governmentā™s standards, the 2003 poverty level in America
for one person is anyone whose annual income is at or below $8,980,35
which is almost ļ¬ve times the average 2003 purchasing power parity in
Bangladesh36 ā”then the principle becomes an even stronger candidate
for dismissal by reductio.
conclusion: arenā™t we forgetting one wee thing?
Even if Otteson is right about the problems with the Singerian argument,
arenā™t we forgetting one wee thingā”namely, what are our obligations to the
poor? In other words, so what if the Singerian argument fails? Wasnā™t the
real point in taking up this issue our concern for the actual well-being
of the poor? Donā™t we still have to take up the topic of which policies,
legal circumstances, and so on lead to better conditions for poor people,
and which lead in the opposite direction? We must also not forget the
role that luck and various social forces outside individualsā™ control play
in inļ¬‚uencing peopleā™s positions and successes (and failures) in life. Isnā™t
it true, after all, that very few wealthy people in the world got that way
without their family connections or without other beneļ¬tsā”such as a
good education? In other words, donā™t we still need to address squarely
the situations and fortunes of those who begin life at the bottom, not the
top, of lifeā™s scale of advantages?
We should not too hastily depreciate the signiļ¬cance of calling the Sin-
gerian position into question: it has been, as I said at the beginning of this
chapter, enormously inļ¬‚uential, at least in academic circles. Still, these
35 See http://www.ocpp.org/poverty/poverty2003.htm (accessed December 13, 2005).
36 According to the World Bank, Bangladeshā™s 2004 purchasing power parity in interna-
tional dollars was $1,980. See http://siteresources.worldbank.org/DATASTATISTICS/
Resources/GNIPC.pdf (accessed December 13, 2005).
The Demands of Poverty 155
are all excellent questions. It turns out that wealthy people do not, in fact,
usually inherit their wealthā”historically, the majority of them, especially
in the United States, have actually begun relatively poor and worked their
way up.37 It is apparently also the case that the majority of people who
have made the greatest accomplishments in the arts and sciencesā”such
as Shakespeare and Michelangelo, for exampleā”also came from hum-
ble backgrounds.38 But be that as it may, we do indeed need to take up
the question of which social institutions are most conducive to peopleā™s
well-being, including in particular that of the poor. That is the subject of
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