What is a Moral Requirement?

You are walking home. In your pocket is the new iPhone XVIII plus, which cost you $2000, but it will be so worth it when everyone sees how cool you are. I mean, the new phone is a bit big, and it is stuck in your pocket currently, but just wait until you get a pair of iPants! You are staying with a relative who lives in a rural area, and on your way, you come across a child drowning. You are a good swimmer, and you could save them, but you can’t get your iPhone out of your pocket, and you don’t have enough time to take your pants off to save the child. Would you save the child knowing it would destroy your shiny new phone? How would you feel about others facing the same situation who refuses to save the child?

For that same money, you can actually save a child right now, as philosopher Peter Singer is quick to point out, so in reality, every day of your life, you are making this decision over and over and over. If you are morally obligated to save the child drowning, why would you not be obligated save the child you will never meet in some far-flung country? 

You can try to create all the justifications you want, but at the end of the day, it is hard to say that a life is anything other than a life, be they right in front of you or thousands of miles away. Singer’s answer is that since it is a moral obligation to save the drowning child, you must also save the children far away if you want to live a moral life.

I agree that the moral logic of one case must be the same as the moral logic of the other, but my answer is that in neither case are you obligated to save the child. His case is that intuitively you must save the child in front of you, and logically far away children are an extension of this intuition. If you take the logic of moral obligation to its logical conclusions, there isn’t a single human existing who would not be immoral. Plugging my income into his website thelifeyoucansave (a great website BTW) I am told I should donate only about 1,200 dollars a year, though, of course, it is relatively easy for me to save and donate significantly more than that. So how then would the $1,200 fulfill my moral obligation? Following the logic, I am obligated instead to give as much as possible. Indeed I should also try to earn as much as possible to give. Imagine we take it a step further and say I am morally culpable for the deaths that I could have prevented. In that case, by choosing to be a teacher instead of working in finance, I am likely responsible for more deaths than a serial killer who likely has a much lower earning potential, and so the difference between the lives I am responsible for is greater, even though he actually killed someone and I save a few.

Most people are not even weak forms of effective altruists, but do their lives make the world a better or worse place? If the typical person living their typical life has worth and makes the world better, why would it be immoral?

I think the solution lies in this; each person is worth one person and them going about living their lives is morally neutral. Unless they take some position of obligation for others, they are not obligated towards the welfare of others. With this logic, since each person matters, how you affect other people also matters, not because of you, but because of them. A person who saves millions of people to a degree matters more, not because they matter more, but because the people they help do. So certainly, a life where you help others is morally better, and one where you hurt others is morally worse.

The difference between the two cases is real, but it is one of moral judgment, not morality. It is perfectly normal to ignore the suffering of those we do not see, but ignoring suffering that we do see is a good indicator that we are callous and cold. As in the previous essay I argued that moral judgments primarily exist to judge others utility equations in order to assess how they will behave with regards to yourself (functionally, this is how it works. Obviously, you are not thinking, hey, that guy is nice to his dog, if we had children, he would likely treat them well, you think aww that guy is nice to his dog and feel a little more attracted). A person not saving a child in front of them gives you information that they are likely less compassionate and cooperative. A person not giving away all their money is perfectly normal, so it doesn’t tell us anything about the person. Imagine a world where every day you went to work or school, you and everyone else passed by dozens of children you knew could be saved for $2000 dollars. How quickly would you and those around you become numb to it?

So it is good to do good for others and better to do more good than less, but I think it is a mistake to make it a moral imperative as Singer does. However, many things in the world are logarithmic, with quality on the Y axis and price on the X axis. Simply by avoiding money traps and being more conscious of how you spend money, it is easy to save more, and of those savings, you can do some serious good. Imagine a video game with a quest that allows you to protect thousands of people from a deadly disease. In real life, that is a quest most of us privileged enough to be born into affluent nations can easily complete.

I don’t think we should try to convince people out of guilt or obligation. I don’t believe that tying things to negative emotions is even likely to lead to the most people giving the most the most effectively. Giving should be a positive thing if it is to be sustained. Instead, I want to focus on empathy and the benefits to the giver themselves, which will be the topic of my next post.

2 thoughts on “What is a Moral Requirement?”

  1. Your points are very precise and sharp. I’m curious what do you think about the morality of politicians. Many of those who enter Chinese politics around me have gradually abandoned the opportunity to “save a child in sight” in favor of saving more people for the sake of “results” or “the utility overall”. What do you think is the most reasonable form of justice? Or how to find the balance? Thank you.


    1. I think for an individual it makes more sense to not just consider world states but also other considerations. Governments are not people however and a focus on world states is hard to argue with. Though it is also true that it is easy when pursuing ‘good’ to do in long run bad which makes taking large nonvoluntary actions a fraught affair(also governmental incentives might not be perfect to begin with).
      I have a post I will eventually write on this topic.


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