Now we get to the argument why it’s not just nice to give, but we ought to, it’s a moral obligation. What I find particularly interesting about the chapter is the way Singer starts off with Bob and the Bugatti and switches half-way through to the deductive argument he made back in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in 1972. Bob and the Bugatti is a thought experiment due to Peter Unger, which Singer also focused on in a New York Times Magazine article in 1999. (Do read Unger, if you’re interested in a vigorous philosophical work-out.)
Bob’s got all his retirement savings wrapped up in his old and valuable Bugatti and he’s close to retiring. Fool that he is, he’s left it sitting at the end of a railway siding. He goes for a walk up the tracks and in the distance he can see an empty runaway train coming down the other track. (It’s typical of thought experiments like this that they’re full of implausible details. Do not ask how he knows that train is empty!) The train is heading for a small child he can see up ahead, dawdling around on the tracks. Wonder of wonders, he sees a a switch he can pull to divert the train from hitting the child to hitting his Bugatti. Does he have to do it?
You’re probably going to think “Yes, by all means.” And by analogy, you’re supposed to become convinced that you must make contributions to Oxfam, which can use your money to save the life of a child just like the one on the tracks.
So why does Singer switch to the old deductive argument half way through? For one, he is not keen on relying on intuitions, because many of his positions in ethics are actually counterintuitive. He also seems to want to acknowledge some disimilarities between Bob’s situation and the situation of someone contemplating saving lives in a distant country.
I also think the switch might be tactical. I do think Singer’s main goal in this book is to get us to give. The Bob thought experiment does a good job of leveraging greater giving unless you start thinking about its ultimate import. The moral is not “give 5%” or “give 10%” or “give whatever you don’t need for necessities.” The moral is—give everything you’ve saved for retirement!
Some people will no doubt think there’s got to be something fishy about the case for obligatory giving, if it means we have to give away that much. They might not be able to identify the flaw in the argument, but they’ll think there must be one. And that might make them turn their backs on giving.
So Singer switches to the argument he’s been making for over 30 years, which doesn’t so transparently urge gargantuan sacrifices. It goes like this:
(1) Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
(2) If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
(3) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.
Singer stresses that “without sacrificing anything nearly as important” is vague. He says he’s leaving it up to you and me to make honest comparisons. That’s good strategy, but is it good philosophy?