In his latest book, "The Life You Can Save," Mr. Singer argues that failing to donate money to help the roughly 1 billion people suffering from poverty and preventable diseases is a moral offense equivalent to standing by as a child drowns because you don't want to ruin a nice pair of shoes.
Equivalent. But how bad is that I wonder? Given that Singer is on record saying there is "no intrinsic moral difference between killing and allowing to die" he would seem committed to saying that failing to donate is morally equivalent to drowning a child. Pretty bad!
Of course, not everyone denies moral significance to the difference between killing and allowing to die. Some philosophers distinguish between "negative" duties (e.g., not to drown children) and positive ones, (e.g., to save children from drowning), holding that positive duties are not as onerous as negative ones. Though, as Judith Jarvis Thomson recently observed,
"... it is one thing to say there is a difference in weight between positive and negative duties, and quite another to say what the source of that difference is. I know of no thoroughly convincing account of its source, and regard the need for one as among the most pressing in all moral theory."
For anyone interested in taking up Thomson's challenge, Singer's equivalence poses a problem. After all, this bystander who stands by while a child drowns (for the sake of his shoes!) is a bad man. Let us not mince words; he is a sonofabitch. The positive moral duty not to behave like such a character must have significant "weight". And if failing in positive duties makes us as bad as that guy, then the difference in "weight" and hence the significance of the positive-negative distinction itself, must be morally slight.
I give negligible amounts to charity. So is Singer calling me a sonofabitch? Apparently. And you too, if you fail to donate money to the starving billion when you could (and you know you could).
Is there any way to defend ourselves? Shelly Kagan, Peter Unger, and now Singer, have written whole books arguing that there is not. Arguing, that is, that if you agree that you have moral obligations to do things like help that drowning child, you must concede that you are likewise obliged to do everything you can to help everyone, everywhere, all the time. If that is so, then it seems we must admit that we are sons of bitches, you and I.
The problem for Singer's position is that none of us believe its conclusion. Not even Singer.