Separateness, Suffering, and Moral Theory
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
What I call the Singer Principle has an awkward consequence. Section I explains the
principle. Section II explains the problem.
Later sections discuss implications for morality and
In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” after describing the famine in East Bengal circa
1971, Peter Singer says,
I shall argue that the way people in relatively affluent countries react to a situation like that
in Bengal cannot be justified; indeed, the whole way we look at moral issues—our moral
conceptual scheme—needs to be altered, and with it, the way of life that has come to be
taken for granted in our society.
In arguing for this conclusion I will not, of course, claim to be morally neutral.
however, try to argue for the moral position that I take, so that anyone who accepts certain
assumptions, to be made explicit, will, I hope, accept my conclusion.
I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and
medical care are bad.
. . .
Those who disagree need read no further.
My next point is this: if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening,
without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally,
to do it.
By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean
without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong
in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad
thing that we can prevent.
This principle seems almost as uncontroversial as the last one.
It requires us only to prevent what is bad, and not to promote what is good, and it requires
this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point
of view, comparably important.
Here, then, is what I call the Singer Principle:
SP: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing
anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.