Josh Dunigan |||

Philosophy Briefs - Why Do We Disagree about our Obligations to the Poor?

Author - Peter Seipel


People disagree about whether individuals in rich countries like the United States have an obligation to aid the world’s poorest people. A tempting thought is that this disagreement comes down to a non-moral matter. I argue that we should be suspicious of this view. Drawing on psychological evidence, I show that we should be more pessimistic about our ability to attribute the disagreement to a difference in factual beliefs.


When arguing about issues, many people in every day conversations will argue over facts. You may even see it on the news or in politics, that if we just figured out the facts or the best way to do something, then any disagreement would be eliminated between two parties. For Siepel, this seems dubious. The central moral issue to be examined in this paper is Peter Singer’s famous paper Famine, Affluence, and Morality’. Many people seemingly do not disagree with the paper, and most people would not disagree with at least the conclusion (meaning that some may disagree on the logic of the argument). Singer’s paper outlines a theory of aid that says we ought to do our best so that we should help the poor people of the world. Most of the disagreements about giving money to poor people is not that you ought not to, its that the factual, empirical, real life solutions to this are of disagreement.

Some people say it messes up the macroeconomics of the world (spending $6 at Starbucks vs donating to UNICEF is better for poor people since it maintains the wealthy American economy), the money will go no where by being sucked up into beaurocracy, the money will just be delaying the inevitable collapse of a nation or a famine, or helping prop up bad governments (North Korea). To further think of this problem, we can think of the gun control issue. Most people agree that gun control is fine and say they disagree on the effectiveness of the laws. If we could come to find laws that would be effective, then people would seemingly welcome it.

Gist of the Argument

One way to solve the problem is to see if an argument would persist if all the facts were agreed upon. But before this solution is attempted, we need to understand a central part of the paper, namely, Peter Singer’s argument for aid.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

Singer starts his argument with an intuition pump. Say you come across a child drowning in a pond. You can wade into the small pond, getting your clothes dirty from the pond water, but you will save the child from dying. This intuition pump is meant to evoke the moral principle that if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything else morally significant, we ought, morally, to do so”. Singer says that this scenario is analogous to donating money to legitimate aid agencies such as UNICEF or Oxfam. Singer argues that if you commit to the pond case, then you are also commiting to saying that donating $5 dollars and saving a child’s life from starvation or disease anywhere on the planet is the same. Singer and other effective altruists take this a step farther.

Some philosophers have argued that the two are logically not the same (David Schmidtz). But the initial reaction is that the empirical concerns in the pond case is different than the empirical concerns in the donation case (can imagine the macroeconomic arguments, etc., stated above). Singer has tried to address the empirical concerns time and time again, but seemingly to no avail.

Returning back to the gist of the argument that Siepel is presenting, we need to figure out how to find a way to agree on all the facts, to determine if this is a moral or non-moral issue. The way he does this is by Singer’s argument into a strong and weak thesis.

The Strong Thesis : By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of basic material resources, without sacrificing anything morally significant.

The Weak Thesis : By doing something, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of basic material resources, without sacrificing anything morally significant.

Technical Terms and Logic

First, the reason that one is called strong and the other weak is that there are different types of propositions. This is primarily seen in mathematics and the idea is around constraints. If you make the constraints on the premises of your argument too weak, it may be difficult to prove anything interesting or useful. Take the following argument

It is sunny out, so you should stay inside

This may not seem useful, since our premise of it is sunny out” was not useful in proving anything. Now if we make a stronger claim

The uv index is 12, so you should stay inside

The premise here is more constrained then the one before, and the conclusion seems to follow better from the stronger one.

What Siepel is doing by making a two-pronged attack. By retreating to a weaker thesis, we should not disagree logically or empirically. The two arguments are similar in logic, P -> Q (meaning if proposition P is true, then Q follows). However, there may be a logical disagreement that the Q in the Strong Thesis follows from the P. There also may be an empirical disagreement that in theory this is true, but in reality or practice, this is false. However, by retreating to a weaker claim of saying instead of aid we should do something, both these disagreements are handled. However, by retreating to a weaker thesis, won’t Siepel be setting himself up for proving something less interesting or useful? No! What Siepel is trying to do is cast doubt that even if we can agree on something morally and empirically, that the universal agreement of the weak thesis may not stir people to action or change any minds, trying to show that beliefs may be prior to any moral thinking.

Psychological Studies as Evidence

Since Siepel is wanting to show that even the weak thesis, rationally and morally agreed upon, may not be enough to convince people to change their mind on their beliefs.

Siepel mentions a few psychological studies about facts and morals are correlated, but this is loosely related to the main problem.

The Envelope Case

John receives a letter in his mailbox from the Against Malaria Foundation.” He learns that he can prevent the death of a child by donating $100. John has no doubt that his donation will have a beneficial impact: it will save a child’s life and make the world better off. But he also wants to spend the money on a new cell phone and believes he should be able to prioritize his own interests and happiness (Kahane et al. 2015).

The key emphasis here is that John has no doubt” that it will save a child’s life. Participants of this study were told to measure the wrongfulness of John’s action to not donate on a 1-7 scale. The average rating participants gave ended up being 2.3, meaning people did not think the action was very wrong. Additionally, only 5% of people gave the wrongfulness a 6 or 7 score, 65% gave it a 1 or 2.

A similarly study was done for Singer’s intuition pump, where someone walked away from the child drowning instead of helping. The perceived wrongfullness of this action was rated a 6.4 on average, very wrong in the participants eyes.

Another Envelope Case

Dave and John hear in the news that several children in Haiti are suffering from a serious illness. If the children do not receive medical assistance, they will die within days. Both Dave and John can donate money. However, while Dave’s donation will almost certainly contribute to saving the children, John’s donation will almost certainly not contribute to saving them (Nagel and Waldmann 2016).

Participants in this study were asked to rate the wrongfullness of not donating on a scale of 1-6. The average for Dave was 3.7 and John was 3.2 (note - the .5 difference was within the statistical margin of error). The important thing to note here is that the fact that Dave would have almost certainly helped the children and John would almost certainly not have helped if donated, both actions were perceived as around the same wrongfullness.


Even after retreating to a weak thesis, and using some recent psychological evidence, we should be doubtful that the only reason we disagree about things is because of facts and empirical concerns.

My Thoughts

The reason I like this paper is that it is simple in scope, but very impactful. The attempt to cast doubt on disagreements as only in the realm of empirical matters of sciences like economics, sociology, psychology, etc., was done very well. I have been examining arguments with through the lens of the ideas in this paper and have been noticing it as well. A lot of people will start an argument from the grounds of some belief, and work their way up from there. Two beliefs may be contradictory (believing in bodily autonomy vs right to life in the context of abortion seems to commit one to holding two contradictory beliefs). I have seen people do this countless times, and it seems like it is because they pick and choose not only facts, but also logical arguments in some belief-sphere. In one sphere of belief, people will disagree with the same logic they agree with in another sphere of belief they have. I was reading the paper If Nothing Matters” by Guy Kuhane, who even fancies the thought that someone may very well hold the belief in nihilism while holding other beliefs. This is more grave a sense of irrationality in that it is not just holding the belief in P and not P, since believing in nihilism may very well, if not does, require you to not have any other beliefs. However, if you think of how people think, it seems that is by constructing spheres of belief, some may be disjoint (not share any of the same logic, facts, or conclusions) and some may overlap which at least shows some consistency in beliefs.

Further Reading

The main point of the paper to me was about how beliefs shape most things we have.

If Nothing Matters - A well written paper on nihilism that touches on the topic of beliefs, morals, and reason.

The Activity of Reason - Touches on some metaphysics of reason, more broad than what Seipel’s paper deals with, but nonetheless related.

Famine, Affluence, and Morality - Peter Singer’s paper that is mentioned throughout.

After Solipsism - A paper that examines the logic of Singer’s argument, and says not only is the argument not logically the same from a game theory perspective, but also that Singer’s argument does not require enough out of humans, which goes against the concerns of most people against Singer is that his ethics is too demanding.

They Can’t Take That Away from Me: Restricting the Reach of Morality’s Demands - Examines the reaction that some of the consequentalist theories are vastly too demanding on people.

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