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I am using the word ‘maximising’ here as an adjective, rather than as a verb. By ‘maximising ethics’, I mean a system of ethics according to which one ought to do as much good as they can do, however ‘the good’ is understood or defined.

Myself and others have become compelled to adopt a ‘maximising ethics’ by which to live. For some of us, this was prompted by exposure to some of the works of Peter Singer. In Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer asserts that ‘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.’ (Singer, 1972: 231) He takes this conclusion from the intuitions that most of us share in response to a very simple but powerful thought experiment he created: ‘if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.’ (Ibid.)

Nevertheless, by many, Singer’s principle is considered too demanding. Indeed, it would appear impossible to live by a principle according to which you are doing something wrong whenever you buy a coffee, given that the money spent on this coffee could be donated to an effective charity which works towards preventing suffering, injustice, premature death, or moral catastrophe. The moral value corresponding to the pleasure you derive from the coffee is very low, whereas these causes are of great moral importance. Donation to effective charities is likely to contribute towards tackling problems and bringing about tangible change for the better.

It is important to note that the demandingness of Singer’s theory bears nothing on its truth or falsity. Notwithstanding, the demandingness of this principle, combined with the validity of Singer’s argumentation, has motivated his contemporaries to find and to provide a valid *counter-*argument, so that they can rest assured that they are not, in fact, falling short of what is morally required of them in their day-to-day lives.

One such counter-argument is forthcoming from philosopher Travis Timmerman (2015). Timmerman argues that Singer’s maximising principle does not follow from the intuitions that we have in response to his thought experiment, because these are found on the assumption that, in it, we have ‘not frequently sacrificed [our] new clothes to save children in the past and will not need to do so frequently in the future.’ (Timmerman, 2015: 207) Timmerman then goes on to propose a thought experiment which he believes would be more appropriate as a grounding for Singer’s maximising principle: if, every day, you come across a vast space of land covered with hundreds of newly formed shallow ponds, each containing a drowning child, on the way to the bank to stop $200 from being taken out of your bank every 5 minutes, you would be morally permitted to stop saving children at a point at which the amount of money you have left is more than you need to buy things only of moral importance comparable to the life of a child. (Timmerman, 2015: 208-210)

However, these intuitions (that from Singer’s and from Timmerman’s thought experiments) might be in tension with one another. After all, it would seem that to alter what we see as following from Singer’s ‘drowning child’ such that it is a less demanding principle would be to do so ad hoc (for this, without a more stable basis for the proposition), in response to this problem of demandingness. If our intuitions from ‘drowning child’ and those from ‘drowning children’ are inconsistent, therefore, then one must be less trustworthy; we must prioritise one over the other. Doing this, it would be most appropriate to abandon the intuition which justifies our complacency arbitrarily, rather than the one which prompts us to increase our output by appeals to moral consistency. In fact, it being permissible to act in the way Timmerman suggests in his ‘drowning children’ is not necessarily contradictory to Singer’s maximising principle.

Instead, therefore, I suggest that the way in which we reconcile ourselves with the demandingness of maximising ethics is not by kidding ourselves that it is not the case that we ought to be doing the most good that we can, but, instead, by taking into consideration the influence the demandingness of a principle to live by has upon our ability to live by it. This way, to give up our coffees is not merely to give up the pleasure we periodically derive from it, but is also to risk giving up a lifestyle according to which we live according to a maximising principle such as Singer’s, due to that the demandingness this entails might be more than we can bear - and this risk is in fact of very high moral significance!


Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1 (3). 229-243.

Timmerman, T. (2015). Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown. Analysis, 75 (2). 204-212.





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Are you familiar with scalar consequentialism? That's the idea that there's no arbitrary threshhold of 'right-ness' on one side of which an action is right and on the other of which it's wrong, but that we can at best talk about whether an action is better or worse, according to the relative amounts of value they produce.

I have never heard of this term but I am quite familiar with the idea! I am sympathetic to the position, but feel it too counter-intuitive to suppose that there are no rights or wrongs, or at least that prescribing some rights and wrongs (dos and don’ts) as distinct from things that are merely better or worse is useful.

I don't quite understand your objection to Timmerman's thought experiment. You say it's "ad hoc" and "justifies our complacency arbitrarily", but it's unclear what you mean by these terms. And it's unclear why someone should agree that it's ad hoc and arbitrary.

This is a fair criticism, my construction of this post was fairly rushed and I did consider this as an issue with it myself. I think what I am trying to get at is that it is all well and good to throw doubt upon Singer’s principle with another thought experiment, but what is required of the philosopher is also to provide grounding or to think about grounding upon which the intuitions pointed to by a thought experiment are consistent - Singer does this, but I do not think that Timmerman does.

[What] is required of the philosopher is also to provide grounding or to think about grounding upon which the intuitions pointed to by a thought experiment are consistent.

Why can't a philosopher just present a counterexample? In fact, it seems arguing from a specific alternative grounding would make Timmerman's argument weaker. As he notes (emphasis mine):

I have purposefully not made a suggestion as to how many (if any) children Lisa is obligated to rescue. I did so to make my argument as neutral as possible, as I want it to be consistent with any normative ethical view ranging from moral libertarianism to a view that only permits Lisa to indulge in a comparably insignificant good a single time.

As an analogy, if you make a general claim such as: "All marbles are blue," it's enough to point to a single counterexample to show that that claim is false. I don't also have to have my own view about what colors marbles come in.

Also, as a matter of interpreting Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Singer doesn't justify his principles based on any inferences from the drowning child thought experiment. Instead, he only uses that thought experiment as an application of his principles, which he takes to simply be common-sense. And although Singer is himself a utilitarian, he doesn't make any argument for utilitarianism in that paper, largely for the same reason as Timmerman! He wants diverse people to agree with him regardless of their grounding for the principles he discusses.

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