Draining the pond: why Singer’s defense of the duty to aid the world’s poor is self-defeating

  • Anton MarkočEmail author


Peter Singer’s defense of the duty to aid the world’s poor by the pond analogy is self-defeating. It cannot be both true that you ought to save the drowning child from a pond at the expense of ruining your shoes and that you ought to aid the world’s poor if you thereby do not sacrifice anything of comparable moral importance. Taking the latter principle seriously would lead you to let the child in front of you drown whenever you could thereby save more children in the developing world. Though Singer can defend the duty to aid the world’s poor starting from consequentialist principles requiring you to make things go best in the impartial sense, he cannot have it invoking the commonsense judgment about what you ought to do in the pond case. There is no sound path from commonsense morality to Singer’s principles of beneficence .


Peter Singer World poverty Pond analogy Beneficence 



The paper has immensely benefited from comments from Ivan Milić and an anonymous reviewer of this journal. I am grateful to James Plumtree for remarks on writing style and to the audiences at the Institute of Philosophy and History seminars at American University of Central Asia for helpful discussion.


  1. Arneson, R. (2004). Moral limits on the demands of beneficence? In D. Chatterjee (Ed.), The ethics of assistance: Morality and the distant needy (pp. 33–58). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Arneson, R. (2009). What do we owe to distant needy strangers? In J. Schaler (Ed.), Peter singer under fire: The moral iconoclast faces his critics (pp. 267–293). Chicago: Open Court.Google Scholar
  3. Arthur, J. (1977). Rights and the duty to bring aid. In W. Aiken & H. LaFollette (Eds.), World hunger and moral obligation (pp. 85–102). New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.Google Scholar
  4. Ashford, E. (2003). The demandingness of Scanlon’s contractualism. Ethics, 113(2), 273–302.Google Scholar
  5. Barry, C., & Øverland, G. (2013). How much for the child? Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 16(1), 189–204.Google Scholar
  6. Chang, R. (2013). Incommensurability (and Incomparability). In H. LaFollette (Ed.), The international encyclopedia of ethics (pp. 2591–2604). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Cullity, G. (1994). International aid and the scope of kindness. Ethics, 105(1), 99–127.Google Scholar
  8. Cullity, G. (2004). The moral demands of affluence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Dorsey, D. (2009). Aggregation, partiality, and the strong beneficence principle. Philosophical Studies, 146(1), 139–157.Google Scholar
  10. Forcehimes, A., & Semrau, L. (2017). Beneficence: Does agglomeration matter? Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), 17.Google Scholar
  11. Gabriel, I. (2016). Effective altruism and its critics. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34(4), 457–473.Google Scholar
  12. Gomberg, P. (2002). The fallacy of philanthropy. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 32(1), 29–66.Google Scholar
  13. Hooker, B. (2000). Ideal code, real world: A rule-consequentialist theory of morality. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Kagan, S. (1988). The additive fallacy. Ethics, 99(1), 5–31.Google Scholar
  15. Kamm, F. (1999). Famine ethics: the problem of distance in morality and Singer's ethical theory. In D. Jamieson (Ed.), Singer and his Critics (pp. 174–203). Malden: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  16. Kamm, F. (2007). Intricate ethics: Rights, responsibilities, and permissible harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Kekes, J. (2002). On the supposed obligation to relieve famine. Philosophy, 77(4), 503–517.Google Scholar
  18. Lillehammer, H. (2011). Consequentialism and global ethics. In M. Boylan (Ed.), Morality and global justice: A reader (pp. 89–102). Boulder: Westview Press.Google Scholar
  19. MacAskill, W. (2015). Doing good better: How effective altruism can help you make a difference. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  20. McKinsey, M. (1981). Obligations to the Starving. Noûs, 15(3), 309–323.Google Scholar
  21. McMahan, J. (2013). Moral intuition. In H. LaFollette & I. Persson (Eds.), The blackwell guide to ethical theory (Vol. 2, pp. 103–120). Wiley-Blackwell: Hoboken.Google Scholar
  22. McMahan, J. (2017). Doing good and doing the best. In P. Woodruff (Ed.), Philanthropy and philosophy: Putting theory into practice. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  23. Miller, R. (2004). Beneficence, duty, and distance. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 32(4), 357–383.Google Scholar
  24. Mulgan, T. (2001). The demands of consequentialism. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  25. Murphy, L. (2000). Moral demands in non-ideal theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  26. Ord, T. (2014). Global poverty and the demands of morality. In J. Perry (Ed.), God, the good, and utilitarianism: Perspectives on peter singer (pp. 177–191). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  27. Parfit, D. (1986). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Scanlon, T. M. (1982). Contractualism and utilitarianism. In A. Sen & B. Williams (Eds.), Utilitarianism and beyond (pp. 103–128). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  29. Scanlon, T. M. (1998). What we owe to each other. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Scheffler, S. (1994). The rejection of consequentialism: A philosophical investigation of the considerations underlying rival moral conceptions (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  31. Schmidtz, D. (2000). Islands in a sea of obligation: Limits of the duty to rescue. Law and Philosophy, 19(6), 683–705.Google Scholar
  32. Singer, P. (1972). Famine, affluence and morality. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1(3), 229–243.Google Scholar
  33. Singer, P. (1974). Sidgwick and reflective equilibrium. Monist, 58(3), 490–517.Google Scholar
  34. Singer, P. (1991). A refutation of ordinary morality. Ethics, 101(3), 625–633.Google Scholar
  35. Singer, P. (1999a). A response. In D. Jamieson (Ed.), Singer and his critics (pp. 269–332). Malden: Blackwell Publishers.Google Scholar
  36. Singer, P. (1999b). The singer solution to world poverty. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 5, 60–63.Google Scholar
  37. Singer, P. (2005). Ethics and intuitions. Journal of Ethics, 9(3–4), 331–352.Google Scholar
  38. Singer, P. (2007). Review essay on “The Moral Demands of Affluence”. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 75(2), 475–483.Google Scholar
  39. Singer, P. (2009a). The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
  40. Singer, P. (2009b). Charity: The psychology of giving. Newsweek, February 27, 48.Google Scholar
  41. Singer, P. (2011a). Practical ethics (3rd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Singer, P. (2011b). Changing values for a just and sustainable world. In D. Held, A. Fane-Hervey, & M. Theros (Eds.), The governance of climate change: Science, economics, politics, and ethics (pp. 144–161). Cambridge: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  43. Singer, P. (2015). The most good you can do: How effective altruism is changing ideas about living ethically. London: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Singer, P. (2016, July 6th). Famine, affluence, and morality. Talks at Google video, 52 min.
  45. Singer, P., & de Lazari-Radek, K. (2014). The point of view of the universe: Sidgwick and contemporary ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Taurek, J. (1977). Should the numbers count? Philosophy and Public Affairs, 6(4), 293–316.Google Scholar
  47. Thomson, J. J. (2001). Goodness and advice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  48. Timmerman, T. (2015). Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown. Analysis, 75(2), 204–212.Google Scholar
  49. Unger, P. (1996). Living high and letting die: Our illusion of innocence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Van Ackeren, M., & Sticker, M. (2015). Kant and moral demandingness. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 18(1), 75–89.Google Scholar
  51. Wenar, L. (2010). Poverty is no pond: Challenges for the affluent. In P. Illingworth, T. Pogge, & L. Wenar (Eds.), Giving well: The ethics of philanthropy (pp. 104–132). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  52. Woollard, F. (2015). Doing and allowing harm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of General EducationAmerican University of Central AsiaBishkekKyrgyzstan

Personalised recommendations