Recent debates about duty and distance start with Singer’s 1972 article. There, he offers the following radical stance: “[…] if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”Footnote 3 One’s duty to help, Singer goes on to argue, is established independently from distance. Saving a child from drowning in a nearby pond is a duty, and so is saving a child from starving in a faraway country. That one of these children is more distant is simply not relevant in determining the respective duties in these cases. Indeed, Singer explicitly states: “[…] the principle takes […] no account of proximity or distance.”Footnote 4
In the utilitarian framework Singer employs, this claim leads to the conclusion that every person has a duty to prevent harm from (distant) others, say in case of poverty or famines, until the marginal utility of the last unit she gives up equals the marginal utility gain her sacrifice brings about. This radical stance has led to intense debates. There have been a number of critical contributions that examine Singer’s general project.Footnote 5 Singer himself has been expanding on his earlier work in a number of contributions, further developing the practical implications of his view, also by ultimately connecting it to the idea of philanthropy and “effective altruism.”Footnote 6 Some contributions have also discussed whether distance affects one’s duty to help (and if so, how) and how far-reaching those duties should be.Footnote 7 In this paper, we focus on analyzing the role of the concept of distance in Singer’s claim: that distance is irrelevant to discern a person’s duties to (distant) others. Singer says: “I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account.”Footnote 8 We disagree. Rather, claims about the (ir)relevance of distance need as much careful attention as other parts of Singer’s radical stance, as attested by the discussions about distance and duties.Footnote 9
Let us now take a closer look at the “Distance does not matter!” slogan. Firstly, Singer is obviously referring to geographical distance in stating it. That is, he is not concerned with other kinds of distances such as emotional, kinship, temporal, cultural, linguistic, or causal distance, but rather focuses on geographical distance.Footnote 10 Secondly, Singer is concerned with those features of a situation that are of direct moral relevance to identify one’s duties to others: it should be “in our power to prevent something very bad from happening” without us having to sacrifice “anything of comparable moral importance.”Footnote 11 Of course, this leaves open the possibility that geographical distance affects our duties indirectly by, for instance, affecting our power to help. Singer shortly discusses this possibility, i.e. that being far away in geographical distance could mean that one is also (i) less effective in helping, (ii) less acquainted with people who are far away, (iii) less well informed about the situation.Footnote 12 However, Singer maintains in passing that these effects are not relevant anymore in the “global village.” Instant communication and direct connections made geographical distance (also indirectly) irrelevant to a person’s duties.
Yet, this way to dismiss any influence of geographical distance upon one’s moral duties seems a bit too quick. We need to ask how concepts like effectiveness (or power) to help and knowledge about victims can be delineated from a purely geographical understanding of distance. In order to provide an account that allows one to answer this question, we will go through three kinds of objections that Singer’s claim could be subjected to and offer restatements of it that accommodate them. The first two objections deal with (i) and the third objection deals with both (ii) and (iii).
Firstly, consider the following objection against Singer’s claim: if it is both the case that power to help matters and that the concept of power to help is dependent upon geographical distance, then geographical distance does matter after all. Now, it is clear that the power to do or prevent something really does matter for Singer, as it is explicitly mentioned in his radical stance that we cited earlier. It also seems plausible that in order to understand how an agent might be powerful, one needs to have an account of how an agent can make a difference across a certain geographical distance. For instance, in order to have the power to prevent a child from drowning, an agent should be able to make a difference in physically reaching that child, either by using her arms to save the child herself, or by instructing another agent or a machine, for instance.Footnote 13 We are not contending here that small geographical distance is required to be powerful. Rather, to be powerful in Singer’s context means to be able to make a difference (across geographical distance). In and of itself, that is not an objection against Singer. It only brings an implicit assumption underlying Singers notion of power to help into the open: in his view, power is not conceptually related to geographical distance. To see why this is important, consider the following. If we would couple Singer’s distance slogan with the statement “to be powerful means to be able to save everyone from drowning who is five steps or less away,” then the concept of power to help hinges on a specific understanding of distance such that it becomes a contradiction to also maintain that geographical distance does not matter. As long as the understanding of how an agent might be powerful is not dependent upon geographical distance, there is no problem for Singer to maintain his distance claim. Hence, in order to account for this point, Singer is required to use a concept of power in the radical stance that does not contradict the distance claim. The first part of our restatement ensures exactly that.
Singer Restated I.
Geographical distance does not matter, if the concept of power to help is not derived from a specific notion of geographical distance.
Secondly, one might object that the above provision is not enough. It could still be the case that power is correlated to geographical distance, such that the latter does matter after all. That is, even if the power concept is not directly established by reference to geographical distance (such as in the example offered when discussing the first objection above), there could still be a correlation between power and geographical distance, i.e. the nearer a victim is to an agent in a geographical sense, the more powerful that agent is to help. If that were the case, then the notion of being in a position to help effectively would contradict the claim that geographical distance does not matter. The amended restatement of the claim avoids precisely this kind of problem.
Singer Restated II.
Geographical distance does not matter, if the concept of power to help does not presuppose a specific notion of distance, and geographical distance and power to help are not correlated.
Thirdly, one may object that one’s ability to know about the potential of something bad to happen is correlated with geographical distance. If that is true, then geographical distance matters after all. For instance, one could contend that events or circumstances that are geographically distant are harder to access epistemically than geographically near ones. The third and final restatement avoids this problem.
Singer Restated III.
Geographical distance does not matter, if the concept of power to help does not presuppose a specific notion of geographical distance, geographical distance and power are not correlated, and one’s ability to know about the potential of something bad to happen is not correlated with geographical distance.
The restatement does reflect (part of) the provisions that are in Singer’s original articleFootnote 14: it simply combines the claim and the three provisions concerning (i) efficacy of helping, and (ii) & (iii) knowledge about victims and their situation. We would like to stress here that the restatement exercise is merely meant to make more explicit what is already inherent in Singer’s original formulation of the radical stance and the distance claim. That is, we do not mean to offer an interpretation of Singer here, but rather summarize concisely what he has to say about distance and the assumptions his radical stance is based upon. With this restatement in place, a number of misunderstandings about and objections against Singer’s geographical distance claim can be avoided.
Before we discuss these in greater detail in the next section, we comment on the different ways in which geographical distance could influence one’s duties, and how they are ruled out by restatements I, II and III, respectively. Restatement I rules out a conceptual relationship between geographical distance and a variable that is of primary moral importance.
Such variables can be the power one has to help others, but it might also be one’s commitments to others or one’s ties of friendship. If geographical distance is conceptually linked to such a factor of primary moral importance, we take geographical distance itself to be of moral importance. Different to that, restatements II and III rule out an empirical correlation between geographical distance and morally relevant factors, such as one’s effectiveness to help or the informational requirements necessary to do so. Whether geographical distance matters here cannot be decided a priori but is dependent on facts about the world. As we shall argue in the next section, much of the disagreement between Singer and his critics is ultimately concerned with such empirical questions about the relevance of distance, rather than the moral importance of distance itself.