The outcome is ok (median = 5), but many more of you were thrown off by Questions 6 and 7 than we originally anticipated. Click through to see…


  • Question 1

Option B (“Exactly 2”) and most of you (72%) got this. Update: We will accept Option A (“Exactly 1”) as well, because of an uncertainty to do with what Will said (see below).

Gene is wrong and Lena is right because while Singer is arguing that some acts that we used to think were supererogatory (such as donating to charities) are actually a part of our moral duty, he doesn’t argue that the very idea of what it means for an act to be supererogatory needs to be modified. In fact, to make sense of what Lena is saying, you have to hold fix the traditional ideal of what it means for an act to be supererogatory–not blameworthy for not doing, but praiseworthy for doing.

As intended, Will is correct because Singer says this explicitly: “Anyone who accepts certain assumptions, to be made explicit, will, I hope, accept my conclusion” (p. 231). What Singer said is this:

I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this, although one may reach the same view by different routes. I shall not argue for this view. People can hold all sorts of eccentric positions, and perhaps from some of them it would not follow that death by starvation is in itself bad. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to refute such positions, and so for brevity I will henceforth take this assumption as accepted. Those who disagree need read no further.

In other words, Singer presents himself as addressing people who agree with the stated assumption. Those who disagree “need read no further”–he’s not interested to address them. But what exactly is the assumption he is taking for granted? Will states it as “suffering and death from starvation, homelessness and the lack of medical care is inherently bad”. This arguably deviates from the first highlighted bit–after all, one can believe that something is bad without also believing that it is inherently or intrinsically bad (remember your W02 stuff). Now, if you look at the second bit highlighted–you will see Singer talking about how death by starvation is “in itself bad”. At least as I originally read it, I took Singer to be using death by starvation representatively of the whole list. But I am willing to accept that this can go either way. Consequently, it’s fairer to accept both a “Will is in” and a “Will is out” answer. So, both Options A and B will be accepted. (Note that the marks can only be updated in Gradebook, not in Quiz.)

Some other students wrote arguing that what Will said is wrong because what he stated isn’t the only assumption Singer needs. Indeed, it isn’t the only assumption that Singer needs. But Will isn’t saying or implying any such thing. Imagine this analogy. You are inviting people to apply for a position in your major’s club. There’s supposed to be two criteria–they need to be declared majors, and they need to demonstrate a certain skillset. So you are careful to ask only the enrolled majors to apply. This doesn’t imply that you are taking “is an enrolled major” to be the only criteria, or that you have set aside the other criteria. Put another way, when you only ask people from group A, what you are implying is that non-group A people don’t need to apply. In other words, being in group A is a necessary condition for being asked. But that’s not the same as saying that being in group A is the sole necessary condition, or that it is a sufficient condition.

Another student also wrote asking if Will is wrong just because we can always retreat to the moderate version of his principle on which we don’t need to give to the point of marginal utility. Maybe. But note that on p. 242, Singer does say that if he is right, we should be “doing everything we ought to be doing”, i.e., to alleviate suffering. Furthermore, his introduction of the moderate principle is a tactical concession–it’s enough for him to make the case that people in rich countries ought to donate more of their wealth to the starving poor. But take away that concession, he does want to argue that–actually–if only we pay attention to the consequences of our actions, we would see that we ought to give to the point of marginal utility.

In any case, all this is moot since we are accepting an answer that excludes Will.


  • Question 2

Option C (“Only Gene’s statement”) and most of you (74%) got this.

Will, Lena and Gene continued filling Dave in about the Webinar. They started discussing Singer’s strong and moderate principles (see Slide #26, and Singer, p. 231 and p. 241):

Will is wrong because both the strong and moderate principles are intended to be principles saying that something is a moral duty. This means that, for Singer, if either version of his principle is true, then anyone who violates them is blameworthy. Incidentally, this still works out whether you only accept the moderate principle, or if you accept the strong principle (which, incidentally, will also imply the moderate principle). Because in either case, nothing praiseworthy is at issue–you are just doing your duty, as far as Singer is concerned. In any case, Singer himself accepts the strong principle; he came up with the moderate principle as a concession to get people to at least donate more to the starving poor…

Lena is wrong because Singer does not think that the demandingness objection succeeds against the strong principle (see p. 238). Singer’s moderate principle is used mainly to make the point that the moderate principle is sufficient to require significant lifestyle changes for those of us who live in relatively affluent countries when, in fact, Singer emphasizes that he sees no good reason for holding the moderate principle instead of the strong one (see p. 241).

Gene is the only one who is right, and this one is pretty much straight from the reading itself (see bottom of p. 233 to p. 234). As Singer himself explains, the implication that one has to give to the point of marginal utility point assumes that no one else is giving:

It might be thought that this argument has an absurd consequence. Since the situation appears to be that very few people are likely to give substantial amounts, it follows that I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents–perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility… So the seemingly absurd consequence of the principle I have put forward can occur only if people are in error about the actual circumstances–that is, if they think they are giving when others are not, but in fact they are giving when others are.

All this means that Gene is right to be qualified (“Singer agrees that if I believe his strong principle is true, then I might also have to believe that I ought to give to the point of marginal utility”)–it depends on whether others are giving. (Explanation updated for clarity.)


  • Question 3

Option A (“Lena only”), and almost all (91%) got this–good job!

Lena is right basically definitionally. Will is wrong because If we haven’t yet calculated whether Tess’s donation will be likely to lead to more or less suffering in Zengal in the future, then the expected outcome utilitarian would have to say that we don’t know yet whether Tess’ donation is morally right or wrong, rather than that it is donation is morally wrong.


  • Question 4

Option A (“Will only”). 42% got this, while 45% selected Option D (“Neither Will nor Tess”). This means that while most of you were not distracted by what Tess said, some of you need help with what Will said. (Update–I’m giving the mark to those who selected Option C (“Both Will and Tess” as well). See below for explanation.)

Make sure you keep in mind that the question is asking Which of the following students misrepresented Singer’s argument and/or the objection(s) that Singer anticipate(s).

Lena’s Argument =

Premise 1: If everyone in circumstances like mine gave £5 to the Zengal Relief Fund, there would be enough to provide food, shelter, and medical care for all the refugees.

Premise 2: There is no reason why I should be obligated to give more than anyone else (in the same circumstances as I am) is obligated to give.

Conclusion: I have no obligation to give more than £5.”

The first thing to note is that Lena quoted Singer almost word for word, with only very small changes–she changes “there is no reason why I should give more than anyone else in the same circumstances as I am” (p. 233) to “there is no reason why I should be obligated to give more than anyone else (in the same circumstances) as I am is obligated to give”–to make it clear what Singer means here is that there is no reason for people in the same circumstances to have different moral obligations to donate. Note also that Singer is not saying I should not give more than what other people in the same circumstance are actually giving. Ok, on to Will and Tess.

Will is incorrect because according to Singer: “Each premise in this argument [=the one formulated by Lena] is true, and the argument looks sound… unless we notice that it is based on a hypothetical premise, although the conclusion is not stated hypothetically.” (p. 233) In other words, Singer is saying that the argument is unsound even though each of its premises is true–this can only mean that he thinks the argument is invalid. (Remember that a sound argument is a valid argument with true premises. This means that an unsound argument will either be invalid, or have untrue premises, or both. Since we know that Singer considers the argument unsound, but have true premises, the only option left is that it is invalid. Do make sure you follow “A Short Lesson on Arguments and Logic”.)

Tess–this one almost escaped. And in fact, no student wrote in. But while answering a student on something else, I noticed it… to my chagrin. As intended, Tess was supposed to have correctly represented Singer (see first full paragraph on p. 233). So this is what SInger said:

The argument would be sound if the conclusion were: if everyone in circumstances like mine were to give £5, I would have no obligation to give more than £5.

Now, compare this with what Tess said:

Singer thinks this objection is unsound because even if both premises are true, the conclusion that I have no obligation to give more than £5 would only be true if everyone in my circumstances did indeed give £5 to the Zengal Relief Fund.

One student wrote to ask if Tess got it wrong because Singer says that the conclusion needs to be hypothetical, but Tess seems to be saying something else. Actually, that’s not a problem. Singer is saying that the argument is sound if you edit the conclusion to say “If everyone in circumstances like mine were to give £5, I would have no obligation to give more than £5”. But this is logically equivalent to saying that the argument would be sound if you put “Everyone in circumstances like mine were to give £5” in the premises, and keep the conclusion as “I have no obligation to give more than £5”. (This is call “conditionalizing”; I will write a separate blog post about this at some point.)

It was when I was answering the above student that I noticed the real problem–Tess is making “everyone in circumstances like mine gives £5” a necessary condition for the argument to be sound. But what Singer said implies that it’s a sufficient condition. For the sake of fairness, I will give the mark to those who chose Option C as well (can only be updated in Gradebook).


  • Question 5

Option A (“Lena only”). A majority (56%) got this. But 24% chosen Option C (“Will only”) and 19% chose Option D (“None of them are right”).

Will is wrong because, even though Singer believes we should donate to charity in general, he surely will not agree if doing so violates either the strong or the moderate principle!

For Lena, keep in mind that net goodness need not be positive. Saying that between two courses of action X and Y, the first has more net goodness than the latter can mean, for instance: X: -5 goodness, Y: -10 goodness. But of course it can also be, for instance: X: +10 goodness, Y: +5 goodness. Now, Singer’s Strong Principle implies that since, by doing X, you prevent something bad from happening–e.g., the net loss of 5 goodness–without thereby causing anything comparably bad to happen (has to be the case since all the cost/benefits have already been taking into account by using net calculations), therefore, you ought to do X. And if the action conforms to the strong principle, it will also conform to the moderate principle. We’ve phrased the thing in terms of a generic “goodness” so that we don’t have to worry here about exactly how Singer measures outcomes. Note that this question does not have anything to do directly with the Drowning Child Argument, even though there seems to be some relation in terms of stuff like proximity to the person you’re helping. (Explanation updated for clarity)


  • Question 6

Option C (Lena) only. Most of you (85%) did select this. But most of you also selected it together with other options… I feel kinda bad about this one because we didn’t mean it to be especially hard, but many of you were thrown off. Let’s look at the options carefully.

Will: “If it was the case that only a human life has infinite moral worth, then nothing other than another human life is of comparable moral worth.” To be explicit, what he is saying is that If only human lives in general–each one–has infinite moral worth, then nothing other than one other human life is of comparable moral worth. But this can’t be right. Two other lives, or three other, of four other, are also of–equally–comparable moral worth! (If they aren’t, then one other is also not of comparable moral worth in this scenario, the collective worth of several human lives = the worth of one human life.)

For similar reasons, Tess is also wrong. What she said was: “According to Singer’s Strong Principle (Slide #26), if it was the case that only a human life has infinite worth, then the only time we ought not to save the drowning child is when we would have to sacrifice another (i.e., one other) human life to do so.” It can’t be “the only time”–we also ought not to save the drowning child when we have to sacrifice two other human lives, or three other, etc. Things would be different if it had said “…at least one other human life…”; but Tess didn’t say that. Note also the parallel with Option A.

Only 25% of you selected Gene (“Anyone who believes that a human life has infinite moral worth is definitely not a Utilitarian!”), which is good. If you following the reasoning about why saying that a human life has infinite moral worth causes problems for the Utilitarians, you will see that the proper conclusion isn’t that Utilitarian rules out that idea, but that they will absolutely need some very fancy mathematics if they want to take on board such an idea. See also this. (Look for the bit that begins “No. The point here is just this” in

This leaves Lena–“If it was the case that only a human life has infinite moral worth and we ought to sacrifice anything that isn’t morally significant to prevent something bad from happening, then we ought to save a drowning child (assuming that there aren’t other people–including ourselves–needing to be saved at that point in time anyway).” Which is more self-explanatory. (Note–Lena’s statement isn’t completely watertight either. She really should have said “…isn’t as morally significant…” But the other Options are unarguably wrong.)


  • Question 7

Option C (“Tess”) only–and almost all of you (95%) selected that. But most of you (71%) were also distracted by Option A (“Lena”). Keep in mind the question: Which of the following, if true, will properly defend Singer’s position against Gene’s objection, i.e., imply that Gene’s argument is unsound?

Lena is wrong since Gene’s argument–following the ‘Friedman Reply’–only used expected lifetime income as an estimate for the amount of net happiness that the person. It doesn’t commit itself to any view of how that happiness is brought about, let alone the very specific idea that the happiness is brought by people having or spending income. Therefore, Lena’s statement being true won’t imply that Gene’s argument is unsound. (Look for the bit that begins “Ah–watch the thing carefully” in A lot of you picked this option so please do clear up any misunderstanding here.

Will is wrong because, while the idea that Utilitarianism is false it may seem to challenge Gene’s argument, it will not imply that either of his premises are false. Imagine the following analogy:

Gene’s other argument:

(1’) Premise 1 of the other guy’s argument is true only if Singapore is a place in Europe.

(2’) But the same idea that Singapore is in Europe implies that Premise 2 of the other guy’s argument is false.

Therefore, (3’) If Premise 1 of the other guy’s argument is true, his Premise 2 is false.

Singapore is not a place in Europe–but that doesn’t affect the truth of either (1) or (2). If anything, it makes things worse for “the other guy” since, if (1’) is true and Singapore is not a place in Europe, it immediately follows that the other guy’s Premise 1 is false! (Anyway, most of you did not pick this option.)

Tess is correct because if there really is a better way to estimate expected happiness brought about in the world which says that both children are of similar moral worth, then Gene’s argument doesn’t stand any more. With Tess’ idea, it becomes open to someone like Singer–who presumably already agrees with his own Premise 1 of the Drowning Child Argument–to now take on board the new way of estimation and conclude that his Premise 1 will no longer require need to assume accepting the other method that Gene talked about. And on this new way of estimation, there is no conflict with his own Premise 2. (As mentioned earlier, most of you did pick this option.)

Finally, Dave is wrong because what he says does not address Gene’s argument at all. It actually agrees with Gene that there is a moral difference between the two children, and merely prescribes an action to try and change the fact that there is a moral difference based on expected income. (Anyway, most of you did not pick this option.)


  • Question 8

Option B (“Abe only”), and most of you (88%) got this–good job!

Bern is wrong. Specifically, this is the part that she got wrong–”If you agree that torturing puppies and a child drowning in a pond are bad situations, you ought to agree that consuming factory-farmed meat and not giving to charity are morally wrong–since our duty is to bring about more good and less bad in the world!” Neither argument goes from judgments about “situations” being “bad” (think “Wellbeing”) to judgments about moral duty. If anything, both count upon intuitive judgments about a specific duty we ostensibly have (not to eat at Fred’s, to save the drowning child).

Abe is right–note also that if he is right, Bern is wrong. Singer’s argument counts upon us accepting that saving the child is a moral duty. Now, he will go on to argue the fact that we accept this shows that we are more utilitarian than we thought, but that’s a separate matter. That is, even if you don’t accept that further point, you might still be able to accept the Drowning Child Argument.

Will is wrong since SInger’s argument is not formulated as a modus tollens. (If you need a refresher on modus ponens and modus tollens, see “A Short Lesson on Arguments and Logic”.) In any case, that’s not the difference–if any–between them.