Peter Singer and Michael Slote

Peter Singer (left) and Michael Slote (right) on the ethics of famine relief.

Singer is famous for his brand of utilitarianism, his case of the drowning child, and his radical views on famine relief. Slote has developed a version of moral sentimentalism that provides a basis for criticism of Singer’s views. In this conversation, Singer and Slote debate the nature of our obligations to those in need, the place of empathy in our moral concepts, and the proper goal of philosophical argument.

Production note: Due to technical difficulties, this episode had to be lightly edited. It was not edited for content.

Related works

by Singer:
”Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972)
“What Should a Billionaire Give – and What Should You?” (2006)
The Life You Can Save (2009)

by Slote:
The Ethics of Care and Empathy (2007)
Sentimentalist Moral Education” (2010)
Moral Sentimentalism (2010)

See also:
TRE Symposium on Sentimentalist Moral Eduction (2010)

More video:
Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen (BhTV)

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Filed under Applied Ethics, Value Theory

5 Responses to Peter Singer and Michael Slote

  1. z

    I think there is another issue that comes up in the case of the drowning child, namely the critical nature of timeliness in that case.

    When you consider instead whether you should send money to poor children, time does not enter in the same way. Would you say it is morally better to save one of today’s starving children and let one of tomorrow’s die rather than vice versa? I can’t see a strong argument one way or the other, from either the utilitarian perspective and the sentimentalist perspective.

    Hence, I don’t think you can say “if it is morally wrong not to save a drowning child, then it is morally wrong not to send money to starving children.” Perhaps you can say “…, then it is morally wrong not to send money to starving children at some point in your life.” But the latter seems like a much less contentious statement. I imagine most people would agree that you should give money to charity at some point in your life — perhaps upon death, when you can be certain you won’t be in need of it.

  2. Katrin

    Very interesting discussion, thanks!

    I don’t want to write much about where I tend to agree with whom and why, but there’s one thought I would like to express on Singer’s (practical, not philosophical) advocacy for donating to the global poor.
    I appreciate that, but then I doubt if this will ever solve the problem, even if we all were donating big amounts.
    To me, this seems to ignore the reasons and history of poverty.
    Shouldn’t we rather think about how to end exploitation and dependencies of the poor countries? How to promote education, human rights, etc. Shift the target from private charity to a more political level.
    I mean, that’s basically a far away thing and would require changing our own system deeply, but wouldn’t that be better in the long run?
    (It reminds me a bit of “donating to animal charities versus going veg and promoting animal rights”. Even though there are many differences, of course.)
    Recently I came across an info graphic that some might find interesting in this context:

    @Z: When there are children starving every hour, how is timeliness not a factor, apart from subjective perception?

    Just in case, sorry for clumsy expressions, I’m not a native speaker of English.
    Best regards

  3. z


    I mean that there is no clear moral preference for saving 1 child this month and 0 next month compared to solving 0 this month and 1 next month. Those starving this month are not worth more or less than those starving next month. That is the sense in which time does not enter into it.

    Whereas with children drowning, you either save them now or you do not save them at all. The former is clearly better.

  4. Ma


    You could always consider not saving the drowning child, and later selling your expensive shoes and donating the money to save a child..

    What makes the drowning child so special? His circumstance might be unusual, but Singer’s point is that suffering is ultimately what matters.

    If you don’t save drowning child, he will drown, and if you don’t save that child from poverty, he will die. The fact that there are other poor children to save later, doesn’t matter.

    He is just pointing out that our moral intuition to save the drowning child should also be used to save children we are distant from.

  5. Filip

    Can someone help me and explain to me why at around minute 40-41 Peter Singer expresses surprise when Slote identifies himself as advocating some form of moral naturalism. Isn’t utilitarianism also a form of naturalism? And why Singer would state elliptically that he disagrees on that. I mean sure he could debate the fact that there are a priori analytic truths about morality but surely there are other forms of meta-ethical naturalism.