Singer’s famous example is taken to establish that some acts of Samaritanism are morally required. He writes, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”
There are three ways to interpret this claim:
1) Strong Duties: There are positive duties. This means it is morally impermissible pursue nonmoral projects instead of assisting others who are very needy. Chris says something like this when he points out that it seems that you would be morally required to throw your new TV in front of a runaway car in order to save a child.
2) Some Duties: Yes, there are positive duties. Samaritanism are morally required and it is impermissible to fail to help people. But we are not required to sacrifice our nonmoral projects to satisfy them in all cases. Sometimes, nonmoral projects can outweigh positive duties because unlike negative duties, positive duties are sensitive to costs.
3) No Duties: People have decisive moral reason to be good Samaritans (we ought, morally, to do it). But Samaritanism is not morally required. That is, it is permissible to pursue nonmoral projects even though you have decisive moral reason not to. This distinction appeals to moral categories like the supererogatory or the suberogatory, which make room for morally better and worse actions that are we are not required to do or avoid. Samaritanism is supererogatory, pursuing nonmoral projects is suberogatory in many cases.
All three of these options are compatible with the claim that you should give some or a lot of your income to charity. You should volunteer to tutor refugee children instead of going to yoga. You should rescue those in need. You should make the world a better place.
The first option seemingly classifies most people’s non-moral pursuits as morally impermissible. The theory seems committed to something like what Williams calls negative responsibility, the idea that we are responsible for the bad things we allow in the same sense that we are responsible for what we do. But we do not think that most people’s ordinary failures of assistance are wrong in the same way that it is wrong to injure or kill someone, even if both choices result in equally bad states of affairs.
The second option seems ad-hoc. If people in need have a claim to our assistance, why should it matter how costly it is to satisfy our duties to them? We do not say the same about negative duties. No matter how much I value a nonmoral project, I am not permitted to injure another person to achieve that project. So why would I be permitted to fail in my duties of assistance for the sake of my nonmoral projects?
The third option is off the table for most people. Matt writes, “The idea that individuals have no positive duties toward strangers is entirely implausible.” But is it? That idea does not deny that a person has decisive moral reason to help strangers. It just denies that helping is a requirement. Such a position can still capture the thought that you should help people, while also explaining why it is morally permissible to pursue nonmoral projects, even if they are not very important to us.
And here is another benefit of the third option. I think we should take accusations of moral impermissibility seriously. It means that someone has a claim, that her right has been violated, that she has been wronged by whomever acted impermissibly. People who act impermissibly are liable to be sanctioned. Blame is warranted (insofar as blame is a sanction), coercive or forceful interference to prevent impermissible conduct is permissible, and punishment can be justified as well.*
But it doesn’t seem like people are liable to be sanctioned at all for going to dinner at a restaurant, buying birthday gifts for their children, taking a yoga class instead of volunteering, or pursuing other morally insignificant projects even when it would not be costly to give them up. I am skeptical that it is morally impermissible (in this sense) for people to pursue non-moral projects, even though there is decisive moral reason to rescue others and donate to charity. For these reasons, I think the third option deserves a second look.