In a review of Peter Singer's The Life You Can Save A.C. Grayling gives the book's argument a ringing endorsement. He says it is 'logically unanswerable'. Here is how Grayling presents the argument which he judges to be so:
[Singer's] book has a thoroughly practical purpose: to persuade people that it is wrong not to give charitably - wrong, note. We all know that it is good to give, but his point is that it is positively wrong not to - and to show by a snowstorm of facts and figures how much we should give if we are to take this obligation seriously.
Singer begins with the familiar point that if any of us saw a child drowning we would plunge in to save it. Now consider the fact that 1,000 children die every hour because of poverty - and that the principle behind saving a drowning child you can see and saving an unknown child on the other side of the world is the same.
Singer sets out this point systematically thus: suffering caused by deprivation is bad. If it is in your power to prevent bad things happening, without sacrificing anything important to yourself, you should do so. Charitable giving can help to prevent bad things; therefore it is wrong not to give charitably. This argument is valid and sound. It is logically compelling. It is the key to Singer's case, which is unanswerable: we do wrong not to give some of our income to reduce world poverty.
Now, I have not read Singer's book, though I have read the famous article from the early 1970s that contains its core idea, and even wrote something about it way back when (see chapter 1 of this volume). But if Grayling hasn't omitted anything from the case as Singer presents it today, so far from being logically unanswerable it appears to me to contain a serious elision.
Let me make it clear, first, that I do not oppose Singer's view; I support it - at least to the extent of thinking that world poverty has a strong moral claim on everyone who could easily do more than they do do to help others in dire need or trouble. The problem I'm about to raise here has nothing to do with Nozickian and other libertarian-style defences of the moral right of every individual to do whatever she wants with what properly belongs to her. There are, it is true, legal rights so entitling them; but Singer's case doesn't depend on denying this. He argues that it is morally wrong if we do not give for the welfare of others, whatever our legal rights may be.
My problem with the argument as summarized by Grayling is that (if his summary is accurate) Singer slides from the premise that it is morally wrong not to give 'to prevent bad things happening', when one can do so 'without sacrificing anything important to yourself', to the conclusion that it is morally wrong not to give in the specific cause of alleviating world hunger. But the conclusion doesn't follow from the premise.
Harold gives five per cent of his gross income (the percentage nominated by Singer as a benchmark for reasonably, though not stupendously, affluent people) to world-hunger-related charities. Meriel also gives five per cent of her gross income, but not to those charities; she favours hospices, cancer charities and organizations working with the victims of torture. Is Meriel's form of giving wrong and Harold's right? I don't believe either Singer or Grayling would say so. One might suggest that Meriel should give another five per cent of her income, over and above that which she gives already, so as to be able to donate the five per cent to reducing hunger that Singer encourages. But, other things equal, Meriel can't be asked for a commitment twice as large as Harold's. Perhaps everyone should give 10 per cent. But I can pose the same problem I just have at that higher level. What if Parveen contributes her 10 per cent to leprosy charities and organizations that devote their efforts to helping the victims of war and genocide or to trying to stamp out slavery?
In sum, Singer's reported conclusion needs more premises than ones establishing that it is right for those who can to give charitably.