Tuesday, April 6, 2010

An Ethical Challenge

Here is an ethical challenge I gave my students in my ethics courses. We are all familiar with Singer's argument regarding our obligation to save lives if the cost of our doing so meets certain criteria. Between now and final exams (@ 30 days), if each of my students and I save $1.00 per day we could raise @ 4500.00. Assuming that it takes $200.00 to save a life that means we could raise enough money to save @22 people. One of the final exam questions is going to be; How would you explain and justify your actions to these 22 people regarding your contribution to saving their lives.


  1. I am curious if you are looking for the students own personal justification to save lives or if you are looking for the student to simply repeat Singers justification as their own. If you are looking for the students personal opinion, then why mention Singers argument at all? Just curious.

  2. Travis
    Students must provide their own explanation/justification for their action. They may us Singer's argument (or anyone else's), but they must argue for the premises. It follows the general format of the critical papers that I have discussed on this blog a couple of times. The one difference this time is that they could actually contribute to saving lives and will either do so, or not, and that is what I want them to focus on.

    I should point out that I give them a couple of easy ways to save money that most anyone can follow, even 'poor' college students. Interestingly, only about 10% of my students of done anything towards saving an actual life when I ask them if they are doing what I suggested they have an obligation to do.

    I would also point out that when I present Singer's argument 90+% of the students agree with the premises. They simply reject the conclusion. Or they simply do not act on it. Either way, some interesting issues arise.

  3. I made a bad assumption in my original post. I just realized that not everyone who reads this blog might be familiar with Singer's argument. Here is his argument from The Life You Can Save, pages 15-16.

    Premise One: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

    Premise two; If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything near as valuable, it is wrong to do so.

    Premise three: By donating to aid agencies you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care without sacrificing anything near as valuable.

    Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies you are doing something wrong.

  4. Very interesting, John. I might try something like this in the fall. I'm somewhat skeptical of the Unger/Singer number of $200 per life, but $4,500 is enough to save several lives at least.

    Do you actually collect the money and donate it somewhere? If so, how do you manage that logistically and legally? To whom do you donate?

  5. David
    Actually challengingly my students to do something and having them write as part of their final exam explaining why they did what they did was a spur of the moment development as we discussed Singer's (and others) argument. Consequently, I am not collecting money.

    But, I do not think I would collect funds anyway. That might seem like pressuring students to donate because they were worried about being penalized if they did not donate. I have made it clear in my syllabus and class discussions that their grade is not dependent on agreeing with the positions I argue for, but is instead based on their ability to provide good reasons supporting the positions they take. By challenging them to actually go out and do something positive I am trying to make ethics less a simply intellectual exercise and to have them really realize that their actions affect others lives at the most very basic level of affecting whether someone continues to live.

    This is similar, I suppose, to another exercise I had students in some of my past courses do for extra credit. They had to volunteer at some agency or function that helped others, for example working at a woman's shelter, or food pantry, or 'soup' kitchen. Those that did this exercise had to write a short paper describing what they learned bout the people they interacted with and themselves and how the overall experience related to some normative perspective.

    What is really interesting is that so far only @10% of my students have indicated that they are saving money while in the past @80% elected to do the extra credit. Right now, @90% of my students seem content to let someone die whom they could save. It will be interesting to read their reasons why.

  6. There has been an interesting development in this challenge. I told some of my currant students that I used to give extra credit, or made it a requirement to earn an A, if the student volunteered to work in some outside capacity helping those in need. Some of them were upset that I did not do this this semester which seems to indicate that if they would receive some reward for doing so, they would be willing to help those in need. A couple even said they would write out a check for $30.00 in return for an A.

    During the discuss, the following argument came to mind, which I shared with them.

    P1: I am trying to motivate people to help those in need.

    P2: Giving students an A will motivate them to help those in need

    Therefore, I should give students A's.

    In so far as I could save lives if I give my students A's, if I fail to do so, I am suggesting that not giving an 'unearned' A is more valuable then a life.

    Am I morally required to give my students A's in order to help those in need?

  7. To take this even further, I believe there are @20,000 students at the university and another 20,000 at the community college where I teach. If we gave each student 3 credits in life saving for $30.00 we could raise around 1.2M to save lives. If my math is correct, at $200.00 per life that would mean could save @ 6000 lives.

    Some interesting issues here I think.

  8. It sounds like a brilliant exercise to me. I understand your worries - and your dilemma about your own behaviour - but far too often philosophy is allowed to exist on a very abstract plane. Connecting it directly to students' *actions* in the here and now (as opposed to their beliefs or future actions, for example) adds a level of immediacy that is surely very valuable. If you get the same students again, you could even talk about the nature of experience as opposed to knowledge.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!