Roar Anfinsen. An Analysis of Peter Singer’s Ethics

I give a critical analysis of Peter Singers claim that we have a duty to help the distant needy. Singer defends a principle that demands us to give up our present moral thinking and way of living. Central in my argument is a distinction between negative and positive duties and rights, a distinction which I partly defend. I claim, however, that we don’t only have natural negative duties (duties not to harm), but also natural positive duties (duties to help others). Nevertheless, I think Singer’s principle cannot be defended. Its demands seem endless, and from the perspective of common sense morality we would say that a person who is living according to this principle acts beyond duty. Singer, however, blurs the distinction between duty and charity. In his later writings also Singer finds the principle too demanding, as it is cutting «strongly against the grain of human nature». Still, he defends the principle as such. Singer suggests a distinction between two moral levels, an ‘intuitive’ and a critical level. He proposes a less demanding principle at the intuitive level (the level of common sense morality), while defending the principle at the critical level. I argue that this solution is flawed as it does not give a satisfactory account of common sense morality.

Keywords: Peter Singer, duty to help, distant needy, negative and positive duties, ethical theory, common sense morality.