Living High and Letting Die
Inspired by Peter Singer's 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Unger argues that for people in the developed world to live morally, they are morally obliged to make sacrifices to help mitigate human suffering and premature death in the third world, and further that it is acceptable (and morally right) to lie, cheat, and steal to mitigate suffering.
Unger argues that the intuitive moral judgments most people have of several hypothetical moral scenarios, The Shallow Pond, The Vintage Sedan, and The Envelope, are inconsistent.
Unger presents the hypothetical case of The Vintage Sedan:
Not truly rich, your one luxury in life is a vintage Mercedes sedan that, with much time, attention, and money, you've restored to mint condition... One day, you stop at the intersection of two small country roads, both lightly traveled. Hearing a voice screaming for help, you get out and see a man who's wounded and covered with a lot of his blood. Assuring you that his wound is confined to one of his legs, the man also informs you that he was a medical student for two full years. And, despite his expulsion for cheating on his second year final exams, which explains his indigent status since, he's knowledgeably tied his shirt near the wound as to stop the flow. So, there's no urgent danger of losing his life, you're informed, but there's great danger of losing his limb. This can be prevented, however, if you drive him to a rural hospital fifty miles away. "How did the wound occur?" you ask. An avid bird-watcher, he admits that he trespassed on a nearby field and, in carelessly leaving, cut himself on rusty barbed wire. Now, if you'd aid this trespasser, you must lay him across your fine back seat. But, then, your fine upholstery will be soaked through with blood, and restoring the car will cost over five thousand dollars. So, you drive away. Picked up the next day by another driver, he survives but loses the wounded leg.
Unger reports that most people respond strongly that abandoning the hitchhiker is abominable behavior, and he contrasts this near-universal harsh judgment with the lenient judgments most people give to The Envelope:
In your mailbox, there's something from (the U.S. Committee for) UNICEF. After reading it through, you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon.
Unger argues that the factors that distinguish The Envelope from The Vintage Sedan, in which morality compels us to make a sacrifice, are not morally significant, using thought experiments such as variations on the trolley problem to illustrate his point. Unger contends that psychological factors obscure the moral questions, and that our moral intuitions about problems such as these provide an inconsistent window into our true moral values.
Barry Smith and Berit Brogaard (writing under the pseudonym of Nicola Bourbaki) argue in their "Living High and Letting Die", that Unger's argument undermines one central approach to the defense of abortion advanced by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her famous Violinist (thought experiment):
Imagine that your body has become attached, without your permission, to that of a sick violinist. The violinist is a human being. He will die if you detach him. Such detachment seems, nonetheless, to be morally permissible. Thomson argues that an unwantedly pregnant woman is in an analogous situation. Her argument is considered by many to have established the moral permissibility of abortion even under the assumption that the foetus is a human being.
Following the strategy adopted by Unger, Smith and Brogaard point to a number of scenarios in which a woman's right to decide what happens in and to her body seems to be outweighed by the right to life of the violinist.
- Tierney, John (1999-09-13). "The Big City; At What Price Excess in Care Of 4-Year-Old?". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
- ""The Bread Which You Withhold Belongs to the Hungry": Attitudes to Poverty". Inter-American Development Bank. Archived from the original on 2008-04-11. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
- Brogaard, Barry; Smith, Berit (2001). "Living High and Letting Die" (PDF). Philosophy. 76: 435–442. Retrieved 2008-03-20.
- Oxford University Press's page
- The Singer Solution to World Poverty, by philosopher Peter Singer, summarizes many of the main practical points of this book.
- Unger, Peter (1999). "Précis of Living High and Letting Die". Philosophy and Phenomenological Research. International Phenomenological Society. 59 (1): 173–5. doi:10.2307/2653465. ISSN 0031-8205. JSTOR 2653465 – via JSTOR. (Registration required (help)).
- The Envelope & the Vintage Sedan, an interactive version of Unger's famous thought experiment