How Peter Singer destroyed me in a couple of paragraphs

I like to think of myself as a fairly philosophical person, and a fairly rational one–that is to say, I like to think that I examine my life, my motivations, my actions, and my beliefs on a more-or-less continuous basis, and try to integrate them into a framework that makes some kind of objective sense when considered in the light of some basic axioms.

I also like to think of myself as an ethical person. People who know me may be snorting now, let me draw a careful distinction. I believe I have a system of ethics that allows me to determine what actions are required, justifiable, or desirable in all kinds of circumstances. These actions may not align with the societally expected set. That doesn’t make me unethical, it just means I’m out of step with society1–no surprise there. I attempt to hold myself fairly stringently to this system–although, as you might expect given the first paragraph, the system itself is always under review in light of changing understanding of myself, or new information and ideas.

I also like to think of myself as a decent person. Maybe not all the way to “good”, but “flawed and means well” at least.

Most of the time I can hold all three of those views at the same time.

As long as I don’t think about Peter Singer.

For a number of years now I’ve been struggling with him. Or to be more precise, with some ideas from a short paper of his from before I was even born. And when I say struggling, I really mean “ignoring the ideas as much as I can, and trying to find ways around them–with no success–when I can’t”.

While Singer makes a heavier use of the word ‘moral’ than I would like in the paper2 there’s a run of logic in it that I can’t refute at all, and which I have no answer to. Rationally, I should change my behaviour substantially in order to remain decent and ethical, given that I understand what he says, and don’t see a hole in it. But I haven’t. So *pop* there goes my three-part self-image.

The paper is called Famine, Affluence, and Morality, and it lays out the grounds for a particular strain of consequentialist ethics. It’s not terribly long; you can probably read the whole thing in a few minutes. It’s the implications that take a lot of time.

Let me just call out the bits that so thoroughly destroy my self-image.

He starts with “the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad”. I can’t find fault in that.

Then he says:

if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By “without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance” I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent

While I might state it differently (without so much use of the word ‘moral’), the principle there is one I can’t fault.

And, really, as soon as you recognize those two things, the conclusion kind of follows: As long as there’s rational grounds to believe that giving will reduce tragedy, you’re ethically obliged to give right up to the point where it hurts you.

You can read Singer’s development, which is a little more subtle, and nuanced, but what I take from it is this:

1) If I can give up a dollar and it causes a kid somewhere in the world to not starve, I should do that, unless I need that dollar to prevent some equivalent tragedy.
2) After I give up that dollar, if I believe giving another one would save another person, I should do that too, unless I need that dollar to prevent some equivalent tragedy

A little bit of induction there and it seems obvious that the ethically correct course of action is to give until either giving won’t help anymore (which, given the state of the world, probably doesn’t apply to anyone who’s not on the billionaire list), or you get to the point where you need money to keep you & your dependents fed/sheltered/clothed/etc. And it’s hard to argue for much even there above subsistence level–can I really say that my kid wearing new Levis instead of Wal*Mart specials, or Value Village second-handers is worth the lives of the 30 to 70 nominal starving kids who I could save with the cost difference?

But let’s set that argument aside, and just draw the line at disposable income. I’m not a saint, after all. Forget about mortgages, groceries, clothing, etc. How do I justify the other things? How can I buy the next beautiful limited edition book for my collection when I know that lives could literally have been saved with that money? How can I spend a pile of money buying CDs, or comics, or a big ol’ plasma TV?

I’ve got no answer.

None.

Zip.

In fact, I can’t even argue the point that I’m just “failing to be good” rather than actually being bad, because Singer wrapped that up as well:

The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it. Giving money to the Bengal Relief Fund is regarded as an act of charity in our society. The bodies which collect money are known as “charities.” These organizations see themselves in this way – if you send them a check, you will be thanked for your “generosity.” Because giving money is regarded as an act of charity, it is not thought that there is anything wrong with not giving. The charitable man may be praised, but the man who is not charitable is not condemned. People do not feel in any way ashamed or guilty about spending money on new clothes or a new car instead of giving it to famine relief. (Indeed, the alternative does not occur to them.) This way of looking at the matter cannot be justified. When we buy new clothes not to keep ourselves warm but to look “well-dressed” we are not providing for any important need. We would not be sacrificing anything significant if we were to continue to wear our old clothes, and give the money to famine relief. By doing so, we would be preventing another person from starving. It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous. Nor is it the kind of act which philosophers and theologians have called “supererogatory” – an act which it would be good to do, but not wrong not to do. On the contrary, we ought to give the money away, and it is wrong not to do so.

I’ve looked at all the obvious arguments, and find them to be cop-outs.

There’s the practical one–“you can’t get your money to where it will save people anyway”/”charities are scams”/etc. That doesn’t invalidate the point, it just means I am also ethically obligated to work to ensure that there is an efficient channel to get resources to where they can prevent tragedy.

There’s the Romantic one–“you can justify books/music/art because without capital-A Art, life isn’t worth living”. Sounds good. Not sure the mother of the starving kid would agree. Certainly not sure I have any ethical grounds to make that call.

There’s the everyone-else-is-doing-it one. Singer takes that one apart himself, in the paper, but even if he didn’t my own personal ethical system doesn’t allow me get a pass just because everyone else isn’t living up to their responsibility.

There’s Corbett and the “it’s too hard to expect people to actually do, so there’s no obligation” thing. That’s some weak sauce right there.

There Pettit and the “if I’m one of a million people who could give a dollar to save a kid’s life, when he dies I’m only responsible for 1 millionth of his death” line. I’m afraid that smacks to me of trying to define around the fact that I could have prevented the death with my dollar. It’s the kind of rationalizing you do when you don’t like what you know is the right thing to do. Or put another way, the fact that in a “fair” world I shouldn’t have to be the one to spend the dollar, doesn’t take away the fact that I could have saved the kid, but I didn’t.3

There’s especially the “but I can knock holes in a lot of Singer’s other extreme positions, so he must be wrong” one, which my brain keeps trying to sneak by me from time to time. Sadly I keep remembering that the point isn’t who presented the argument, it’s the validity of the argument.

And so on. Half of the paper is Singer knocking down some obvious ones, but believe me, I’ve been through hundreds, and none of them have held water yet.

So here’s the thing: Given the axioms I work with, I can’t see the hole in what Singer says, but I’m not changing my behaviour. I’ll keep giving what I’ve always given to various charities–around 10% of what I make, sometimes net, sometimes gross, which seems to be enough to assuage my conscience most of the time–but not all my disposable income, and certainly not up to where it hurts. I’m still going to buy books. And I’m going to do it knowing all of this.

Which means that from time-to-time, and on a pretty regular basis if the years since I first encountered Singer’s arguments are any guide, I’m going to be cognisant of the fact that I’m not rational, ethical, and decent: that I fail at one or more of those things EVERY DAY4. And every now and then, I’m going to look at my house, and my car, and my TV, and my shelves of books, and see them not as things to be proud of, but as obscenities that record a myriad of preventable tragedies.

  1. And actually, on the whole there are probably as many cases where the results of my system are more onerous than the consensus ones than the other way around(back)
  2. I am always unhappy with the connotation that ‘moral’ somehow has to do with Good/Evil and thus with some kind of absolutes, which is why I tend to stick with ethics and Should/Shouldn’t, which are more amenable to the paradigm paradigm.(back)
  3. I do think, though, that thinking about this should make it pretty obvious that an ethical society would deal with many of these cases of preventable tragedy via collective action–indeed, if the shift that Singer postulates from “charity as optional good act” to “failure to give as shameful act” were to happen the collective action would be internally motivated–in order to most effectively distribute resources. Viewed in consequentialist terms, an effective socialist society would be more ethical than individualist capitalist (or libertarian) ones.(back)
  4. And note here, that his doesn’t mean I’m throwing out my ethics and just going nuts–just because I know I’m failing here doesn’t mean I’m going to start murdering people, or whatever. You might think that was obvious, but some people have countered Singer with an argument that setting the bar where he sets it means people will fail, and then give up on the whole concept of ethical behaviour since they see themselves as ethical failures already. Balderdash, I say.(back)

  28 comments for “How Peter Singer destroyed me in a couple of paragraphs

  1. May 12, 2010 at 2:39 am

    I can only offer what might be a tiny bit of consolation: it’s less important to change your life than it is to change the world. They’re linked, of course, and I think there’s a good bit of hypocrisy (of the forgivable and even lovable sort) in people like the Fabians, but so long as we live in the world we do, we can only do our best.

    Which sometimes means making blog posts like this.

    And giving what you can where it seems most effective.

    And continuing to ask the question about what it means to live a good life.

    So do your bit for socialism in Canada, and never feel guilty when you have a great beer with a great book.

  2. May 12, 2010 at 2:52 am

    P.S. Just checked the Wikipedia article. Singer’s argument on zoophilia only works if the critter initiates the loving. I’m also not sure he’s thought through what “regulated capitalism” is. Sensibly regulated capitalism has a shorter name: socialism.

  3. Lachlan O'Dea
    May 12, 2010 at 3:06 am

    I agree Peter Singer’s arguments are very strong; his logic really is ruthless. I certainly don’t kid myself that I’m some great generous guy when I donate to charity. I think the majority of “charitable activity” is more about making ourselves feel better than actually helping others. And, of course, the efficacy of charity is hugely overrated, but I guess that’s off the point.

    But I’ll take a shot at this one. Maybe I’m just repeating the Corbett argument you reference, I just don’t think Mr Singer’s definition of ethical behaviour is of any practical use. He is, in effect, putting 99.999999% of the world’s population squarely into the unethical bucket. I think his ethics demands something the human psyche just isn’t capable of providing. It’s analogous to the famous line from Jesus of Nazareth “love thy neighbour as yourself” – we simply cannot do such a thing, and your neighbour would think you insane if you tried. So, to me, Singer’s argument, that a person is unethical if they don’t choose to give until they hurt themselves more than they help others, is rather like saying a person is physically weak if they don’t choose to jump out of a 10 metre deep well.

    You’ve probably already thought of some of the other consequences of his logic, such as: we should immediately cancel all space exploration programs and spend the money on poverty relief. Should we not? I’ll have to join you in the selfish camp.

  4. will shetterly
    May 12, 2010 at 4:21 am

    Lachlan, I like your example. How many poor people would you let die to put a man or woman on Mars? Would it matter if those poor people were Africans or Americans? (The US health care not-a-system is responsible for the preventable deaths of 45,000 people a year, if I remember correctly.) What if they were Canadians? Is one Canadian life worth more than an African or an American life? Or for the sake of space travel, are all deaths of poor people equal?

  5. May 12, 2010 at 8:33 am

    Will, as I said, there are lots of other positions Singer takes that I can poke holes in. It’s the “ruthless” (excellent word, Lachlan) logic of this argument in particular that I struggle with.

    Lachlan, you might be right that Singer’s logic is impractical. I’m not sure it matters. I’m pretty sure that “most people can’t reach the bar” isn’t relevant to where the bar belongs. “What most people are capable of” is relevant to an argument about what you can be blamed for failing, but it doesn’t really enter into an argument about whether or not you failed. In terms of solace for me from Singer’s logic, that argument doesn’t help: It doesn’t change the “I bought this book with tragedy” condition, even if I can’t reasonably be blamed for having done so.

    Will, you may not have meant it, but your comment #4 comes across as very accusatory, rather than discursive. Just an FYI, because I’m assuming you don’t mean to be purposefully antagonistic and ad hominem, but people who don’t know you might read it another way.

    For both of you: The space program (and other science programs) I can probably make a reasonable case for, even in light of Singer’s argument–you never know what the benefits of research will be, but the potential for life-saving/tragedy-mitigating results is always there, and consequently resources diverted into that might result in more positive consequences in the longer view. So it’s not a case of “how many people dying is putting a human on Mars worth?” It’s the same argument that some money should go into disease research–the dollars not being used for something else might cause death/tragedy in the short term, but the fruits of the research could result in the prevention of much more tragedy.

    (I’ll ignore here arguments about how research happens–the fact that pharmaceutical companies significantly change the shape of all kinds of medical research along profit lines, for instance, isn’t relevant to the point, just as the “charity organizations are inefficient transports” isn’t.)

  6. May 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

    Chris and Lachlan, apologies. I forget that on the web, delight in probing the boundaries of uncomfortable ideas will often sound antagonistic. One of the things I admire about Singer is that he’s willing to take on ideas that push our buttons, and the idea of letting poor people die so the rich can have luxuries is one of the greatest in any hierarchical economic system.

    Chris, I think it’s easy to make an argument for unmanned space programs. Justifying the expenses of using living beings is much trickier, imho.

    But there’s also ruthless math involved: if we took much of the money that currently goes into war, there would be enough for everyone’s needs and more. Space travel would not have to be sacrificed.

  7. May 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Sure, the logic is ruthless, but I think the premise can be attacked a little. And by ‘I’, I mean, my genetics professor…
    I suppose the philanthropy until pain argument works ok, but it begs the question, is it our basic imperative to ensure the survival of our whole species? If so, then we should give all our money away to save everyone on earth until we have only enough for ourselves for tomorrow.
    But my teachers in genetics suggested that our only basic biological imperative is to ensure the propagation of our genetic code. This would suggest that hoarding resources to help ensure the future success of our offspring is a valid, even ethical, endeavor.
    I think you can also justify the purchase of the book, given that it may well create a richer growth environment for your offspring 😉

  8. May 14, 2010 at 12:31 am

    That’s a good effort, but that one had occurred to me as well, and I don’t actually buy it as an excuse. (It may explain actual behaviour to some degree, but it can’t make it ethical.)

    The thing about the genetics argument is that in order for it to actually work, the (usually) unstated premise is that genetic linkage tilts the balance of, to use Singer’s term, “comparable moral importance”.

    In essence you’re saying “it’s ethical to buy the book, because the off chance that it creates a richer growth environment for my offspring outweighs the N children’s lives that the money could have saved elsewhere”–admittedly the “N lives thing” is the ultimate case, but it’s the same reasoning with “outweighs feeding M people”, “sheltering X people”, etc. And, of course, that only works if you accept the axiom that people you are linked to genetically are worth more that other people.

    That doesn’t sit well with me. For a couple of reasons:

    1) it suggests that heredity and evolutionary biology constitute a kind of pre-destination, rather than acting as one of many inputs–that we can’t learn to transcend biology, in essence. And at a meta-level, that we can’t even step beyond a kind of limited scope tribalism to consider “the other” as something equally important as the “us”.

    2) it introduces the idea of a kind of subjective “deserving”; with my relations being the ones I somehow privilege as deserving access to the resource over others, regardless of comparative need. I have to say that if I’m going to allow a concept of people “deserving” resources on any basis other than immediate need and reduction of tragedy, there are a lot of better bases than “accident of birth”.

    3) it excuses distance hiding tragedy. If the people who are most deserving and close relations (or even good friends, or some other bonding system that has a highly correlated geographic bound) then it becomes easy to ignore tragedy that happens geographically outside the group. This both fosters a different kind of tribalism (what Will was on about) and lets bastards get away with things.

    Singer touches on this in his essay a bit

    I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account. The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him). Admittedly, it is possible that we are in a better position to judge what needs to be done to help a person near to us than one far away, and perhaps also to provide the assistance we judge to be necessary. If this were the case, it would be a reason for helping those near to us first. This may once have been a justification for being more concerned with the poor in one’s town than with famine victims in India. Unfortunately for those who like to keep their moral responsibilities limited, instant communication and swift transportation have changed the situation. From the moral point of view, the development of the world into a “global village” has made an important, though still unrecognized, difference to our moral situation. Expert observers and supervisors, sent out by famine relief organizations or permanently stationed in famine-prone areas, can direct our aid to a refugee in Bengal almost as effectively as we could get it to someone in our own block. There would seem, therefore, to be no possible justification for discriminating on geographical grounds.

    That being said, of course, I do actually privilege my offspring. To take the ad absurdum case: given the choice between saving Sarah from death and saving the scientist who could (with 100% certainty, in the next week) cure cancer/invented limitless energy/end starvation, I’ll be saving my kid and damning millions or billions of others in the long run. It’s what I would do. Doesn’t mean it’s the ethical thing to do, or that it’s what I should do in any rational sense.

    Of course I’m aware that I’m that kind of irrational about my immediate family, which is why what plagues me isn’t the ad absurdum case. It’s the disposable income case. Somewhere between “save your daughter” and “buy this ridiculously expensive book for yourself, which may somehow nebulously contribute to your daughter’s growth environment” I’m stepping over a line between what doesn’t nag at me and what does.

  9. will shetterly
    May 14, 2010 at 1:12 am

    I would go further (of course): the people who are most able to perpetuate their genes seem to be the people who are currently doing the most to destroy the planet. I’m not speaking of nationalities as a whole–I’m speaking of the richest 1% who set policies that favor automobiles over public transportation, who decide that it’s better to invest in offshore drilling than alternative energy, etc. Their greed is not good for the species. On the longshot that it has a genetic component, if I was concerned about the species, I would be more concerned about the people who currently live simply and well.

  10. May 14, 2010 at 1:38 am

    I’m shocked, just shocked, Will that you’ve found a way to turn the discussion towards class war. 🙂

    I’m more interested in working out how I should behave in the world as it is. Part of the answer to that may be to work to change the world, of course, but I don’t think saying “I’m working towards a better world” lets me off the hook now. (And I’m pretty sure that “civilization” as a quality increases at a pretty slow rate even with lots of people pushing–perhaps in part because of some genetic predispositions–so that kind of change takes a while. Which means there’s a lot of “as it is now” to deal with in the interim.)

    Or, to look at another way, I have limited power to change what the 1% do, especially in the short term, but I’m lucky enough to have almost historically unprecedented agency in my own life–so the question of my personal responsibility is of greater concern to me than settling normative questions for others.

  11. May 14, 2010 at 2:09 am

    OK, so if you don’t want to contract the argument to genetic propagation … why stop then stop at the species as the benefactor of the philanthropy? I don’t see why the line gets drawn there.

    If dollars spent on the book don’t outweigh feeding ‘M people’ then why not allocate to ‘M^2 trees’ or toward plugging the hole in the Caribbean, hence saving untold marine life.

    Hence, the question then becomes what is the best ‘marginal utility’ for each dollar earned beyond actual subsistence?

    Then, what about the marginal utility of each time unit beyond subsistence?

    If so, why are we the only species on the planet worried about what to do beyond subsistence? I think you have to reign in limits on our direct ethical responsibility first before you can worry about the best economics of expenditure.

    None of this lets you off the hook for buying a fancy book. But I suspect you only bring it up because you intend to buy the book, anyway.

    -S

  12. Lachlan O'Dea
    May 14, 2010 at 3:30 am

    Chris, you refuse to let yourself off the hook 🙂

    You kind-of accepted my argument that the standard is just to high, but then said you still didn’t feel any better about it. That is as it should be, I believe. Doubt, angst, stress – these cannot be avoided in a life honestly lived, and I think you’re living more honestly than most. This post shows you’re willing to question everything down to the core, and that’s a good start, if nothing else. No, this won’t make you feel any better either, but that’s my point.

    Mistrust those who say they are at peace with themselves and the world, because they are surely engaging in self-deception. It’s amazing how many people find this approach appealing, but I do my best to avoid it, with some success I hope.

  13. May 14, 2010 at 9:58 am

    Scott–yeah, I’m buying the book anyway. I said that pretty explicitly in the original post. If I were behaving the way ethical reasoning dictates I should, then I probably wouldn’t be trying to find a way to reconcile reasoning and action. 🙂 What I would like is to find some basis, that holds up rationally, for thinking that buying the book, with full and conscious knowledge that the money so spent could prevent some amount of tragedy if spent elsewhere, is not wrong. (Ideally I’d like to do it without dropping the notion that the degree of tragedy is subject to some kind of distance metric–not necessarily geographic distance–from me. I want to hold on to that one because I kind of like the idea of civilization as the direction in which ‘us’ expands.)

    You’ve got an interesting point, though. I’m working with the question “if I know I could do W with the resources and that would be better, by some rational standard, than doing Z, shouldn’t I do W?” As you point out, that question doesn’t take into account “is Z actually the best way to use the resources?”. Or perhaps more importantly “Do I have a responsibility to not only do what’s right-er, but what’s rightest?”. That would be an even higher bar than Singer is already setting–not just that you have to give until it hurts, but you have to give to the right thing. I’ll chew on that for a bit, but I think I’m going to come down on an answer that says your responsibility extends to using resources in the way you recognize as of highest utility, but not that it extends to requiring you to ensure the set of things you recognize includes an optimal answer. Which may–may–lead me back towards Lachlan’s earlier argument.

    Interestingly, what I think you see as the reductio ad absurdum of extending the logic to other species (at least to other animals) is kind of where Singer goes. I refer you to the Animal Liberation section of his Wikipedia entry as a starting point.

    Honestly, I haven’t really engaged intellectually with animal rights questions–I have an intuition that we should prevent needless tragedy, but that the idea of “comparable” tragedy might be substantially modified by things like awareness of suffering. I also have an intuition, which I should probably examine some day, that while ethical responsibility to entity X isn’t entirely congruent with X’s ability to act in an ethically responsible manner, it might be congruent with X’s potential to do so. (I.e., I have responsibility to the baby that I might not have, or might have to a lesser extent, to the cat.)

    Of course, I think I would argue that quite often the appropriate use of resources to prevent tragedy does involve “environmentalist” actions–but the logic there can be driven by the effect on humans of damaging environmental action, and doesn’t need the assignment of rights to non-humans to make it work.

  14. May 14, 2010 at 11:13 am

    Lachlan–I think you’re being pretty wise here. I have a history of digging the idea that self-deception is to be avoided, even (or perhaps especially) at a cost of intellectual discomfort; that’s part of why I love old Bertie so much.

    On the actual question though, I do think you’ve got to distinguish between “things I can’t do” and “things I can do, but perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect me to do continuously, even though I theoretically could.” I can’t jump out of your well–I can’t even train myself to do if I dedicated my life to it–but I could (theoretically) live the way Singer’s logic dictates. Or at least moreso than I do.

  15. will shetterly
    May 14, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    Chris, on the one hand, I don’t want you to suffer over this; you’re a good guy. On the other, you don’t want to be a hypocrite. Alas, these things are impossible to reconcile without changing your life or your ideals. You say you’re not interested in “settling normative questions for others” but if you don’t, you have to ask whether it’s possible to be ethical in an unethical society–do you share the responsibility for things done if you benefit from them and do not oppose them? An online friend calls this the Mordor question to avoid the harder examples. Most people are extremely sensitive to this issue because, on some basic level, they know that fairness matters. Only sociopaths have the luxury of living untroubled with wealth.

    There are simple things you can do if you want to stay away from politics. I’m not offering any of these as The One Right Choice, but only as examples. You could become vegan or near-vegan. (If so, I’ve learned the hard way that you really do need to take your vitamins, because the human body is not designed for a purely vegan lifestyle–but that’s an objection which makes less sense now that we can take vitamins for what our food doesn’t provide.) You could start a policy of matching your luxuries with donations to good causes–I think of that as the John the Baptist solution, the “if you have two, give one to someone who has none” solution. You could find a poor girl somewhere and give her the same things you give your own child.

    I think everyone’s entitled to some luxuries. The world is rich enough that that is possible. For me, the only question is how many luxuries, and whether you should judge your fair share by what the world has, your nation has, or your local community has. Not that these are exclusive. Money is a more flexible measure than many people realize, since the same amount in dollars buys you comfort in one place (if you’re otherwise healthy) and death from starvation or lack of shelter in another.

    Ultimately, no, I have no solutions for myself or anyone else. But the questions continue to matter.

    At least, they will if the hole in the Gulf doesn’t give us the worst case scenario. Then I reserve the right to rant about greed as I die.

  16. Frances
    June 9, 2010 at 5:55 am

    Dear Chris,

    I felt vaguely guilty when I spent $35 or whatever it was on Singer’s book, because our young family has many demands on its money. But it prompted my husband and I to commit about $2000 Australian dollars a year to the world’s hungriest people, and we are about to do this for the second year. (That was one expensive book ….) Had I not bought the book, I would not have committed the money. I wouldn’t give up book buying, is what I’m saying. Your ten percent is more than what we’re giving, and it’s a significant amount.

  17. Kira
    July 2, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Oh, my. Two months late to the party. I would have a lot to say here if I had any brain available, and I’m not sure most of it would help, because I routinely think about the same things (though in much more primitive terms).

    The first point where I see potential weaknesses in the argument is really about the idea that death is an undisputed tragedy. But then, in my own self-designed moral system, quality of life matters a great deal. And there are ideas about scarcity and sustainability that I’m pretty committed to. Apologies to Will if that makes me a sociopath. I just personally would not want to commit someone to a crappy life that will make it harder for others to survive through a lordly dispensation of funds and some idea that I know what’s best.

    The second point where I see potential weaknesses in the argument is about the idea of responsibility. I have taken responsibility for a cat; I have not, in fact, yet had the opportunity to take responsibility for another human. My first duty has to be to my responsibilities. Of course I have a responsibility to the rest of the planet, which is why I contribute, and restrict my use of resources, &c. But responsibilities have to be balanced against other responsibilities.

    The third point where I see potential weaknesses in the argument is related to Lachlan’s ideas about marginal utility. I can really do something about my friends’ well-being. I can really do something about my own. I do not have sufficient income to save the world.

    Sincere apologies for half-assing this. I will try to come back to it sometime soon and write something reasonable instead of just cavalierly tossing around coded phrases.

    • Giesiek
      September 8, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      I’m patiently waiting for ‘something more reasonable’ ( although what you’ve given is fairly reasonable, I should think) But to think that you’ve got more …

  18. Kira
    July 2, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Oh, I forgot one. This may be an Americanism, so perhaps it has not occurred to you to spend much time thinking about it. But if you stop spending all that money on books, where do all those jobs go? Granted, it is a much easier thing to be jobless in a First-World economy than a Third-World one, and there are certain people (like money managers, or those who hand-carve finishings-or-whatever-they’re-called for yachts) who get paid a disproportionate amount of money for something that replaces what could potentially be much more useful labor. But by deciding you’re morally bankrupt for buying books with money you could be contributing to feed people elsewhere, you’re deciding that the book industry is not worth supporting. Do you really want to live in a world where beautiful books are not economically viable?

  19. July 6, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    So here’s the thing: Given the axioms I work with, I can’t see the hole in what Singer says, but I’m not changing my behavior. I’ll keep giving what I’ve always given to various charities–around 10% of what I make, sometimes net, sometimes gross, which seems to be enough to assuage my conscience most of the time–but not all my disposable income, and certainly not up to where it hurts. I’m still going to buy books. And I’m going to do it knowing all of this.

    Giving 10% is admirable. If substantially more first world above poverty line people gave 10%, that would have a huge effect.

    I appreciate your honesty in explaining that you accept the arguments and are not changing your behavior, instead of rejecting the arguments as an excuse to keep the same behavior.

    I would encourage anyone to think about how they might be able to find more money to give away by decreasing spending on ‘necessities’. In first world countries people have so much more than is needed to live that there’s often not a sufficiently strong reason to think critically about habits and possessions. By not having a car and biking/walking/busing instead, my wife and I are able to give away about $5000 per year (each, if we’d otherwise each have a car) that we couldn’t otherwise. By making most of our own food, avoiding expensive meals like primarily-meat ones, and rarely eating out, we’re able to save about $4000 per year. More money we give away. We still buy luxuries: desserts, books, musical instruments. We still enjoy our life. You might well not have to “give until it hurts” to give away a good bit more than you currently do.

  20. Giesiek
    September 8, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Mr. McLaren, are you at peace yet? I’m asking because I can’t spend a single hour without thinking that I’m a monster. And I’m REALLY trying to get out of it.

  21. Nick L.
    January 12, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I realize this is very old and I’m not quite sure whether you have quite moved on existentially speaking or not. I just wanted to get my two cents in here having somewhat of a hobby in analytic philosophy due to university. I think you underestimate the validity of Pettit’s argument. While it doesn’t abdicate you of all moral responsibility it does imply that you are responsible for far less than you seem to believe; I don’t believe for instance that your book or DVD collection was built on the backs of dead children. This, I think, stands up to at least the most basic of intuitions. Peter Singer claims, in his argument, that the mere fact that others could help has no impact on your responsibility or obligations. This, as Pettit rightly acknowledges, is patently incorrect. To make Singer’s statement more exact one would say that the mere fact that others could help has no impact on the fact that you could help. To examine this effect it is best to remove yourself from the equation and imagine a third party. In analytic philosophy we refer to the following strategy as the method of bare difference cases. We will take two cases and compare them, one in which this individual is the only one who can help and another in which many others could help. We will take Peter Singer’s drowning child thought experiment as the common scenario. In the first case the child is drowning and a man walks by. The man could wade in and save the child at little cost to himself. This man walks by the child and lets him drown. In the second case the child is drowning but there are say, a hundred onlookers. Each individual thinks another will wade in to help the drowning child and so nobody does (this is common – see the bystander effect). It would be an odd individual who thinks these men each bare equal blame when compared to the first man; basic mathematics and rationality says this is not so. Intuition (I hope) when judging the first man compared to the second hundred would tell you that the first man is far more detestable than the latter hundred. From this we can argue that the blame doesn’t rest squarely on the shoulders of any single man in the crowd but on the collective shoulders of all the men. Please note this conclusion is slightly different than Pettit’s conclusion. Rather than demonstrating limited obligation I have demonstrated limited blame. I think this is the more rational conclusion. In conclusion, unless you fancy yourself a perfect moral agent in the universe this conclusion should be something that you can live compatibly with. I hope this has resolved you existential crisis if it is still relevant to your life.

    Sorry for being several years late,

    Nick L.

    • Fairportfan
      September 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm

      “Mr Paragraph is your friend.”

  22. January 20, 2014 at 11:25 am

    Being late is not a problem, Nick–I appreciate the attempt, at whatever time, as I haven’t resolved this in any way. Just another 4 years of very actively ignoring my own conclusions, and not acting according to what my reason tells me I should be doing.

    If I’m reading you correctly, I think you’re saying that because lots of people could help, the amount of blame that can rationally be apportioned to any one of them is some fraction of the blame that could be apportioned to a single person in a situation where only they could help.

    I’m afraid I don’t find that idea helpful at all.

    First, because blame isn’t a concept I’m interested, ethical responsibility is. I don’t actually want to find a way to rationalize guilt, such as by determining that I share the blame with most of the Western world, and thus only carry a fraction of it. I want to find a way to understand what my ethical responsibility is, and then learn to act in a manner consistent with it–ideally finding a rational answer that lets me have the fancy books (but I’m losing hope of that as time goes by). I don’t think anyone else’s failure to act obviates my responsibility to do what I can when it is needed.

    Secondly, because I don’t buy the premise that a shared failure to act is somehow less reprehensible than an isolated one. I’d argue that intuition should see that as more horrifying. (If anything the mass failure to act represents a triple failure on the part of each group member–a failure to act, a failure to ensure the other members see the situation that needs action, and a failure to propagate ethical concepts within the society.)

  23. fu manchu
    October 31, 2015 at 1:24 am

    Maybe I’m not intellectually prepared to answer this in a “philosophical” point of view, but here are my two cents.

    Living under Singer’s moral code seems unreasonable to me. Even though the bottom line is noble, helping the world as much as we can, he seems to ignore a simple truth: “What we can” does not contemplate a responsibility for our own happiness It seems to me like Singer’s setting the bar in an unrealistic manner, sacrificing every little thing that could contribute to our personal happiness for the sake of the “greater good”. We are also creating good by being happy, and by making those around us happy as well. That is no unworthy point.

    Consider this: Singer himself only donates about 20% of his income (which I’ve read from several sources). If he were to follow this utilitarian philosophy to his full capacity, he himself would be living in a much more modest home, or even move to a “third world” country so that he can live off less, and donate more. I’m sure that he makes pretty good bank as an Ivy League professor. Why is it then that he’s not donating more?

    Because Mr. Singer, like all of us, is subject to a very clear reality, and that is human nature. There are parts of human nature that enable us to be charitable, and parts of human nature which also enable us to seek our own happiness and comfort. Finding a balance is important, but that balance is different for everybody. Even though Mr. Singer does pose interesting questions, it seems to me like he’s ignoring this fact, that part of us also seek to be happy in our own lives, and that it is undeniable and unavoidable in our human nature (and some would even say, beneficial), to think of the happiness of our close ones, and those around us as conducive to our well being.

    I actually think it’s great that more people choose to donate their time or their money to worthy causes. However, I’m just trying to be realistic about what I perceive to be the realities of human nature. I applaud those who choose to help the world, in whatever manner they may choose. But quantifying it so coldly and bluntly seems irresponsible to me, also taking into account people’s own responsibilities to themselves to leave happy, balanced lives.

    Take care.

  24. fu manchu
    October 31, 2015 at 1:35 am

    I meant “live” not “leave”.. sorry typo.

  25. fu manchu
    October 31, 2015 at 1:55 am

    One more thing I’d like to add: I am in no way criticizing those who choose to give. In fact, I think it’s worthy and noble to do so. What I disagree with is basically the feeling of inadequacy some might feel for not falling completely into line with Singer’s code. Basically what i’m saying is: give what you can… and that “can” must also take into account your pursuit for happiness and balance for yourself and your close ones.

  26. david c
    November 2, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Imagine you are not able-bodied, perhaps you’re wheelchair-bound. You cannot physically save the child. All you can do is call for help. You have no cellphone so you scream at the top of your lungs. A man quickly answers the call and assesses the situation. Do you keep calling for help in case this man does not save the child? Of course not. You expect this man to save the child – after all, what kind of person wouldn’t save the child? So you relax. Your job is done. Saving the child is now a mere formality for the man – all he has to do is wade into the water and carry the child to safety. In other words, the moment the call is answered and the man assesses the situation, the the child has effectively been rescued. If, however, the man chooses not to save the child, he would effectively be returning the child to danger. Ignoring the child is not the equivalent of choosing to spend $200 on a suit or a TV instead of donating it to a charitable cause. It is the equivalent of donating money to a charitable cause and then taking it back again. This is why we are not appalled by the idea of somebody spending money on a suit rather than donating it to charity, but are deeply appalled by the thought of somebody ignoring a drowning child, when the child could easily be rescued by that person.

  27. Harry A
    January 22, 2016 at 2:45 am

    Chris, I was wondering if you could answer Giesieks question. I find myself in the same situation as him.

  28. B M
    January 25, 2016 at 3:57 pm

    I don’t believe acting in such a way makes you a “monster” of any sort. It’s all about striking an adequate balance in life, helping in ways that matter to you, whether on a personal or a more widespread basis, and seeking personal happiness in your life and your close ones.

    Weighing each “monetary purchase” in that manner is not an approach I would recommend. Instead, focusing on the fact that you are somehow helping making others happy seems like a better way to go. Not only monetary giving, but also being empathetic, being a good friend, support to your family, being active in your community, spreading knowledge or creativity, etc., are also ways you are contributing to the world.

    That being said, Singer himself expanded his viewpoint somewhat later on, saying that he believed there should be a progressive donation bracket, depending on how much people earn. Singer himself acknowledges that’s a more realistic way of getting people to help and donate. I don’t think the whole point of this exercise is to make people feel guilty, but to get people to contribute.

  29. BH
    November 19, 2016 at 8:48 pm

    I think people who posted here, including the OP, might be interested in the “effective altruism” community, which is inspired in philosophies like the one Singer approaches, and which seeks to find the most effective charities in the world that can help save/improve the lives of many, and some pledging a portion of their income to alleviate suffering. I don’t particularly agree with Singer’s approach to morality, but for those who do, these links might be helpful.

    http://www.effectivealtruism.com

    http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org

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This work by Chris McLaren is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada.