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.
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.
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)
- 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)