Friday, March 06, 2009

Peter Singer

Went to see one of my intellectual heroes (students laughed when I said that in class) last night, Peter Singer, the noted contemporary philosopher whose writings been foundational to the animal rights movement and whose views on euthanasia, abortion, and, conversely, the duty of people in rich nations to help out those living in absolute poverty has earned him loads of criticism from religious groups as well as free-market conservatives.

He was at Town Hall Seattle, plugging his new book, The Life You Can Save, in which he popularizes an argument he’s been making in the academic world for decades, based on the principle that if we can stop something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, we have a moral requirement to do so.

He reprised his famous drowning child example, a thought experiment which compels us to accept his principle by illustrating the obviousness of our obligation to save a toddler from drowning if all that’s required of us is to get our new shoes wet. By extension, then, it follows straightforwardly that if we can save many children from starving to death simply by sending money to Oxfam, say, instead of buying that new iPod, we must do so.

His latest version of what this means for most middle-class Americans is that, at a minimum, we ought to be giving about 1% of our annual income to ending world hunger.

I’ve seen him speak before and was again impressed by how non-dogmatic he is, in spite of holding a position on moral obligation that is, to say the least, rather severe.

After the talk I asked him if I ought to buy his new book or send the 20 bucks to Oxfam. He said if I was going to donate the money anyway, I probably should do so, but perhaps if I bought the book and loaned it to 12 people who then would donate, that was better.


Blogger Larry Livermore said...

Isn't his reasoning a little simplistic, though? Specifically, the matter of assuming that he (or anyone else) knows with any certainty what a truly "good" or "bad" outcome is?

E.g., if donating x dollars to Oxfam keeps ten children from starving to death, unalloyed good, right? Or is it? What if keeping them from starving only enables them to grow up into a life of constant penury and hardship that ends violently or wretchedly when they are a few years older? Or if the harshness of the conditions they endure turns one or more of them into suicide bombers?

Or, suppose they survive into adulthood, or at least long enough to reproduce, and then instead of 10 starving children you've got 50 or 100. Isn't there a finite number of iPods that some Westerner can forego to keep this going indefinitely?

Not, obviously, that I'm advocating starving children to death to avoid future complications, but unless Mr. Singer has greater insight than most of us into how to determine what is ultimately good and bad, his answers sound more than a little too glib and pat.

2:16 PM  
Blogger dashap said...

In one of his essays, he does respond to this concern. The general shape of his answer is that it's better to stop something bad that is actually happening (children starving to death) than be stopped from doing so by the potential of something worse happening in the future; actual bad vs. potential bad, in other words. Also, I think he would argue that if people gave sufficiently, the problem could be solved and that people would not starve in the future.

Singer is a utilitarian; according to utilitarianism, acts are right insofar as they maximize total utility, where utility is reckoned as the total amount of pleasure minus the total amount of pain.

3:11 PM  

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