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Courtesy of listmenber Charlotte Kates
The utilitarian horrors of Peter Singer. Other People's Mothers
By PETER BERKOWITZ Issue date: 01.10.00 Post date: 12.30.99
A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation by Peter Singer Yale University Press, 64 pp.
Practical Ethics, Second Edition by Peter Singer Cambridge University Press, 395 pp. (Click here to buy this book.)
In early September, The New York Times Sunday Magazine featured a brief article on the solution to world poverty, which in a few short, snappy steps argued to the astonishing conclusion that middle-class American households have a moral obligation to contribute more than one-third of their income (and all households every cent earned above $30,000) to the hungry and disadvantaged around the globe. The editors at the paper seemed to see no irony in the appearance of such an argument in the same magazine whose style and fashion pages regularly promote some of the most conspicuous consumption of the day.
Introducing the author of the article, the Times proclaimed the Australian-born and Oxford-trained philosophy professor Peter Singer to be "perhaps the world's most controversial ethicist." And a week before, Singer, who had been recently appointed amid much (and continuing) furor to a new chair in bioethics at Princeton's University Center for Human Values, was the subject of a long and largely flattering profile in The New Yorker, whose front flap declared him "the most influential living philosopher." Since celebrity is anything but the ordinary reward for a life devoted to teaching and philosophical reflection on ethics, the case of Peter Singer endows the obvious questions--why the controversy? whence the influence?--with special interest.
To the obvious questions, there are obvious answers. Singer is controversial for certain remarkable views that he holds: that infanticide and euthanasia (and of course abortion) are not only permissible in certain circumstances, they are sometimes also morally obligatory. And the major part of his influence stems from certain other views, in particular his argument that many non-human animals are, in truth, persons, possessing the same "special claim to be protected" usually thought to be the peculiar privilege of human beings. But controversy and influence do not a philosopher make. Singer's acclaim as well his notoriety are owed to the intellectual respectability he gives to his views in his accessible, engaging, and voluminous writings. His opinions have a reputation for being rigorous. He seems to be a genuinely rational man, a true creature of logic.
Given his reputation as a crafter of arguments, Singer's recent debut in the Times magazine was a puzzling performance. One would think that to reach his dramatic conclusion--to live a "morally decent life," households must eschew all luxuries and donate that part of their income in excess of what is necessary for their bare necessities to the world's poor--Singer would need to summon heavy logical and moral artillery. After all, he does not merely suggest that households ought to contribute more money than is customary to charitable causes, or that they should sacrifice some luxuries on behalf of perfect strangers. No, he equates moral decency with an almost monkish renunciation of material goods, popular entertainment, cultivated pleasures, and devotion to the special care of one's friends and family. "The formula," Singer declares, "is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away." A total mortification of the consumerist soul.
To be sure, Singer acknowledges that weakness and selfishness will prevent most of us from coming close to complying with his--excuse me, with morality's--minimum imperatives. Yet to justify the moral life as the abstemious life, he makes no appeal to theological categories, to God or sin or redemption. Nor do natural rights, or natural law, or any notion of universal principles of justice, enter into the argument for his simple formula. Instead Singer hangs his radical revision of our common conception of moral decency on a single, surreal, hypothetical dilemma.
Singer's "imaginary example," whose purported purpose is to "probe our intuitions," is in its way strong and ingenious:
Bob is close to retirement. He has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked. Then nobody will be killed--but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Most people will immediately respond, Singer contends, that Bob's conduct is "gravely wrong." Suppose that Singer is correct about his readers' typical response. It is worth noting that, though he regularly scolds others for failing to address empirical questions empirically, Singer provides no evidence to support this empirical claim. More importantly, what follows from the moral intuition that Bob ought to sacrifice his pride and joy and the source of his financial security to save the innocent child's life? What follows, Singer asserts, is the inflexible and unqualified duty, regardless of variations in personal circumstances, to give to the poor, beyond a certain austere minimum, all one's income and wealth.
Bob's dilemma may at first glance seem contrived and outlandish, and wildly remote from ordinary experience; but in the morally relevant respects it is, Singer argues, no different from the challenge we all confront every day: "When Bob first grasped the dilemma that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation." Are we? One reason to doubt that any moral formula--much less a simple universal formula that mandates a major transformation in how we live our lives--can be derived from Bob's dilemma is the powerful lack of similarity between Bob's situation and our own.
Singer's imaginary example radically simplifies matters. Bob appears to be wifeless, childless, parentless, and friendless. And Bob appears to have only two choices: he can save his prized possession and personal fortune, which will allow the child to die, or, saving the child, Bob can allow his financial security to be wiped out. In deciding how much of our income we ought to give away, however, surely we face a smooth spectrum of possibilities. We can give a few dollars, or a few hundred dollars, or a few thousand dollars. We can give to the poor ten percent of our income, as do many pious Christians and observant Jews (who, on Singer's account, fall considerably short of their obligations and therefore live morally indecent lives). We can give away one fifth of our income, as does Singer (and very admirably, though he stands condemned as morally indecent by his own simple formula). To replicate the situation in which we actually find ourselves, Singer's example would not only have to allow degrees of generosity or selfless giving, it would also have to incorporate a variety of factors and recognize a range of tradeoffs. For in our lives we must balance sacrifices in personal wealth against, among other things, the kind of injuries that we can practicably prevent, the number of innocent sufferers involved, the proximity of those in need to us, and the cost of our benevolence to those whom we love and with whom we share our lives.
Reflection on the many textures and myriad colors of the moral life suggests that Singer's use of the imaginary example also distorts our situation as citizens and human beings by focusing on a single moral intuition to the exclusion of all others. In fact, a good part of the drama of the moral life arises from the clash between competing moral intuitions. While it may be true that many have an intuition that we should sacrifice considerable personal wealth to save innocent human lives, some of these same are likely also to possess the intuition that we have stronger obligations to care for the personal happiness of our family and friends than to tend to the basic needs of passing acquaintances and perfect strangers. And no doubt individuals could be found who, while appreciating the distinctive duties owed strangers and intimates, also intuit that the perfection of their talents, which requires wealth and leisure, stands as an obligation that they owe to both themselves and others.
Having casually invested intuition with moral authority, Singer overlooks that in living the moral life we find ourselves subject to the authority of multiple and competing intuitions. And even if we had but a single relevant intuition concerning our duty to give, or if all our relevant intuitions sang in harmonious unison, what is the philosophical basis for investing intuitions with moral authority? Singer himself observes that "most people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls." But the argument he offers for viewing massive worldwide redistribution of wealth as a moral imperative rests on an even flimsier basis than opinion polls, and that is his own armchair speculation about people's moral intuitions as inferred from their imagined response to a single philosophical thought experiment.
Singer argues that if you think person X should do act Y in situation Z, then, in order to be consistent, you should do act A in situation B. But he has nothing to say about the goodness or rightness of Y, other than the (falsifiable) contingency that many people believe person X should do it in situation Z. No doubt it belongs among the tasks of philosophy to identify our basic intuitions and to clarify their implications. But another of philosophy's task is to assess the soundness of our intuitions, to sift out what is owed to ignorance, bias, sentimentality, and confusion, and to refine what remains into principles that are sturdy, flexible, and just.
On examination, it appears that Singer's imaginary example is designed less to "probe our intuitions" than it is carefully constructed to serve a single solitary intuition, and to vindicate a peculiarly extreme and one-sided interpretation of the moral life. It also appears that Singer's "penchant for provocation," as the Times breathlessly put it, can be nourished by a rather energetic inclination to obfuscation. Of course, one can only demand so much, even from an eminent philosophy professor, when he writes in the pages of a daily newspaper. And Singer performs a valuable service by impelling readers to confront, and make moral sense of, the great gap between our prosperity and the desperate poverty in which large portions of the world's population live. Yet the careful consideration of his most controversial views and his most influential arguments reveals that the obfuscation evident in the Times article is not a mere lapse from customary rigor for the sake of reaching a popular audience. It is, rather, part and parcel of Singer's characteristic approach to the problems of ethics.
Singer has developed his ideas in numerous articles and books, some of which are scholarly, some of which are popular, and some of which blur the genres. He dealt with political themes at the beginning of his career in Democracy and Disobedience, has published short synoptic volumes on Hegel and Marx, and recently completed a biography of the American animal rights activist Henry Spira; but the preponderance of his writings concentrate on sensitive and high-profile moral issues involving decisions about life and death: animal rights, reproduction, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, famine relief, and refugees. His best known book is Animal Liberation. Since its appearance in 1975, it has sold more than 500,000 copies, and cannot but provoke fair-minded readers to examine their views about the myriad uses--some clearly brutal--to which we put animals for our convenience, health, and pleasure.
Singer's tiny new book is another story. A Darwinian Left is not devoid of useful admonitions about the dangers of utopian visions, and the aspirations to remake human nature, and the dreams of the perfectibility of humankind; but it features a central line of argument that manages to be both unexceptionable and incoherent. Singer does not argue, as his title might seem to imply, that what follows from Darwin is a progressive politics; he himself emphatically endorses the view that values cannot be deduced from facts, including the facts of evolution. Rather, he contends that if the left wishes to effectively pursue its primary goal--which Singer understands to be the creation of an egalitarian society through the aggressive redistribution of wealth--it must face up to the truths about our descent from and kinship with non-human animals. To feed the hungry, and care for the sick, and emancipate the oppressed, and lift up the poor, the left must devise programs based on a realistic understanding of the facts of human nature; and the best guide to human nature, according to Singer, is "Darwinian thinking."
Singer casually assumes that a politics of the left is synonymous with justice. And he writes as if the theory of evolution, unsupplemented by the study of history, literature, religion, and philosophy, provides the left with more or less all that it needs to know concerning human nature. His book also glosses over contemporary disputes that rage in and outside of biology about the scope of sociobiological theory, which Singer treats as the authoritative interpretation of Darwin. But what is most devastating to Singer's thesis that the left should ground itself in the theory of evolution is that the sociobiological interpretation of Darwin favored by Singer subverts the extreme egalitarian aspirations in the defense of which Singer writes.
According to Singer, the longstanding aversion to Darwin on the left derives from the view that evolutionary theory teaches that man is by nature selfish. Singer does not deny that Darwin teaches this, or that it is true. But he argues that it constitutes at most half the truth. As Darwinian thinking has developed, Singer writes, it has come to the conclusion that human beings are also hard-wired for cooperation. Early forms of Darwinism were unable to explain the fact of cooperation and the reality of human sociality; but sociobiology, of the sort best- known from the work of E.O. Wilson, argues that it makes evolutionary sense to rein in our desires and to make sacrifices, even of our lives, for the sake of those who are related to us--it makes evolutionary sense, that is, when human life is understood in terms of the drive to pass along our genes. Life is indeed a struggle for survival, but of genes, not of individuals or nations; and in this struggle of the "selfish gene," unfolding over millennia, individuals with a propensity to cooperate with kin were naturally selected.
On the basis of this currently popular interpretation of Darwin--this greening of Darwin, you might say--Singer suggests that altruism, including "genuine altruism," which he defines as "an impartial concern for all of our fellow humans, or, better still, for all sentient beings," is grounded in our genes. Accordingly, the left must learn to take account of our dual nature, channeling the propensity for selfishness into productive activities that advance the public interest, and institutionalizing incentives to encourage the expressions of our propensity for altruism. Given the extent of the biological determinism that he embraces and the degree of social engineering he envisages, it seems as if, on Singer's account, the left would do well to forget about ethics, at least any ethics that supposes that human beings are rational and free and can act otherwise than they are programmed, and can arrive at responsible judgments that differ from the message that society sends them.
In dividing human nature between narrow selfishness and impartial concern for others, Singer wishes to acknowledge a certain complexity. In reality, he not only uncritically reduces the panoply of human passions and interests to two basic propensities, but actually also obscures sociobiology's own central insight about altruism and the challenge that it poses to the universal benevolence that underlies many leftist hopes. For the altruism that sociobiology teaches is built into our nature is not primarily the "genuine altruism" that inspires Singer's cross-species egalitarianism. It is, rather, "kin altruism," which is directed toward those who possess a portion of our genetic make-up. In practice, this means that the drive to ensure the survival of our genes will lead us to act selflessly on behalf of children, siblings, and other close relatives, but it will move us only very weakly if at all on behalf of perfect strangers. Indeed, "kin altruism" powerfully discourages sacrifice on behalf of total strangers, because such sacrifice reduces the time, energy, and wealth we can devote to family and kin group, who alone share some of our genes. Thus it is not only our natural selfishness but also our natural altruism--which makes us partial to our near and dear, at least according to the form of Darwinian thinking Singer embraces--that undercuts the politics of universal benevolence. So much for a Darwinian left.
It is not this recent ill-conceived foray into politics, but Practical Ethics, which was first published in 1979, and then revised and reissued in 1993, and which by now has sold more than 120,000 copies, that is most representative of Singer's thought. The book gathers together in one place and restates the arguments that have earned him fame and influence. It has been assigned as a textbook for ethics courses across the United States and in Europe; it has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish, as well as Japanese; and it is used by Singer in his own class on ethics at Princeton. It aims to be both academic and practical, to instruct students and to advance public debate. It provides an excellent opportunity to assess Singer's philosophical achievement.
Singer begins his book by stating what he believes ethics is not. It is not, as Singer says "traditional moralists" believe, "a set of prohibitions particularly concerned with sex" (a charge, it must immediately be noted, that is patently false, at least if one numbers Aristotle, Augustine, Maimonides, and Aquinas among traditional moralists), since "sex raises no unique moral issues at all." Nor is ethics, as Singer suggests that realists and cynics think, "an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice," since "the whole point of ethical judgments is to guide practice." Nor is ethics, as Singer maintains that rights theorists hold, "a system of short and simple rules," since simple rules often conflict and sometimes an apparently sound rule, when scrupulously followed, can lead to disaster. Nor is ethics, as many religious believers and some free-thinking nonbelievers contend, "something intelligible only in the context of religion," because we properly define the good independently of God's judgment and "our everyday observation of our fellow human beings clearly shows that ethical behaviour does not require belief in heaven and hell." Nor is ethics "relative or subjective" in the sense that it reflects our culture's point of view or our own personal judgments, because then we could have no rational basis for moral praise or blame, thereby "making nonsense of the valiant efforts of would-be moral reformers."
Many objections could be raised to Singer's catalogue of misconceptions about ethics. Proponents of the conceptions he rejects are likely to protest the crudity with which their views are introduced and then summarily dispatched. Those who have studied Mill's account, in On Liberty, of the many-sidedness of morals and politics, or have learned (as Mill did) from Plato's dialogues to appreciate the partiality and the vulnerability of our opinions about justice, or who have simply taken the time to listen closely to the give and take of ordinary people arguing about the issues of the day, will be taken aback by Singer's categorical and complete rejection of ideas with which he disagrees, and by his inability to find in other perspectives and approaches any power or plausibility or part of the truth.
Since his intention in beginning his book with an examination of the nature and the scope of ethics is to provide a preliminary overview of his subject matter, perhaps the most serious objection to Singer's bundle of errors concerns what he leaves out. Among the opinions that he apparently deems unworthy of even criticism and refutation is the oldest understanding of ethics, the one developed by Aristotle (the founder of ethics as an independent philosophical subject) and since elaborated in countless works of literature and history, namely, that ethics in essence is about character. Aristotle taught that ethics--which derives from ethos, the ancient Greek word for character--is the branch of philosophy that studies the virtues, the exercise of which enable human beings to act well and flourish, to live the kind of life that makes a human being truly happy, just, and good.
Though he recognizes no intellectual need or philosophical obligation to consider on the merits the view that ethics is essentially about character, Singer in practice rejects it in favor of the opinion, quite common in universities today, that the essence of ethics is reason. "The notion of living according to ethical standards," he innocuously observes, "is tied up with the notion of defending the way one is living, of giving a reason for it, of justifying it." But in practice, for Singer, the giving of reasons is not merely tied up with ethics, it is the very heart and soul of ethics.
And the right kind of reason-giving occurs from the perspective of "a universal point of view." On this, Singer implies, the Western philosophical tradition is in all but complete and unbroken agreement. "From ancient times," he asserts, "philosophers and moralists have expressed the idea that ethical conduct is acceptable from a point of view that is somehow universal." Singer's "somehow" might indicate a certain tentativeness, a recognition that his thesis is in fact somehow open to question; but he immediately proceeds to suggest that it is not really debatable at all. Gesturing on its behalf to an overwhelming array of teachers and teachings--Moses and Jesus, Stoic natural law, Kant's categorical imperative, Adam Smith's impartial spectator, Bentham's utilitarianism, Rawls's procedural liberalism, Sartre's existentialism, and Habermas's discourse ethics--Singer implies that in philosophy and religion support for the identity of the universal point of view with the ethical point of view is, well, universal. And this universal point of view, Singer suggests, goes beyond the merely formal: it not only takes into account all people, it also has built into it the substantive idea that all persons must be taken account of equally.
As in the case of his effort to say what ethics is not, however, Singer's preliminary attempt to say what ethics is quickly falters before certain immediate and imposing difficulties. In equating the ethical point of view with the universal point of view and the universal point of view with the idea of equality, Singer does not note that from ancient times many distinguished philosophers have also rejected the notion that a single rule or standard governs all individuals and applies to all conduct. In his long list of eminent thinkers he somehow does not manage to mention among classic thinkers the names of Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Machiavelli, or Burke, and among contemporary thinkers Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntyre, who all reject the equation of ethics with an abstract principle of human equality. Nor does Singer distinguish the variety of ways in which a rule or a standard might apply universally.
What Singer means by universality is a substantive claim about equal worth regardless of excellence or merit. But it is obvious, or it should be obvious, that universality by no means implies equality. Nietzsche may be wrong on the merits, but there is no internal contradiction in his claim, fervently argued in Beyond Good and Evil, that free spirits and the philosophers of the future possess special rights and privileges. It is a claim that is at once resolutely aristocratic and resolutely universal: wherever and whenever they arise, declares Nietzsche, rare human types are entitled to liberties that ought to be absolutely off-limits to the ordinary run of men and women.
Unfazed by these and related difficulties, Singer proceeds to suggest that not only is there a natural affinity between the ethical point of view and the school of ethics known as utilitarianism, but that utilitarianism and practical ethics are for all intents and purposes one and the same. In 1789, in Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, the English rationalist and progressive reformer Jeremy Bentham provided a classic statement of utilitarianism's core idea: "By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness." A form of what moral philosophers call consequentialism, utilitarianism does seem to give expression to the common sense idea (it is to common sense that Singer is explicitly appealing) that in determining the morality of an action, we must look to its results, whether and to what extent the action in question brings benefit or harm.
But this common sense idea does not exhaust what common sense has to say about ethics. For there is also a natural affinity between the common sense view of ethics and the great rival to consequentialism in modern philosophy. That school, whose towering figure is Kant, and which sometimes goes by the daunting name of deontology, argues that the relevant factor in determining the morality of an action is not its foreseen consequences but the rational intentions that motivate and guide it. If it is a staple of common sense that consequences matter in morals, it is no less a staple of common sense that in morality intentions matter, that sometimes we must seek to do the right thing come what may, that evil must not be done even for the sake of good consequences.
Common sense would have us tend to both consequences and intentions. Just as it is a mistake to suppose that consequences are irrelevant to moral conduct, so, too, it is a mistake to imagine that right and wrong can be determined by a utilitarian calculation of consequences alone. Some things--the framing of innocents, rape, slavery, murder--are wrong in themselves, and cannot be justified on the grounds that, in this circumstance or that circumstance, the overall social good will be served. This is the great idea captured in Kant's third formulation of the Categorical Imperative: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."
It is the appeal to common sense that suggests that it is a mistake to identify the ethical point of view either with the calculation of consequences, in the manner of the utilitarians, or with purity of intentions, in the manner the Kantians think correct. Surely the moral life is best and most responsibly construed as consisting in the effort to heed and to harmonize the competing claims of both these ideals. But Singer, under the guise of elaborating the allegedly irreducible features of the ethical point of view, reads this fundamental tension in the moral life right out of existence.
Singer wishes to read into utilitarianism a substantive and universal doctrine concerning human equality: that the happiness with which one ought to be concerned is everybody's happiness, rather than some people's happiness--one's nation's, or community's, or family's happiness--or one's own happiness. Among the more disconcerting implications of this doctrine is that the happiness of your spouse, or child, or mother is to you, morally speaking, of no greater significance than the happiness of a distant stranger.
Although they are compatible with it, Singer's interpretations of universality and equality are certainly not entailed by, and they are certainly very far from the only orientations consistent with, the principle of utility. In its classical formulation, it is worth noting, the principle of utility refers to "the happiness of the party whose interest is in question." It does not, by itself, specify the parties or the range of parties whose interests are relevant to the calculation of consequences. To be sure, most utilitarians follow Mill in supposing that in calculating "the greatest good for the greatest number" it is only reasonable and fair for "everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one." But this is an entirely separate matter which requires an independent argument. That neither Bentham nor any of his successors have supplied the argument lends force to the claim advanced by Charles Taylor, Hilary Putnam, and others that the principle that the happiness of each should be given equal weight is a secularized version of the Christian doctrine of the sanctity of human life. Ironically, to the extent that utilitarians such as Singer, under the guise of the logic of utility, succeed in smuggling in their preferences for universal equality, it is because their readers continue to presuppose at a deep and inarticulate level the very doctrine of the dignity of man that Singer's utilitarianism aims to overthrow.
As henry Sidgwick concluded in his great work The Methods of Ethics, which appeared in 1874, one cannot on utilitarian grounds demonstrate that equal concern for all is superior to rational egoism. Why, then, shouldn't looking out for Number One be seen as a rival teaching about ethics rather than, as Singer attempts to argue, a rival to ethics? After all, putting oneself first--whether understood from a mundane perspective as the business of self-preservation, or in more exalted terms as the pursuit of self-perfection--can be formulated as a principle and understood either in terms of maximizing happiness or protecting individual rights; and it can can govern universally; and it requires the cultivation and exercise of specific virtues.
What accounts for the long trail of objections, difficulties, and doubts created by Singer's preliminary efforts to dissolve difficulties and silence doubts is his determination to present one particular opinion about the nature of ethics as if it were necessitated by or identical to the ethical point of view. What accounts for the failure of so many of his colleagues to be disturbed by this act of intellectual imperialism is perhaps the extent to which they share his prejudice that the principal task of ethics is to derive from fixed and unquestionable principles the
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