Peter Singer — The Life You Can Save

February 24, 2009 at 10:27 am 7 comments

Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation (1975), is a well-known guru of “applied ethics”, though perhaps an equally accurate term for it would be “secular preaching”. In this compact and fiercely argued piece of pop philosophy, Singer turns his attention to Third World poverty.

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Singer starts off in typically aggressive fashion, arguing that it is wrong not to give as much of your income as you can to development charities. He then argues that Western nations, America in particular, don’t give very much to such charities. He discusses how we could persuade people to give more, which charities are pound-for-pound most effective, and how small donations make a big difference in the Third World.

In the final chapters, he goes into turbo-preaching mode. He tells us how our lives need to change to meet his demands. He presents a complex sliding scale, where the well-off give 5% of their income, and the superrich give a third. He openly admits this is a compromise: we ought to give far more. He then slams celebrities who fail to meet his standard, such as Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire who has given a mere $900m to charity.

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Singer is a famous utilitarian, and there is lots of utilitarianism behind the scenes here. The basic argument is roughly that, if something is bad (i.e. a person suffering from poverty), and you can prevent it by sacrificing something less important (i.e. your disposable income), it is wrong not to do so.

The difficulty, even if you accept utilitarianism, is that weighing up benefits versus costs like this is notoriously tricky. Singer flags up a problem for his own position: if Warren Buffett had given away his first $1m, he would never have been able to give away the $30bn he has now pledged. So by reinvesting rather than donating his $1m he “saved lives” — thousands of them.

Singer uses the phrase “saving a life” loosely, as referring to the alleviation of a person’s suffering as a consequence of the work of development charities. On this definition, it’s impossible to tell what will “save” more lives: giving now, or investing your money so that you can do more later. We never know the consequences in advance when we donate now or invest for later, so we never know in advance which option will do most for the greater good.

Because of this, the phrase “saving a life” is inappropriate. It’s emotive. It makes you think that giving money to the world’s poor is something equivalent to diving into a pond to save a drowning child — a comparison Singer actually makes. But you’re not diving into a pond: you’re sponsoring a particular long-term cause from a distance. There’s no shame in holding on to your money in the short-term, and there’s no shame in using your money to sponsor another cause instead.

I agree broadly with Singer’s sentiment. The problem of poverty is troubling. Of course it is.  But I don’t like his “naming and shaming” strategy, and there’s a question mark over his basic argument. And there is another more practical problem for Singer: his view implies that no one should buy this book. How can you justify buying a hardback when children in Africa are starving?

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. John Self  |  March 1, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    I received a review copy of this and quickly decided I wasn’t interested in reading it (so at least my local charity bookshop will benefit. Singer would be proud).

    My only previous knowledge of Singer comes from an interview in the Guardian ten years ago (so it has obviously stayed with me), which quoted some of his ultra-utilitarianism, such as “Killing [infants] cannot be equated with killing normal human beings,” a view last espoused, I believe, by King Herod. At this point I think I decided that it would be safe to have a policy of not taking him seriously.

  • 2. Jonathan Birch  |  March 2, 2009 at 10:04 am

    Thanks for the link John.

    Singer’s views on infants are really odd. Any ethical theory must face test cases, where our intuitive belief that an act is wrong is stronger than our belief in the basic presuppositions of the ethical theory. A theory that is radically at odds with reasonable ordinary moral beliefs should be rejected, and Singer’s utilitarianism seems to fail that standard.

  • 3. John Self  |  March 2, 2009 at 4:58 pm

    Well I think it’s more a rhetorical position as anything, to enable him to draw attention to the “personhood” of apes and other ‘lower’ life forms. But it does risk – and succeed in – making him appear ridiculous, and thereby robbing him of credibility when it comes to his other views.

  • 4. Jonathan Birch  |  March 7, 2009 at 11:49 am

    Indeed — as rhetorical strategies go, it’s not a very good one. But he seems to take it further than that. In Rethinking Life and Death (1996), he issues five commandments (!) including:

    Recognise that the worth of human life varies.

    I don’t know what to say about Singer. He’s a walking advert for the alternative ethical theories he opposes.

  • 5. Bad  |  March 8, 2009 at 2:42 pm

    “A theory that is radically at odds with reasonable ordinary moral beliefs should be rejected,”

    If, of course, you believe that the point of morality is merely to make you feel more comfortable about the life and values you already live and hold.

    This is a pretty serious issue when it comes to ethics, and I’m not trying to make light of it. But a lot of things we simply intuitively believe are reasonable have turned out to be dead wrong, and we have the example of reasonable people endorsing things we now find to be moral horrors or bizarre mistakes.

    That’s why it pays to grapple with the actual arguments themselves directly rather than sound-byte hand-waving skims.

  • 6. Jonathan Birch  |  March 9, 2009 at 10:53 am

    I think for any ethical theory to earn any credit, it has to cover some of our most important intuitions. This is because all ethical theories are built on presuppositions — in the case of Bentham’s classical utilitarianism, the presupposition is that the highest good is the greatest happiness for the greatest number. These presuppositions are not beyond dispute. When the output of an ethical theory is less plausible than the presuppositions on which it was built, it’s time to reject the presuppositions.

    For example, “It is wrong to torture an infant for no reason other than that you enjoy watching it squeal” — this is a statement that any respectable theory should yield as true.

    Of course there are grey areas. That it is wrong to kill a newborn infant because you don’t want to raise it — this is a statement that, though plausible, may not be intuitive enough to count as a test case. Singer certainly needs to hope so.

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