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Mark and Wes interview perhaps the world's most influential living philosopher for an hour, then the full PEL foursome discusses.
Our focus is the newly reissued/repackaged 1971 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," which argues that just as we would regard it as unethical to fail to save a drowning child because you don't want to ruin your expensive shoes, so it's unethical to let someone die of preventable illness or hunger when an expensive-shoe-level donation would save that life. The new publication includes supplementary essays, and Peter has spent much of the rest of his career elaborating and arguing for and preaching about the practical upshot of this essay, which is that our priorities in this consumerist society are very out of whack: We don't give nearly enough to charitable causes, and we don't judge our charitable giving by the standard of helping the most people in the most substantial ways.
Peter is well known as a utilitarian (we covered him briefly back in our ep. 9 where we discussed that ethical theory), and characterizes the key insight of the moral point of view as impartialism: No one individual's interests take precedence over anyone else's from the point of view of the universe. Don't play favorites. While there are certainly utilitarian advantages of everyone being responsible first and foremost for their own children, the lives of two stranger children will still outweigh the life of your single child, and certainly (and this is the conflict we actually face) fulfilling your child's taste for luxury is much less important than saving the lives of many stranger children.
Buy the book or read the original essay online. Other works we mention are "The Objectivity of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason" (2012, with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), The Life You Can Save: How to Do Your Part to End World Poverty (2009), The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (2015), One World Now: The Ethics of Globalization (2002), The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress (2011), and The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, (2014). His brand-new books of short essays is Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter.
You may also enjoy hearing Peter on the Rationally Speaking podcast or watching his TED Talk on effective altruism, or watch this longer talk on effective altruism from the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival.
We mention past PEL interviews with Frithjof Bergmann (about changing work patterns) and Pat Churchland (on the biological/evolutionary basis of morality).
For more about Peter, see www.petersinger.info.
Peter Singer picture by Solomon Grundy.
End song: "Ann the Word" by Beauty Pill (2015), explored in Nakedly Examined Music's ep. 19: nakedlyexaminedmusic.com.
Great convo thanks I learned a lot of finer points weighing on altruism and the bystander effect. I am somewhat curious that you brought up the “political question” after declining to add a comment moments before ending. He was so thoughtful that I imagine you felt it would have been ahem politically incorrect. Anyway it would have been a very good question to ask Singer himself.
I really don’t like Singer’s ethics at all. If anything he’s only been successful at showing me even more issues and problems with utilitarianism, driving me further away from it. However, once I get past his acceptance of infanticide among other issues (admittedly a tough thing for me to get past) there is some stuff there to admire.
I thought that was a good conversation and had me thinking about the blame / Praise dilemma , the scale and how much one gives.
In particular though I take issue at the notion that well off people in far away from the not so well off should take an increasing responsibility to just donate more money.
That doesn’t strike me as a good global relationship to have. But I could see if that’s assessed more of index of living a virtuous life no matter where you are. And what I mean by that is if you come from affluence you try and use that to redistribute things and if you come from the opposite you still do what you can to make it better.
In short I just don’t see an already in debted population donating money since that money ultimately can’t provide water in an arid land. I can see us making better choices to lessen the negative effects we may have on the less afffluent and doing what we can to normalise the quality of living for everyone.
Daniel David says
I enjoyed this one a lot. One thing I was curious about that wasn’t addressed much (although I’m sure Singer has addressed it elsewhere in more detail) was our moral obligations concerning the creation of life. Since roughly a billion of us are conspicuously affluent vis-a-vis the rest of the world’s population, what does recognizing our moral obligations toward them imply for the bringing about of another hungry mouth? Seems to me there’s no clear way (for Singer) around treating the deliberate decision to procreate much different than other luxuries. Maybe an argument could be mustered on grounds of teleological/flourishing (“the good life” is a nice hefty bag for tossing in all kinds of activities!) or some such, but I’m hard pressed to find a utilitarian work around. Anybody know off hand what his thoughts are?
Btw, I don’t recall hearing the ground rules on this one, but I’ve really noticed on the last 10-15 episodes or so that no one ever sticks to them anyway. I think you could ditch them without losing anything at this point, since the episodes a philosophy neophyte could follow are pretty few and far between these days.
Harry Rogers says
Mr. Singer is always predictable and pedantic in his solutions for humanity’s problems and inconsistencies.
Whenever he talks I’m always reminded of the Coliseum and how we humans are expert at justifying our reasons for any actions that we take as a group consensus and how politicians manipulate those sentiments as fodder for the masses.
Mr Singer continuously moans about humanity and gets paid for it unlike most of us who have to compromise and get on with life.
Robert Bishop says
Singer does quite a bit more than just moan. He really practices what he preaches, which is pretty admirable regardless of whether or not you agree with him.
Harry Rogers says
Strange logic? If I disagree with many of his lifestyle choices and opinions based on his personal beliefs I should still admire him if he practices them.
So if bashing somebody up is their belief in solving a problem I should admire them for sticking to their beliefs.
Singer is a armchair moaner and loves controversy and recognition particularly when he hasn’t been in the limelight for a few years. His views are like saying I wish it would rain on days I chose.
Robert Bishop says
Regarding you bashing analogy, I think many people find consistency between belief and actions admirable even if those beliefs and actions are misguided; however, you’re right that the intuition breaks down when someone’s actions are terrible.
That being said, I am surprised you think that “bashing” is a good analogy for Singer’s humanitarian/charitable work. It doesn’t seem to me to be an extreme case that merits our disapproval of his actions mirroring his beliefs.
Very few armchair moaners start charities, donate 30% of their income, and dedicate their lives to ending world poverty, but perhaps you know something about Singer that I don’t.
I am interested to know what your actual objection to Singer’s argument is, though.
Harry Rogers says
Read his mantra on disabled children and the right to survive. His animal rights are superior to humans.
Dedicating my life to ending world poverty is spurious and particulary if I cant even contribute to my own familys better welfare or that of my own society.
Poverty is entirely subjective and the HPI index by the World Bank has been ridiculed by many independent analysis as a western “feel good” index. Poverty does not immediately equate to either unhappiness or inequality
Maybe I should start anmotherhood organisation called “I want to make the world a Better Place’ but perhaps if I did this without any publicity and without any grandiose gestures I may actually make a small dint just like many people do in a practical way without posterizing.
Why dooesn’t he donate all his income and go on a pilgrimage in India and live a true life of denial?? Much better I suppose to armchair moan in comfort.
Sorrel Weakland says
I listened to this episode when it came out in 2016 and started the following thoughts but got distracted by work and never posted it. It’s my respectful critique of what you might call the “liberal standpoint” in Singer’s ethics
Fantastic conversation. I had just listened to Peter Singer on Sam Harris’ podcast before this one and, I must say, your discussion was so much richer. (No surprise.) I loved Wes’ kind of reductio ad absurdum of the drowning child argument. I hadn’t thought of it that way before and it spelled out nicely some weaknesses in the argument. I appreciated that Peter engaged in constructive dialogue and not stubborn polemical defense of positions. The whole thing set a great example of what philosophy can do. If my college philosophy class experiences had been more like that and less like naked battles of ego, I might have considered grad school!
Regarding Singer and his brand of utilitarianism, I wanted to say just a few things. First, on a personal note, I confess to admiring him and of having been influenced by him in my college years. It is probably because of reading his essays that I came to regard myself as a utilitarian during that period. I think I had already become a vegetarian, but he certainly gave me stronger reasons for advocating plant-based diets. I still think his arguments about why we should care about animal suffering are hard to dismiss, But when it comes to obligations toward other humans, I have come to regard his type of reasoning as, frankly, emblematic of bourgeois liberalism. The implicit standpoint in most of his arguments is one of a privileged subject witnessing a suffering other and being called by conscience to do something to alleviate that other’s suffering. Usually a donation to a charity is the prescription. This works great as fundraising appeal, but I seriously question whether it is the most effective response to the problem, or even the proper motivation.
I remember Seth in a much earlier episode flaming out over Singer’s claim that if rich people gave just x dollars each, global hunger would be eliminated. If I correctly recall, Seth charged that Singer’s claim was arrogantly naive, ignoring all the political, economic, and social factors that create famines and poverty, not to mention that aid organizations have often notoriously mismanaged the funds they garnered. I agree, but think the moral imperative remains, just that it leads in a different direction than charity. The imperative is toward collective political action.
I am not making a blanket condemnation of giving charity. It is fine to help in concrete, direct ways that help particular less advantaged people, and it is a laudable impulse regardless of whether particular charities are noble or corrupt. My objection is to the privileged liberal standpoint that takes this as the main orientation to alleviating suffering. Even the goal of “alleviating suffering” has a flavor of the paternalism I am critiquing. It might be an appropriate intention to have toward animals, but When it comes to human suffering, the primary goal should be fostering liberation, which means focusing on identifying structural injustices in the economy and society, and joining with others, especially those most directly harmed by those structures, to change them. Rather than giving away 90% of ones incomes to food aid charities, give that money (or time) to social movements fighting to raise taxes on the wealthy and building a more equitable world economy (such as enacting the global wealth tax proposed by Thomas Pickety). Or do both, but recognize that changing the structure, and doing it through collective processes that enhance democracy, is ultimately doing more than alleviating slightly the suffering that is caused by a fucked up system that goes unchallenged.
Beyond Singer, I think classical ethics deserves criticism for the tendency to focus on how a person should act in an unjust situation, rather than ask, What social circumstances created the predicament? That is, it focuses on how the individual should act, when the more important question is, How could things be arranged differently? The latter question leads directly into a communal conversation about how we want our society to be and how to change it… a much more interesting conversation to me than how one person should respond to a hypothetical drowning child.