Peter Presumes to Preach

Thanks (?) to one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians (Jason Brennan, in “Class Experiment on Helping the Poor“), I was introduced to an essay by Peter Singer, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Singer was writing in 1972, when there were thought to be nine million destitute refugees in Bangladesh as a result of the Bhola cyclone of 1970 and atrocities committed by the Pakistani Army during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

I hope that Brennan, who teaches philosophy at Brown University, is using Singer’s essay to illustrate fallacious reasoning about moral obligations. For that is the lesson to be drawn from Singer’s presumptuous sermon on moral duty and its fulfillment.

I begin the lesson by arranging pertinent excerpts of Singer’s essay to give the main points of his argument:

[1.] I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad….

[2.] My next point is this: 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….

[3.] The uncontroversial appearance of the principle just stated is deceptive. If it were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed. For the principle takes, firstly, no account of proximity or distance. It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away. Secondly, the principle makes no distinction between cases in which I am the only person who could possibly do anything and cases in which I am just one among millions in the same position….

[a.] The fact that a person is physically near to us, so that we have personal contact with him, may make it more likely that we shall assist him, but this does not show that we ought to help him rather than another who happens to be further away. If we accept any principle of impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever, we cannot discriminate against someone merely because he is far away from us (or we are far away from him)….

[b.] There may be a greater need to defend the second implication of my principle – that the fact that there are millions of other people in the same position, in respect to the [persons in need], as I am, does not make the situation significantly different from a situation in which I am the only person who can prevent something very bad from occurring. Again, of course, I admit that there is a psychological difference between the cases; one feels less guilty about doing nothing if one can point to others, similarly placed, who have also done nothing. Yet this can make no real difference to our moral obligations….

[4.] 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….

[5.] It follows from some forms of utilitarian theory that we all ought, morally, to be working full time to increase the balance of happiness over misery…. Given the present conditions in many parts of the world, … it does follow from my argument that we ought, morally, to be working full time to relieve great suffering of the sort that occurs as a result of famine or other disasters…. [W]e ought to be preventing as much suffering as we can without sacrificing something else of comparable moral importance.

Singer continues:

I now want to consider a number of points, more practical than philosophical, which are relevant to the application of the moral conclusion we have reached….

This argument [against private giving] seems to assume that the more people there are who give to privately organized famine relief funds, the less likely it is that the government will take over full responsibility for such aid. This assumption is unsupported, and does not strike me as at all plausible. The opposite view – that if no one gives voluntarily, a government will assume that its citizens are uninterested in famine relief and would not wish to be forced into giving aid – seems more plausible….

I do not … dispute the contention that governments of affluent nations should be giving many times the amount of genuine, no-strings-attached aid that they are giving now….

[Another] point raised by the conclusion reached earlier relates to the question of just how much we all ought to be giving away…. [E]arlier I put forward both a strong and a moderate version of the principle of preventing bad occurrences. The strong version, which required us to prevent bad things from happening unless in doing so we would be sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, does seem to require reducing ourselves to the level of marginal utility [the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependents as I would relieve by my gift]. I should also say that the strong version seems to me to be the correct one. I proposed the more moderate version – that we should prevent bad occurrences unless, to do so, we had to sacrifice something morally significant – only in order to show that, even on this surely undeniable principle, a great change in our way of life is required. On the more moderate principle, it may not follow that we ought to reduce ourselves to the level of marginal utility, for one might hold that to reduce oneself and one’s family to this level is to cause something significantly bad to happen…. Even if we accepted the principle only in its moderate form, however, it should be clear that we would have to give away enough to ensure that the consumer society, dependent as it is on people spending on trivia rather than giving to famine relief, would slow down and perhaps disappear entirely. There are several reasons why this would be desirable in itself. The value and necessity of economic growth are now being questioned not only by conservationists, but by economists as well. There is no doubt, too, that the consumer society has had a distorting effect on the goals and purposes of its members. Yet looking at the matter purely from the point of view of overseas aid, there must be a limit to the extent to which we should deliberately slow down our economy; for it might be the case that if we gave away, say, 40 percent of our Gross National Product, we would slow down the economy so much that in absolute terms we would be giving less than if we gave 25 percent of the much larger GNP that we would have if we limited our contribution to this smaller percentage.

Singer’s dicta make it evident that Singer not only is a strong utilitarian but also considers himself the keeper of the collective conscience of mankind. He knows how to measure the pain and pleasure of individuals, how to sum those quantities, and how to redistribute the world’s goods so as to arrive at a sustainable level of net pleasure.

The sustainable level, in Singer’s benighted view, is not the maximum that human beings could produce through their ingenuity, which is never a limited resource. No, the maximum, in Singer’s view, is much less than that because he is also a puritan who “knows” that there is entirely too much “consumerism,” and that its devotees ought to be made to scale it back to the “right” level — as defined by Singer.

In sum, nothing counts unless Singer says it counts. That rules out many values which compete or interfere with Singer’s view of what the world should be like. Those values include liberty, bonds of love and affection, the striving to better oneself and to leave something behind for one’s descendants, the cooperative spirit without which material progress and mutual acts of kinds and charity cannot flourish, and much more.

Singer’s world is a world in which governments apply a formula whereby persons having an “excess” of worldly goods — above some arbitrarily determined minimum — are required to forfeit that “excess” to those who have less than the minimum.

With this understanding of Singer’s mindset, the “logic” of his argument becomes apparent. I restate it more plainly below. Each restatement is accompanied by a libertarian alternative, in bold, italicized type.

1. I begin by appealing to the image of 9 million suffering human beings, as a way of lulling the unwary reader into believing that I am a caring human being, when in fact I have an authoritarian penchant for imposing my views on others.

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened.

2. If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought to do it. However, it is morally wrong for anyone to have more in the way of material possessions than anyone else. The limit of sacrifice is therefore defined by whatever one has to give up in order to reduce himself and his dependents and descendants to the standard of living that would result through massive income redistribution.

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

3a. It is wrong to favor persons nearer to oneself over persons who are farther away. I am able to say that because I believe that such things as family, religion, ethnicity, club, church, community, and nation have no moral relevance. It matters not that individuals may form bonds of mutual respect and affection that lead them to commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, and to treat each other with restraint. Such things are beyond the ken of the cold rationalist that I am.

It is foolish to say that persons with whom one shares no connection are as important as persons to whom one is connected. It is equally foolish to ignore the positive value of social connections. The personal choice about helping others (or not) may properly take into account the effects of that choice on those connections, without which there would be for more anti-social acts and state interventions.

3b. One’s moral obligation to give aid is unaffected by failure of others to do so.

Moral obligations arise from individual circumstances and mutual understandings, not from philosophical abstractions. But if one is inclined to help others in need, it is reasonable to ask whether a certain amount of money will materially aid those others. If not, withholding the amount may be the wisest course because it will be available for use in a case where it can have a material affect. Giving for the sake of giving can be irrational if one is truly committed to helping others.

4. Charity is duty; therefore, it is not charity.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

5. There is a universal social welfare function, and everyone ought to be striving, at all times, to maximize it. Moreover, only I know how to maximize universal social welfare. Anyone who contravenes my edicts is acting anti-socially and ought to be brought into line by the state (as long as it acts according to my dictates, of course).

If there is a universal social welfare function, then reducing the level of consumption in an affluent society just for the sake of reducing it (as Singer would) makes no sense; the outcome would be a reduction of social welfare. Of course, it may be that Singer would be so gratified by the reduction of others’ welfare that his own would rise by enough to offset that reduction. The preceding (facetious) observation points to the emptiness of the concept of a social welfare function, which implies that A’s unhappiness at having money stolen by B (or taxed away for B’s benefit) is canceled by B’s happiness at acquiring the money that he has acquired from A (by theft or taxation).

Finally, at the risk of seeming cold-hearted, I must ask the following question: Given the scarcity of resources (at a given time), is it not better to put those resources to work where they will do the most good? I disagree with Singer’s arguments for abortion and euthanasia (including “death panels“) because, among other things, such practices put us on a slippery-slope toward eugenics. But I can do disagree with Singer and still say that, given a choice, I will (and do) give to those who have a chance of a better life (especially if I love them) before giving to those whose lives seem hopeless.

My first duty (as Singer would say) is to those whom I love. And by helping to secure a future for them, I am also increasing the possibility that one or more of them will invent, develop, or apply technologies that help to prevent the kinds of suffering for which Singer merely prescribes palliatives.

Other posts about Peter Singer:
Peter Singer’s Fallacy
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Singer Said It
Rationing and Health Care

Other related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Left
Social Justice
The Left’s Agenda