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Peter Singer Says You Are a Bad Person

Howard Darmstadter shows us why the Australian abnegator is wrong.

It’s getting harder to have a good time. Peter Singer has argued in Practical Ethics (1993) that you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity. (Singer himself doesn’t go that far, giving away only 20% of his income. Nobody’s perfect.)

In a tidal wave of publications over nearly four decades – a bibliography including translations and reprints runs for over fifty pages – Singer, an Australian philosopher now at Princeton, has argued for these and other controversial conclusions in a manner accessible to non-philosophers. His views have been extensively discussed in the popular media. For the general public, he may be the most influential philosopher of the last half century.

Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally. (Because of Singer’s particular interests, the bit about minimizing suffering plays a larger role than the bit about maximizing pleasure.) You can question how to apply these principles in particular situations, but for Singer there are no principles more fundamental.

One immediate consequence of Singer’s principles is that animal suffering should weigh as heavily in your decisions as human suffering: that’s part of what he means by ‘all suffering counts equally.’ Animals may not suffer as much as humans, but whatever their suffering, it’s as significant as an equal amount of human suffering.

Another consequence of treating everyone’s – sorry, every organism’s – suffering the same, is that your suffering doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. Since there are so many people in the world who suffer more than you, it follows that you should give a substantial part of your wealth to alleviate that suffering. This conclusion is supported by the assertion, common in economics, that wealth has a diminishing marginal utility: the same amount of extra money will increase your happiness less, the more wealthy you are. A dollar means more to a beggar than to a millionaire.

To convince you that you should give more of your wealth to alleviate suffering, Singer uses a persuasive analogy. Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool. You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit (PE, p.229). Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned. But, says Singer, if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle (p.222). As with the drowning child, you can’t just walk by. You have to grab your chequebook and wade on in.

The Trouble With Principles

Singer’s ethical theory has become controversial because it has led him to views on abortion and euthanasia that many find abhorrent. However, for most of us, issues about abortion and euthanasia seldom arise, whereas eating and spending are daily events. But even in areas involving animals or charitable giving, Singer’s principles have awkward consequences. Consider: if all pleasure or suffering counts equally, then (as his argument goes), the pleasure or suffering of your own children should have no special place in your calculations. So if you live in Ohio and are deciding whether to spend $200,000 to send your daughter east to Princeton for four years, or instead spend $80,000 to send her down the road to Ohio State, while giving the other $120,000 to save the lives of hundreds of African children – well, Hello, Columbus (Ohio)! (The Life You Can Save, p.138) It’s more important that those children live than that your daughter go to an exclusive private college. In this world of tribulations, Singer holds that moral people shouldn’t give their children extraordinary advantages. In fact, Singer has to struggle to avoid the conclusion that you shouldn’t give your children even ordinary advantages, and his arguments that you can seem half-hearted.

Another awkward consequence of Singer’s principles, as noted by the late Bernard Williams, is a zero tolerance policy for lions. Lions prey on zebra, wildebeest and other large herbivores. These prey animals presumably suffer in their deaths. We could end all their suffering by eliminating the lions. Sure, the lions would suffer, but the overall amount of suffering would much decrease. The same argument holds for other carnivores – tigers, crocodiles, owls, weasels, and the others of that bloodstained lot. In each case, a one-time destruction of the species would reduce the suffering of untold generations of herbivores, and the world would be a kinder, gentler place. (We could perhaps keep a few representatives of each carnivore species alive in protected habitats, where we would feed them veggie burgers.)

Singer tries to argue that we shouldn’t eliminate carnivores because “our record of interfering in ecological systems is not good.” But this is disingenuous. Messing with nature – especially our natures – is what Singer is all about. Ignoring the suffering of the zebra and the wildebeest is akin, in Singerland, to ignoring the drowning child. We know we can do something, and if we fail to do it, the suffering of the beasts that are preyed upon – and on Singer’s account they must suffer in enormous numbers – will be upon our heads.

When an argument reaches an unpalatable conclusion, we can reject some of the premises, we can look for some misstep in our reasoning, or we can decide that the conclusion is correct after all. Singer often takes that third path, denying that seemingly unacceptable consequences are really unacceptable. Thus, he really believes that you shouldn’t give your own children extraordinary advantages. (He doesn’t seem to take seriously the argument that we should eliminate carnivores, but his counterargument is weak.) Yet for most of us, Singer’s acceptance of uncomfortable ethical results, or the feebleness of his attempts to escape them, must make us cautious. How could such appealing principles and direct arguments get us to such problematic conclusions? What has gone wrong?

Radical Positions, Conservative Methodology

For Singer, basic ethical principles aren’t established by God, nor are they part of the non-human fabric of the world. There are no objectively-existing moral facts. Rather, Singer argues that once we decide to be ethical – that is, to seek principles to justify our actions – then reason forces us to conclude that those principles must be universalizable: that is, they have to work not just as your principles or my principles, but as everyone’s principles. And since every sentient being has an interest in avoiding suffering, it’s relatively easy to derive Singer’s basic principles.

However, the problems with Singer’s ethical positions has less to do with his principles than with his general approach to ethics. What Singer calls the ‘ethical perspective’ involves establishing a few principles and then deducing conclusions about how we must act. On this approach, practical ethics is much like geometry: conclusions necessarily follow from a few inescapable principles. That’s the traditional view of ethics, and it’s Singer’s view. However radical Singer’s conclusions, there’s nothing radical about his methodology.

There are, however, other views on ethics. One, most forcefully voiced by the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume, and currently undergoing a revival in the field of moral psychology, is to see ethical rules as having been established by communities to promote human interests. Each person’s primary interest is in increasing his or her pleasure and minimizing his or her pain and suffering. Thus, human interests include the need for food, shelter, sex and other self- regarding pleasures, and avoiding physical and mental pain. But humans are social animals (if they weren’t, there would be no need for ethical principles). So we derive pleasure from the pleasure of other people, most especially our immediate families, and to a lesser extent our more distant relatives, friends, acquaintances, and compatriots. We also find pleasure in completing challenging tasks, engaging in cooperative work, and a host of other activities only distantly related to sensual pleasure.

Our drives to maximize our own pleasure and minimize our own suffering are in themselves neither good nor bad, rational nor irrational. But we can do a better or worse job of developing social rules to enable us to pursue our aims. Ethical principles are rational to the extent they generally further our interests in the social world in which we live. S ince we want to live in communities, our ethical principles must work for most members of the community. Each of us might prefer a rule like ‘all property to me’ (small children seem to start with a similar rule). However, rational people realize that others are unlikely to agree to such rules, so we accept that we must work with rules that treat us all equally, furthering our major interests by suppressing some of our impulses.

The Role of Context

This view is not all that far from Singer’s. In particular, it sees the equal treatment of interests (universalizability) as stemming from reason attempting to establish rules to maximize personal interests. But this approach differs from Singer’s in discarding the view that our actions should be guided by a small body of principles. In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time. We harmonize them, to the extent we can, by adjusting the contexts in which we see them as applicable.

If ethical rules arise out of the rough and tumble of harmonizing our own interests, including our social impulses, with the interests of others, and with the contingencies thrown up by an infinitely-various natural world, then the rules we come up with are likely to be partial rules for the here and now, not universal rules which will work in all situations, especially those far from our experience; and there are likely to be a large number of rules, each applicable in a small if ill-defined context. For even the most basic ethical rule, there will be contexts where it clearly applies, contexts where it clearly doesn’t apply, and a large grey area in which there can be indecision and controversy. ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, is an unimpeachable moral principle, but we can still argue about its range of legitimate application. Self-defense? Just wars? Abortion? Euthanasia? Animals? Vegetables? Around the sizeable edges, there is plenty of room for dispute. It’s not a criticism of a rule to admit that it’s not always clear where it applies.

To see how complicated social rules can get, consider the United States legal system. The U.S. Code currently encompasses 362 volumes. There are also hundreds of volumes of federal regulations, plus the statutes and regulations for the fifty states, and thousands of volumes of decisions of state and federal courts. You can’t deduce any substantial part of these rules from a couple of basic principles.

This view is consonant with how we actually approach ethical problems; but it’s no good for Singer because it is descriptive rather than prescriptive. For Singer, as for most moral philosophers, the point of the game is to discover what we morally ought to do. But there are strong arguments that this is impossible. Summarising Hume, you can’t deduce ought from is – that is, factual premises alone cannot imply moral obligation.

If ethics is purely descriptive – a matter for social psychologists, policy analysts, and legislators – what role is left for moral philosophy? One remaining role is criticism – the traditional philosophical role of the ‘gadfly’, as exemplified by Socrates. For instance, lots of people bristle with moral instruction based on universal principles, and philosophers have the training to show the problems with such an approach. Singer, for one, is an excellent critic of prevailing moral orthodoxies.

So, What Should We Do For the Drowning Child?

With this view of the multifarious nature of ethics in mind, let’s return to Singer’s view of our moral obligations.

It’s a rare day when you encounter a child drowning in a pool, but you do see people who obviously need help in other ways, and you usually hurry to their aid. A man trips on the sidewalk, and complete strangers immediately help him to his feet. If he’s seriously hurt, someone will call an ambulance.

For most of us, seeing someone trip on the sidewalk is not an everyday occurrence. But suppose instead that we all fell several times a day, so that in your normal morning constitutional you would see people going down like ten pins. Would you feel that you must help them all? Or suppose you’re in downtown Minneapolis on one of the nastier days of winter. The temperature is Arctic, and the wind howling. Nearly everyone is suffering – but you don’t start handing out gloves, scarves, and parkas. If you’re driving across town in heated comfort, you’re unlikely to stop and offer strangers a lift, although all the walkers are suffering. (Of course, if you see someone who appears disoriented by the cold, you may guide him to shelter.) Our helpfulness extends to the outliers of suffering, not to the typical.

Finally, that child in the pool. Everyone knows what you should do. But suppose that later that day you encounter a second drowning child. Again, we would want you to take the plunge. But a third? A fiftieth? Suppose you encountered a hundred such children every day. Perhaps at some point you’ll think ‘Why does this all fall on me?’ and walk on by, pretending you don’t hear the child’s screams. Or perhaps you’ll just spend more time away from pools.

There is another difference between your obligations to the drowning child and your obligations to suffering humanity. Singer’s example assumes that you are the only person who can help the child. Would your obligation be different if there were hundreds of people observing the child? Now ‘Why does this all fall on me?’ seems a sensible question. Someone has to plunge in to the pool – but shouldn’t it be someone who knows the child, or who can get to the child fastest, or who’s wearing cheaper clothing? So it makes sense that you may want to make charitable contributions to alleviate suffering – indeed, feel morally compelled to do so – yet feel that you can stop at the point when you feel it’s time that others pitch in. Moral rules can’t generally be applied in an unlimited accumulation: they are meant to work in the situations we normally deal with, and they can be overwhelmed by numbers and by questions about the obligations of other people. The upshot is that you can grant Singer his basic principle about an obligation to alleviate suffering, yet still reject his limitless conclusions.

Suffering Animality?

Singer’s views on animal suffering raise different questions. He argues that not to give equal consideration to the interests of animals is speciesism – as objectionable as racism or sexism. But that is just an argument from pejoratives. Failure to consider the interests of animals is like racism or sexism only if animal interests are as valid as human interests. Sending your son to college but not your daughter may be sexism, but sending your son to college but not your schnauzer is not speciesism. Animals aren’t people.

Then there’s the nearly intractable problem of what it is like for an animal to suffer. Animals don’t react exactly like us, and they can’t describe their suffering. But animals do react to events that would cause pain to us, often in ways that seem familiar from our own experiences. To the extent that animals are like us (especially neurologically), we can project that they can suffer like us. But with each retreat down the evolutionary path – from primates to mice to birds to fish to crustaceans – we become less inclined to see their suffering as akin to our own. When we drop a lobster in a pot of boiling water, does it feel heat like a human, or just react, like a thermostat? (When I asked my niece why she eats chicken and fish but not red meat, she told me that pigs and cattle just look too much like people. It’s a natural way to think about animals.)

No speciesist he, Peter Singer refuses to admit any morally relevant distinctions between the sufferings of humans, pigs, rats, chickens, and fish. He also tends to credit animals with all sorts of humanlike feelings. For example, in describing animals in factory farms, Singer often speaks of them being stressed or bored, as if these categories translate unproblematically from humans to chickens (Animal Liberation, p.99 ff). Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; but that doesn’t mean they get stressed or bored when they can’t.

The facts of modern food production are not pretty. Cattle, pigs and poultry spend almost all their lives cooped up in enclosures which leave almost no room to move, are subject to having inconvenient parts of their anatomies lopped off, and acquire diseases and injuries from their environment. But in nature animals presumably endure ‘stress’ every time they have to run for their lives, defend their progeny, battle for mates, or scratch out a meal in an uncertain world. There are also diseases and parasites in abundance in nature. An animal without a rich inner life might (per impossibile) be willing to trade the uncertain freedom of the great outdoors for a confined life with three square meals a day. A lot depends on which animals we’re talking about. Pigs might suffer more in factory farms than in nature, chickens less. At present, we can only guess.

It’s Your Choice

We can look at Singer not as a philosopher dispensing theoretical arguments, but as a campaigner for the cause of animals and against suffering humanity. In this role he can be quite convincing. His arguments can make us see the errors in much moral posturing. In questioning our assumptions, we may come to appreciate issues we would rather not confront.

Singer’s writings are full of touching examples of human and animal suffering that may move us to act, regardless of philosophical quibbles. If you find factory farming repellent strictly on a gut level, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a vegetarian and trying to convince others to do likewise. We naturally feel compassion without needing a philosophical argument. Still, compassion doesn’t always comport with reason. The other day, I closed my garage door and at the last moment I noticed a daddy longlegs scrambling to avoid being crushed in the mechanism. For a moment I felt a rush of something – empathy, compassion, whatever. I wanted that spider to get away, and felt relieved when it did. But I doubt that the spider would have suffered if it hadn’t made good its escape. Peter Rabbit is a story, not a model of how to think about animals.

So where does all this leave us? If you want to eat meat, and you decline to give even 1% of your income to charity, then there’s nothing in Singer’s arguments that can as a matter of pure reason convince you to do otherwise, or prove that you are a bad person. Meanwhile, you can subscribe to Singer’s general principles without being a hypocrite. On the other hand, if you feel called on to forego meat, and to give a substantial portion of your income to Oxfam, then you’re not being hoodwinked. The moral world is wide, and can accommodate all sorts of positions.

This tolerance for both sides in the debate may seem like moral relativism, but it is so only to a limited extent. There remains a system of other socially-agreed moral rules, and we can with good conscience punish murderers, fraudsters, and other miscreants who break them. But in the shadows, where there are no generally-accepted rules and the facts are not clearly established, we remain free – and doomed – to choose.

© Howard Darmstadter 2012

Howard Darmstadter is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Barnard College, and of law at Cardozo Law School, both in New York City.


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