Posts Tagged ‘Peter Singer’

New at e3ne.org, I take up Peter Singer’s argument that we in affluent societies have far-reaching duties to aid the global poor, possibly to the extent of bringing ourselves down almost to their level. Excerpt:

Instead of buying a Starbucks coffee once a week, you could save that money – about $200 over the course of a year – and give it to a charity that saves lives. It’s morally wrong to buy Starbucks coffee when there are people dying around the world. Letting someone die so that you can enjoy Starbucks is like letting a child drown rather than getting your suit muddy.

It doesn’t matter that most other people aren’t living up to their moral obligations. Bystanders’ failure to save a drowning child doesn’t relieve you of a duty to save that child. If you can save a life without sacrificing anything morally significant, you must.

More here.

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Peter Singer’s views on population control have come up on this blog quite recently. Singer is also, of course, a hardcore animal rights-er who believes that all animals (at least, vertebrates) have the same moral status. But one doesn’t have to be a utilitarian or someone who believes that animals actually have rights that ought to be legally enforced to think that animals have some moral status. Here’s Robert Nozick’s quasi-Kantian position on animals (linky):

Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people’s deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We first shall adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be per­fectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

Nozick argues that there are some things we should not do to animals, regardless of their consequences for humans. This position seems reasonable on an intuitive level; it is difficult to imagine that there is nothing wrong with torturing thousands of animals to death. Anyone who’s interacted with other animals knows that they possess some spark of intelligence and emotion, even if not full self-awareness, which elicits empathy in us (and possibly in them?).

So what about eating animals? In the 21st century post-industrial world, eating animals is unnecessary for human health – in fact, Americans eat too much meat. Eating animals, let us concede, adds a little bit of pleasure to the eating experience for humans. Does one have to be a utilitarian to weigh the small pleasure that humans receive from eating animals against the significant pain that the animals endure? I don’t think so. If one believes that animals have some moral worth but lack rights, then consuming them without any real need might be worse than not eating them – or even morally wrong (as Nozick believed).

There are of course other arguments for vegetarianism having to do with the health of humans and the environment. And it may be that some of these considerations turn the other way as well – certainly, strict veganism isn’t healthy for humans without vitamin supplements. But if we just consider the animal welfare argument, how far does it take us?

Incidentally, the animal-welfare argument for vegetarianism implies that eating invertebrates is OK (Slate on oyster-eating veganism here). Also, it probably implies that eating eggs and dairy, which require the slaughter of animals (male chicks in the former case, calves in the latter), is wrong.


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A few years ago I was attending an academic conference in New Hampshire. At one of the dinners my pride overcame me: I told the attendees at my table that my wife had just recently given birth to our fourth child. He was an unexpected blessing—and I was beaming with happiness about it.

One of the attendees was apparently not so happy. “How many kids do you have?” he asked. “This is our fourth.” He rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you heard of something called ‘abortion’?” he laughed. “Excuse me?” I said, taken aback. He continued: “Don’t you think there are enough people on this planet already?” I was, as the Scots say, gobsmacked. “If you really think that,” I said, gesturing to the Atlantic ocean, which was visible from where we were sitting in the restaurant, “there’s the ocean; go throw yourself in it.”

He laughed awkwardly, but my stare indicated to him—and, I fear, to the other people at the table—that I was not kidding. And indeed I wasn’t. It was not just the egregiously bad taste in saying something like that to a brand new parent. Even worse was the posture of claiming that because lots of people have done something he doesn’t like, therefore I need to atone for it.

That is not part of my moral code. I am not “people,” or “mankind,” or “the species”; I am me and me alone. I take responsibility for my actions, and I take those responsibilities seriously; others should take responsibility for their actions. There is no collective “we” that acts, no leviathan of humanity that is collectively responsible for things that all humanity does.

That does not mean that the results of lots of people’s individual actions cannot lead to results that no one of them intended. That indeed is the central insight behind Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor: individuals pursuing mostly their own, localized self-interest are led, by the dynamics of markets, to pursue activities that turn out to benefit others as well. We all benefit, Smith argued, from the existence of markets, even those of us who disdain or misunderstand markets.

So Peter Singer argues recently that we should consider being the “last generation” of humans on earth. I remember—it does not seem so long ago—when Singer’s claim that the argument for abortion should be extended to license selective infanticide seemed outrageous. Then Singer made some ripples when he discussed with approval “mutually satisfying [sexual] activities” between humans and non-human animals—so long, of course (of course!), as there is no cruelty toward the animal.

Now Singer wonders whether we might not have some obligation to sterilize ourselves to ensure that there is no future generation of humans. And why? Singer is worried about the number of humans on the planet already and the ‘stresses’ this creates. These stresses may well bear on other animals, but he’s primarily interested in future humans.

“Most thoughtful people,” Singer writes, “are extremely concerned about climate change,” and since the effects of our carbon production today will bear primarily on future generations, perhaps one way to avoid harming our progeny is not to have any progeny. If harming a child is wrong, then perhaps bringing a child into a world in which it is likely he or she will be harmed is wrong too.  “Are the interests of a future child a reason for bringing that child into existence? And is the continuance of our species justifiable in the face of our knowledge that it will certainly bring suffering to innocent future human beings?”

Put aside for the moment that Singer leaves out of his discussion any mention of God or of any of the obligations that the world’s major religions believe their billions of faithful have to be fruitful and multiply. Also put aside the projections of many demographers that world population will peak and plateau during this century, as well as the fact that many countries—including most of Europe, for example—are not reproducing themselves at all and thus might not survive this century; so this is probably a non-issue already.

Consider instead Singer’s lack of intellectual humility. He uses words like “likely” and even “certainly,” but let’s be honest: He has no way whatsoever of knowing. This is crucially important because this lack of knowledge is not peculiar to him: It applies to almost everyone else regarding almost everyone else’s children. I don’t know what kind of life your child will have, and neither does Singer; even you can only make guesses—and if you have children, you know just how bad our guesses about how our children will turn out can be.

The scenarios Singer poses involving decisions of whether to sterilize ourselves to prevent the creation of future generations also assume collective decision-making and collective responsibility. But you and I do not decide how many children “we” should have, and you and I are not jointly responsible for the children “we” have. Instead, I make my decisions, you yours; I am responsible for mine, you yours. If each of us tries to take these responsibilities for his or her own decisions seriously, then, the worrisome aggregate effects that Singer highlights diminish dramatically.

So although it may be true that the continuance of our species will bring suffering to some  future human beings, it is also true that it will bring tremendous joy and happiness as well. Since no one of us can tip the global balance in either direction, the prudent thing to do is to examine our own situations and make decisions for ourselves. If there are cases in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, not to have children, then there are similarly some in which some potential parents ought, all things considered, to have children.

This latter camp is the one I believe my family and I are in, and thus another reason why Singer and I seem to occupy different moral universes.


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