Singer's Plea for Selflessness
(first published 2001 in Quadrant magazine)
Since the first editions of Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics were published in the 1970s, Peter Singer has emerged as one of the most influential and formidable ethical philosophers in the world. He has had an important, if controversial, impact on current thinking about human bioethics, the treatment of non-human animals, environmental preservation, and the West's response to third-world poverty. His newest book, Writings on an Ethical Life, reprints a selection of material from earlier books and articles in a volume of well over three hundred large pages, sufficient to capture his main ideas in one convenient place. As Michael Duffy put it in the Australian (12 May 2001), this is a "disturbing, impressive book"; it merits a wide and thoughtful readership.
Though Writings on an Ethical Life is a compilation of earlier material, Singer has re-mixed it in a form that has few inconsistencies and is evidently intended to elaborate a coherent ethical system. It is fair, therefore, to treat the book as an integrated work, and it is clear that its author has been presenting essentially the same view of the world since the 1970s, gradually enlarging his system's scope, but never abandoning his core thesis that acting ethically consists in pursuing the best consequences for all who are affected by our conduct. Here, "best consequences" means "what, on balance, furthers the interests of those affected"; this is not merely a matter of pleasure and pain, though Singer sometimes writes, plausibly enough, as if the crucial goal is to reduce suffering. He insists, moreover, that our ethically relevant conduct includes omissions as well as positive acts, that we are responsible for everything that we fail to prevent.
Pursued to its logical conclusion, this has drastic implications. If we reflect upon the widespread misery and deprivation in the Third World, it seems to follow that we must give all of our income beyond a subsistence level to the poor of the worst-affected regions. Thus Singer states without apology that the "correct" version of his principle of avoiding bad occurrences is that we should give to others "until we reach the level of marginal utilitythat is the level at which, by giving more, I would cause as much suffering to myself or my dependants as I would relieve by my gift." He adds: "This would mean, of course, that one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee." All other projects must wait. Any life devoted to the creation of beauty, the search for knowledge, or the pursuit of personal fulfillment is illegitimate:
In this article, I concentrate on the fundamentals of Singer's philosophy, bracketing off such issues as whether utilitarianism should extend to relationships with non-human animals as well as with each other. Likewise, I set aside Singer's complex views on bioethical issues, such as euthanasia and infanticide, which Tamas Pataki has recently caricatured as "a more casual attitude to killing people" ("Singer and his Song", Australian Book Review, May 2001). I am sympathetic towards some of Singer's conclusions in the field of bioethics, and hope to address these on another occasion. Many of Singer's practical conclusions might survive even if the utilitarian underpinning of his world view could be demolished, since his impressively searching analyses of traditional ethical concepts, such as the "sanctity of life" doctrine, do not rely wholly on utilitarian assumptions. Meanwhile, however, coming to grips with his philosophy requires that we form a view about its most basic ideas.
In the abstract, utilitarianism claims that we are ethically obliged to conduct ourselves in whatever way is necessary to maximise the interests of all people, if not all sentient beings, present and future. We must always put the general utility ahead of our own interests, taking "the point of view of the universe". It often passes unnoticed that this is an extraordinary burden to place on the shoulders of each individual. As Bernard Williams has argued, particularly in his Utilitarianism: For and Against (with J.J.C. Smart, 1973), it means subordinating our involvement in the projects that shape our lives and give them a sense of purpose, our special interest in the happiness of those we love or who depend upon us, and other commitments that are critical to our individuality.
While Singer uses utilitarian arguments to try to persuade us to give most of our money to the Third World, such arguments can be turned on their head and treated as a reductio ad absurdum. Consider, for example, this robust dismissal of utilitarianism from Jan Narveson ("Equality vs. Liberty: Advantage, Liberty", 1985):
Who is right? It seems that, once we question the burden of utilitarianism, any attempt to justify it becomes circular. It cannot be explained in terms that appeal to an individual's subjectively understood interests, for any other interest can sometimes clash with the pursuit of general utility. Such explanations will be self-defeating, unless the individual is already a universally benevolent agent, valuing general utility above all else, including her own commitments and the well-being of people she loves.
Utilitarianism's burden would destroy our freedom to live our own lives, turning us, in effect, into slaves of the general utility of all others. In a classic critique of utilitarianism and some other normative ethical theories ("The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories ", 1976), Michael Stocker complains that they demand either a moral schizophrenia or "a life deeply deficient in what is valuable." Utilitarianism requires us to treat ourselves and other individuals as mere instruments in the greater cause of maximising general utility, which is incompatible with having loving relationships where we care for other individuals for their own sake. However, a life without such relationships is, as Stocker says, surely deficient. Utilitarians are likely to reply that we can accept their theory in principle without necessarily being motivated by universal utility-maximising considerations when we make specific decisions. That, however, creates the "schizophrenic" situation where our subjective motives are different from our ultimate reasons and justifications for our actions, as given by the theory.
If it were possible to argue from utilitarian considerations merely to test the acceptability of proposed ethical rules or other norms, this might avoid the dilemma. However, I can see no stable position that enables us to argue in this way without also committing us to the view that the only acceptable action in any situation is "really" the one that maximises utility. Any sentiment or disposition that might clash with this must be adopted, or valued, only conditionally. A utilitarian must suppress the dispositions to show love or loyalty, or friendship or tenderness, if ever she believes they are detracting from her goal of maximising general utility. Yet, it is questionable whether someone who possessed these dispositions conditionally truly possessed them at all.
Nonetheless, in at least two passages of Writings on an Ethical Life, Singer puts abstract arguments in favour of utilitarianism as a system of ethics. I turn to these.
Singer's first argument appears early in the book (in an extract from Practical Ethics), where he commences with the idea of living in accordance with ethical standards. He distinguishes this from living in accordance with the correct ethical standards: someone might have an unconventional, presumably false, set of ethical beliefssuch as that it is ethically permissible to lie, cheat and stealbut still live conscientiously in accordance with those beliefs. If asked, she could claim correctly to be living by a set of ethical standards, even though the standards themselves would be open to criticism.
According to Singer, to lead a life according to ethical standards is essentially to be prepared to give an ethical justification for our actions. Someone is living in accordance with ethical standards if she is prepared to justify what she does as ethically right, even if her actions are, as it happens, wrong. Conversely, if someone lives in a manner that is in no way ethically blameworthy, we must nonetheless reject her claim to be living according to ethical standards if she cannot articulate any justification for her conduct. At this point, Singer narrows the sort of justification that is acceptable. He suggests that "a justification in terms of self-interest alone will not do", so Macbeth could not claim to have given an ethical justification of regicide in describing himself as driven by vaulting ambition. This would appeal entirely to his self-interestsomething more would be required to count as a genuinely ethical justification.
So far, so goodbut so what? This does not entail that someone leading a life by ethical standards, prepared to give an ethical justification for her actions, must thereby make all her decisions, or even many of them, primarily in accordance with ethical considerations. To justify our conduct ethically is to claim no more than that (1) we recognise that there are certain considerations that provide reasons for our conduct when merely self-interested reflection would have led us to act otherwise; (2) those ethical considerations have the characteristic of overriding self-interested reflection; and (3) we have actually been mindful of such overriding considerations and conformed to them whenever required. All this leaves open the possibility that it is ethically permissible for anyone to act however she wishes, guided by her own self-interest, by the interests of friends and loved ones, or by mere whim, so long as she does not breach any overriding ethical requirements or constraints.
Singer appears to make an unstated assumption that giving an ethical justification of our conduct at a particular point always involves showing that we have acted (or omitted to act) in the way that was ethically best in the circumstances: only one course of conduct, "the best", is ever permissible. There are no supererogatory or merely permissible courses of conduct, but, rather, there is always just one "right" course in each set of circumstances that presents itself. That, however, is never openly argued and it forecloses answers to serious questions as to how far ethical considerations should permeate the minute texture of our lives, how far, indeed, we are ethically free to have lives of our own at all.
Commonsense views of ethics allow for considerable discretion in how we act, with ethical requirements merely forming a perimeter within which a range of possible conduct is permitted. The notion of a perimeter is slightly misleading, in the sense that some ethical considerations mandate positive action, such as to assist our friends whenever possible and to care and provide for our children. Even so, we can explain our conduct in a manner that meets Singer's idea of ethical justification, while simultaneously asserting an extensive ethical freedom to act, or omit to act, self-interestedly or spontaneously. This picture of ethical obligation may be open to rational criticism, based on the content of a well-founded normative system, but it cannot be ruled out in advance before we have established that a system such as utilitarianism really is well-founded.
From such an inconclusive start, Singer argues that ethical conduct must be acceptable from a view that is "universal", an adjective which he uses equivocally. It does not follow from the idea of ethical justification that ethics is "universal" in any sense that assists his argument. What might safely be conceded is that whatever ethical considerations we invoke must possess the formal quality of consistency in their application. This idea does seem to be inherent in the concept of ethical justification. For example, if I accept the ethical requirement "do not kill except in self-defence", I can rely on this in the process of ethical self-justification only if I acknowledge that it may likewise be invoked by others. In that sense, but that sense only, it is "universal".
To take another example, one that Singer uses later in Writings on an Ethical Life, consider a parent whose child is trapped in a burning school. She has the choice of breaking open the door of a room in which her child, alone, is trapped. Or she could break open the door of another room where another twenty children are trapped. There is no time to save all twenty-one children. As Singer recognises, most parents would save their own child. They might be justified by an "agent-relative" rule, such as "it is permissible to do whatever is necessary to save your own child's life". Granted, such a rule must have consistency in application in order to be invoked legitimately for the purpose of ethical justification. If the parent invokes it, she must acknowledge that another parent would have been justified in making the equivalent choice in materially similar circumstances. Consistency in application is a formal requirement of any genuinely ethical consideration, whether it is agent-relative or agent-neutral.
Kant believed that he could appraise substantive ethical "maxims" by analysing whether they could be applied consistently and so be willed rationally as universal rules of law, "universal" in the sense of applying to everyone. However, I cannot see any general way to deduce substantively correct ethical norms from the weak formal requirement of consistency in application. The formal requirement certainly does not entail that we are ethically obliged to act "universally" in the strong, and quite different, sense of selflessly: conducting ourselves as if we cannot permissibly give our own respective interests more weight than those of anyone else.
Some ethical systems, historical or current, may require this kind of self-denying universality, but it is not an inevitable feature of ethical thinking. Taken seriously and with a literal mind, an injunction such as "love your neighbour as yourself" might convey a requirement of selflessness. However, few religious teachers or philosophers have expected their followers to abandon their own interests entirely. Aristotle stressed the flourishing of the individual, while Kant clearly allowed for actions that were self-interested, so long as they fell within the moral law. This was not inconsistent with his emphasis on the requirement that acceptable ethical maxims be susceptible of consistent application.
Singer remarks that the requirement of universality can be used to make out a "persuasive although not conclusive" argument for "a broadly utilitarian position", but this is actually too modest. If we were to begin by assuming an ethical requirement of universality, in the sense of selflessness, something very like utilitarianism would follow of logical necessity, at least in combination with other plausible assumptions. If we are each required to treat our own interests as merely those of one being among others in the world, conducting ourselves to maximise the total interests of all, it is implausible that this could apply only to our positive actions. On such a view, it cannot be a matter of "everyone's interests with actions, but my interests with omissions"; if I assume "the point of view of the universe", my own interests drop away entirely, except as a tiny part of the whole. If we follow Singer this far, he does not have a merely persuasive argument for utilitarianism, but a compelling one.
However, the argument uses the premise that "if I think ethically I must think that my own interests cannot count for more than the interests of others". This substantive ethical conclusion cannot legitimately be smuggled into an account of the formal character of ethical justification. Though Singer believes that we must "accept that ethical judgments must be made from a universal point of view", that is really no more than an unfounded, and implausible, assertion.
To summarise this discussion, to give an ethical justification for our conduct involves accepting that self-interest alone cannot be used to argue that our conduct is right. Moreover, the norms that we invoke for self-justification must be capable of consistency in application, which may, if we follow Kant here, impose some restrictions. But there the argument ends. As long as we act conformably with whatever ethical requirements we recognise, we are well placed to give an ethical justification for our conduct. In that case, we may also claim to be living in accordance with genuine ethical standards (the correctness of which is irrelevant, as Singer points out). Nothing in the idea of living in accordance with ethical standards and offering ethical justifications entails, or even suggests, that we are required to adopt a "universal" point of view in which our own projects, interests and commitments count for no more than any stranger's. Singer's first argument for utilitarianism fails.
Much later (in an extract from How Are We to Live?), Singer puts another argument in favour of utilitarianism: with its "possibility of taking the point of view of the universe", it overcomes the supposed problem of finding meaning in our lives, despite their ephemerality. We can picture the universe as a four-dimensional entity and make this entity better than it would otherwise have been by acting to reduce pointless suffering in a particular place at a particular time.
Though there is much to be said about these issues, I do not dispute that the universe can be pictured in the way Singer wants, nor that our efforts can make a difference to what would, counterfactually, have been the case. However, this cannot answer the question of whether we are ethically obliged to adopt the viewpoint of the universe to the exclusion of our own projects, interests, commitments. Singer concedes that "Ethical truths are not written into the fabric of the universe: to that extent the subjectivist is correct." However, he adds that it is objectively true, in appropriate cases, that "the suffering of another being is very similar to my own suffering and matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering matters to me". We can ignore this fact, but at the risk of narrowness in our thinking, in which event
This is all confused. Various concepts of objectivity are sliding about on the page here, indequately distinguished. If we mean by "objective" that there are ethical facts, entities or properties independent of our attitudes and values, then utilitarianism as an ethical theory neither entails the existence of such things nor is entailed by it. To the extent that we may find our values corroded if we suspect that ethics is not objective in this sense, utilitarianism offers no help. It is a normative theory which is neutral with respect to such meta-ethical conundrums. Singer says enough to show that he understands this, but once the point is grasped it is not legitimate to go on talking about "objectivity", as if utilitarianism were somehow relevant to assaults on meaning and value based on versions of ethical subjectivism.
Conversely, any system of normative ethics must deal with objectively existing facts, such as the suffering of others. The question is what responses to such facts are ethically permissible, obligatory or forbidden. Utilitarianism is not unique in dealing with that question, though it may provide less flexible answers than some other systems, if that is thought to be an attraction. Singer's point appears to be that utilitarianism can feed a supposed hunger for "a cause that is independent of our own desires." But this is, once again, equivocal. If we spill out all our anterior desires and concentrate solely on the cause of ameliorating universal pain, this actually becomes our desire; trivially, it is not our cause unless we desire it. The non-trivial point is that it is a cause which takes us out of our sense of self and can clash, indeed it will inevitably do so, with our self-interest. If, however, that is what we want, it is not necessary to take up a cause which obliterates our self-interest entirely, as utilitarianism threatens to do.
For example, if someone possesses talents enabling her to create works of art and beautymusical compositions, perhaps, or imaginative sculpturesshe may feel a yearning to develop those talents to their full. The odds might be against any success in a professional artistic career, and she might be better off in many ways studying accountancy or commercial law, but the yearning needs to be accommodated. I set aside the difficult question of whether, as Kant thought, we actually have an ethical obligation to develop our talents. The point is that we usually do possess interests, projects, commitments, even yearnings, that take us out of ourselves in the way that Singer wants.
The grain of truth in Singer's argument is the well-known paradox that the pursuit of happiness as such is self-defeating. We are actually happiest when immersed in activities that seem important or compelling for their own sake. Fortunately, there are many such activities. None of this implies that we should adopt a goal that overwhelms anything else that might ever be important to us, and any sense that we are leading our own lives.
Singer concedes that "it is only in an extended sense of the term that those who take the narrower perspective might be said to be acting less rationally than those who are able to act from the point of view of the universe." But even this overreaches. There is no sense in which acting from "the point of view of the universe" is more rational than living our own lives with projects and commitments of our own. Like the first, Singer's second argument for utilitarianism fails.
Elsewhere, Singer uses more concrete, if rather contrived, examples to prompt us to adopt a more selfless attitude. One example is based on a Brazilian movie, Central Station, in which a retired schoolteacher called Dora is given a chance to make an easy $1,000, part of which she decides to spend on a new TV set. She need only deliver a young, homeless boy to a particular address, where (so she is led to understand) he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners. Later, she learns that the boy will actually be killed and his organs sold. She decides to rescue him. Singer asks rhetorically for the salient difference between Dora and an American who spends a similar amount of money upgrading to a new TV set, when the money could have been spent to save the lives of needy children.
Again, he borrows an example from Robert Unger to argue that we are each required to sacrifice most of our savings in the cause of ending world poverty. Bob, a middle-aged man approaching retirement, has invested most of his savings in an old and valuable car, a Bugatti, on which he has been unable to obtain insurance. The car is an excellent investment: when he decides to retire, he will be able to sell it and live comfortably on the proceeds. One day, he parks the car near a railway siding and goes for a walk on the track. As he does so, he sees that a runaway train is about to kill a child on the track who is too far away to be warned. He can save the child by throwing a switch that will divert the train off the rails into the uninsured Bugatti, destroying the car, and with it Bob's life savings. "Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed."
Unger and Singer both conclude that Bob's conduct is very wrong. Singer argues that there is no ethically material difference between Bob's situation and our own. Using information obtained by Unger, he argues that donating US$200 to a charity such as Oxfam "would help transform a sickly [third-world] 2-year-old into a healthy 6-year-old", putting each of us with that amount of money to spare in as good a position to save a child's life as Bob was. The catch is that there is always another desperately needy child, and another, and yet another, whose life could be saved, so where does it end? Singer relies on data that an average American household with an income of US$50,000 spends around US$30,000 on necessities and he proposes that the entirety of the remainder$US20,000should be donated. Since a higher income household requires the same amount for necessities, a household with an income of US$100,000 should write Oxfam a yearly cheque for US$70,000.
What do such examples tell us? In the case of Dora, Singer concedes that it takes a "chilling kind of heartlessness" "to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you". As he points out, this difference is irrelevant from the viewpoint of a utilitarian philosopher, but that is of interest only if utilitarianism is already considered to be the correct ethical theory; it cannot be used in an argument for the conclusion that utilitarianism is correct. Dora, of course, is in a situation of responsibility to this particular child. Unlike the rest of us, she has had him in her care and has materially contributed to his danger. No wonder she feels responsible. To anyone not in thrall to an abstract ethical theory, these distinctions are important.
Slightly different issues arise in the other example. Singer questions how our position could be distinguished, ethically, from Bob's. It cannot be different merely because there are practical uncertainties in our case as to where the money will go, since Unger's calculations already factor in pessimistic estimates as to how much donated money will actually reach its target. Nor can it be that there are many others who could make that next life-saving donation to Oxfam, whereas only Bob could save the child on the railway track. The fact that others do not act does not make it acceptable for us to do the same, Singer argues, since "this is the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when Nazi atrocities were being committed."
However, it surprises me that Singer considers these the most striking differences between Bob's situation and ours. True, unlike Dora, Bob has not caused anyone's danger. The boy on the railway tracks would be no worse off if Bob did not exist at all. Yet Bob's situation is different from that of someone who merely reads or hears about miserable children in the Third World. Once again, it would take a "chilling kind of heartlessness" for him to ignore the child's danger: the child is right in front of him, if out of earshot. There can be few more basic tugs on our sentiments than the sight of someone in mortal, physical peril before our eyes, a peril that we are well-placed to avert.
We deny Bob an ethical discretion because he has been placed in the exact kind of situation where we place a high value on the disposition to act spontaneously. In such situations, pausing to analyse consequences is likely to be fatal, and it seems heartless or cowardly. But Bob's one-to-one connection with this particular imperiled child bears no resemblance to any Westerner's indirect relationships with the multiplicity of suffering children and adults in the Third World.
Furthermore, the example has been made less fair by the way Unger and Singer have constructed it, with a choice between the child's death and the demolition of what is, literally, a mere physical possession: a motor car. Anyone who suggested that the preservation of a vintage car should be given priority over saving a child's life would sound insanely callous. This particular uninsured Bugatti, however, has become the repository of Bob's savings and the key to all his life plans. In considering what Bob should do, we are asked to choose between these and the child's life in a way that does not allow us to ignore that what is at stake is, nonetheless, merely a car.
Any attempt to make the example fairer, less distracting, also makes it less ethically compelling. What if we were simply told in the abstract that, if Bob abandons all his own life plans, he can thereby save the life of a child who is about to be killed? Must he do so? What if the child is in a distant country and Bob has never had anything to do with him? Imagine that a spiteful demon appears before me tonight and tells me that a sick and dying child somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa will be cured and saved if I give up every plan I have for the future? Must I do so? Even if I must, is this not, at least in part, because of the one-to-one relationship I have now formed with that particular child through the demon's intervention?
Commonsense ethical notions are no doubt open to criticism if they operate illogically, and the commonsense distinctions I am making with the cases of Dora and Bob would strike a convinced utilitarian as illogical. However, the illogic appears only if we first accept the burden of utilitarianism. From another point of view, they constitute an eminently reasonable compromise. In cases such as these, Dora and Bob may well have clear duties, but we are not rowing in an ethical boat with them. For us, commonsense standards of generosity and care make the world more livable than it would be if total self-interest prevailed, but they leave room for individuals to live their own lives, rather than being enslaved to general utility.
All that said, the examples of Dora and Bob leave a residual sense that there is more we could be doing about the plight of the Third World. Certainly, we are not in the same situation as Dora or Bob, but how should we respond to the facts that confront us? There are many people experiencing extreme misery and deprivation, most of us in a country such as Australia could help at least some of those people without seriously compromising our own life plans, and the actions we would need to take are not even especially inconvenient, given that there are specialised charities established for the purpose. Contemplation of this question, and these facts, puts me out of sympathy with the views of Narveson, who presents as a libertarian hardliner. Singer has overstated the position, but I cannot accept that we are ethically entitled, as Narveson seems to think, to ignore absolute poverty and its associated evils, provided they are far enough from our home.
A plausible ethical theory should acknowledge that we do have obligations to respond to those in need, even if these obligations do not require us to abandon our life plans and may sometimes be overridden, in any event, by other ethical or quasi-ethical claims. Such claims may include those of friendship, familial love and caring, and the imperative to develop our own talents. Though Singer is not convincing when he enjoins us to take the point of view of the universe and reduce ourselves to a more-or-less subsistence way of life, he does remind us vividly of the widespread misery in many third-world regions, contrasted with our positions as economically privileged Westerners. This challenges us to make an adequate response, though we should not try to respond as utilitarian calculators. If we reflect seriously on the extreme plight of many other human beings, we cannot avoid questioning how our lives can best endure ethical scrutiny. Thus I have little quarrel with Singer in a passage where he merely calls us to a sense of reasonable proportion:
Such a plea for proportion is not the same as a requirement that we all reduce our lifestyle to the level of a "Bengali refugee", and it seems that Singer's writings have not been entirely consistent on this point. Be that as it may, any serious consideration of the facts of widespread human misery is troubling. In the process of demolishing another unattractive theory, philosophical egalitarianism, Joseph Raz points out that the issue is not an abstract requirement for equality but a response to "the hunger of the hungry, the need of the needy, the suffering of the ill, and so on" (The Morality of Freedom, 1986). The same goes for the abstract requirements of utilitarianism. We are not obliged to bring about a maximum of general utility, irrespective of our own interests, projects and commitments, but we are obliged to take account of hunger, need and suffering.
Commonsense ethics, therefore, does not support the proposition that we can pursue any life plan we wish, however wasteful, extravagant, greedy or heartless, letting others go to the devil. Without adopting an enslaving doctrine such as utilitarianism, we have adequate critical resources to blame those who make only a minuscule contribution to ameliorating absolute poverty, a contribution that causes them no sacrifice at all, or which seems a sacrifice only because their life plans involve an excessive emphasis on personal luxury and power.
If those critical resources shame us when we scrutinise our own behaviour, so be itperhaps we need to change. There is a strong case for each of us to consider what we should be prepared to do, as against what we are actually doing, to relieve the sum of human misery. We can reach that conclusion without accepting the burden of utilitarianism, and we should not need Peter Singer to remind us of the global situation in which we find ourselves. Nonetheless, it seems that we do require such reminders from time to time, and Singer's writings are welcome, even though he grounds his argument in an abstract position that is impossibly burdensome and, ultimately, not tenable.
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