Last time, I observed Peter Singer’s proposed radical revision of our moral views – the claim that, when we keep money that we could give to help the starving or diseased without major sacrifice, we are doing something as bad as if we let a drowning child drown. Is Singer right?
At the heart of Singer’s argument, by his own reckoning, is this principle: “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.” He explicitly states that the implication of this “ought” is duty and obligation, not merely charity and generosity. It is not just that sacrificing one’s own comfort and pleasure to help those in need is good, but that any refusal to do so is bad, something deserving of one’s own guilt and shame and others’ condemnation.
Now on what grounds should we accept this principle, if indeed we should? This is the point where the holes in Singer’s argument appear. There is a problem with his method. He notes that the principle “seems uncontroversial”, but agrees that in practice it is controversial, above all because of its highly demanding implications. He responds to many potential objections that go against the principle, but does not actually make an argument for it. The principle is one of those prevalent ordinary beliefs, that analytic philosophers erroneously and misleadingly describe as “intuitions”; it can serve as a premise for an argument because one’s interlocutors are likely to agree with it or at least feel the force of it. The same, however, applies to a belief that Singer admits is also widely shared and even more widely lived by: namely, that we who spend money on our own pleasures and comforts, when we could be spending it on the relief of preventable starvation and disease, are not for that reason bad people derelict in our moral duties. Singer is correct that his principle implies the negation of this belief: if one is right, the other is wrong. If we are to be consistent (as we should be), one or both of these premises needs to give. But which?
Remember just what Singer’s principle implies. It is strongly stated. All bad things in the world, every one of them, are our responsibility, our duty to alleviate, insofar as we have any power to deal with them. Those who do not do this are bad people, comparable to someone who shrugs at the sight of a drowning child and walk by. Given Singer’s own explicitly stated consequentialism, the implications are even stronger; for consequentialism brooks no distinction between killing and letting die. Whether I kill a man and take $1500 from his pockets which I spend on a personal new laptop, or I spend $1500 of my own money on the laptop instead of saving the life of a diseased man in Africa, the consequences are the same: my useful comfort has come at the expense of another man’s life.
What I have pointed out here so far is just how radical the consequences of Singer’s initially plausible-sounding principle are, how many beliefs we would have to revise, how far at odds it turns out to be with our other prevalent ordinary beliefs. That does not in itself make the principle wrong, for our “common sense” so often is wrong. It could be that our other everyday beliefs are the ones that are wrong, as Singer openly argues.
But to argue that point successfully, it seems to me, Singer would need to do more than to state this principle and note that it is prima facie uncontroversial and plausible. Once we see what its implications are, it becomescontroversial and we find ourselves with many reasons to abandon it. We may well find ourselves ready to say: no, the bare fact that I can act to prevent something bad from happening is not sufficient reason to say I ought to take that action. At least, not in a sense of “ought” that implies duty and not mere charity, a sense that implies that if I refrain from taking that action, I have done wrong or should feel guilty.
But then what about the drowning child? Do we have no duty to save a child who has fallen down a well or is drowning in a shallow pond? That does not follow. There are reasons other than Singer’s generalized principle that could underlie such a duty, and some of them may involve proximity or distance as a significant factor – a factor that Singer treats with bemusement and bewilderment:
I do not think I need to say much in defense of the refusal to take proximity and distance into account. 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). (“Famine, affluence and morality”, emphases in original)
Here again, Singer tends to assume more than he argues. True, a person’s nearness does not “show” that we ought to do more to help him than a distant person; but it also does not show that we ought not to do more. Singer’s casual reference to “impartiality, universalizability, equality, or whatever” is hardly good enough. The “whatever” seems to assume as obvious that moral decisions must treat all people as interchangeable compassion sinks. Are we to assume without argument that one’s own connection to the object of compassion or generosity makes no difference whatsoever to our moral relationships with them?
Mencius, for one, would treat such a view as monstrous, and I think he is right to do so. Of course we are moved by the cries of an unfamiliar child drowning, but we are even more moved by the cries of our own child – as I submit, we should be, and as any Confucian would take as obvious. And so likewise, we are less moved by the cries of children in Bangladesh or Ethiopia, cries that we cannot hear in places we have never been to. That is the normal human state of affairs, and I do not think there is anything wrong with it in this respect. For those making policy decisions on behalf of impersonal institutions, charged with an impersonal fairness as part of their duties, it may well be required that one not give one’s family or countrymen preferential treatments over strangers; but I think something will have gone quite wrong with our constitutive human commitments if we require a similar equal preference at the personal level. To say that one should not give a job opportunity to one’s brother over a less-qualified stranger is an established principle of liberal institutions; to say that one should not give birthday presents to one’s well-fed children when one could give them to the starving is not. Nor, I submit, should it be.
What makes it worthwhile to help others in the first place? On the Confucian understanding, as I understand it, it is because one views oneself as fundamentally part of a constellation of other people. One’s compassion for the child down the well is a natural extension of the compassion one would feel for one’s own child. Compassion for the remote is a further extension. But the partial compassion, the one that begins with and prioritizes one’s own near relationships, is the most natural and basic. Without that partiality that is constitutive of human life (for starving Africans just as it is for pampered North Americans), it is not clear to me what motivates any sort of compassion and giving in the first place – why we would or should give anything at all. (Śāntideva attempts to justify such a universalized compassion, in ways that, as Charles Goodman has noted, have strong affinities with Singer’s utilitarianism. But I have noted before why I don’t think Śāntideva’s argument works any better than Singer’s does.) If in Singer’s eyes “impartiality, universalizability, equality or whatever” requires that we throw out our partiality to those near and dear to us, in everyday non-institutional human action — then a pox on impartiality, universalizability, equality or whatever.