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.
I see very little or no affinity between Buddhism and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism is based on abstraction and unquestioned assumptions that (i) individuals are independent actors endowed with a “self” with desires or interests that conflict with the desires or interests of other individuals, (ii) individuals see clearly enough to know what is “good” for others (or, alternatively, “good” should be defined based on another’s subjective determination of what fulfills their desire), and (iii) only result and not intention is relevant in determining if an action is positive.
To understand Shantideva, you need to consider the concept of absolute truth — positing that (i) the world of ego and self is illusory, (ii) the experience of self and other are “empty”, beyond speech or thought and not understandable through logic, and (iii) emptiness and compassion are uncreated and not separate — in the way that water and wet or fire and heat are not separate.
And then you need to consider the concept of relative truth — the realm in which karma exists. Karma is not based on any moral code. It is simply cause and effect. And the effect of karma is determined by three variables.
The most important variable is intention. Inadvertently killing an insect that is crushed against the windshield of your car creates less “negative” karma than intentionally slapping a mosquito. And the definition of what constitutes “positive” or “negative” karma is itself determined by intention. Wishing for riches for oneself or wishing for riches for others causes good karma to be defined with respect to worldly aspirations. A more expansive aspiration, such as the bodhisattva thought of attaining liberation for the benefit of self and others, redefines the definition of “good” karma as something that fosters waking up. So, what is “good karma” from a narrow, materialistic aspiration (physical or emotional comfort in a materialistic sense, for example) could be extraordinarily bad karma based on the intention of a bodhisattva (because material comfort may toward complacency and not inspire progress on the path of Dharma).
The second karmic variable is the extent to which intention is embodied in thought, speech or action. Although thought creates karma, the effect is lighter than speech. And the karmic effect of speech is lighter than the effect of action.
The third karmic variable is the extent to which the intent of an action comes to fruition. It is easy to see that an attempt at murder that does not succeed in its intention carries less karmic effect than a successful murder. This is even reflected in our laws imposing penalties for murder and attempted based on not just on intention but also on fact that the intention is realized through action.
In short, it is hard for me to conceive of two systems of thought less compatible than Buddhism and utilitarianism.
Amod Lele said:
I agree with the general spirit of your comment, Jim. The difference between Buddhism and utilitarianism is something I have a fairly deep personal investment in, since perhaps the most important lessons I have learned in life came from abandoning utilitarianism in favour of Buddhism. Most importantly, utilitarians in practice nearly always identify the root of suffering or unhappiness with a lack of external goods, and see the task of the ethical person as providing them. Such a viewpoint is very rarely taken by any Indian Buddhist.
Having said all that, I do think there is an important affinity between utilitarianism and at least Śāntideva (not necessarily other Buddhists), in that both take the most important objective of a good person to be the prevention of suffering or unhappiness. In assessing an action, intention matters for utilitarians as much as for Śāntideva. Motive does not matter, which is a big difference between them, but intention does – the distinction is subtle but important. (For John Stuart Mill, if you tried your sincere best to stop somebody from murdering somebody, that is what counts.)
Much in this discussion reminds me of Carol Gilligan’s distinction between an “Ethic of Justice” and an “Ethic of Care.” It is interesting to think about it in those terms, since Gilligan expressly associates them with male and female perspectives, respectively, and thus implicitly suggests that there cannot be any question of simply choosing one or the other as always right. (The correlation between the two “ethics” and gender perspectives has not been unambiguously confirmed by later research, I understand.)
Amod Lele said:
This is a connection I need to think about more. The justice-care distinction maps pretty much exactly onto Kasulis’s integrity-intimacy distinction; I think it might even be one of the examples he uses. I blogged about the point a while ago. One of the reasons I like the intimacy-integrity terms so much is it does a lot of the philosophical heavy lifting that these gender binaries do, but without tying it so tightly to gender. (My ex-wife had a far stronger integrity orientation – and justice orientation, natch – than most men.)
What I haven’t really pushed is mapping that distinction onto the kind of points I make in these posts. I think it’s the case that Mencius gives a much better account of why we should act in certain ways than does either Singer or Ayn Rand*; and this seems to have something to do with the fact that the former has an intimacy orientation and the latter two are very much integrity (despite arguing for opposite kinds of ethics).
That is basically Alasdair MacIntyre’s take in After Virtue and after: modern thought can’t say anything intelligent about ethics because it’s integrity-based. I am way more sympathetic to integrity than MacIntyre is, but I do wonder if he’s on to something here.
* And try telling Rand that a female perspective is associated with an ethic of care.
Really good points, esp regarding your gloss of MacIntyre, which I must think about more. I would not have put it this way, because I would hardly have said that Aristotle or Aquinas are *intimacy*-based — and yet, this does get right the *flavor* of M’s objections. (And I almost laughed aloud at your remark about Rand.) The one-to-one mapping between gender and “ethics” of care or justice of course cannot work, and even Gilligan did not want to press that point simplistically.
Amod Lele said:
Possibly the biggest overall disadvantage of Kasulis’s way of putting the dichotomy is that the way he uses “intimacy” and “integrity” does not quite map to everyday usage of the terms. I look at Aristotle as an intimacy thinker without a second thought, but that is because I’m so used to those categories.
I think this binary shows up all over the place, but most discussions of it tend to pin it unnecessarily either to gender or to some manner of geography (continental/analytic, east/west). It’s bigger than any of these. The specific terms of intimacy and integrity turn out to be what Paul Griffiths would call denaturalized discourse, and I think that helps a lot in this case.