This article – now many years old – discloses that Peter Singer gives away one fifth of his income. That’s a very very fine thing and a damn site better than me. According to his own calculations, which I have no reason to doubt, that means he’s saved thousands of lives. Perhaps I’ve saved a few with my more paltry giving, which is a nice thought.
But just as with his stuff on what he calls ‘animal liberation’ it seems to me that the obvious philosophical point that he raises is not addressed at all. In several posts I put up a while ago I argued that while Singer says he has a ‘utilitarian’ approach to animal welfare, his work showed almost no sign of the crucial question if one takes a utilitarian framework seriously as one’s criterion for deciding what to do – namely the question of how to optimise animal welfare – and/or minimise suffering. Instead he was concerned, it seemed to me, to take short cuts to argue for various aesthetic ideas of how we should behave.
In the first mentioned article above, Singer argues that it’s simply wrong to treat oneself to luxuries when the same money could be spent saving lives. But he leaves the question of what constitutes a luxury and what constitutes a necessity to one side.
Now I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t make his point. The examples he provides are compelling enough. Sacrifice a nice dinner out once a month and save some lives – not a bad formula for improving the moral tone of your life. But why does he give away just one fifth of his income. Does he live only on necessities? When does he decide to buy a new shirt? etc etc Indeed there’s a formula in his article which suggests that we should be giving away all the money we make over $30,000 and I suspect Peter Singer might keep more than $30,000. And how come these necessities are defined without regard to the relative need of the recipients of the money? In Singer’s utilitarian framework, why is a ‘necessity’ for a Westerner defined differently from a necessity for the $1 per day person who might receive their money?
This question of how you draw the line isn’t just an academic question. It’s a burning practical question.
But the issue of where to draw that line barely rates a mention. I have little doubt that there’s a page or two on it somewhere in his writing, but to me any discussion that doesn’t grapple with it, or at least recognise it as central even if it is put aside for some other time, doesn’t get far.
Which isn’t to say that I shouldn’t be giving more money to charity – but I don’t need a philosopher to tell me that.