My brain doesn’t work like Peter Singer’s

19990905mag-singer1.jpgThis 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.

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John O'Dea
John O'Dea
14 years ago

I’m not sure I understand. The answers to burning practical questions make a difference to what one actually does, right? So unless you’re actually wondering whether to give $50,000 or merely $20,000 to charity this year, how is it a burning practical question exactly where in this vicinity to draw the line? Singer’s point seems to be precisely that the amount of money we should be giving is in that vicinity, and that is all his argument needs. There is no need to come up with a more precise amount because the target is the person who is seriously wondering how much they ought to give to charity. The practical, real-world effect of Singer’s argument is that there is only one answer: more.

James Rice
14 years ago

Hi Nicholas,

I think it should be kept in mind what the aim of Peter Singer’s article is. I’d say Singer’s aim is essentially to convince people in rich countries that they should donate more money to overseas aid organisations (like Unicef or Oxfam). From what I can gather, you and Singer may very well agree with each other that this would be a good thing.

Your main bone of contention with Singer seems to revolve around, not so much what he says, as what he doesn’t say. Specifically, Singer doesn’t provide any clear cut arguments concerning where you should draw the line when it comes to the amount of money you donate. He argues that you should donate more, but doesn’t clearly specify how much more.

I think at least four things can be said in relation to this.

Firstly, given the current inequalities in life changes on this planet, my guess is that a utilitarian (like Singer) would draw a very austere line when it comes to the amounts of money people in rich countries should donate. But does it help convince these people to donate this money if you argue vociferously for this very austere standard, rather than simply arguing that they should donate more? Singer himself alludes to this issue when he says: “Isn’t it counterproductive to ask people to do so much? Don’t we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived, is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn’t go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should be doing much more…”

Secondly, utilitarians do have a general principal – which they are pretty upfront about – from which a “donation line” could be drawn. The principal has to do with maximising total utility, of course. Presumably a utilitarian would think something along the lines of: you should keep increasing the amount of money you donate to overseas aid organisations until the marginal cost of donating exceeds the marginal benefit. However, going from this general principal to a specific amount of money you should donate is a dicey endeavour, of course. Specifying an amount of money that is applicable to everyone in rich countries may be impossible, since each person’s utilitarian calculation is likely to be sensitive to the particular contexts in which they happen to find themselves (their particular skill sets, their particular place in information networks and organisational structures, and so on). Specifying an amount of money you should donate is also dependent on your understanding of how the world works – a very contentious area to say the least! Singer may have decided – understandably, I would say – that including specific and contentious claims about how the world works would have unnecessarily diverted attention away from his major points. (Of course, however dicey the endeavour of going from the general to the specific, Singer does think that people in rich countries should donate more money to overseas aid organisations.)

Thirdly, my guess is that Peter Singer is hardly alone in not providing clear cut arguments concerning where you should draw the donation line. Presumably most Christian churches would argue that people in rich countries should donate more money to the poor. But do any of them specify exactly how much more people in rich countries should donate? Have any major Western moral or political thinkers done so? On the other hand, I think there are fairly specific formulations concerning the obligations muslims have to pay Zakat. But, on the whole, I’d say Singer is hardly alone on this score.

Fourthly, it’s edifying to note the context in which Singer writes. Forget donating a fifth of your income to help address poverty around the world – the United Nations target is 0.7 per cent. In 2005, even this miniscule target was reached by only 5 out of 30 or so OECD countries.

It’s a pity I missed the earlier discussion of Peter Singer and animal liberation. “Animal Liberation” (or at least “All Animals Are Equal”) – what a ripper read!

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

Nicholas, Singer’s point is simply that we should be consistent when we decide what our ethical responsibilities are. Whatever a given individual thinks Bob’s responsibility was — that is, how much of a sacrifice should he have been expected to make — he ought to make a comparable sacrifice in terms of income donated to charity. I don’t think Singer wants to make a decision for Bob whether he should sacrifice his foot or his leg, let alone what the ‘optimal’ sacrifice is. He says:

…only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch.

What ever ‘very significant’ means for you or me, is where we should draw the line between luxuries and necessities. You may still decide to not donate much, but don’t try to rationalise this behaviour — just admit you are not meeting your own ethical standards.