Saturday, 23 May 2009

Peter Singer

About Peter Singer in the Guardian today:
Singer's argument, as first laid out in an essay in 1971, isn't hard to follow. "If it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it ... If I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing." As he added, however, the "uncontroversial appearance" of this argument is deceptive. Considerations of distance, or of how many potential rescuers there might be, are irrelevant to Singer: the child you see dying of malnutrition or a preventable disease on the foreign news has as much of a claim on you as the child in the pond. Spending your surplus income on consumer treats rather than efforts to end extreme poverty, he concludes, isn't greatly different morally from leaving the toddler to drown.


Needless to say, this is a challenging position - "almost impossible to argue with", as the political theorist David Runciman once wrote, "but also very difficult to accept."


Singer's own approach to ethics, a version of utilitarianism, has deep roots in the English-language tradition, but it's scarcely uncontroversial. One famous criticism, associated with Williams, is that it's implausibly demanding, making people as responsible for the things they fail to do as the things they bring about. Williams's ultimate point was highly technical; Singer, in discussing it, soon brings the argument back to practical outcomes. "I think we can set standards that limit our responsibilities to help people. But I wouldn't want to say, therefore we're only responsible for our acts and not for our omissions.
(As an aside "Things they fail to do" has strong echos for those of us brought up in the C of E:
We have left undone those things which we ought to have done,
And we have done those things which we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us:
But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us miserable offenders
Book of Common Prayer
I don't know you'd find much support for that expression ('miserable offenders') nowadays - within the church or without - but, there you go, the money I spend on, say, going to watch football, could have saved lives. How can that make me anything other than a miserable offender?)

But, back to Singer in the Guardian, on why you have to include 'things undone':
If you draw a hard line there, you end up saying that really quite trivial things are wrong because they're violations of my positive responsibility not to cheat or whatever ..." He casts about for an example. "Well, we have it all over the tabloids, don't we: I charged the government £5 for watching porn movies, right? I had the opportunity to save a child's life, either by ruining my shoes in the pond or by giving some spare money I had to Oxfam, but somehow that's not as important to assessing whether I'm a decent person or not as whether I cheated the government out of £5 to watch a porn movie. And I think that's the wrong set of priorities, that sends the wrong sort of message."
This leads into issues of moral equivalence (I don't think that's quite the right term, but it'll do for the moment), and I'd like to explore, for example, fiddling expense against the death of hundreds of thousands. Shame Hazel Blears is implicated in both! But thats for another time.

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