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Disingenuous Ethics

Peter Singer taken on

Dan Roentsch
The Radical Capitalist
20 March 2002 E-Mail this page to a friend


The crisis is honed: do you save your car or a child's life?
You are no doubt familiar with the adage, "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." This adage implies that the hungry man's benefactor

a) is interested in seeing that the hungry man can care for himself, and
b) knows how to fish.

The odds, then, are against the hungry man's ever learning to feed himself, for the altruist ethic that dominates East and West considers cognitive effort a presumption and condemns self-sufficiency for the self.

It is thus the ethic of that human subspecies which does not think, yet refuses to surrender its moral and social pretensions: it is the ethic of the dilettante.

As if to illustrate this fact, the February 20 edition of the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes II" featured an interview with "bioethicist" Peter Singer of Princeton University. According to the program, Singer has made something of a splash among the dilettantes for concocting a new version of an old practical joke. It consists of a thought experiment, in which Singer asks you to imagine that you have spent most of your retirement money on an expensive automobile. You have just parked it astride a working railroad track and gotten out to stretch, when your tranquility is interrupted by a locomotive headed down the track and at your car. You can easily divert the locomotive by throwing a switch and sending it down another track, but that other track has a child from Bangladesh standing on it. The crisis is honed: do you save your car or a child's life?

He isn't choosing either the car or the child. He's keying the paint job, flipping the switch, and tossing the Bangladeshi an umbrella.
According to the program, "Singer thinks that most people would want to save the child, but by the way people live their everyday lives, they are choosing to save the car."

The implication: the dangers threatening the miserable of the world are too immediate to suffer discussions of cause-and-effect, and can be averted easily and obviously by your self-sacrifice.

Singer's hypothetical is thus useless as a guide to individual conduct in the real world, but it is valuable in that it demonstrates to the honest doubter that altruism is indeed the ethic of the dilettante; the ethic of anyone who believes that he can buy, with a mixture of guilt and cash, an exemption from the responsibility to focus his intellect.

And if Singer's hypocrisy is any indication, the dilettante's conscience is of the forgiving variety. Even though the professor believes that everyone should give to the poor all of his property beyond that which he needs for "basic necessities," he admits that he gives away only 20% of his income. It seems he is waiting for the rest of us to match his pace. "Then maybe," he says, "it would be a little easier to keep going down that track."

So, for 20 cents on the dollar, Peter Singer has bought from his conscience the right to ignore, among other considerations, how wealth is created and accumulated, why some societies are able to create and accumulate wealth while others are not, and the moral value of earned luxury.

20 cents on the dollar! He isn't choosing either the car or the child. He's keying the paint job, flipping the switch, and tossing the Bangladeshi an umbrella.

And in spite of the fact that he cannot live by the so-called "ethic" he foists upon others, and in spite of the flaws that riddle his "railroad" hypothetical, he has found an audience. According to "60 Minutes II":
Singer used the example of the car and the child in an article he wrote for the New York Times; it struck a chord with readers. Two charities mentioned in the piece, UNICEF and Oxfam, received donations of about three quarters of a million dollars in response.
An experiment must test the change of only one variable, or its results will be ambiguous.
To understand the appeal of the "emergency" hypothetical, one must understand that the appeal of hypotheticals generally is that they help one to focus on an abstract principle by isolating and concretizing it, usually for the purpose of grasping its implications or consequences. The "emergency" hypothetical takes the same form. That is, it appears to focus the process of evaluation, but it in fact alters what is being evaluated.

Characterizing a hypothetical as a "thought experiment" is convenient when considering why the introduction of an emergency misaligns the hypothetical with reality. An experiment must test the change of only one variable, or its results will be ambiguous. The introduction of an emergency represents the change of more than one variable in the same experiment.

Imagine that you are using lab rats in a series of experiments meant to determine the safe dosage of a new drug. If the first rat dies, and you must conduct another experiment, you can change only one of the two variables you know about: the dosage of the drug or the relative health of the lab rat. If you change both and the rat lives, you don't know which changed variable was responsible for the new result. Worse, if you are malicious, you can misrepresent the effectiveness of the drug by manipulating the relative health of the rat and keeping that manipulation out of your report.

This principle applies to all honest experiments, including those that take place in the imagination. There is, for example, a popular thought experiment conducted by minors and that begins with a parent asking: "If your friends asked you to jump in a lake, would you do it?" The parent is altering a single variable; namely, the scope of the demand made by the child's friends. Nothing else - like the identity of those friends, the child's relationship to them, or the reason for the demand - is altered, because the parent wants the child to isolate and assess only the implications and consequences of conformity for conformity's sake.

But imagine a mother who says to her child: "If one of your friends were drowning, and you were the only person nearby who could swim, would you jump in the lake if your friends asked you to?" - She is changing not just the scope of the demand made by the child's friends, but also the conditions under which the demand is made. If the child replies: "Yes, I would jump in the lake," the mother does not know whether she has tested the child's love for his friends or his fear of them.

In fact, Singer's hypothetical could have been made into two valid hypotheticals
Now add a perverse twist to the experiment. Imagine that you have told your mother that your peers have been urging you to jump in a lake, but that you have resisted. Your mother has had it "up to here" with your ego, and, possessing little more conscience than at least one Princeton professor, says: "Proud of ourselves, are we? Well, suppose one of your friends were drowning and you were the only one nearby who could swim. Are you telling me you would stand there like a statue while your other friends begged you to jump in the lake?"

Your mother is not confusing herself by altering two variables in the same experiment; she is attempting to confuse you. In so doing, she is conflating, against reason, the incongruous concepts of conformity and loyalty, for the purpose of whitewashing the former with the meaning of the latter.

Now go back to Singer's hypothetical. His arbitrarily-introduced variable of imminent death for a child if the car-owner does not sacrifice his car is intended to conflate private wealth with manslaughter, for the purpose of condemning the former with the meaning of the latter.¹

(Without exception, the introduction of an emergency into a hypothetical intended as a guide to everyday conduct always signals an irrational conflation. In the Singer hypothetical, the everyday-life variable is anything with which you can compare the value of a human life. The value Singer applies to this variable is "most of your retirement money." The emergency variable in the hypothetical is the time allotted before action must be taken. The value Singer assigns to this variable is the time it takes a locomotive to travel from within range of vision to a point near the observer. In fact, Singer's hypothetical could have been made into two valid hypotheticals, one testing everyday values and another to test conduct in an emergency. For instance, the everyday hypothetical might have gone something like: "If you've always had your eye on an expensive automobile you can now afford, but you know it is made by the slave labor of Bangladeshi children, would you buy it anyway?" The emergency hypothetical might have been: "You say you would never step in front of an oncoming train? Well, what if a child were on the tracks?"

It isn't until the lecturer attempts to combine these two experiments into one that we cross the boundary separating honest inquiry from swindle.)

Consider some of the many questions made meaningless by Professor Singer's hypothetical
By blurring the context within which an individual is supposed to act (i.e., by blurring the causes of action), the emergency makes context per se unimportant. - And this appeals to the moral intrinsicist, who believes that actions have the same moral value in all contexts. Discovering "the answer" in a hypothetical like Singer's means he doesn't have to consider what is moral in the real world, where real luxuries are bought and real Bangladeshis suffer. When it is unimportant to consider how some of the poor acquire wealth and some of the poor stay poor, then the answer to inequity is simple: take from the lucky and give to the hapless. On this view, inquiring after context, cause, and consequence is just an excuse to ignore the obvious, moral answer.

Consider some of the many questions made meaningless by Professor Singer's hypothetical:

How is disposable income created? If everyone consistently applied the professor's "ideal," and gave away everything but that which he needed for "basic necessities," you would not have any money for charity, because you would not have a job. And you would not have a job because anyone who might have given you one is now living at the subsistence level, having given his capital to the Bangladeshis.

Is guilt necessary to charity? If you give assistance to others because it is what you want to do - because the sight of your power effecting some good gives you pleasure - then it is a luxury. But if you gave your money to the first hand that clutched for it - because letting it accumulate in your own pocket made you feel like a bad person - you will have nothing to give when the opportunity to aid a friend, a relative, or a cause presents itself.

What is the source of luxury in a free society? If a car is your luxury item, who designed it, built it, sold it? Why? On whose terms? Do car makers and car salesmen have children? Are their children's stomachs any less real because they are fed by your desires rather than your guilt?

What about the moral value of earned luxury? It may be that buying something for the pleasure of owning it is an advance you pay yourself on a future that is otherwise only plans and promises. When everything else seems tentative, an earned luxury is the certain, concrete assurance of your power to obtain good things. It may also be a reward you pay yourself for goals reached. Again, if your luxury item is a car, perhaps you have wanted it for a long time but were unable to afford it. Once you are able, it invigorates you; it shows you - in concrete terms - that life is not all restricted consumption and delayed gratification. It offers evidence to your senses that your life - the context that gives meaning to all of you values - is good.

Is there a reason that the average per capita income in Bangladesh is around $1,500.00 per year, while in the United States it is more than twenty times that?
If this is true for all individuals, then why don't the Bangladeshis acquire luxuries? Why aren't their altruists urging them to send their money to unfortunate American children? Is there a reason that the average per capita income in Bangladesh is around $1,500.00 per year, while in the United States it is more than twenty times that?

Now you are at the real crossroads. You can either ignore these questions, sell your car, and throw the proceeds into the black hole - and flatter yourself that the portion of your funds not diverted to administration, bribes, and sundries, will buy a barefoot child a bowl of porridge - or you can make the effort to ask yourself why the social system of Bangladesh does not work the way yours does, and how one might replace it with a system like yours; the effort that continues as you ask yourself whether or not it is better to create more capitalist societies, in which all individuals may obtain luxuries, or to denounce luxuries everywhere because they cannot be gotten somewhere.

Bangladesh is a democracy practiced with brutal consistency: its political parties are not limited to non-violent means of making a majority. In 2001, the losers in the national election - the mostly-Hindu supporters of the Awami League - were dislocated, robbed, and their women raped by the winners - the mostly-Muslim supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party. The preamble to the constitution of Bangladesh states: "Pledging that the ideals of absolute trust and faith in the Almighty Allah, nationalism, democracy and socialism meaning economic and social justice ... shall be fundamental principles of the Constitution."

Thus, the rights of individual Bangladeshis, including the right to own property, are denied by both democratic practice and constitutional theory. Wealth cannot be accumulated in Bangladesh because those who would create it know that it will be taken from them by force. Large-scale, long-term trade is nearly impossible, so no one benefits from the sale of goods, luxury or otherwise. As a consequence, millions die and millions more barely subsist.

These conditions will not get worse because you buy one car or a fleet of cars, or get better if you sell your house and furs. Your wealth is beside the point.

The moral implications of using self-sacrifice to rationalize intellectual inertia can be observed in the following thought experiment:

I would like to think that he would choose to save the child...
There is a concentration camp in your town. One day you walk past the camp and see, through the barbed wire, men, women, and children chained to stakes in the earth. They are otherwise unoccupied, staring blankly at your face and stamping their feet for warmth. Their teeth are rotten. Uniformed men with rifles periodically intimidate them, sometimes with beatings. They are gaunt and their tongues are swollen with thirst.

You walk away, wondering what you can do to help them. You can't get the image of the swollen tongues out of your mind, so you decide to petition the camp commander to let you inside with a pitcher of water. Days later, the commander sees the signatures you've gathered and agrees. You enter the camp grounds and walk from stake to stake, pouring water down each throat you come to, until the pitcher is dry. With regret you leave still-thirsty hundreds as they beg you for water you do not have, and you think: "If only more people gave water!"

This is immoral. And it is immoral - not because you give prisoners water to drink, but because you have fashioned a way to make the fact of their thirst an excuse to ignore the cause of their thirst. You ignore the need to find out what you can do to break their chains, because you expect your brain will be less taxed and your conscience just as flattered by a cheap rationalization. The cognitive effort required to discover the root causes of their misery is a task you will not perform because it portends too many repercussions for your world-view, your personality, the company you keep, and every other sphere of your unexamined life.

So you adopt the disingenuous ethics. You dip your pitcher in the water, leave the miserable behind the barbed wire, and chide those unlike yourself by concocting a fantasy world in which concentration camp inmates are not in chains, but standing in front of oncoming locomotives that no one but you has the good sense to redirect.

Singer's dilettantes are the chumps of a misanthrope. When Singer admits that he cannot live up to his alleged ideal, and is waiting for the rest of the West to sacrifice harder before he worries about his own hypocrisy, he is confessing that his real purpose is not to use self-sacrifice in order to help the starving, but to use the starving as a means to effect self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice, self-denial, are the ends, not the means. His goal is, in his own words, "fighting human arrogance and domination of the planet."²

You can help him reach this goal by giving your money to UNICEF and Oxfam - or by burning it up in a big bonfire.

... but by the way he lives his everyday life, he is choosing to save his disingenuous ethics.
While waiting for the apocalypse, he provides his customers with their own, perverse luxury; namely, the bizarre but uncomplicated belief that your sacrifice will solve my problems.

If their so-called ethics were on a railroad track as starvation crept slowly but inexorably toward them, and the dilettante could choose to save either the ethics or a child from Bangladesh, I would like to think that he would choose to save the child.

But by the way he lives his everyday life, he is choosing to save his disingenuous ethics.

1Ayn Rand used the term "package-deal" to refer to this bundling of incongruities into supposed units. (See "'Extremism,' or The Art of Smearing" in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal.)
2"20 Questions," an interview with Peter Singer by Vance Lehmkuhl. Citypaper.net, October 7-14, 1999.


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The whole world should adopt the one child rule to spmliy lower the world’s population to less than 2 billion. I say less than 2 billion because we knew cardon dioxide was increasing back in the mid 1950s when we first started measuring it. If there were fewer people then relocating them would be easier. If we could give everyone a quality of life then less reason for war and higher probability for world peace. We just have to realize that the world is finite and so too must our population must be finite and not continue to grow but instead come down to a sustainable level. We must continue to make technological progress to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. But I’ve heard even if we stopped using fossil fuels tomorrow that it is already too late. We may very well be past the tipping point already. So spmliy reducing population with a one child rule will help with any solution. It may very well be that the only humane solution will be relocation to higher ground and other countries for all these people. So again if we all go to a one child rule there will be fewer of them to relocate and more room elsewhere for them to relocate to.

geoff BlydonVisitor_at_anonymo.usdisection
interesting disection - enjoyed the insight

Andrianaandriana.lebid_at_yahoo.comgeneral
I really enjoyed this article. I think the best point is that many of us ignore the sources of the issues when we try to be charitable to make ourselves feel better. I wish more people realized that it is the cause or root of the problem that has to be fixed, not just the problem like starving Bangladeshis.

StephenAnonymousSinger
I liked the article. The only thing I'd change is I'd drop all the ad hominem attacks on Singer. Whether or not he follows his ethic is not important to the validity of his claims only to the practicability. But I really liked the points about how making ourselves feel good about our nobility might be making ourselves miss the point of the problem.

jojojoagogo_at_mail.comGeneral Comment
I enjoyed reading your article but I can't agree conclusions. Just like the mother with the bridge-jumping child, you are ignoring the context of the choices made. The morality of the concentration camp voyeur depends on whether he can have the camp abolished, why the people were imprisoned, whether he will be imprisoned for interfering etc. Essentially you are saying: do it perfectly or do nothing at all, and this is not the context in which any of us make choices.

RobAnonymousPeter Singer
Ne1 read Singer's views on animal rights? he says that animals (as sentient beings) should count equally as humans and have their preferences satisfied. Therefore he is a vegen, he accuses society of being speciesist. However, not practising what he preaches, Singer is fine to allow people to eat a chicken, he feels they count as less than one! Also, it must be mentioned that Peter Singer thinks that it should be legal for a born, live baby, to be terminated withing 28days of birth, he has some reasoning behind this but it is nowhere near justification for such a statement. Peter Singer is more willing to experiment of a retarded human than an ape. I think the problem is that Peter hasnt fitted in with humanity, so feeling oppressed himself, has resorted to be against society. the poor guy needs help. and some friendship, alternatively he could stop living in his personal 'eutopia' and realise that modern ethics are a lot more complicated than ideals that allow all to get on harmoniously

Russ WatersAnonymoussinger is so full of shit
this professor singer is full of shit... how can he ask someone to give all money they make over 30 000 dollars away when he only gives 20 percent of what he makes away. that is hypocracy i have nothing against giving to charities. i think that it is a great thing to help others out, but singer is a fucking moron

EdgarAnonymousSinger
Okay, I read the essay, and I read the posts, and I think some of the posters are missing the point. The author doesn't seem to be saying that you shouldn't help people out short-term. Here's a relevant quote from above. "It is immoral - not because you give prisoners water to drink, but because you have fashioned a way to make the fact of their thirst an excuse to ignore the cause of their thirst." He seems to be saying that, look, if you want to give the poor something short-term to alleviate their suffering, then okay. But if you pretend that *that* is the solution to world poverty -- the way SInger does -- you're being disingenuous. (And dmitri ... you don't think a hackneyed slogan like "Egoism is fine if you're the winner" is a mantra? Really?)

Dmitridmitrimt_at_msn.comSInger
More Malthusian mantra. Egoism is fine as long as you are the winner. This sort of logic has us helping by completely giving oursleves to a cause, otherwise we are being disingenous. Your criticism of Singers 'experiment' may very well have some merit. But in the end your logic leads to a disregard for human life, and a new sort of guilt for helping anyone else less than 100 percent.

VisitorAnonymousSInger
The argument is certainly valid. And I fear that it might be sound.

Kathleenpseudopsia_at_aol.competer singer
Although I really enjoyed hearing reading about why Peter Singer is hypocritical and generally wrong, I really disagreed on one point. It is highly unlikely that I will ever be able to change the conditions of the Bangladesh government, and even if I could it would take a long time. Meanwhile, there would be a lot of individuals dead. I think that his point is that we can prevent suffering at little expense to ourselves then it is a moral obligation just like it would be if I saw a an old lady fall on the sidewalk. Sure, I could ignore the lady and try to pass legislation to prevent old ladies from walking without walkers (so they don't injure themselves and suffer), but I am still morally obligated to help her out just because I can and because she needs help. But otherwise, great points.

JohnAnonymousGeneral Comment
Damn fine article. I hate this guy.

Visitorgrizzly@aol.comsinger's foolishness
let's also not forget singer's claim that those disabled among us should be killed off, while he cares for his mother with Alzheimers. Let's face it, Singer is a hypocrite all around, and only says whatever the media will eat up and his fellow academics will praise. Supposedly, his works are influental, like the one where he dispproved the teachings of Jesus with a video game? He is just another blowhard with tenure.

Cherylclaird123@hotmail.comPeter Singer-euthanesia
I enjoyed reading this article. I 'm researching the influence of this philosophy after being assigned the task of selecting 3 persons for death as part of a lifeboat game for graduate nursing ethics. I was curious why our class resources listed Singer's web site for information on the topic of nonmaleficence, but not more conventional nursing sites. Apparently, nursing has bought into the "quality of life" instead of the dignity of life as per our history and current code of ethics. I'm fighting a losing battle with graduate nursing educators and the state board of nursing.

Visitorbouisiana@aol.comsmash and crash
Very interesting. What if there was a glass of water on top of the car? I would still save the child.

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