DARMSTADTER'S PHILOSOPHICAL QUIBBLESThe Currency of Delayed ReformPremise 1
Approaching ethics on the basis of absolute moral principles should be rejected on the grounds that it leads to "awkward", "unpalatable", "unacceptable", "uncomfortable" and "abhorrent" consequences.Premise 2
Singer employs principles such as
- "[M]aximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and
- [A]ll pleasure or suffering counts equally. ..."
which, if taken in isolation and to their logical extremes, lead to such consequences e.g.
- "giving nearly everything you have to charity"
- not affording "your children even ordinary advantages"
- "a zero tolerance policy for lions" (Bernard Williams).
Singer's arguments against such moral absolutism are "feeble", "halfhearted" and "disingenuous".Conclusion
Singer is a moral abolutist.
While it is true that Singer's analysis often leads to challenging conclusions, rejecting them without serious consideration i.e. just because they make us uncomfortable, is to miss the opportunity to view important issues in a new light.
A light that that may help to loosen the deadlock of seemingly intractable ethical dilemmas.
Advocates of abolitionism, universal suffrage and civil rights were dismissed as disruptive radicals for many decades by their contemporaries.
The currency of delayed reform is avoidable suffering.Praise
For the general public, [Singer] may be the most influential philosopher of the last half century. ...
[Singer] is an excellent critic of prevailing moral orthodoxies. ...
[When viewed] not as a philosopher dispensing theoretical arguments, but as a campaigner for the cause of animals and against suffering humanity ... he can be quite convincing.
His arguments can make us see the errors in much moral posturing.
In questioning our assumptions, we may come to appreciate issues we would rather not confront.
[His] writings are full of touching examples of human and animal suffering that may move us to act, regardless of philosophical quibbles. ...
We naturally feel compassion without needing a philosophical argument ...
Feeling drives behavior.
And how we feel depends on what we think.
History is full of examples of destructive ideas causing otherwise decent people to perpetrate atrocities.
It is not human compassion that has changed - over the last 50, 100, or 200 years - our attitudes to slavery, to other races, to the status of women, to the treatment of homosexuals etc.
It is ideas that have changed.
And ideas are the domain of philosophy.Darmstadter's Argument against an Obligation to Assist
Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool.
You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit ...
Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned.
But ... if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle.
As with the drowning child [y]ou have to grab your chequebook and wade on in. ...
This thought experiment is an illustration of the proximity bias
built into natural empathy.
(Given that it evolved in the context of living in small groups where a localized sense of empathy formed the basis for the reciprocity and cooperation essential for survival.)
How we deal with complete strangers on the other side of the world has become one of the most important moral issues of our times and we don't have the right evolved responses to it. ...
[The drowning child scenario demonstrates that] our evolved responses are not good enough and we have to think about the situation intellectually ...
(Religion and Science
[W]e have moral instincts.
[W]e often make judgments ... without reflection or reason, but I don't think they're very reliable ...
[W]hen we try and do serious moral philosophy or ethics, we should try and move beyond those judgments.
Darmstadter misses the essential point of the scenario.
He objects to absolute moral principles on theoretical and practical grounds and interprets the Drowning Child through the filter of this objection.
He believes that such principles invariably lead to extreme and unacceptable consequences and fail to accommodate issues of scale and the obligations of others:
Moral rules can’t generally be applied in an unlimited accumulation ...
[T]hey can be overwhelmed by numbers and by questions about the obligations of other people. ...
Would your obligation be different if
- there were hundreds of people observing the child [or]
- you encountered a hundred such children every day[?] ...
Perhaps [you'd] think
- ‘Why does this all fall on me?’ and walk on by, pretending you don’t hear the child’s screams ...
- [W]hy shouldn’t it be someone
who knows the child, or
who can get to the child fastest, or
who’s wearing cheaper clothing? ...
Alternatively you could] just spend more time away from pools. ...
This is a very literal interpretation.
It is obvious that the empathic basis of ethics can and does break down under circumstances where are people are brutalized to the point of indifference to the suffering of others (e.g. in some war torn failed state in which civil society has completely disintegrated).Agents and Actions
Peter Singer says you are a bad person. ...
Peter Singer [argues] that you are morally deficient if you eat meat. ...
[T]here’s nothing in Singer’s arguments that can ... prove that you are a bad person.
The appropriateness of praise and blame is ... a separate issue from the rightness or wrongness of actions.
The former evaluates the agent; the latter evaluates the action.
(Practical Ethics, p. 198)
Consequentialism is about the assessment of the rightness or wrongness of actions based on their anticipated outcomes.
It says nothing about the moral status of intentional agents who cause harm or refrain from doing good.
It is Darmstadter who is saying "Peter Singer says you are a bad person", not Peter Singer.