Julian Baggini demands that Peter Singer defend his demanding call for much more charity“I want to make it clear that I did not pay for this hotel.” Peter Singer is understandably keen to distance himself from the incongruous opulence of our surroundings. There is a rich irony in discussing his latest book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, in the lobby of a five-star central London hotel, to a soundtrack of the obligatory easy-listening pianist.
Hearing the message of Singer’s book is anything but easy listening. In it, he reiterates for a popular audience the argument he first put forward in his famous paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, published in the first issue of the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1971. It starts by arguing that we should accept the deceptively uncontroversial-sounding principle that “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.” From this, however, Singer concludes that “I and everyone else in similar circumstances ought to give as much as possible, that is, at least up to the point at which by giving more one would begin to cause serious suffering for oneself and one’s dependents – perhaps even beyond this point to the point of marginal utility, at which by giving more one would cause oneself and one’s dependents as much suffering as one would prevent in Bengal.”
In The Life You Can Save, Singer reiterates the same argument, but deals head-on with the problem that, obviously, hardly anyone is going to meet the stringent demands it makes of us. So what he proposes is a much less exacting sliding scale, where the rich are obliged to give quite a lot, and the less well-off hardly anything, or nothing at all. Is it then true to say that the populism of the book is a double-dilution of “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”: a less-rigorous argument for a less-rigorous principle?
“I don’t think I’ve diluted or changed anything of substance,” says Singer, who is unapologetic about the book’s populist style, which favours dealing with objections from students at Glennview High rather than professors at Harvard and Oxford. “I want it to be read by more than professors and students of philosophy. I do want to make a difference to people, I want to persuade as many people as possible to do something about world poverty. So I’ve got to reach a wide audience.”
That is not to say that there is nothing of interest in the book for closer followers of Singer’s evolving position. “I suppose what for philosophers what’s new and different is a clear distinction between what we might decide privately we ought to do on the basis of the argument and what we ought to advocate as a public standard, and a much fuller presentation of what that public standard might be.”
There does, however, seem to be a tension in this development, one that threatens its sustainability. Singer remains committed to the austere demands of “Famine, Affluence and Morality”. So when he advocates the adoption of a much less stringent principle, isn’t he promulgating a kind of noble lie?
“I’d call it the noble partial truth, rather than the noble lie, if that’s ok,” he replies.
Sharp, but not incisive. I press the question again.
“In a way the answer to your question – is this a sustainable strategy? – is wait and see. My guess is that people, non-philosophers, will focus on the realistic standard I lay out, and they won’t be troubled by the fact that the argument says, ‘yes, but that’s not quite enough.’”
Singer is more robust against some of the other criticisms he has faced. He rejects the charge that his ethic is just too demanding. “Most people can give 50% of their income away. I wouldn’t say they can’t, it’s predictable that most of them won’t, but I think in the sense that ‘ought implies can’, they can.”
Another objection is that Singer is taking his eye off the more fundamental problems of governance and of trade rules. If ending poverty is really the goal, hasn’t he got his priorities wrong when he focuses on private donations to development projects?
“My view is that it’s the thing that we can do that has the best chance of doing some good. But if somebody says to me, ‘I don’t want to give my money to projects in developing countries, I want to give my money to this group that is campaigning for fair trade rules for the world,’ I’m not going to really argue against that. I would say, look, it’s a long shot that you’re going to able to pull this off, and it’s a very long shot that your contribution is going to make a difference to whether it’s pulled off or not. But I agree that if it is pulled off it will be a really big thing, and it will pull hundreds of millions of people out of poverty whereas your donation could only maybe pull half a dozen people out of poverty, or whatever size it is. So yes, it’s a gamble, but I’m not going to say it’s a crazy gamble.
“The governance issue is much harder for us to do something about. So I would say where governance is really terrible, maybe we can’t help. But there are plenty of other countries where governance is not so bad where I think we can help.”
Another objection is that charitable giving somehow disempowers or disenobles. For example, if it were the case that I was living next to someone who was not very well off, and I saw that I had a lot more money then them and I simply split the difference, that could demotivate them from trying to do things themselves, and belittle them. Doesn’t that analogy also hold internationally?
“It could. I think you have to look at the details really. If what you’re doing is simply supporting someone and removing their incentive for working, that’s not good. But aid projects generally don’t do that. They don’t just go somewhere and give people money. It could do some good, but I think rather you want to look at schemes that enable people, through work, to improve their position. The obvious example would be if people are farming, but they’re using seeds that are not very productive, then you could provide them with better seeds. You’re not removing their incentive to work, they’ve still got to plant the seeds, till the soil, remove the weeds and harvest the crops, but by doing that they’ll get better crops. Maybe they’ll then have enough to sell and get some income.”
Nor does Singer accept that buying fair trade goods is more constructive than making donations.
“I support fair trade and I think it would make sense to regard the premium that we pay for our fair trade coffee as part of our aid contribution. That is helping people and in some ways that’s a very good way of helping people. But most of us I think would still have something left over, even after buying fair trade for as much fair trade as we consume. It’s a limited tool. You don’t want to drink twice as much coffee because it’s fair trade, do you?”
All these objections are versions of the argument that somehow Singer’s priorities are wrong. The general point can be made using the analogy that Singer first put forward in “Famine, Affluence and Morality” and repeats in The Life You Can Save. You walk by a pond and see a child drowning. What do you do? Of course, you pull her out, even if that ruins your shoes or makes you late for work. It is this analogy Singer uses to establish the principle that if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought to do it
It’s a very powerful analogy, but it starts to looks less potent when you then imagine what you should do if every day you walk by the pond, children are falling in. Don’t you at some stage think, well actually, there’s something wrong that means children are falling in all the time?
“Let’s build a fence around the pond or educate people about water,” says Singer, anticipating the argument.
So doesn’t that suggest that emphasising the responsibility to rescue diverts people away from the sources of the problem? And that could be a bad thing, because you can’t pull people out as fast as they’re falling in.
“Right, but I think that slightly misconstrues what I’m suggesting people do, because the equivalent here to pulling people out the pond, I guess, is giving them food, or some form of emergency relief. Sometimes you have to give emergency relief, sometimes you have to give food even. But as I was saying, I do want to provide the basis for sustainable development and that could be seen as parallel to educating people so that their children won’t be left alone near the water.”
If Singer has a solid response to these familiar objections, then it’s perhaps because none really expose deeper difficulties with his position. One such problem emerges from a story Singer recounts in the book about the extraordinarily altruistic Zell Kravisnky, who not only gave away almost all the $45million fortune he had amassed, but also donated a kidney to a total stranger. His justification for the latter is that the chances of him dying as a result of his generosity were only one in four thousand. So, not to have donated his kidney would have had the “obscene” implication that he valued his own life four thousand times more highly than that of a stranger.
But isn’t there something wrong with Kravisnky’s logic here? For me to value a person more highly than another person, doesn’t actually mean that I think one person’s life has more value.
“So you have a kind of first-person bias that tilts your own evaluative scales,” suggests Singer.
Yes, and not only is that logically consistent with accepting the objective equality of all human lives, it’s also arguably an important part of being human. To value everyone equally is actually inhuman. A mother who values any child just as much as she does her own child is not a good mother, and nor is a father.
Singer admits that “it’s a very unusual person who would put their own child at risk to save many other children, but I wouldn’t criticise them for it.” But it goes beyond not criticising. His brand of utilitarianism means we should actively praise them for putting the lives of many other children over that of their own.
“Yes, in general, although I think that’s because we don’t have any alternative to rearing children other than relying on the love and affection of their parents. I think that we can understand why we want to be hesitant about praising people for not showing love and affection to their children, because probably that’s a tendency which if it becomes widespread will have bad consequences. It’s rather rare that you have the opportunity to save many children but only if you neglect your own.”
This doesn’t seem to me to get to the bottom of the issue. For Singer, the only reason to approve of these agent-relative values is because society wouldn’t work as well if we got rid of them. But isn’t it part of our conception of the good human life that we are capable of caring about people personally, not just as units of utility?
“But the point that you just made gives a reason why we should encourage people to be concerned about other individuals who are close to them. The fact that this is part of what makes human life good is a reason why you shouldn’t blame people for having those sorts of close bonds with others, even if that leads them to be less than fully impartial with regards to the amount of aid they give.”
Listening back over the tape of this conversation I was reminded by a wonderful aside by Christine Korsgaard in her latest book Self-Constitution, when she writes “Let me make what is really the same argument (I am always making the same argument) in a much simpler way.” Against the same argument that Singer has been making for 38 years, I keep raising versions of the same objection for about 38 minutes. So, I return to Kravisnky, and Singer makes what is really the same defence (he is always making the same defence) in another way.
“I think the way you put your position, and the way Kravisnky puts his, are just taking different perspectives. His perspective is the one in which he detaches himself from his own interests and his own views, and he looks down on everyone else from a more eagle-eyed viewpoint, and says, ‘well, there’s this one guy going on with his life, he’s called Kravisnky, and his life contains these goods and these bonds to others, and there’s this other woman going on with her life, and she’s going to die unless she can get a kidney. Her life means this to her and to her family, and roughly they’re really pretty similar, how much their lives mean to themselves. Kravisnky could help to her to save her life, and go on with his life not that different from how it was before, at least that’s what the high probability is.’ So from that perspective, it makes sense that he feels that obligation.
“Now it’s true, you can take a different perspective, where you look from the inside of one person, and that gives you a different view, but the question is which of these views should we be taking? And I would argue that if we’re dealing with issues of fundamental ethical questions, it is the former view that we should be taking.”
Perhaps now we’re getting to the crux. In a scientific context, you can give a justification for why the objective view is the best one, but in ethics, what’s the case for saying that the detached view is the appropriate one?
“I think the argument for taking that perspective is really that if you’re thinking ethically you ought to try to take this point of view from which you consider whether you could prescribe the action if you were in the position of all of those affected by it. I think that if you consider the situation of poverty and affluence, if you were really to put yourself in the position of the poor person and the affluent person, and ask yourself whether you could support the view that the affluent person doesn’t give anything to the poor, you couldn’t.”
But putting yourself in the position of other the person doesn’t seem to necessitate valuing their life as much as your own. The moral force of occupying the view of others is reflected in the “golden rule” to do unto others as you would be done by. That’s also connected with the principle of universalisability, namely, that it is at the very least a constraint on a principle that, if it is to be ethical, it must be possible to apply it to everyone in relevantly similar circumstances. Now, it is a universalisable principle to say that people should not be indifferent to the suffering of others, even that they should not let anyone die unnecessarily. But both are much weaker principles than saying that they should value other lives as much as they do their own. So you don’t get that strong duty to value all life equally simply from putting yourself in others’ positions, do you?
“It depends how strongly you take the notion of universalisability. I think you’re saying there’s a more formal notion of universalisability that doesn’t really require that. I would say that the basic notion of universalisability does require you to put yourself in the position of others and take on their interests, and if you do that, you will feel those interests as strongly as your own. Now, it’s still true that we can run the argument that a society in which everybody really acts with as much concern for everyone else’s interests as their own is going to have a lot of disincentive effects, for instance, and we don’t really want that kind of society. So we can give an impartial justification for a society that allows people to pursue their own interests above the interests of others, to a certain extent. But I would see that as a kind of derived rule, derived from the facts of human nature and what is going to lead us to be happier, rather than a fundamental principle.”
We continue to plug away at this for some time, but I think what I’ve shared pretty much captures the essence of it. Singer is insistent that the moral approach requires that we do indeed treat everyone’s interests as equal, and that the only reasons to divert from this are pragmatic. What then does he say to those who find this way of reasoning somewhat cold, because it seems to be all about totting up units of value?
“I think that’s kind of unfair, I really think that’s unfair. It does take account of numbers, and it does say to us, even though you may feel a strong bond for someone who’s close to you, if that person is ok, it’s better that you help someone to whom you don’t feel that bond, who’s far away, whose need is much greater, where your help can be much more effective. So in that sense, it looks at where you can make the most difference and achieve the most benefit. But I think it does so because of a concern for those people, which is a warm feeling, not a cold one.”
A more bullish objection against Singer is that the greatness of human life is seen in its highest achievements, its art, its cultures, its buildings and so forth. These things are always achieved through wealth, through people having concerns way above basic matters of survival. Doesn’t the kind of ethic Singer promotes encourage people to focus on the very basic things of life, and away from those things which makes it most rich?
“Well I think that is itself a bit rich, to use a different sense of the term. For us who are sitting here comfortably enjoying our lives, secure in terms of meeting our basic needs, to say, ‘don’t you think that what really makes life rich is to be able to go to the opera and look at great masterpieces at the national gallery,’ while there are other people who are going to bed hungry or who can’t afford to treat their child who has diarrhoea, or who have to walk two hours a day to get safe drinking water, or just to get water that isn’t even safe. No, I think that that’s self-indulgent really. I’ve got nothing against art, opera and building great buildings, once we’ve dealt with these more pressing problems.”
In the book, Singer illustrates this with an example of a gallery paying $45 million for a painting.
“I can’t blame the gallery because the gallery presumably has got some statute or constitution where it has to promote, acquire and display art. But I would blame the people who gave the money for that purchase, because I think there are better things they could do with that. They could have given 100,000 African girls suffering from obstetric fistula the surgical repair that’s needed to essentially return them to a normal life, from a life that’s going to be one of utter misery as a social outcast. I would think doing that for 100,000 people is a better use of $45 million.”
One final worry. In the lobby of the hotel we saw people coming in, with shopping bags from Gucci and other designer stores. If we got a couple of economists in the room, I’m sure they’d tell us how important rising GDP is to fund healthcare, to fund overseas aid and so on. Would they also say that the luxury end of things, what seem like the excesses, are all part and parcel of this? If people were to become too much like Singer and find these things distasteful, would we actually be taking a lot of the fuel out of the economy? Is that a worry?
“No, it doesn’t really worry me. Firstly, I think that we could easily give a lot more foreign aid without in any way taking so much out of the economy that we would not have the possibility of a flourishing economy which enables us to fund these things. I mean, at the moment foreign aid is actually pretty trivial in terms of the economic picture as a whole, and even if we very substantially increased it, it would still be not a very large factor. As I suggest with the calculations I do in the last chapter, there’d still be plenty of room for people to have luxuries of various sorts, while dealing with the problems of global poverty to a sufficient extent. So I think we can manage the aid that’s needed and ultimately I think that will rebound back to the benefit of the economy, because we’ll have a world in which there are a billion more people who are part of the world economy and hopefully they’ll become consumers, hopefully in an ecologically sustainable way, and they’ll be wanting to buy things from us, so GDP will continue to grow.”
Our time is up, and it strikes me that, despite his austerity, Singer’s dogged defence of his argument, over the course of his career as well as our interview, shows that he really must an optimist about the possibility of a better world.
“Yeah, I guess so, I guess that’s true. I’m certainly not a pessimist. I think I’m a realist about what can happen but I also think that things will only improve if you have enough people who believe they can improve, and I think they can improve