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Singer Vs. Cowen March 19, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
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Bloggerheads has a terrific video of an interview with Peter Singer, the utilitarian philosopher. The interviewer is Tyler Cowen, a widely respected economist. The interview is in part devoted to Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save, in which Singer argues that as individuals we have an obligation to do more to end world poverty.

But the discussion ranges over a variety of topics that capture the flavor of utilitarianism, and to my mind, expose some of its flaws. Cowen’s questions are sharp and well-informed—it you’re interested in applying ethics to real world problems, the video is worth checking out.

I was surprised that at one point Cowen attributes to Singer the view that “people whether we like it or not will be committed to working on their own life projects rather than giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint…” Cowen asks whether Singer is comfortable with that fact or if he thinks it is a human imperfection.

This has always been one of my pet peeves against utilitarianism—its tendency to ignore human psychology and our need to devote substantial resources and attention to our own projects. Apparently, Singer is addressing the issue in his new book. (To be fair, he may have addressed the issue in earlier work. I am not familiar with all of it.)

In the interview, Singer’s response was to hope that people would adopt aid to others as part of their personal projects, and he suggests that individuals should do so only if it makes them happy. But this is not really a utilitarian response since it puts such a premium on individual human happiness.

Utilitarianism asserts that our actions should advance the general welfare. Our personal happiness is only one very small component of the general welfare, and thus utilitarians cannot be motivated primarily by the pursuit of personal happiness. That is psychologically implausible. But some utilitarians argue that we can best advance the general welfare when we focus on personal happiness. But then they are conceding defeat. If that is the case, utilitarianism no longer provides us with a theory of practical reason.

If there is a coherent utilitarian position that places such a premium on individual happiness, utilitarianism is inching closer to an ethic of care (or at least my version of it).



1. Huan - March 21, 2009

I think Cowen indirectly pointed out my problem with Singer’s philosophy at the very end of the interview. It seems to me that Singer is attempting to use our subjective empathetic senses to formulate an objective ethical guideline of some sort, which doesn’t really make sense to me.

How could my empathetic sense of horror at the thought of a fish’s organs bursting lead to the conclusion that suffering is inherently wrong? Didn’t Singer at some point during the interview state that our moral intuitions arrive from evolutionary developments and should not be fully trusted?

It always appeared to me that Singer is arguing from a “from top down” perspective, urging us that we must do whatever results in the greatest utility in eliminating suffering of all beings who suffer. Yet at the same time he claims that there are no moral objectives from God. I think Cowen also addressed this point in a tongue in cheek way by claiming that Singer’s motivations are really rooted in his Jewish background.

I mean there are several moral principles that Singer’s philosophy appear to conflict with, the idea that we should do good because it will ultimately benefit us the most, the idea that we should follow our desires because it will ultimately benefit everyone the most, and the idea that we should do good because we ought to. His utilitarian philosophy is very elusive for me, it appears he belongs to none of the above categories. Perhaps he’s simply all over the place?

2. Paul Moloney - March 21, 2009

It seems that the utilitarians equate happiness, goodness and pleasure with each other. Even if happiness and pleasure are both good, it does not mean that happiness and pleasure are the same. Pleasure is definitely not the same as happiness or the cause of happiness. Everyone has access to pleasure but not everyone is happy.

It would also seem that ethics is primarily based on justice. Theoretically, utilitarianism can end in injustice, if the greatest good is thought to be the good of the many and the good of the many is pleasure. One could be made to suffer injustice in order to give pleasure to the many. Even if the suffering of one is the cause of pleasure to the many, it is never a cause of happiness, so pleasure and happiness cannot be the same.

I have to doubt that anyone has actually practiced utilitarianism, at least to a significant degree. To calculate all the pleasures involved and to know the kind and quality of each pleasure involved before making a decision seems impossible. One would be dead before having all the needed information to make a decision. To say the least, utilitarianism is not pragmatic at all.

The real reason that I oppose utilitarianism, though, is that it is British in origin. Since I am an American, I am rebelling against British intellectual tyranny. I have no one representing my view in England. I have half a mind to take my British philosophy books down to Seaport Village and throw them into the harbor.

Actually, philosophy seems more socially and culturally accepted in England than it is here, much more. I would probably thoroughly enjoy socializing with English thinkers in an English pub. Overall, though not too cold, it seems too gloomy to do philosophy in England, at least for me.

I must applaud Singer’s concern for the poor. Greed is a cause of poverty. One can make charitable donations simply to keep oneself from becoming greedy. Keeping ourselves from becoming greedy is more beneficial to ourselves than are the contributions we may give to the less fortunate. In making a charitable donation, then, one thinks more of oneself than the many, so being charitable does not seem to correspond to being an utilitarian.

3. Huan - March 21, 2009

I think you might be bundling many different types of utilitarianism into one type. Singer himself talked about this in the interview when faced with a similar criticism, drawing a distinction between hedonistic utilitarianism based on pleasure and what he called his philosophical ideas preference utilitarianism, which is not based on pleasure, but personal and “global preferences”. I am in no position to explain Singer’s utilitarianism though, for I am quite baffled by it myself, though it’s at least safe to say he is definitely not a hedonistic utilitarian.

4. Nina Rosenstand - March 21, 2009

Singer is quite amazing: He never gives up! Remember that perhaps the very first time he burst upon the international philosophical scene was with his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” from 1972 (it’s in all the Social Ethics textbooks), in which he argues that as a capitalist consumer society we should, essentially, give enough away to end world hunger so that the hungry around the world are elevated to the level of survival, and we are reduced to the level of subsistence–we “reach the level of marginal utility.” This means that “one would reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee.” In a revised article years later he concedes that his idea was too radical, so he didn’t get many converts, and in that article he revises his suggestion: No longer a desired “level of marginal utility,” but an across-the-board donation to the hungry of 10 percept of one’s income. Practicality has won over ideology. So I wonder which direction he is going in his new book–back to idealism, or becoming more practical? I’ll watch the video, I guess! Maybe even read the book!

5. Paul Moloney - March 23, 2009

If there is a form of utilitarianism not based on hedonism, it would seem not to be utilitarianism at all, as the essential principle of utilitarianism is hedonism, at least in the classic utilitarianism of Bentham and Mills.

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