Singer Vs. Cowen March 19, 2009Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy.
Tags: Ethics, Peter Singer, Political Philosophy, poverty, The Life You Save, Tyler Cohen, utilitarianism
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).