TCS Daily

Are You Living Uprightly?

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - August 22, 2003 12:00 AM

Most people distinguish between what they are obligated to do, morally speaking, and what it would be (merely) good for them to do. The former is a matter of justice, the latter of charity. Justice consists in giving others their due. Charity goes beyond what is due. If I act justly, I deserve no praise, for I have done no more than what is required (and expected) of me. Imagine praising someone for not murdering, raping, stealing, or cheating. We don't praise these forbearances; we demand and expect them. But if I act charitably, I deserve praise, for I have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Action of this latter sort is called "supererogatory" (from the Latin super, meaning over or above, and erogare, meaning to demand). Thus, most people, even if they don't think of it or describe it in these terms, distinguish between the obligatory (justice) and the supererogatory (charity).

Some philosophers, however, refuse to acknowledge the category of the supererogatory. They say that morality requires doing the best one can at all times, taking everyone's interests into account. If entering a burning building to save its endangered inhabitants has more utility (i.e., overall good) than any alternative available to me, such as calling firefighters, then I am obligated to make the rescue attempt. This is so even if I don't know the inhabitants and even if I had nothing to do with the fire. Should I not make the attempt, I am blameworthy. It's not just that I don't deserve praise, mind you. I deserve blame. I have fallen short of what morality requires of me. Philosophers who hold this view are called "utilitarians." Theirs is a demanding moral theory. Whether it is too demanding remains a matter of dispute.

Three decades ago, a young Australian philosopher named Peter Singer, who now teaches at Princeton University, argued that affluent individuals (that's almost all of us; it certainly includes you, the reader of this essay) are living deeply immoral lives by not contributing to the relief and prevention of famine. (See Peter Singer, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 [spring 1972]: 229-43; reprinted in Writings on an Ethical Life [New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000].) At the time, there was a famine in East Bengal (a part of India). There have since been many other famines throughout the world: in Somalia, in Ethiopia (several times), and in other places. As I write this, in August 2003, people are dying in Ethiopia from lack of food, shelter, and medical care. (See "The Ethiopian Famine," The New York Times, 28 July 2003.) The causes of famine are various, and include human wrongdoing, but this doesn't matter, according to Singer. What matters is that we -- each of us -- can minimize the effects of the famines that are now occurring and can take steps to prevent those that might otherwise occur. As we go about our daily business, living our comfortable lives, millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of children, are suffering and dying through no fault of their own. The current famine in Ethiopia has been called "the greatest humanitarian crisis facing any single nation in the world today."

Is Singer right that there is a moral obligation to relieve famine? Let's examine his argument. Singer begins with a seemingly innocuous principle, to wit: "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." We need to be careful how we interpret this principle. Singer is not saying merely that it would be a good (charitable) thing to relieve famine, although of course be believes that it would be a good thing. He is going beyond that. He is saying that it is obligatory. Morality requires it. It is wrong, and therefore blameworthy, not to contribute to famine relief. The principle has the form of a conditional. Since its antecedent is true for most of us, most of the time, and since few of us are complying with its consequent, most of us are living immoral lives. We are shirking our moral obligations.

Singer is a utilitarian. As such, he rejects the distinction between the obligatory and the supererogatory. (Put differently, he believes that the class of supererogatory actions has no members.) If an action maximizes overall utility, it is right; otherwise, it is wrong. But for purposes of the famine-relief argument, he doesn't need to make such an extravagant claim. His aim is practical, not theoretical. What he is claiming is not that there is no line between justice and charity (even though, as a utilitarian, he believes that), but that famine relief belongs on the justice side of the line rather than, as most people think, on the charity side. He is trying to change our thinking about, and ultimately our behavior toward, victims of famine.

How does one go about persuading people to shift an action such as famine relief from the charity side of the line to the justice side of the line? Singer could appeal, as some humanitarian groups do, to emotions such as sympathy, pity, and guilt, but to a philosopher these are disreputable (indeed, fallacious) techniques. He does not want to appeal to emotion. He chooses instead to reason with his readers. This shows respect for them as rational, autonomous beings. Suppose, he says, that you are "walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it." You ought to "wade in and pull the child out," even if it means getting your clothes muddy and missing an appointment. But this situation is analogous to the situation with respect to famine-stricken children. In effect, children are drowning before your eyes. Instead of wading into water to save them, you are to send money or other resources (including volunteered time) to famine-relief organizations. Mere pennies a day can provide clean water, medicines, basic antibiotics, and various other necessities. It is as simple as clicking your computer mouse.

Singer is using a powerful argumentative technique: analogy. The two situations, he says, are alike (analogous) in all morally relevant respects. But almost everyone agrees (do you?) that it would be wrong not to save the drowning child, even if it means incurring a modest expense. In other words, almost everyone thinks that this is a case of justice rather than charity. If so, then, by parity of reasoning, it would be wrong not to save the children who are dying of starvation and disease in places like Ethiopia. Singer used a child rather than an adult in his pond example because children cannot plausibly be held accountable for their actions. He wants to avoid the objection, which is surprisingly often made, that the people who are suffering and dying are responsible for their own predicament. This, he would say, is an evasion of responsibility. If you believe the starving adults are responsible for their predicament, and that this undermines your responsibility to or for them, then focus on the children.

Are you convinced by Singer's argument? It appears to move from unassailable premises to an unacceptable conclusion. But nobody questions the logic of the argument, so either one of the premises is questionable or most of us are living immoral lives. Singer obviously thinks it's the latter, and he hopes that those who accept his conclusion proceed to change their ways. Should people who accept the conclusion feel guilty? It would seem that the answer is "yes," for guilt is consciousness of wrongdoing and one who accepts the conclusion of Singer's argument without acting on it is conscious of wrongdoing. So most people who accept Singer's conclusion will, in fact, feel guilty. Since guilt is a powerful motivator (for most people), it will lead to action. Singer, I suspect, welcomes this. But it doesn't follow that he is appealing to guilt or that guilt is the driving force of his argument. Singer is not trying to move his readers to action, emotionally; he is trying to persuade them, rationally. Any guilt that they experience is a mere epiphenomenon.

Much has been written about Singer's famine-relief argument, most of it critical and some of it, it must be said, thoroughly misguided. Singer, to his credit, anticipated many of the objections and replied to them in his essay. For example, he showed that spatial (as opposed to psychological or emotional) distance from the needy is morally irrelevant. It may seem that how far someone is from us affects our obligations to him or her, but, upon reflection, we realize that this is not the case. (Hypothetical examples show this.) Nor does the nationality or ethnicity of the needy matter, morally. What matters -- all that matters -- is that someone is suffering and that I am in a position to do something about it at little or no cost to myself. That others who are in my position are doing nothing makes no difference to my obligation, as can be seen by imagining a crowd of people near the drowning child's pond. It would be no excuse, morally, to point out that nobody else made a rescue attempt.

One objection to Singer's argument, maybe the most prominent one, is that it is too demanding. There is not just one drowning child, after all; there are millions. In his example, I can save the drowning child and presumably go about my business. But what if, as soon as I save one child, I hear the shrieks of another? And then another? What if this goes on all day, and then the next day and the day after that? My own projects, however important they may be to me, pale in comparison to abject suffering and death, so it would seem that I have become the slave of those who are drowning. (This, by the way, was Ayn Rand's objection to what she called "altruistic" moral theories such as utilitarianism. She said that they make us "sacrificial animals" for, or the moral slaves of, others. See The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism [1964].)

Singer's reply is that his principle does not demand that much. The principle, recall, applies only when I can prevent something very bad from happening "without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant." If I have children of my own to provide for, then I can stop saving drowning children after a point. Perhaps I do not save all the children I can, but I save some of them; and if others are complying with the principle as well, the world is a much better place. As Singer puts it, "[i]f [the principle] were acted upon, . . . our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed." Resources that we now devote to entertainment, luxury, fashion, and recreation would be allocated instead to the alleviation of misery. We would live frugal lives. Would we be happy? Perhaps not, in the short run. But we would have something to offset the lost happiness, namely, knowledge that we are living uprightly. Over time, with appropriate changes in education and socialization, people would lose their desire for the trappings of affluence, and if there is no desire for such things, then there will be no frustration or resentment at not having them. The consumer society will come to be seen as morally frivolous and intellectually benighted.

Let us return to Singer's moral principle, for that is where the critical action is. Note that it's a principle. It does not apply just to famine situations. It applies to all situations, throughout our lives. Some critics have argued that the principle is false, in which case the argument is unsound, but this presupposes that normative principles can be true or false, which is a controversial view in ethical theory. Presumably, if principles are true, they are true for everyone. I think there's a better interpretation of Singer's principle, one that does not make his argument hostage to a contentious view of the nature of moral principles. Singer's aim in this essay, and indeed in all of his published work, is not to get things right, in the way a scientist tries to get things right, but to change the world. His aim is practical, not theoretical. (One of Singer's earliest and most popular books, not coincidentally, is entitled Practical Ethics [1979; 2d ed., 1993].)

Suppose Singer's famine-relief argument rested on a premise that only he and a few others -- his fellow utilitarians -- believed to be true. His argument would get no traction with most of his readers, for most people, I think it's clear to say, are not utilitarians. People who disbelieve the premise would have no reason to believe the conclusion. So Singer would have failed of his purpose, which is to persuade. For an argument to be effective -- that is, to persuade -- it must engage one's audience. But this means starting where the audience is, with premises they are presumed to accept. I believe Singer chose a principle that he believes all or most of his readers already accept, or will accept, when they reflect on it.

What he is saying is this: "Look; you want to have consistent beliefs and live up to your moral principles, right? Examine some of your most deeply held moral beliefs (or judgments). Wouldn't it be wrong to allow a child to drown if you could easily prevent it, albeit at some minor cost to yourself? But how does this differ, morally, from living a life of affluence while people starve? Either you are obligated in both cases or you are obligated in neither case. Since you are not willing to give up the belief that it would be wrong to allow the child to drown (I assume!), you must think you are obligated in both cases. But what's the underlying principle? What explains and justifies the judgments you make in these cases? Isn't it this: that if it is in your power to prevent something very bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, you ought, morally, to do it? But that's the starting point of my argument, the conclusion of which is that you ought to relieve famine, which, by your own admission, you are not doing!"

Singer is doing one of the things philosophers are trained to do, which is to bring order or system to what was disordered or chaotic. He assumes that his readers wish to live integrated lives, lives in which their beliefs, values, principles, feelings, and actions (including linguistic actions) cohere. Most of us, sadly, have disintegrated, fragmented lives. We say one thing but do another. We have high standards, or profess to have high standards, but fall woefully short of them. We have inconsistent beliefs. We say we care about others but do not experience the emotions that go naturally with those words. We say things we don't believe. We are hypocritical, irrational, insincere, and inauthentic. It is natural, when told that one is any of these things, to react defensively, and this explains why Singer is reviled in many quarters. He has been called "the dangerous philosopher" (see Michael Specter, "The Dangerous Philosopher," The New Yorker, 6 September 1999). Singer comes across as a threat to much of what we hold dear. In a different time and place, he might meet the fate of Socrates. That, in my opinion, would be a tragic loss, for every society needs its torpedo fish. The Greeks had theirs; we, luckily, have ours.

It is tempting to dismiss Singer as a liberal do-gooder, someone who goes around imposing his values on others, a moral preceptor. He would vehemently deny the charge, and rightly so. He is not imposing his values on you; he is imposing your values on you. He is trying to show you that your own principles commit you to changing your behavior and reorienting your life. He is challenging you, in the grand philosophical fashion personified by Socrates, to sort through, reflect on, critically examine, and ultimately live up to, your deepest moral convictions, the convictions that integrate you as a person and give your life meaning. In Plato's words, Singer is "discussing no trivial matter, but how we ought to live." For that, one should think, he deserves our gratitude, not our resentment. But perhaps we in this affluent society do not wish to be challenged. Perhaps we prefer comfortable platitudes and personal disintegration to the discomfort of earnest, honest contemplation.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington. Burgess-Jackson's 15,400-word essay, "Deontological Egoism," appears in the July 2003 issue of Social Theory and Practice: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal of Social Philosophy.


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