Exciting Ideas in Normative Ethics #2

Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer is perhaps the best-known ethicist of the post-WWII era, and like many great writers, the central thesis of his career can be found in a short essay he wrote in 1971 entitled, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Within the piece, Singer creates a simple thought experiment: Imagine purchasing a new pair of shoes. While walking home, you see a child drowning in a pool of water. You know that if you trudge into the water to save the child, your new shoes will be ruined. Do you believe you are morally required to sacrifice your shoes for this child’s life?

As most of our intuitions would say, yes, of course I should rescue the child, Singer immediately asks, how is it we can justify spending on luxuries when that marginal amount of money can save lives all over the world?

Singer uses the case of Bengal famine of the early 70s, and how as little as a $5 donation from every person in the developed world would have been enough to secure food and medicine for all those suffering during this massive geopolitical conflict. If a small donation is all it would take to purchase a mosquito net, or a vaccination, or a toothbrush for a child caught in a geopolitical mess, how our we possibly justified in our purchase of luxuries?

Singer is easily the best-known Utilitarian in the world of contemporary ethics. Unlike people like John Rawls in the previous post, who look at contracts and rights as the primary method of ethics, utilitarians believe that the consequences of actions are what matters, and (very briefly) good actions are ones that cause pleasure or happiness, and bad actions are ones that cause pain.

Critics of Singer will highlight the seemingly unsatisfiable nature of Utilitarianism, one can never seem to “Do enough” to sufficiently fill one’s duty in a Utilitarian system of ethics. Much like a scene from the film “Schindler’s List,” where the title character laments how he could have saved a few more people had he sold some of his belongings, Singer highlights how almost any pleasure directed at ourselves could be seen as taken-away from a more needy party. As a Utilitarian myself, I would answer this objection by questioning why ethics needs to be satisfiable in the first place. This seems to me a category error to think of ethical requirements as only a set of side-constraints on the actions you were already planning to do.

Unlike much of ethical theory, this essay has had direct influence in the world as an inspiration for the Effective Altruism movement. Seeking the most demonstrably successful charities in the world, EA advocates practices such as Earning-to-Give (working in high-pay fields such as computer science or finance, while donating all but a modest allowance to oneself), in depth charity evaluation, and prioritizing alleviation of global suffering over domestic or less-immediate suffering.

Within the literature, Singer’s great accomplishment with “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” is both in recognizing the life-or-death reality of ethical judgement, and recognizing how our common intuitions on moral requirement compel us to consider the suffering of those outside our social network. Singer’s ethic is simple, and yet of extraordinary consequence, making for an immediate classic in the canon.

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