Singer’s eth­i­cal chal­lenge to our daily de­ci­sions

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - The Life You Can Save (Pi­cador 2009)

SO, THE other day I was strolling past the murky White­stone Pond, at the top of Hamp­stead Heath, when I saw a small girl who’d slipped and fallen in, and was des­per­ately strug­gling to keep her head above wa­ter. There was no­body else around to help and per­haps I should have waded in. But the prob­lem was that I was wear­ing my brand new, slim-fit, cot­ton Ralph Lau­ren shirt, re­tail­ing at £185. I was damned if I was go­ing to let that be ru­ined. So I just car­ried on along my way. Con­demn me if you will, call me cal­lous, but as fel­low fash­ion­istas will surely un­der­stand, a Ralph Lau­ren shirt is a Ralph Lau­ren shirt…

Re­lax, read­ers, that didn’t ac­tu­ally hap­pen. For one thing, I’d never cough up £185 for a shirt (I’m more of an M&S man my­self). And, for an­other, I’d like to be­lieve that if I did see some­one drown­ing in real life, I’d jump in. Were a per­son to watch as some­one died out of con­cern for a chic jacket or posh frock, they would, right­fully, be sub­jected to out­rage.

And yet, as the Aus­tralian philoso­pher Peter Singer points out, walk­ing past the drown­ing child is, metaphor­i­cally, what we do ev­ery day. There are many parts of the world where £185 would make a mas­sive dif­fer­ence and where ef­fi­cient char­i­ties ex­ist that could ef­fec­tively channel our money to save life.

Singer es­pouses a pure ver­sion of util­i­tar­i­an­ism, the the­ory that ac­tions are to be judged solely by their con­se­quences. The best ac­tion is that which, crudely put, causes the most hap­pi­ness af­ter sub­tract­ing for any suf­fer­ing.

As a strict util­i­tar­ian, he re­jects any in­trin­sic moral dis­tinc­tion be­tween help­ing those ge­o­graph­i­cally close at hand, and help­ing those far away.

More counter-in­tu­itively, he re­jects the dis­tinc­tion be­tween what we do, and what we fail to do, in philo­sophic ter­mi­nol­ogy, be­tween an act and an omis­sion. At root, tak­ing a life and fail­ing to save a life are morally on a par, since both re­sult in a death. That has far-reach­ing im­pli­ca­tions for how much we give to char­ity — he him­self gives away at least a third of his salary, though he con­cedes that, on his own ac­count of ethics, he should do even more.

He also de­nies the in­trin­sic im­por­tance of the dis­tinc­tion be­tween in­tend­ing to do some­thing and merely fore­see­ing it. For ex­am­ple, in war­fare, to en­gage in an op­er­a­tion in­tend­ing to kill civil­ians is al­ways le­gally and morally out­lawed. But it is some­times deemed ac­cept­able to at­tack a tar­get (a mu­ni­tions fac­tory, say), even if it is fore­seen that civil­ians liv­ing nearby will be killed as a side ef­fect — in “col­lat­eral dam­age”, to use that ter­ri­ble eu­phemism. For Singer, if you pre­dict 100 civil­ians will die, it is im­ma­te­rial whether you ac­tively in­tend or just fore­see the con­se­quences of your ac­tion.

Singer’s util­i­tar­i­an­ism, com­bined with a par­tic­u­lar view about what gives us our moral sta­tus (namely, our sen­tience and, in par­tic­u­lar, our ca­pac­ity to feel pain), has led to his em­brac­ing of, and cam­paign­ing for, some highly con­tentious po­si­tions, in­clud­ing on an­i­mals (he’s ef­fec­tively the founder of the in­ter­na­tional an­i­mal-rights move­ment), eu­thana­sia and on in­fan­ti­cide of the se­ri­ously dis­abled. He sees no im­por­tant dif­fer­ence be­tween the foe­tus in the womb at the end of a preg­nancy and the baby that emerges a few min­utes later.

This has led some peo­ple to call him “dan­ger­ous” and oth­ers to go fur­ther, brand­ing him a Nazi, an ap­palling and ab­surd calumny, and par­tic­u­larly ironic given his back­ground as the son of Vi­en­nese Jewish refugees. (He’s writ­ten a book about his grand­fa­ther, David Op­pen­heim, a psy­cho­an­a­lyst and close col­lab­o­ra­tor of Freud’s who died in There­sien­stadt.) More rea­son­able crit­ics, who re­gard Singer’s ar­gu­ments as ex­treme, still ac­knowl­edge their rigour.

They’re thought-pro­vok­ing, too. Af­ter read­ing Singer, it would be hard not to re­flect, be­fore pur­chas­ing your de­signer brogues, that the money spent could, al­most cer­tainly, be put to bet­ter use. If you only read one Singer book, make it

Singer gives away 20 per cent of his salary to char­ity


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