February 12, 2006
When I first read his comparison, the economist in me immediately pointed out that Singer's assumption about spending money seems to be that the wealth spent on luxuries like televisions just appears out of nowhere and disappears into the ether once spent. This is not true.
Even if we conceed the idea that the morality of any decision must be graded on its results (I don't, but for the sake of argument, we'll look at it.) and we are asked to judge the value of buying a television to donating an equal amount of money to save the life of a child somewhere in Africa we cannot, in honesty, limit our consideration of the results of each action to the direct impact.
If we decide to give money, some of the money will reach the child in the form of food or medicine. There's a long chain of buying, selling, and general moving about that goes into it. Thankfully, the fungible nature of money is such that this is a rather efficient process.
The nature of money is also a required consideration for measuring the impact of buying a television.
First, know that before one can buy a television, one must produce sufficient wealth to cover the expense of producing and selling that television. Just how much wealth you have to produce is reflected in the price of the set. So, you work, perhaps you work on an assembly line putting together television sets. And at some point, once you've put together enough sets, your labor is rewarded with a paycheck. Your paycheck represents the energy, sweat, and thought you put into your work that produced those teevees.
But, remember, you aren't the only person who contributed to building that television set. Many more people were also involved because televisions are composed of lots of little parts, many of which are manufactured in far-off places on the globe.
In purchasing a television, you're saying to the store, "This product is worth the X hours of labor (energy, sweat, and thought) for which I was paid this money," and in turn the store, by purchasing the TV from the manufacturer, is saying, "Television sets are worth this much of our (the store owners and employees) labor to sell it." There is a long line of these sorts of comments and conversations along the way. They go all the way around the world to every person who contributed to making that television set including people who grew food, which was purchased by an oil pump guy who produced oil that he sold to a refinery who sold refined petroleum products to gas stations who sold it to truck drivers who brought the parts to the factory you work at. The branches of commerce and trade in our global economy touch nearly every person on the planet.
It is safe to say that in buying a television set, the wealth you produced to buy it actually gets distributed in some part to every person involved in trade around the world.
So, the question of donating money to charity to save one child's life or buying a television isn't so aptly compared to saving a car or saving one child. It's more appropriate to compare saving one child to saving millions of children.
If you're a utilitarian as Mr. Singer claims he is and you judge the morality of your decisions by their results, you should still buy a television over donating money to charity, because you can produce much greater happiness and prosperity in the world through trade than you can through charity.
There is a more fundamental problem with the Singer Argument and it has to do with his approach to judging the morality of actions.
To be fair, I should point out that even if Singer's utilitarian approach is wrong, it does not show that his conclusion is wrong. For reasons why his conclusion is wrong, please pick up a copy of Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, which establishes that the free market is the only moral political/economic system.
First, the vicious part of Singer's argument is actually in the sleight of hand he pulls with his comparison. He isn't actually worried about people buying televisions; he's concerned with giving and not giving; he's comparing an action with inaction, something that is with something that isn't. In his article he doesn't consider all of the possible alternatives to giving to charity and their results. He doesn't even consider the major alternatives. He broadly implies that in the distributing one's income one has but three options: spending money on essential things like food and shelter, spending money on luxuries, and giving to charity. This objection isn't so much against utilitarianism as the admittedly brief argument presented in the argument. I'm sure Mr. Singer would dig into more detail on the various alternatives is pressed. I'm particularly curious about what he would say about spending money on something inessential like starting a business, inventing a new machine, or a new vaccine. Afterall, those are things some people do above tending to their barest necessities.
The core problem with Utilitarianism is its values. John Stuart Mill defined the doctrine of utility thusly: "actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness"
You might, as I did, ask, "Happiness for whom?" And the answer is given that subscribers to Utilitarianism are equally interested in the happiness of all people. In fact, they think that the happiness of each person is as important as every other and in the ideal world, individuals would not value their lives or interests above anyone else's.
In my assignment, I'm going to discuss the problem of defining values and happiness by consensus, but that is exactly what Mill proposed in his formulation of Utilitarianism. He thought that if most people thought something was good, like honesty or clean teeth, then if an action you take results in more honesty or clean teeth, then it must be good.
I can't help but think what would happen if one stumbled into a room of sado-masochists. I guess a Utilitarian would feel obliged to don nipple clamps and whip everyone who approaches. Surely leaving them would be the denial of happiness to a crowd of people.
Finding examples of situations that highlight the problem with Utilitarianism is not difficult.
A Utilitarian might argue, for instance, that the Tuskeegee experiments would have been good if the information gathered had resulted in saving more lives from syphilis than those who died.
Aside from the problem of failing to establish why everyone should value everyone else's values equally, there are big problems with evaluating an action solely by its results. If one acts with the very best of intentions, say a doctor, and with full awareness of the context of a given situation, say a very ill patient, acts using their best knowledge, say of surgery and medicines, but the results are "bad", like patient dies, the Utilitarian would say that the doctor's actions were immoral, even if the patient would have died anyway.
On the bright side, I suppose that the Utilitarian would be forced to say that even though the patient died, then it's really not THAT bad, because all lives are equal.
Utilitarianism blends right in with all the other forms of subjectivism. Divorced from reality? Check! Prone to the whinsy of individuals and mobs? Check! Claiming the best of intentions while resulting in widespread destruction? Check!
In summary, it's just a very windy claim to the moral superiority of communism. Strange enough to me, this was actually published in 1999 in the New York Times Magazine.
The fourth paragraph is what made me stop to write this post:
In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one -- knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to same the lives of kids in need?
Stop laughing! Mr. Singer really wants to know the difference between selling a human being for slaughter and enjoying that which you rightfully earned. Seriously. The New York Times Magainze published this. Inquiring minds want to know!
You'd think I would just stop reading right there, but I'm afraid this will show up in my final or something.
Update: I finished reading the essay and it is as awful as expected. I will post on one error found in his essay in a new post.
Also, I went and pulled from Peter Singer's website some Q&A to him about his view on poverty and how much money people should give. In case you're interested in whether or not he's a hypocrit. In the article he says that every cent one earns above $30K per year, one should donate to charity. I assume he's accounting for variance between families and all that, but in 1999, that is still an extreme proposition.
Q. You have said that it is wrong to spend money on luxuries for ourselves when we could give the money to organizations working to help the world’s poorest people in developing countries. But shouldn’t we think of the poor in our own country first?
A. We should give where it will do the most good. There is no sound moral reason for favoring those who happen to live within the borders of our own country. Sometimes, just because they are closer to us and living within the same political system, they may be the people we can most effectively help. More often they will not be. If we live in a rich nation like the U.S.A., our money will go much further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations. About a sixth of the world’s population survives on the purchasing power equivalent of less than $US1 per day. For a more detailed statement of my views on this topic, see ‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty’ at the New York Times and chapter 5 of One World.
Q. Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?
A. I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more than I should. I give about 20% of what I earn to NGO’s, mostly to organizations helping the poor to live a better life. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since I started giving, about thirty years ago, I’ve gradually increased the amount I give, and I’m continuing to do so.
Q. To what organizations do you give?
A. I give mostly to members of the Oxfam International group. In the U.S.A. that means Oxfam America.
Q. How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?
A. It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I won’t go into here. I do agree that continued global population growth will eventually bring disaster. One proven way of reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly related to population issues, you could give to organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation or DKT International.
Powered by Minx 1.1.4-pink.