I recently listened to Dr. Shankar Vedantam interview Dr. Peter Singer on Vedantam’s (excellent) podcast, Hidden Brain. Singer is a contemporary utilitarianism, a philosopher of ethics who argues that the right thing to do is that which produces the most amount of happiness (or the least amount of suffering) in the world. On the face of it, this seems unassailable. Who would say that the right, or even the morally permissible, thing to do is that which increases suffering?
In the interview, Singer shared someone’s objection to his utilitarianism. A philosopher presented the following thought experiment: Imagine a police officer encountering a mob set to lynch six innocent men for a single crime. The only way the officer can save the innocent men is to claim he knows one of them is the actual guilty party, point this innocent person out, and let him be put to death by the mob so that the five other men are saved. (In this thought experiment, there is no way to convince the crowd, through words or weapons, to set all of them free.) For the philosopher objecting to Singer, this act of the officer is morally wrong — the cop has a sworn duty to uphold truth and justice, and condemning an innocent man to death, even to save five, is wrong.
(Side note: this wasn’t meant to be a thought experiment with contemporary relevance, but holy sh*t does it resonate with the times.)
Singer says this act of the officer would actually be morally permissible. He acknowledges that he doesn’t know how he himself would act in this situation (if he were the cop, would he actually be able to hold to his principles and send an innocent man to his death?), but he does think that the officer “sacrificing” a single innocent man to save the lives of five innocent men is the best, the most right, thing to do based on reason. The end (saving five lives) justifies the means (sending an innocent man to his death).
Singer’s philosophy rests on the assumption (or belief) that every life is equal in value to every other life. No one life, no one person, deserves health, life, happiness, or well-being more than any other. Therefore, our moral calculations should be more rational than emotional: we should figure out how many people are impacted by our decisions and in what way, and make our ethical decisions to maximize the amount of happiness a decision brings about.
While I think utilitarianism (of the Singer, Bentham, or Mill variety) is an important metric for evaluating moral decisions and frameworks (what could possibly qualify as “good” other than some kind of consequence?!), where I think Singer is lacking is in his acknowledgement of the limitations and situation of the individual. While I agree that all lives are equally valuable (inherently — but perhaps not to humanity as a whole), I do think that we are more ethically responsible for the lives of people we interact with. A young child in Uganda is no more inherently valuable than my husband. Nonetheless, because of my history, situation, and choices, I have (accepted or entered into) a greater ethical responsibility to care for my husband than for the Ugandan child. I should not use my responsibility to actively care for him as an excuse to work for the child’s harm, but I believe I would be morally wrong to ignore my husband’s needs in order to care, from a far distance and at potentially great expense, to focus my primary care on someone thousands of miles away.
Because then, if I were to focus my primary ethical responsibility on the Ugandan child, what about the elderly gentleman in Alabama? Why should I care for the child when his suffering may be more acute? In our ethical calculations, then, it only makes sense, practically- and rationally-speaking, to keep in mind the limitations of the human being. We have to make choices that exclude good causes, that mean we withhold help to some people, in order to make an actual impact somewhere. Speaking from the nonprofit world, it is far better to give one organization a $500 gift than to give 500 charities one dollar. Or even to give 50 organizations $10. Small gifts put an administrative and processing burden on nonprofits, and may actually cost them money to process (chances are, you wouldn’t be able to donate a dollar to most unless you hand them an actual dollar bill). In choosing a single or a couple nonprofits to benefit, middle class folks choose those lives they can help improve, but this inescapably comes at the cost of refusing to help others who are equally deserving of help. This should not, purely speaking, make our choices morally questionable or wrong.
I think the main drawback of Singer’s utilitarianism is the lack of acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the individual situation and self. Yes, every person is of equal value inherently, but not every person has the capacity, means, and relational responsibility to respond to the needs and suffering of everyone. Because we are limited, we have to figure out what we can actually do, what kind of happiness we are actually capable of bringing about, and do those things. That will entail refusing to help some people, but that doesn’t mean that we made that decision because we believe their lives are less valuable. Focusing ethical responsibility says there are lives for whose well-being we are more responsible than others, that we are limited in what we can do, and that we hope beyond hope that the community around those others suffering will take ethics seriously enough to take their well-being as seriously as they take their own.
As I reread the above, I realize I have a second objection, or a second complication: I think Singer’s philosophy is also difficult because some actions have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences. Does that mean an act can be (or is?) right in the moment because it increases more happiness than the other alternatives, but is wrong 20 years later because through a set of crazy, unforeseeable coincidences it set into motion a series of events that ultimately increased overall suffering? In other words, are all actions only right or wrong depending on the moment they are judged? (Like photons being waves or particles!!!) This seems to argue for a kind of moral relativism or moral non-reductivism that is really interesting. On a consequentialist framework, how and when do we judge moral actions and their consequences? Is there ever an “end point” at which a judgment of an act can stand, at which an act can be decided to be definitively good or definitively bad?
A final note: while I don’t agree with Singer’s full philosophy, I appreciate the wide compassion he brings to the table as driving his rational ethical calculations. Also, he LIVES utilitarianism. Apparently he gives quite a bit of his income to charities, saying that it’s the right thing to do to donate to alleviate suffering than to buy the newest Apple gadget because it’s fun. I respect the hell out of the way he lives his philosophy.