The Good, The Bad and Peter Singer

Peter Singer Stephen Schuster

The Wall Street Journal reporting Peter Singer’s forthcoming book tells us:

In his latest book, “The Life You Can Save,”  Mr. Singer argues that failing to donate money to help the roughly 1 billion people suffering from poverty and preventable diseases is a moral offense equivalent to standing by as a child drowns because you don’t want to ruin a nice pair of shoes.

Equivalent. But how bad is that I wonder?  Given that Singer is on record saying there is “no intrinsic moral difference between killing and allowing to die” he would seem committed to saying that failing to donate is morally equivalent to drowning a child.  Pretty bad!

Of course, not everyone denies moral significance to the difference between killing and allowing to die. Some philosophers distinguish between “negative” duties (e.g., not to drown children) and positive ones, (e.g., to save children from drowning), holding that positive duties are not as onerous as negative ones.  Though, as Judith Jarvis Thomson recently observed,

“… it is one thing to say there is a difference in weight between positive and negative duties, and quite another to say what the source of that difference is.  I know of no thoroughly convincing account of its source, and regard the need for one as among the most pressing in all moral theory.”

For anyone interested in taking up Thomson’s challenge, Singer’s equivalence poses a problem.  After all, this bystander who stands by while a child drowns (for the sake of his shoes!) is a bad man. Let us not mince words; he is a sonofabitch.  The positive moral duty not to behave like such a character must have significant “weight”.  And if failing in positive duties makes us as bad as that guy, then the difference in “weight” and hence the significance of the positive-negative distinction itself, must be morally slight.

I give negligible amounts to charity. So is Singer calling me a sonofabitch? Apparently. And you too, if you fail to donate money to the starving billion when you could (and you know you could).

Is there any way to defend ourselves? Shelly Kagan, Peter Unger, and now Singer, have written whole books arguing that there is not.  Arguing, that is, that if you agree that you have moral obligations to do things like help that drowning child, you must concede that you are likewise obliged to do everything you can to help everyone, everywhere, all the time.  If that is so, then it seems we must admit that we are sons of bitches, you and I.

The problem for Singer’s position is that none of us believe its conclusion.  Not even Singer. 

Singer tells the WSJ:

I give a third of my income to Oxfam and other organizations working in the field. I still feel that, as comfortably off as I am, I should be giving more. We still take family vacations to nice places. We could spend time somewhere less expensive. Also, I’m still prepared to have a bottle of wine or go to the theater or to some kind of concert. If you think about what that money can do for people in extreme poverty, it’s hard to justify that type of spending.

Hard? Hard!  If having that Merlot is really equivalent to standing by while a child drowns (to save your shoes!)  isn’t it impossible to justify that type of spending?

And yet Singer clearly does not expect us to think he is a sonofabitch.  Look at that picture!

We don’t begrudge Singer a drink or show now and then.  We don’t think of him as comparable to the sonofabitch who stands by while a child drowns, still less to someone who drowns a child.  Why not?

It seems to me that it must be because the children Singer lets die when he buys his ticket for the show  aren’t nearby.  It is not as if Singer thinks those stage kids in Les Miz are really miserable   We assume that Singer, like the rest of us,  would be hard pressed to enjoy a drink or a show if he knew there was great misery nearby.  But it is easy for all of us to enjoy ourselves even while we know for a fact that there is enormous suffering elsewhere and out of sight.  It’s easy provided we don’t dwell on it.  And it is easy not to dwell on it: out of sight, out of mind. 

We think the sonofabitch is a bad guy— whereas Singer, not so much–  because the sonofabitch is  letting a nearby kid die, not some out-of-sight abstraction.  It’s ignoring this vividly present suffering that makes him such an odious figure.   Not so Singer, or the rest of us,  who are far from the children we  allow to die . Which is  why we think that we are not so bad. 

Does this make sense?  After all as Singer et al never tire of pointing out, mere proximity can’t make a moral difference.  What matters for the moral assessment of behavior are means and motive.  Singer has the means: he  could give his pin money to charity as easily as the bad guy could save that drowning child.  And while the sight of a drowning child may be psychologically harrowing Singer knows full well the consequences of his actions: he cannot plead ignorance.  He chooses self-gratification over saving lives.  How can we regard him as morally different from the sonofabitch bystander? 

We can’t.

I think that Singer is right that failing to send money overseas is morally equivalent to allowing the  child to drown.   I think that because I think we have no moral obligation to either save the drowning child or the remote starving millions.  Absent prior duties imposed by promises or  parenthood, I maintain that we have no moral obligation to alleviate the sufferings or enhance the welfare of others.  There are no positive moral duties. 

I offer our good opinion of Singer and Singer’s good opinion of himself (look at that picture),  despite his drinks and shows and vacations, as evidence for my view. 

Let me hasten to say that I agree that the bystander who watches the child die is a sonofabitch.  I am happy to say  he is  “a bad man”.  But the sense of “bad” in which this is true is not, I think, a moral one.  

Moral right and wrong have to do with actions, with what people do.  But we do not think the bystander is a  bad guy because he does something morally wrong.  Suppose the bystander had stayed at home to polish his shoes.  Then he would never have encountered the drowning child and would never had the opportunity to save or refrain from saving it.  If you count failing-to-save as “doing a bad thing” then you should agree that, had he stayed home, the bystander would have done one less bad thing that day.  If you think the bystander wrongs this child by not saving it when he can, then you should agree that the bystander would not have wronged the child had he just not been standing by.  

But the world would not have been a better place — no one would have been better or better off– had the bystander stayed home.  The child would still be dead and the bystander would still be every bit as much of a sonofabitch as he is in the world where he can save the child but doesn’t.  He would still be the kind of sonofabitch who would stand by and watch a child drown when he could save it.  His actual behavior with respect to the child is relevant only because it reveals what a sonofabitch he is. 

The  bystander is a sonofabitch because his behavior demonstrates that he has a bad character .  I suppose a practitioner of “virtue ethics” would say that his behavior demonstrates that he lacks the virtue of “charity” or perhaps “empathy”. I don’t entirely disagree:  I think charitableness, in its place,  is a virtue.  But I don’t agree that it is a moral or “ethical” virtue. 

There are lots of virtues that aren’t moral.  I think having a sense of humor is a virtue but I wouldn’t claim it was a moral virtue (except as a joke).  To be convinced that a character trait is morally bad I would require evidence that it disposed its bearer to morally bad behavior.  And remember I don’t think  that the bystander does anything morally bad by doing things like standing by while the child drowns.  If you do then you will have a problem with Singer’s equivalence: if failing to donate all you can is as unvirtuous as letting that child drown then you are going to have to say that even Singer lacks moral virtue.  But look at that picture!

Virtue ethics goes wrong precisely when it aims to be a kind of ethics: as if we could decide the ethics of actions by examining the character of  admirable agents.  This is not a new idea:  Nietzsche took the Christian recipe for being a good person to be deeply repulsive.  Heroic charitableness, he thought, does not make you a Hero.  But because he insisted on treating his position as a moral one he took this to be a reductio of Christian norms of action (this, I think, is the core of his “critique of morality”).   The problem with this is its corollary, which Nietzsche embraced, viz.  that True Heroes can literally do no wrong.  This runs Singer’s mistake in reverse: whereas Singer supposes that behaving like a sonofabitch must mean that you are doing something morally bad, Nietzsche lets his superior men get away with murder.  Contemporary virtue ethicists threaten to  repeat the mistake–  though their preferred model of the Übermensch is less like Siegfried and  more like an Associate Professor of Women’s Studies .

The corrective to Nietzsche is not to deny the reality of heroism but to  acknowledge that heroic acting out is not always morally good;  just as the corrective to Singer is to note that some behavior, though swinish, is not morally wrong. 

So if I don’t think the badness of the sonofabitch is moral badness, what sort of disvalue is it?

A.J. Ayer is reported to have once said, of a certain colleague, that he had  “…gone bad.”  Ayer explained, ” I don’t mean morally bad.  I don’t use moral language.  I mean he’s gone bad like an orange goes bad!”  I think that’s about right. The relevant sort of goodness and badness has more in common with aesthetic value than it does with moral right and wrong.  We think the bystander is an ugly customer.  He is, among people, as an ugly picture is among pictures.

In calling our evaluation of the bystander’s badness “aesthetic” I am not in the least trying to trivialize it.  I do not say (would never say)  “merely” aesthetic.  The measures by which we judge one person better than another are at the center of human life.  They are values by which we choose who to love, who to hate, who to befriend, who to celebrate and who to shun.  Few of us  make decisions as important as these by asking how much the other gives to Oxfam. 

To ask if someone is a good or a bad person is to ask a profoundly different question than to ask whether they do or are disposed to do morally good or bad things.  I call the former ‘aesthetic’ because the logic of ‘good person’  seems to me to more like that of ‘good picture’ than ‘do gooder’.

Moralists are in the business of dividing in twain: deontologists  between good and bad acts; consequentialists among outcomes.  But just as it is an aesthetic mistake to think that the job of the critic is to divide all art into two piles it is absurd to think that  people monotonically range from saints to sons of bitches.  There are good people and bad, just as there are good and bad pictures, but there is more to it than that.   Lot’s more.  Though one will get little help from philosophical moralists in trying to sort it out.

Moral philosophers are characteristically committed to avoiding comparisons of the intrinsic value of persons.  The moral point of view, many hold, is constituted by seeing no person, even oneself, as more valuable than any other.   It is the “view from nowhere” and no one.  And that may indeed be the right stance for resolving questions of moral right and wrong.  But this point of view is blind to everything essential to answering a different sort of question: “What kind of person do I want to be?”  It is all very well to treat everyone as an end in himself, but we also have to decide how we ourselves want to end up.

Answering that question requires a keen eye for the varieties of persons there are and can be.  Again, one will get scant insight on this score from a moralist who can’t see a difference between people who don’t give to Oxfam and those who would let a child drown.  Traditionally  the job of describing human values– understood as the project of saying what gives humans their different values– belongs to the narrative arts and their critics.  And when we look to what they tell us about those values we find that they are largely orthogonal to moral virtue.

Good people can do bad things even when they act in character (the technical term for this phenomenon is ‘tragedy’).   Killing people is bad.  Hamlet kills lots of people and mostly for no good reason.  For sure Hamlet does a bad thing when he kills Polonius .  But Hamlet is not a bad guy; or if he is, its not just because he kills people and if he isn’t, it isn’t because he somehow makes up for it by increasing Danish foreign aid.

It seems to me that anyone who would stand by and let a child drown is simply a sonofabitch.  But that may only show my lack of imagination.  I suspect that Dostoyevsky could have closely described a character doing just that and made  him wholly sympathetic. Cormac McCarthy‘s work is full of sons of bitches  who would go out of their way to watch a child drown; but they aren’t simple sons of bitches.

And If this seems frivoulous, we have Milgram and Arendt’s empirical observations of the disconnect between the quality of character and action.  The most evil things can be done by people who no one would judge,apart from their actions, to be bad  people.  Thus, if you are planning a genocide and looking for staff you can probably find the kind of people you’ll need to tend to the details by looking to the office of your local Dean of Arts.  Which is not to say that the people you will find there are morally bad, only that they are banal characters.  And lucky.  Theirs is the moral luck not to have been born in a time and place where — characters unchanged– they would placidly have administered atrocity.

It is one thing to avoid doing bad things, another much more difficult and complicated thing to be a good person.  I’m suggesting that we avoid confusing these by ceasing to call questions about the value of persons “moral questions”.  Of course, the weight of tradition is against me in this.  As a compromise perhaps we could train ourselves to reserve ‘moral’ for one sort of goodness  and ‘ethics’ for the other.  I don’t  much care which, but I do think it is important to keep them separate.  Confusion on this score can lead one to think that, say,  giving to Oxfam makes you a good person and, well… look at that picture.