Friday, July 8, 2011

The Foundations of Giving

We left off establishing two positions. One, that no moral distinction appears to hold true between seeing dying children in Africa and saving them and knowing about dying children in Africa and giving money to save them. We then established that in fact giving money can help in significant ways despite concerns of overpopulation. However, none of these assertions necessarily lead to the fact that we must give our money to save dying children in Africa. To establish that we need to get our hands dirty with some philosophical concepts of morality and ethics.
Very few of us, if any at all, would welcome a description of ourselves as an immoral people. However, many people in the world, despite the fact that they consider themselves moral, or that they live by a moral code, could not necessarily delineate a conceptually clean moral code. Most people, caught up in the exigencies of everyday life do not have the leisure or the tools to articulate a complete moral code, or believe it impossible to do such a task at all. When asked why they do believe it important to be moral, or why their morality demands x but not y, most people fumble with explanations, rightfully so.
 For coherency, we look to the great philosophers: Aristotle, Plato, Spinoza, Kant etc and in our day, people like Singer. What Singer's claim poses to people is this exact question. When push comes to shove, if forced to delineate your moral code, what would it be? For some, they will respond that it depends on what God desires. For these religious people, the question of morality stands and falls with God's word. We would then need to attempt to discover, within any given religious framework, where Singer's claim fits in. We will not deal with the religious aspect of this question in this post, but it is a fascinating and urgent question, one highlighted by a not so recent controversy with David Simon and the New Orleans Jewish community. Simon claimed that it was unethical for the community to use the 28 million dollars they raised to rebuild their synagogue when all around them, people were still dying, or starving, or just struggling to get back on their foot. In a sense, that gets to our core question. What is the basic guideline of your life?
Money, and its usage, often reflects our deepest values. Do you spend most of your money on yourself, on your friends, on other people, on objects, on clothes, books, movies, food, luxuries, etc? What then, at the level of ethics, must we assume, or not assume to substantiate or deny Singer’s claim of our obligation to give, considerably more than we do now, or to change our lifestyle to save dying children.
Ethics, essentially, governs actions towards others, which can include animals, or the environment. (We can quibble about the ethics one has towards ones self, towards belief and other areas, but most of ethics involves how we treat other beings besides ourselves.) In that sense, the question of ethics relates to a spectrum of actions that lie between one extreme of self-interest and one extreme of complete altruism. Of course, the fact that an action can serve selfish purposes at the same time it can help others complicates the issue, but in life, when making decisions on moral or ethical dilemmas it often comes down to a question of self interest vs. helping others. How do we balance these two factors in our life? I don’t think we can make the claim that we all must live ascetic lives and give every last penny we earn to other people, nor would anyone morally approve of complete selfishness. We can only find that balance if we have a clear sense of our moral core, of the principles that guide our moral decisions.
Consequently, the basic questions arises as to why should we help other people, why shouldn’t we live lives that our focused solely on our selves and our own interests? We all intuit the inherent wrong with complete selfishness, but can we explain why we feel this way? I imagine that most people, would think the question stupid, but again, as we pointed out the reason behind your moral choices will affect the scope of your morality. Most people would say, when you push or shove them that we care about other people to be good people, to fulfill some sense of duty, a duty either based on God or reason (Philosophers refer to this as the deontology – duty focused ethics of which Kant’s idea of the transcendental idealism falls into), but that begs the question as to why caring about other people serves as the prerequisite for Goodness.
Others might explain that we care simply, because we can, we ought to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people, this being the first crude summation of the utilitarian position, one that focuses on pragmatics and not preset duties. Others, believing they are taking a more realistic approach assume that man doesn’t really care to help others. Human beings are innately selfish, animalistic beings that must be trained by society to limit their ravenous impulses. We do good so as to live with other people, but it’s all a matter of practicality, not of a real moral ought. Evolutionary theorists posit that our moral code developed in ways that support the reproduction of our genes, and our kin, in some manner, robbing ethics of its underlying compelling factor. Still, others, in a slightly odd version of enlightened hedonism believe that the only true happiness will emerge from a life in which you devote yourself, your time, in a considerable manner to other people. Whatever you end  up choosing, the first step in developing an ethical system entails understanding why we care in the first place.  Consequently, once we pin down the core, we need to know the scope of the system, and that gets us into the question relevant for us of impartiality vs. partiality ethics.
Hypothetical: Although this might sound familiar from high school discussions, it highlights certain ethical biases. If forced to choose between saving a best friend, a family member, or 100, 1,000, 10,000 people what would you choose, why, and can anyone say one choice is the correct ethical choice? Let's say you were asked to judge this choice made by another person, would you shy away, unsure, or feel confident in your ability to answer?
This hypothetical simply highlights the relevance of what ethical philosophers refer to as the impartiality principal. In our ethical systems, do we have the same obligations towards everyone, or is it morally justified, and possibly even morally demanded that we give preference to those in our inner circle, our goals, our aspirations, our desires, or even our town's goals, aspiration and desires before other people in the world. (The Halachic principle of giving to the poor of your town first highlights this question...) The impartiality principle assumes that we cannot distinguish in our moral responsibilities based on partiality towards a person. You cannot say I will only give to this homeless person because he looks nice as opposed to that homeless person who doesn’t look nice etc., and pushed to the extreme, your moral obligations to a stranger do not differ, necessarily from your moral obligations to your family. (True, this sound ultimately very robotic and does not seem to account for emotions, but impartialists deal with this issue, but that requires too many tangential ideas.)  
Singer, espousing a view of impartiality, explains, “I would argue against (the) view that we are morally entitled to give greater weight to our own interests and purposes simply because they are our own. This view seems to me contrary to the idea, now widely shared by moral philosophers, that some element of impartiality or universalizability is inherent in the very notion of a moral judgment.”
Again, we seem to find a split between our initial intuitive reaction, and our intellectual reaction. Singer cannot possibly intend that we don’t have greater obligations to those we love, our friends, our family, our nation as opposed to strangers in a different country.
Singer though, formulates the practical manifestation of this principle different than its extreme initial version. He says that when, “…our own children are well-fed, well-clothed, well-educated, (but) would like new bikes, a stereo set, or their own car. In these circumstances any special obligations we might have to our children have been fulfilled, and the needs of strangers make a stronger claim upon us”
But fear not, for philosophers have come up with many possible objections to Singer’s extreme claims, ones that do not stem from selfishness, but ones actually based on ethical principles. The first, and most American claim, comes from the likes of libertarians, though these libertarians back their words with deep philosophical claims. Robert Nozick in his watershed work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia makes the claim that autonomy, liberty, is the ultimate moral goal and principle. Any sort of infringement on that principle entails a moral lapse. In simpler words, we make our money, we should get to decide how to use it. I might think that the idea of charity moves me to help other people, but nothing can force me to decide how to use my talent, or my money, or my liberty as long as my liberty does not infringe directly on the liberty of others. Consequently, I might choose to help others, to save African children, but I did not create that situation of poverty in Africa, but I did make my own money, with my own time, effort and talent. The principle of autonomy and liberty dictates I ought to get to decide how to spend it. This might sound selfish, but once you begin infringing one person’s liberty, or so the claim goes, you engage in a slippery slope.
            This, claim, especially to Americans who value liberty higher than anything else, initially sounds very compelling. It assumes that somehow the money we makes comes wholly from our effort, and that liberty, above all else is the ultimate goal, and principle. Without true liberty, we couldn’t begin to create a fair society.
            However, with a little pushing, we can see that these principles are not so simple. First off, the assumption that the money we make, because we made that money, is our own is not so obvious. For religious people, who believe that money comes from God, then the money is not necessarily your own, but besides a religious point, many claim that most of the money we make does not come solely from our own unique talents.
Singer, again:
That people can earn large amounts only when they live under favorable social circumstances, and that they don’t create those circumstances by themselves. I could have quoted Warren Buffett’s acknowledgment that society is responsible for much of his wealth. “If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru,” he said, “you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil.” The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work. “On moral grounds,” Simon added, “we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent.” Simon was not, of course, advocating so steep a rate of tax, for he was well aware of disincentive effects. But his estimate does undermine the argument that the rich are entitled to keep their wealth because it is all a result of their hard work. If Simon is right, that is true of at most 10 percent of it.
This is not to say that this claim is necessarily true, but we must keep it mind when we make our moral decisions. Intuitively, it does seem a little arbitrary to claim that because you happened to be born to the right family, with the right genes, in the right circumstances to receive the right education, with the right connections to move up to the proper job that the money you make is solely out of your doing. Not to say choice, initiative and hard work don’t account for our money, but we also must consider how arbitrarily privileged we are in the larger scheme of life. Second, it seems more readily apparent by the day that unbridled liberty does not necessarily bring peace or happiness, but a balance between liberty and justice must prevail.  
Another important argument centers around the type of ideal life we would like to create. Imagine Singer’s world in which most people live on lowered means, just what they need and the rest they give to solve the problems of the world. We would stop watching movies, going to Broadway shows, opera, ballet, all types of art would, in the short term become obsolete because who can say supporting art trumps supporting dying children? In essence, these thinkers claim, that in saving a world we create a world in which we would not want to live. Think about it on a more personal level, if I live, with my family, on means based solely on what we need, would not my life become boring, not enjoyable, would I not lose reasons to live as I am forced to give up projects and goals that invigorate my life? Isn’t so much of the beauty, the fun in life from the luxuries, the traveling, the movies we see together, the lunches we go out to, the museums we visit, the experiences we have with our children, the hobbies we have, the projects we work on? You are asking us to make our lives lame and plain, to devoid it of life to save others lives. Basically this argument supposes that Singer asks too much of us and that the something of equal value is given up if we believed in Singer’s extreme principle.
Again, this argument holds water, and initially compels us, but again, after some pushing back we see it as a somewhat of a weak argument. First, it is more a question of where to draw the line. If we follow Singer’s guidelines above then we could still save considerably more people without giving up the essentials of our lifestyle. Do we really need another expensive dress, or that huge house, or that expensive TV etc? Which gets to the second point that Singer would respond with: does this not say more about our standards of living than our obligations to the poor? Does this not speak of some lamentable situation in which we need certain luxuries to be happy, and do they truly make us happy? We, as Americans, and in the world, are more mentally ill than ever before, we take more anti-depressants than ever before, is it not possible that the opposite is true, that we would be happier in a less materialized more giving lifestyle, or so he would claim? Again, this needs to be thought about more, but I believe Singer’s point survives this attack; at least to create a moral ought more than we give now.
The next argument, argues that we only have certain moral obligations to people who can reciprocate. Morality stems from the larger societal good, and that entails reciprocation, but those in the impoverished worlds, apparently cannot reciprocate. I don’t think this argument requires much time to debunk. Despite some ridiculous consequences that arise from this position, I do not believe most people do good because of expected reciprocation. In fact, I think most people think the highest good is in a case in which despite the fact that a person or a nation cannot reciprocate we help them.
Though other arguments exist, I do not think we have time for them in this post. So one last argument against Singer: The plausibility argument. Many would say, “Sounds great, Peter Singer, but come, you misrepresent reality and human nature. People, first off all, do not have this kind of money. After school, after taxes, after food, after clothing, after little league, and ice cream, and water parks, after school books, after health care, for the most part we do not have that much money to spend on luxury, and can you seriously expect people, who inherently care most about themselves and their family to really care so much about strangers?
I believe this argument carries some weight. It’s true; most people struggle to get by, but to a certain extent we must realize that this struggle is socially imposed. We need not buy a huge house, even if we can. Our society’s norms and customs could possibly be that we buy inexpensive houses, and cars etc. It’s because of the insanely high standards of society that so many of Americans today are relatively poor. On top of the point that our standards of living are both arbitrary and insanely high, since when do we limit ourselves to our innate natural tendencies? Yes, we care most about ourselves, but don’t we strive for self-transcendence, why, on a societal level should this claim be any different?
We’ve yet to discuss the role of government in this question, and the role of economics in this question, so until next time, I hope that these arguments and counterarguments provide fodder for some conversation. These issues are more dense than I thought, so all I can hope for is not resolution but to provide an introduction to the greater topic.
Thanks for reading,

1 comment:

  1. Hey Joe,
    Long time lurker, first time commenting.

    Your post provides some cogent defenses against an extreme version of Singer's claim, but you already note that Singer's actual position is more nuanced.
    Does Singer attempt to flesh out his belief - for example: should we forego all trips to the movie theater, some movie, or just one movie a year?

    Consequently, are their responses to his actual claim? (Aside from the difficulty in defining it).