Thursday, October 07, 2010

Securing Moral Liberty

Most of us agree that you ought to wade in to Singer's pond to save the drowning child, even if it'll ruin your best suit. A person's life is more important than a couple of hundred bucks. Yet we're reluctant to accept the implication that we should donate all that we can afford to the most effective international aid charities as we could thereby save many, many more lives. A one-off 'emergency rescue' is one thing; an ongoing (and practically limitless) source of moral demands is quite another. Note, in particular, that the latter threatens our 'moral freedom' -- our liberty to (permissibly) pursue any of a wide range of personal projects -- in a way that the former does not. And that's a serious cost. A bit less spending money is neither here nor there; but to close off all or most of one's favoured life plans is a big deal. (Not as big a deal as dying of preventable diseases, mind you; but nothing to scoff at either.)

It would be nice to really have the kind of moral liberty that we like to pretend we have. But we don't (I take it): not with so much gratuitous suffering in the world that we're in a position to relieve. Even so, I do feel strongly that moral liberty is of great value, so it would be immensely desirable to do what we can to ensure that more people do have significant moral liberty in future. This then suggests an additional -- more 'partial' -- reason to promotive effective aid (and increased immigration, and other utilitarian policies): not only is it needed to improve the lives of strangers, but it's essential for creating a future in which we have secured moral liberty.

[I'm reminded of Sterba's argument that in order to secure our holdings as 'rightful property', we must ensure that there is nobody in such need that it would be unreasonable to ask that they refrain from taking from our holdings.]


  1. the latter threatens our 'moral freedom' -- our liberty to (permissibly) pursue any of a wide range of personal projects -- in a way that the former does not. And that's a serious cost. A bit less spending money is neither here nor there; but to close off all or most of one's favoured life plans is a big deal.

    Thanks for this explanation (along with the whole post). It comes closer than anything else I've read to capturing my uneasiness about Singer's hypos about neglecting to rescue. Whenever I read them, I have a reaction I'd imagine is very common: first, I think, "Wow, he's impressively marshaling his hypothetical facts and common-sense ethical principles to compel us to admit that we have an obligation to give much more to charity than almost anyone does." But then, I'm struck by the disconnect between that chain of reasoning and the fact that I'm still here being my usual self, not doing anything close to what he implores us to do. (Singer himself doesn't either, by the way -- at least according to the more stringent demands he used to make on us.)

    And I feel OK about myself. Of course, those emotions/attitudes themselves aren't proof of anything. Granted, I could be wrong.

    But his whole argument depends on the premise that your intuitive moral reactions are valid. Otherwise, he wouldn't even reach the conclusion that you should give a lot to charity because his initial hypo (e.g. go into the pond to save the drowning child and ruin your expensive suit) wouldn't provoke the right response.

    Singer (who I respect a lot and who's had a profound impact on my life) seems to want to have it both ways. He wants to draw heavily on your intuitions about what's the right way to behave. But he doesn't want you to be too forceful in applying your intuitions against his conclusions. He may still very well be right in conclusions, but I don't think the reasoning that takes you there is as neat and easy as he likes to make it sound.

    I have one more thought, and I hope I'm not venturing into ad hominem territory here, because I think this is worth observing. Now, I'm sure Singer wouldn't be won over by what you or I are saying here. No surprise there. But I wonder why he wouldn't be convinced. It's not that you're failing to point to any countervailing good: you have an entirely reasonable point that personal projects and individual liberty are valuable in a way that poses a tension with Singer's core argument. Whether they're important enough to undermine Singer's ethics is an open question. But Singer doesn't consider it an open question. Why? Well, these issues are more personal and less logical than Singer would like to admit. Everyone, to some extent, prioritizes their personal projects over worldwide, aggregate, net utility. Singer does this too -- he's only human. But what are Singer's personal projects? His number one project seems to be: engaging in ethical reasoning! So I wonder if, for him, the value of personal projects gets "canceled out" somehow. He has already committed himself, on a professional and psychological level, to the notion that we have the litany of Singerian obligations (duty to rescue, to give massively to charity, etc.). That view itself is his overriding personal project. It isn't most people's project. For instance, many people care passionately about the arts -- but Singer seems to think funding of the arts is immoral when that money could just as easily go to Oxfam. It's easy for him to conclude that humanitarian charities should take priority over arts funding: he cares about humanitarian ethics, not art. That's his thing. But it's not everyone's thing. Maybe most people have a more complicated set of moral intuitions than he does, and maybe there are good reasons for that.

    (Sorry for the long paragraph.)

  2. I should probably add: I know I'm not making a rigorous philosophical argument against Singer; I'm not trying to. I think it's worth investigating the psychological forces underlying both his reasoning (which he presents as if it were indubitable) and our reactions to it.

  3. I don't think Singer is merely appealing to case-based intuitions in the inconsistent way you imagine. Rather, I take him to be using the shallow pond case as a mere illustration of a deeper moral principle: (roughly) If you can prevent a great harm without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, you morally ought to do it.

    This principle seems overwhelmingly plausible in its own right, as well as explaining certain case-based intuitions (e.g. the pond case). We may have conflicting intuitions in some cases, but unless we can support them with some equally plausible general principle, we should conclude that those conflicting case-based intuitions are in error (a result of self-interested bias, perhaps).

    So, for those of us who accept the above principle, Singer's challenge is to specify what values of 'comparable moral significance' are served by our luxury spending. Some might propose that the value I've pointed to here, i.e. the freedom to choose and pursue our own life projects, is of comparable importance to the value of saving many lives in the third world. I'm sometimes sympathetic to the sorts of 'perfectionist' values that could underpin this sort of position: perhaps what really matters is the highest peaks of human cultural flourishing. But I suspect many people would not be comfortable to go that far, in which case they should still be convinced by Singer's argument. And of course even if we embrace the perfectionist's position, that merely excuses those of our personal decisions that lead to increased cultural flourishing. There's still a lot of inefficiencies in our lives that are wasted opportunities for doing good (whatever your conception of the good might be).

    So I don't think there's any easy way out of the challenge that Singer's argument poses us here. (That's not to say that we should think of ourselves as 'bad people', or anything like that. But we certainly could be better. And there's an important sense in which we're making mistakes when we fail to do more to improve the world. Appreciating this fact might help motivate us to do more, which is very much a step in the right direction.)

  4. As the head of what I believe to be the most efficient charity aimed at helping third world residents, I would argue that given the facts of human psychology, perfectionism is the rule-utilitarian and deontological thing to pursue and endorse.

  5. What do you mean by "the deontological thing to pursue"? That we have a duty to promote cultural flourishing over human welfare?


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.