December 3, 2011

Peter Singer

Green Army: Persons of Interest

Jeremy Bentham (1748 – 1832):
The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny.
The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor.
It may one day come to be recognized that
  • the number of the legs,
  • the villosity of the skin, or
  • the termination of the os sacrum,
are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate.
What else is it that should trace the insuperable line?
Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse?
But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old.
But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail?
The question is not,
  • Can they reason! nor
  • Can they talk?, but,
  • Can they suffer?
(An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, 1789)

Robert Bellah [Sociologist]:
In earlier days the individualism in America was one that also honored community values.
Today we have an ideology of individualism that simply encourages people to maximize personal advantage.

The Annual Holocaust

[In 2011] 6.9 million children died from preventable poverty-related diseases. …
[In] 1990, that figure was 12 million. …
Its dropping all the time.
[So] extreme poverty [is not] a black hole where you just pour money into it and does no good. …
We are actually making significant progress …

[Nonetheless,] 6.9 million children dying every year is 19,000 children dying every day.
Imagine [if] there were 19,000 children … at some sports ground …
You had them all there, in the stands, and they were going to die in 24 hours — unless somebody helped them. …
All of the media of the world would be focusing on this.
The donations would be pouring in.
They would certainly not die.
There would be enough people to ensure that they had what they needed.

But because the 19,000 children [are scattered] around the world [and it's] not a new story [—] its not in the media. …
And … although I hope the number will continue to decline — if its not 19,000 it will be 18 or 17,000 for 2012 and it'll be something similar, perhaps a little bit less, for next year, and so on — it will go on for years and years, with all those millions of children dying unnecessarily because we could be helping them. …

Currently there are 24 billion animals in factory farms around the world. …
Three and a half times the population of the world. …
We have made progress, not enough, we need to make faster progress, but we're headed in the right direction. …

But there is a third issue … where I don't think we really are making progress.
And its one which … has the potential to undo the good that we do in those others.
That issue … is climate change. …
Its already causing [as estimated] 600,000 extra deaths a year — not just through extreme weather events … but through things like tropical diseases spreading into areas where they previously did not exist.
Disease, like malaria and dengue, that now have a wider range because of global warming.

(Great moral issues for the 21st century, Big Ideas, ABC Radio National, 24 July 2013)

The Equal Consideration of Interests

The principle of equal consideration of interests prohibits making our readiness to consider the interests of others depend on their abilities or other characteristics, apart from the characteristic of having interests. …
Enslaving those who score below a certain line on an intelligence test [or on the basis of some other morally irrelevant characteristic] would not … be compatible with equal consideration.
Intelligence [race, gender, sexual orientation etc have] nothing to do with many important interests that humans have [such as] the interest
  • in avoiding pain,
  • in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter,
  • to love and care for any children one may have,
  • to enjoy friendly and loving relations with others and
  • to be free to pursue one’s projects without unnecessary interference from others.
(p 21)

[If] it is in our power to prevent something very bad happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance, we ought to do it. …
[Because this injunction] applies only when nothing comparably significant is at stake … the principle cannot lead to the kinds of actions of which nonconsequentialists strongly disapprove — serious violations of individual rights, injustice, broken promises and so on.
(p 199)

(Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition, 2011

Social Costs — Private Profits

[For private enterprise to be able to generate and retain profits, it requires:]
  • a legal system that fosters and protects [resource] rights,
  • private ownership of land,
  • an accepted currency,
  • systems of transport,
  • the production and sale of energy,
  • the existence of an educated labour force,
  • corporate oversight,
  • the protection of patents …
  • the prevention of monopolies,
  • judicial resolution of disputes,
  • national defence and
  • the protection of trading routes.
(p 19)

Herbert Simon, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, has estimated … that social capital is probably responsible for at least 90% of income in wealthy societies.
(p 20)

A system of government is conceptually prior to property rights — and a system of government requires taxation. …
[In] a complex modern society, there is no way of sorting out what your property entitlements would be, if there were no government and no taxes.
(p 21)

Beyond Equal Opportunity

We no more deserve our natural abilities than we deserve to inherit the wealth of our parents.
Our society rewards people who are good at sport, or financial analysis, or who are beautiful and can act or sing well, but gives very little to those who have nothing to sell in the marketplace except their physical labour — and even less to those incapable of labour.
There is nothing inherently just about this arrangement.
Recognising that the rewards people get are significantly influenced by the good fortune of inherited abilities should lead us to look beyond equality of opportunity.
Even in a society in which everyone does start with an equal opportunity to prosper as far as their natural abilities allow them to do so, it may be just to relieve the distress of those who end up at the bottom.
By this measure … most developed nations, including the nations of the European Union, Canada and Australia, are closer to being just societies than is the United States.
(p 39)

Public Reason

[Proponents of public reason] and public justification see democratic politics not so much as a battle for power, settled by elections, but rather as a kind of public conversation about issues of common concern, with a decision-procedure for reaching temporary closure on these issues when the time for action has come.
[In seeking] to justify our views to others [we] acknowledge the fact of political and religious pluralism.
[By offering] reasons that can appeal to all, not only to other members of our own community of belief [we show] that we recognise that we live in a community with a diversity of political and religious views.
(p 122)

(The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George Bush, 2004)

Doing Better Than Tit For Tat

  1. Begin by being ready to co-operate. …
  2. Do good to those who do good to you, and harm to those who harm you. …
  3. Keep it simple. …
  4. Be forgiving. …
  5. Don't be envious.

(How Are We To Live, 1993, pp 167-80)

Free Rational Agents

If moral rules are a natural outgrowth of biology and custom, [and] not the decrees of God or eternal universal truths of any other kind, following rules without any further justification seems a prime example of mindlessly abdicating our roles as free rational agents. …

[An] ethic of rules builds on our feelings for others as individuals rather than on an impersonal concern for all.
[However, it] also limits our obligations.
[On the other hand, an ethic based on a principle] of impartial concern for all would be impossibly demanding [—] an ethic for saints. …

[Given the constraints of biology and custom] an ethic for normal human beings [would] do well to limit the demands it makes — not to the extent that it demands no more than people are inclined to do anyway, but so that the standards it sets can be recommended to people with a realistic hope that many will meet them.
An ethic of rules can do this, because rules can be formulated so that obedience is not too difficult.

[Indeed, a] social code of ethics needs moral rules for several reasons:
  • to limit our obligations,
  • to make them more personal,
  • to educate the young,
  • to reduce the need for intricate calculations of gains and losses,
  • to control the temptation to bend ethical calculations in our own favor, and
  • to build the commitment to truthfulness which is essential for communication.
Without these rules, the ethical behavior of most human beings would probably be even further from promoting the good of all, impartially considered, than it is now.
[Nevertheless, none] of this supports the view that moral rules ought to be obeyed [without exception eg lying. …]

The rules of ethics are not moral absolutes or unchallengeable intuitions.
Some of them are no more than relics from our evolutionary and cultural history and can be discarded without cost. …
[Conversely,] there are some ethical rules we cannot do without. …

Understanding how our genes influence us makes it possible for us to challenge that influence.
The basis of this challenge must be our capacity to reason. …
Human social institutions can affect the course of human evolution.

(The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Princeton University Press, 1981, emphasis added)


Ethics for Normal Human Beings

George W Bush
Philosophical quibbles

Ethics and evolution

Practical ethics
How ethical is Australia?
How are we to live?

Peter Singer (1946)

Ira W DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, University Center for Human Values, Princeton University.
Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

  • How Can We Be More Effective Altruists?, TED Radio Hour, NPR, 26 May 2017.
  • The Point of View of the Universe, Big Ideas, ABC Television, 18 September 2014.
  • The why and how of effective altruism, TED, March 2013.
  • The Ethics of Life, Project Syndicate.
  • The Expanding Circle, thirty years on, Religion and Ethics, ABC Online, 18 May 2011.

    The denial of objective truth in ethics [leads] to scepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusions at all about what we ought to do. …

    In The Methods of Ethics, [Henry Sidgwick (1838 – 1900) identified] three "intuitive propositions of real clearness and certainty." …

    1. The axiom of fairness or equity:

      "[If] a kind of conduct that is right (or wrong) for me is not right (or wrong) for someone else, it must be on the ground of some difference between the two cases, other than the fact that I and he are different persons."

    2. The axiom of prudence:

      We should have "impartial concern for all parts of our conscious life …
      Hereafter as such is to be regarded neither less nor more than Now."

    3. The axiom of universal good:

      "[Each] one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him."

    Sidgwick argued that these axioms or "rational intuitions" are truths in much the same way as the axioms of mathematics are truths. …

    [For] logical positivists, truths must either be tautologies, that is, true in virtue of the meanings of the terms used, or they must be empirical.

    In On What Matters, [Derek Parfit] argues that unless we are to fall into scepticism about knowledge as well as scepticism about ethics, we must accept that there are normative truths about what we have reason to believe, as well as about what we have reason to want, and reason to do.
    [For] example, the statement:
    When we know that some argument is valid, and has true premises, we have decisive reasons to accept this argument's conclusion.
    … Parfit argues, is neither a tautology, nor an empirical truth.
    It is a true normative statement about what we have reason to believe. …

    I may believe that by donating to Oxfam … I can save the lives of ten children and greatly reduce their suffering and that of their families.
    But this belief may not motivate me to make the donation, because I might not care about the children of strangers.

    … Parfit says [that], whether a belief gives us reasons to act in a certain way is a normative question …
    [Whether] it motivates us to act in that way is a psychological question.

    [However, if] we gain acceptance of the claim that there are objective reasons for action only by granting that even those who fully acknowledge the existence of a reason for doing something will not necessarily be motivated by it, have we won only a pyrrhic victory?
    We may be able to say that there are objective reasons for you to give to Oxfam, but if we cannot motivate you to give, the poor will be no better off.

    Nevertheless, if we can accept the idea of objective normative truths, we do have an alternative to reliance on everyday moral intuitions that, according to the best current scientific understanding, are emotionally based responses that proved adaptive at some time in our evolutionary history.

    The existence of objective moral truths allows us to hope that we may be able to distinguish these intuitive responses from the objective moral truths — that is, from the reasons for action that all rational sentient beings would have, even rational sentient beings who had evolved in circumstances very different from our own.

  • Practical Ethics, 3rd Edition, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2011.

    Equality and its Implications: The Basis of Equality

    The principle of equal consideration of interests prohibits making our readiness to consider the interests of others depend on their abilities or other characteristics, apart from the characteristic of having interests. …
    Consideration of the interests of mathematically gifted children may lead us to teach them advanced mathematics at an early age, which for different children might be entirely pointless or positively harmful.
    The basic element, the taking into account of the person’s interests, whatever they may be, must apply to everyone, irrespective of race, sex or scores on an intelligence test.
    Enslaving those who score below a certain line on an intelligence test [or on the basis of some other arbitrary criterion] would not … be compatible with equal consideration.
    Intelligence has nothing to do with many important interests that humans have, like the interest
    • in avoiding pain,
    • in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter,
    • to love and care for any children one may have,
    • to enjoy friendly and loving relations with others and
    • to be free to pursue one’s projects without unnecessary interference from others.
    (p 21)

    When we pay people high salaries for programming computers and low salaries for cleaning offices we are, in effect, paying people for having very specific abilities that very probably are to a significant degree inherited, and in any case almost wholly determined before they reach an age at which they are responsible for their actions.
    (p 35)

    From the point of view of justice and utility, there is something wrong here.
    Both would be better served by a society that adopted the famous Marxist slogan:
    From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.
    If this could be achieved, the differences between the races and sexes would lose their social significance.
    Only then would we have a society truly based on the principle of equal consideration of interests. …

    [However, there] are difficulties in paying people according to their needs rather than their inherited abilities. …
    [For example, if] any one country were to make a serious attempt to equalize the salaries of doctors and manual workers, there can be no doubt that the number of doctors emigrating would greatly increase. …

    To allow these difficulties to lead us to the conclusion that we can do nothing to improve the distribution of income that now exists in capitalist countries would, however, be too pessimistic.
    There is, in the more affluent Western nations, a good deal of scope for reducing pay differentials before the point is reached at which significant numbers of people begin to think of emigrating. …
    It is here that pressure for a more equitable distribution can best be applied.
    (p 36)

  • How Ethical Is Australia?  The Australian Collaboration, Black Inc, 2004.
    Peter Singer and Tom Gregg.

    Australia’s Policy towards Refugees

    The Refugee Program

    The majority of applicants who are considered under this category are identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and referred by UNHCR to Australia.
    Only ten countries participate in this [offshore resettlement program] and it affords the Australian Government the legal right to choose who it will accept. …
    The majority of refugees who are accepted as part of this program tend to be relatively young, skilled, and healthy applicants.
    (pp 64-65)

    The Tampa Crisis and the “Pacific Solution”

    In August [2001] a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, rescued over 400 people from a dilapidated Indonesian fishing vessel off Australia’s Christmas Island. …
    The Australian Government denied the Tampa permission to dock at Christmas Island, despite the captain’s [request] that some of his passengers were in need of medical assistance.

    [No Right of Return]

    [Ahmed] Alzalimi had been living alone in Sydney as a refugee for two years when he learned that his wife and three children had been passengers on a boat believed to be carrying asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.
    When the boat sank, his wife was rescued and taken to Indonesia, but their three children were drowned.
    The Australian Government refused to allow Alzalimi to return to Australia if he were to go to Indonesia to be with his wife.
    Nor would the government allow his wife a visa to join him immediately in Australia.
    (p 68)

    When the Tampa … continued to head for Christmas Island … Australian Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers [took] control of the ship …

    [Howard] promised … that not one of the 433 asylum seekers aboard would set foot on Australian soil [and] first unsuccessfully tried to persuade [the] newly independent East Timor … to accept the asylum seekers …
    … New Zealand [accepted] a small number of the asylum seekers … for processing.
    Australia [offered] large financial incentives to Pacific Island states … to accommodate the remaining asylum seekers [and eventually] Papua New Guinea and … Nauru agreed to do so.
    After the applications of the Tampa asylum seekers were considered, those found to be refugees were resettled in New Zealand, Australia and other nations …
    (p 69)


    Every nation has an interest in promoting … the ideal of good global citizenship …
    [A] nation that is a good global citizen acts in a manner that, if followed by others, would lead to a significantly better world.
    … Australia’s performance in five major areas of global citizenship … might read as follows:

    Foreign aidpoor
    United Nations cooperationpoor
    Global environmentvery poor
    Asylum seekers and refugeesvery poor

  • Utilitarianism, The Philosopher's Zone, ABC Radio National, 27 January 2007.
  • How are we to live?, Text, 1993.

    "What's In It For Me?"

    In 1990 …
    • Rand Araskog, ITT's chairman, president and chief executive officer received a pay rise of 103 percent, taking his annual earnings to $11 million [— despite the stock price of ITT corporation falling by 18 percent; and]
    • {Steven Ross and N J Nicholas, co-chief executives of Time-Warner, Inc … took home a combined total of $99.6 million [—] a year in which Time-Warner reported a loss.}
    [Simiarly, while] IBM shareholders gained less than 1 percent compounded annual return over the six years to 1990, the salary of IBM's head, John Akers, went up 400 percent in the same period, growing to $8 million in 1990.
    (p 30)

    Less than a month from the end of his term of office, President [George H W] Bush granted pardons to six officials of the Reagan administration for their role in the Iran-Contra affair. …
    The pardons saved Bush himself from being called as a witness in any of the trials …
    (p 31)

    Marx was convinced that, in creating the proletariat, the capitalist system had produced the seeds of its own destruction.
    About this, Marx was … wrong.
    The contradictions of capitalism did not relentlessly intensify …
    [Capitalism] improved the lot of most of its workers, and, in the most advanced capitalist nations, enlisted a substantial part of the working classes on its side.
    In contrast, those who successfully carried out revolutions in Marx's name found themselves unable to create a society that satisfied the needs of the majority, and remained in power only as long as they were prepared to use force to suppress opposition.
    Thus capitalism … at the end of the twentieth century, appears to have triumphed.
    Yet there is something valid in Marx's vision of capitalism as a society that has created forces it cannot control. …

    [The] free market society, by breaking traditional ties, reducing every bond to the cash nexus and unleashing the forces of individual self-interest, has conjured up … a society in which politics is dominated by economics.
    (p 40)

    The genie released by our encouragement of naked self-interest has eroded our sense of belonging to a community. …
    The assumption is that you had better look after yourself because the other party will take advantage of you whenever possible — and the assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because there is no point in being co-operative towards those who will not sacrifice their own short-term gain for long-term mutual benefits.
    But an association of isolated individuals bound not by a sense of place, nor by extensive family connections, nor by loyalty to an employer, but only by the fleeting ties of self-interest, cannot be a good society.
    (p 41)

    [Adam Smith] thought, our desire to accumulate more and more that led our ancestors to develop the arts and sciences in ways which:
    … have entirely changed the whole face of the globe, have turned the rude forests of nature into agreeable and fertile plains, and made the trackless and barren ocean a new fund of subsistence.

    The rich … are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.
    (p 47)

    Using Up The World

    The economy is a sub-system of the biosphere, and it is rapidly running up against the limits of the larger system.
    (p 51)

  • The Biological Basis of Ethics, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, pp 23-53, 1981.

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