[My apologies for the long hiatus in my posting. Real life has intruded in a variety of ways, reducing the time I can devote to writing. And I’ve felt obliged to try to get a greater mastery of areas that may bear on future posts, including evolutionary biology, genetics, and statistics. Finally, the philosophical issues are just hard, and a lot more demanding than I had anticipated; I seem to be unhappy with everything I write down. I find myself releasing posts only when my revulsion to revising them still again exceeds my embarrassment at having my pseudonym publicly attached to them. Unfortunately, even at this the posts so far -- while I believe they make sensible arguments -- are entirely too sketchy in the theories they propound. These ideas need a book or three, and extensive grounding in the literature.]
Some further thoughts about what I defined in my previous post Biology and Justice: First Cut as biological radicalism.
There, I defined theories of justice or morality as biological radical if they “would deny or subvert broad and basic human inclinations”. Now I’ll grant that that is a pretty inadequate definition as it stands – it’s intended to be mostly heuristic. At some point, I’ll try to tighten it up as I think through all it should comprehend.
In any case, as examples of such accounts, I offered up utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory of justice. Here, I’m mainly concerned to talk about utilitarianism, chiefly because it exhibits the problem I’m getting at in a form simpler and sharper than in Rawls’ theory.
I think it’s very hard not to accept that utilitarianism, taken at face value, is biologically radical according to my definition. This seems to be granted implicitly even by its most famous contemporary proponent, Peter Singer. Let’s take a look at some of Singer’s extreme views, as well as the problems they pose even for himself.
Here is one relevant summary of Singer’s position from Wikipedia:
In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”, [Singer] begins by saying that he would like to see how far a seemingly innocuous and widely endorsed principle can take us; the principle is that one is morally required to forgo a small pleasure to relieve someone else’s immense pain. He then argues that this principle entails radical conclusions — for example, that affluent people are very immoral if they do not give up some luxury goods in order to donate the money for famine relief. If his reasoning is valid, he goes on to argue, either it is not very immoral to value small luxuries over saving many lives, or such affluent people are very immoral. As Singer argues in the same essay, regardless of the soundness of his fundamental defense of utilitarianism, his argument has value in that it exposes conflicts between many people’s stated beliefs and their actions.
Yet this view presents real difficulties for how he conducts his own life, as we can see from an article on Singer:
In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, he argued that the affluent in developed countries are killing people by not giving away to the poor all of their wealth in excess of their needs. How did he come to this conclusion? “If…allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers,” he explains in Practical Ethics. He calculates that the average American household needs $30,000 per year; to avoid murder, anything over that should be given away to the poor. “So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000,” he wrote in the Times.
Rigorous adherence to a single principle has a way of hoisting one by one’s own petard. Singer’s mother suffers from severe Alzheimer’s disease, and so she no longer qualifies as a person by his own standards, yet he spends considerable sums on her care. This apparent contradiction of his principles has not gone unnoticed by the media. When I asked him about it during our interview at his Manhattan apartment in late July, he sighed and explained that he is not the only person who is involved in making decisions about his mother (he has a sister). He did say that if he were solely responsible, his mother might not be alive today.
Singer’s proclamation about income has also come back to haunt him. To all appearances, he lives on far more than $30,000 a year. Aside from the Manhattan apartment–he asked me not to give the address or describe it as a condition of granting an interview–he and his wife Renata, to whom he has been married for some three decades, have a house in Princeton. The average salary of a full professor at Princeton runs around $100,000 per year; Singer also draws income from a trust fund that his father set up and from the sales of his books. He says he gives away 20 percent of his income to famine relief organizations, but he is certainly living on a sum far beyond $30,000. When asked about this, he forthrightly admitted that he was not living up to his own standards. He insisted that he was doing far more than most and hinted that he would increase his giving when everybody else started contributing similar amounts of their incomes.
And this from an article on Singer in the New Yorker:
Still, many of Singer’s critics dismiss him as a secular puritan so inflamed by his idea of rectitude that he can’t even recognize his own contradictions. Singer feels that this is unfair, and he may have a point: although he fails to live up to the rigid rules he has put down on paper, he probably comes as close to doing so as anyone could. He gives away twenty per cent of his annual income, including all royalties from “Practical Ethics.” He lives comfortably but frugally. He doesn’t eat meat or fish, or wear leather. Yet Singer’s writing is so high-handed that any inconsistency between his life and his work is hard to dismiss. Singer has certainly done nothing to impoverish himself, for instance, and his daughters also live comfortably, aided by the income of a trust set up by his father which–he would have to agree–none of them need.
Now I think it pretty obvious from these several accounts of both Singer’s stipulations on how much we are morally obliged to give to others, and how little Singer in fact gives away of his own considerable income, that Singer falls exceedingly short of his own precepts. It’s all the more remarkable that he fails so conspicuously to live up to his ideals when the sacrifices he does indeed make are actually quite extraordinary given his circumstances – how many other Ivy League professors can be said to do anything of the like? This serves only to bring out how very much his ideals are beyond ordinary human capability. On the one hand, he’s engaged in altruistic behavior at the extreme end of human feasibility; on the other, his actions are, in fact, far closer (certainly in terms of proportion of income given away) to purely self interested behavior than they are to his stated obligations. If he has given away, say, 20% of his income, keeping 80%, that more closely resembles 100% self interest than it does the 70% sacrifice he prescribes for the well being of others across the world. (And why stop at only 70%? What in the utilitarian principle would support that?)
A basic question here is, I think, this: what sense does it make for a moral code to require of human beings, on a broad and regular basis, behavior of which they are constitutionally incapable? Living up to utilitarian principles, or even really approaching them, appears to be wholly beyond our ability. How and why is it reasonable to hold to those principles as representing the correct moral goals when their requirements seem to be set in defiance of basic human nature?
Perhaps the most fundamental question is, does morality possess the power or authority to bind us to do things which run deeply contrary to our inclinations? If so, whence does morality come by that power or authority?
I think this is a question that systems of morality cannot escape. Now it may seem at first thought unnecessary to answer that question. If we can see, in a compelling set of intuitions, that various acts are moral, or immoral, of what matter might it be that we are, or are not, capable of doing the right thing on any kind of consistent basis? Feasibility of doing the right thing consistently would seem, at most, to be another sort of consideration altogether, one having to do with how to accommodate human weakness with respect to morality. Its legitimate application might, for example, merely involve grading expectations as to what human beings should do on a curve — in effect, forgiving them for their recalcitrant nature. Morality itself stands majestically above this, its ground altogether independent and clear.
But this view of morality as a city on a hill handing down edicts to all below seems to comport poorly with the set of moral intuitions and precepts as we know them. That set is, I would argue, both highly incomplete and often — at least apparently — inconsistent. (I realize that if a theory is inconsistent then it is trivially complete, since it can prove anything. So it will take some work to explain what I have in mind here. This, however, will have to await a further post.) The set of moral intuitions seems really to constitute only a quite sparse matrix. Given the long history of contemplation of moral codes and systems, it seems unlikely that that situation will be greatly improved by further deliberation. In the face of the apparent inadequacy of moral intuitions to cover all important issues, including some quite fundamental ones, it makes sense to invoke considerations that would seem to work as a more robust, better fleshed out, corroborating basis for our moral code. Insofar as the evolutionary view can explain our moral intuitions, it may go on to ground a superset of those intuitions. Certainly the issues not settled clearly by intuition comprehend many that go to the very core of our moral behavior, and of a system of justice. In particular, the very question of how much self sacrifice we are obliged to engage in is such an issue, involving as it does immense differences in how we should behave; it could hardly matter more to ourselves and to the larger world whether morality requires us to give away, say, 5% of our income to others, or 80%.
In later posts I intend to examine further the question of how and why morality might bind us as natural beings. But I’d like now to turn to another kind of problem posed by biological radicalism, as, again, exhibited by Singer.
Biological Radicalism and Moral Monsters
What, it may be asked, is wrong with a morality that is biologically radical, if it inclines people toward the correct behavior? If it pushes us in the right direction – say, more toward altruistic interests than toward self-interest — isn’t that a good thing, even if we will never come remotely close to being able to live up to those ideals?
In a debate between Singer and Richard Posner on animal rights, Posner makes this comment:
You say that some readers of Animal Liberation have been persuaded by the ethical arguments in the book, and not just by the facts and the pictures. But if so, it is probably so only because these readers do not realize the radicalism of the ethical vision that powers your view on animals, an ethical vision that finds greater value in a healthy pig than in a profoundly retarded child, that commands inflicting a lesser pain on a human being to avert a greater pain to a dog, and that, provided only that a chimpanzee has 1 percent of the mental ability of a normal human being, would require the sacrifice of the human being to save 101 chimpanzees. If Animal Liberation had emphasized these implications of your utilitarian philosophy, it would have had many fewer persuaded readers; and likewise if it had sought merely to persuade our rational faculty, and not to stir our empathetic regard for animals.
Let’s focus here not on Posner’s criticism of Singer’s views as they apply to animal rights, but rather on the more general characteristic of radicalism that Posner ascribes to Singer’s position (it’s interesting that Posner chooses the term “radicalism” here, as have I).
Utilitarianism, as it’s naturally understood, and as Singer interprets it, would require us to sacrifice our own happiness (or pleasure or preferences) if we would bring about a greater improvement in the happiness (or pleasure or preferences) of, say, a man unknown to us in Siberia. But the question is, why should we be bound by the interests of someone unknown to us in Siberia? Singer seems to believe that if we simply think long and hard enough about it, we will see that the interests of the man in Siberia are really every bit as much binding on us as our own interests:
If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.
Now one might argue against Singer’s views here in a variety of ways. I think, though, that the most basic approach is to return to the general question we have already broached: what is the basis for a moral imperative that is binding on us? Conceiving of ourselves as entirely natural beings, on what power or authority can morality demand that we should devote as much effort to the man in Siberia as to our own kin? Is it possible that when exceedingly rigorous moral systems arrogate such power or authority, it might backfire?
There seems indeed something perverse in adopting a moral attitude in which we would regard the interests of any random human being fully as if they were our own. All of our sensibilities tell us, I believe, that only some kind of detached freak would treat the interests of his own kin, and those of a someone utterly unknown to him, as identically compelling.
It’s instructive to consider how this problem really is based on our biology. If we were a species like an intelligent species of eusocial ants, then many of these same utilitarian strictures might well seem quite completely natural to us, and the manner in which they bind our actions entirely acceptable to be incorporated into our moral code. A Peter Singer of intelligent ants advocating for the same sort of sacrifices would not be regarded as an insufferable scold, but as someone articulating the plainest common sense.
There appears to be something critical lost in approaches to morality such as Singer’s. Insofar as the code of morality induces a perspective that takes us away from our fundamental dispositions, it countenances and indeed rewards behaviors that distort one’s emotions in a way that can be highly destructive.
It’s fair to say that one of the great scourges on civilization is that civilized nations have, in the name of ideology, or its brother religion, wrought great carnage and misery on the human species. These systems of belief have often, maybe typically, been built around the notion that they are bringing about a greater good for human beings in aggregate. Certainly Communism has engaged in that sort of massive evil under the banner of Humanity. Likewise both Christianity and Islam have historically conquered, slain, and punished for the improvement of humanity by Salvation. Even the Nazis believed they were serving a good far larger than themselves as individuals, albeit their concern never rose above the interests of the Master Race.
One wants to say that these systems of belief have induced a very real kind of sociopathy in those who fell under their thrall. What they do in service of that ideology runs hard against what they would, in ordinary circumstances, regard as moral or decent behavior. They are engaging in behavior that we, and they in other contexts, would naturally understand as inhuman. This is indeed one of the objections raised to their behavior after the fact of their criminal acts: yes, you may have done this under orders, you may have thought that this would serve some larger, good purpose, but how could you do something that was so self-evidently inhuman? How could your moral conscience have been so corrupted as to find it acceptable to do what you did? We treat them as war criminals most basically because they turned their backs on what their human inclinations to the moral should have urgently demanded from them.
Utilitarianism has been spared the ignominy of Communism, I believe, only because it has not been taken as seriously as an ideology for the broad populace as Communism. On the other hand, one might well make the argument that Communism is the closest representation of utilitarianism in extant political systems, allowing that Communism brought much baggage of its own based on Marxist presuppositions. Taken at its plain meaning, utilitarianism too would have the effect of being followable only by “monsters”– people able and willing psychologically to run so hard against their own natural inclinations (or at least inclinations natural for the vast majority of people) that they must be regarded as unstable outliers from the human species. These individuals would seem capable of performing virtually any action, provided only that it have some plausible ground deriving from the belief system they accept. The more “monstrous” the ideology or religion – the more incompatible are its prescriptions from our dispositions – the more subject it is to perpetrating great enormities.
It may seem a deplorable thing that Singer is not himself able to live up to his own strictures, and from an important point of view of course it is. Yet that strain of hypocrisy may indicate more, not less, humanity in him. Sometimes hypocrisy is a sign of more basic moral and intellectual health. It is thus better that those who purport to believe abortion is murder hypocritically don’t treat the woman who chooses the abortion as a murderer than that they would do so; on some level, their more fundamental humanity wins out.
In general, a morality grounded more directly in human nature is a far safer morality. It abhors monsters. Insofar as one feels obliged to hew closely to one’s basic urgings of conscience, one will find it difficult indeed to go far wrong. This is perhaps the larger message of the proverb, Charity begins at home, and of Candide’s statement, “we must cultivate our own gardens”: we must respect our limits, lest our actions become unconstrained and reckless. I think that one of the goals of a biologically based moral theory will be to define and elaborate a kind of biological “conscience” grounded in our basic dispositions. And, importing this approach into the realm of politics, I believe we can view our current democracies as embodying our individual “biological” consciences writ large; that is their greatest virtue, their greatest source of moral stability.
Singer’s overall position exemplifies a remarkable callousness in other ways as well, I believe. I have been struck by a deep tension, almost contradiction, among some of Singer’s beliefs. For example, he believes both that we should accord animals the same respect that we grant to human beings in certain key respects, yet also believes that it is permissible to engage in infanticide under certain conditions. These two beliefs could hardly be more in opposition, from an emotional point of view. The first seems to require us to stretch our compassion toward a larger circle of sentient beings; the second seems to be monstrous in its lack of compassion toward an even more fellow sentient being. Posner, in his criticism of Singer above, certainly was reacting in part to this kind of inhumanity he discerned in Singer’s position.
Perhaps being a moral monster requires, first and foremost, an unbalancing in one’s dispositions. The sociopath has a selfishness dominate all other dispositions; the ideologue has the “religious” instinct dominate all others. Now whether human beings possess an actual religious instinct, with any real specificity, is unclear to me. That instinct may be simply an attachment to, or obsession with, an overarching idea. Yet what seems clear is that the “religious” instinct, however understood, in hypertrophy comes at the expense of our moral core.