|The Radicalism of Peter Singer|
- Published on Thursday, 09 October 2014 07:46
Peter Singer is both loved and hated in equal measure. Banned from speaking in Germany for his views on the moral status of the foetus and the newly born, he is also widely respected because, for example, he has consistently given away a substantial proportion of his income to those whose interests he considers to be more pressing than his own (and there are plenty of those in the world). In this blog I explore this contradiction in Singer, whilst seeking to explain why I disagree with him.
The Universal Viewpoint
Preference utilitarianism seeks to maximise what all rational people affected by an action on balance prefer, after all factors including consequences are taken into account. Peter Singer’s definition of the good can be summed up thus: "the good to be maximized by our actions is not a net gain in pleasure or happiness, but instead a net gain in preferences fulfilled” (Fellenz, 60). On one level this is a simpler idea than the classical utilitarianism of Bentham because it avoids the tricky idea of adding up hedons (my auto spellcheck keeps changing that to herons, but Bentham believed we could attach a unit of pleasure called a hedon to actions and then add them up in a hedonic calculus). But in two ways Singer’s theory is more complex than Bentham’s. First of all it invokes the idea of ‘interests’. The idea of interest is wider than just preferences - it has a kind of objective status because even if I am not able to state a preference I can still have an interest. A small baby has an interest for example. And secondly Singer widens his definition of what can have interests to include ‘all sentient beings’ - that is higher order primates who can have interests too.
So we can sum his theory up in this way - maximise preferences while at the same time (when a preference cannot be stated openly) consider interests of all those affected by your decision (including all conceivable consequences). In employing this form of assessment there is an element of idealism in Singer, and we have to ask whether this is realistic. the idealism comes in employing the idea of the universal viewpoint.
Imagine I throw a pebble into a pond. Ripples move out in concentric circles and then gradually fade into the distance. Most of us operate with circles of interest and hence circles of moral value. In the centre is me, and maybe my children. Next is my partner and immediate family - parents, brothers and sisters. Next my four close friends, and then after that maybe my wider family, aunts and uncles, then neighbours, and so on. Right out a mile or so away is the faint ripple of the starving of Africa, or the war victim in Syria. They barely figure in our consideration of interests. Singer says we cannot operate morally like that. Everyone’s interests are to count the same, and hence if the African child has interests that outweigh my own child's (eg for food right now or medicine) they must come first. Radical, yes. Idealistic, yes. Realistic, no.
The moral controversy heightens when we consider what Singer says about moral status. How do we define who is ‘in’ to the preference calculations and who is ‘out’. He writes "for preference utilitarians taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being, because persons are highly future-oriented in their preferences…in contrast, beings who cannot see themselves as entities with a future cannot have any preferences about their own future existence” (Practical Ethics).
Notice that A hierarchy of moral value has been introduced here. I’m going to give this hierarchy points score to make it clear how it works.
Sentience - ability to feel - 1 point.
Consciousness - ability to know pain and pleasure and react to it - 2 points
Sense of a future - 3 points
Ability to express a preference rationally - 4 points
Singer’s argument is basically this - those that score 4 points have more moral worth (or is it moral power?) than those who score one point. How does he apply this? He argues that if a parent decides to have an abortion the ability to state the preference (4 points) outweighs the foetus’ ability to feel something (1 point), that’s assuming foetuses can feel something at say 18 weeks gestation. And if a parent doesn’t want an infant, it is in certain circumstances permitted to kill the infant. This is because the parent’s preferences, (4 points) outweigh the infant’s interest in living (2 points). Yes, Singer allows infanticide in certain restricted situations.
Unfortunately there is a fundamental flaw in Singer’s argument. Having argued consistently for equal consideration of interests (the universal viewpoint) he now argues for an unequal consideration of interests depending on whether you are a superior, four point individual or an inferior two point individual, the difference being whether you have a sense of a past and a future. In other words, higher order rational beings, able to speak, think, choose, have moral superiority over the others (foetuses, animals, infants, those in comas, elderly people with alzheimer’s). And having argued consistently against speciesism - the ranking of human beings above animals on grounds of our superior conscious life - he now reintroduces the very same idea in saying that those entities with a sense of a future are of greater moral worth. And perhaps even worse, morally, he grants them power of life and death over those who are ‘weaker’ (have less points in my crude illustration) in this strange scale of value.
This is a new form of speciesism - the speciesism of the rationally superior - and for this reason it is morally repugnant.
Reference: Fellenz, Marc R. "Utilitarian Arguments: The Value of Animal Experience." The Moral Menagerie: Philosophy and Animal Rights. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.Add a comment