Unpacking Singer a little

I decided to write a little about how I personally interpret Singer, in my own little way, by my own little voice, on my own little blog. In any case, I felt I should put down somewhere exactly how I feel about some of his ideas, being that utilitarianism often appears (to me at least) to be the default ‘best’ ethical standpoint for people of this day and age. While that may or may not be true, and I certainly believe it not to be so, it is useful, popular and flawed hence giving it the hallmarks of something that is good to write about. The first part of my rambling will consist of how I believe Singer approaches the concept of who is more ‘ethical’ and who is less, and why he abandoned radical animal liberationists (good job too). The second part will consist of why I feel adding animals into the picture was a mistake, and leads to some pretty ludicrous situations and the third part will briefly touch on why I feel that utilitarianism, while useful and a good way to live one’s life, has its share of difficulties that I doubt can be overcome. Please note that in this rambling I will not discuss the following hot topics: abortion, what ‘sufferring’ consists of, what ‘the greater good’ represents and I will certainly not be discussing Singer’s latest book because let’s be fair- it’s precisely what he has talked about in the past. Let’s get to it.

Singer doesn’t really talk about this in his main papers, but he often speaks about it in his commentary regarding animal liberation, his support of some companies (McDonald’s investing in healthier burgers for instance) and fan mail enquiring about what decisions based upon their situation, Singer would make. Singer constantly refers to what is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ as opposed to what is ‘utilitarian’ and ‘not utilitarian’ and I feel this strengthens his stance as it moves his ethics to realist grounds from traditional utilitarianism’s lofty utopia. I see Singer’s ethics as a set of accumulating scopes, and the more scopes you are aware of and participate in, the more ‘ethical’ you are. Consider your family. You may be a person who has no investment or interest in society, yet you care about your family. You tend to their needs, get them through college, whatever. You are self-sacrificing to that family and definitely fufill the criteria to be a utilitarian towards them. You are successfully within the ‘scope of the family’. Let’s say you have community spirit, do the neighbourhood watch thing, ensuring the safety of the locals etc. You are in the ‘scope of the neighbourhood’. You can probably see where I’m going with this. While Singer often encourages the ‘scope of the world’ (i.e. supporting people thousands of miles away from you, that you don’t know) he readily accepts some actions as ‘better’ compared to others. So when McDonald’s uses healthier burgers, for whatever goals they want (utilitarianism is teleological anyway) and they address the needs of the ‘scope of customers’ then they have done a better thing. I hope I’ve made it clear, and I’m sure this isn’t a literal idea of Singer’s but it has helped me understand his actions a little better, especially in the context of abandoning animal liberationists (the screwy ones, like PETA). When animal liberationists focus solely on animals and ignore the needs of people, such as firebombing research facilities, they actively abandon several scopes to achieve their goals and thus it is not accumulated. While a good utilitarian in Singer’s eyes is one that possesses a scope that ranges from themselves and continues to increase throughout all scopes until the ‘scope of the world’, a liberationist may have a scope for themselves, family and perhaps their group but leaves out important scopes before animals (which is, as far as I can read Singer, the final ‘scope’) . This makes sense in a lot of ways. For starters it means that anyone applying additional scopes will

a) have views and values firmly entrenched in social requirement

b) will help out the greatest number of people

c) guarantee that the people that the person can help the most will be served first, thus maximising the person’s contributions

d) make damn sure that other scopes and other people are not comprimised. Which is what animal liberation clearly does.


Ok the second part of this ramble deals with Singer adding animals into the mix. I’ll touch on it briefly here and leave the rest and part three for a later date. The main strength of utilitarianism is its elegant simplicity. When I approach an ethical dilemma I have  literal number crunching in order to determine the best possible output (surely an advantage in a capitalist world). Every person has a value of 1 (which I think is ludicrous but we’ll go with it for now), and the best answer the one that creates benefit for the higher value. This value is based on a human’s capacity for sufferring, which I find a bit depressing (again, another point I’ll tackle at a later date), but as Singer observes himself, animals have a reduced capacity for sufferring- how do we determine their value? A ridiculous situation occurs when we try to at once determine how much sufferring a chicken endures (when neuroscience has only gone so far) and simultaneously weigh up that suffering in comparison to humans! Is it ten chickens to the dude? Twenty? Thirty? Is the baseline sufferring for chickens so low that no number could justify the death of a single person? Singer doesn’t answer this, and as far as I can see there isn’t an answer to obtain.

More later… please comment.

~ by freeze43 on December 8, 2008.

One Response to “Unpacking Singer a little”

  1. Is utilitarianism really that elegant or simple? As you point out, when we try and evaluate utility, especially for non-human agents, we end up in ‘ridiculous situations’. I don’t understand why you say such number crunching is ‘surely an advantage in a capitalist world’. Hayek’s ‘economic calculation problem’ argues that a central planner can never have enough information to efficiently manage an economy. The same argument can be made about utilitarianism: no individual can ever have sufficient information about the utility functions of everyone who could be affected by their actions to make an accurate utilitarian calculation. An ethical system which expects its adherents to perform impossible computations is intrinsically broken.

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