Unpacking Singer a little pt2.

Ok last time we looked at some of the functions of Singer, and I recieved a nice comment from wilkox which I’ll take apart now as it pretty seamlessly draws in to what I was going to ramble about for part 2 on why adding animals into the utilitarian picture was a mistake and part 3 will cover why utilitarianism is impossible to maintain (even with Singer’s redraft of ‘better’ and ‘worse’). 

  As you point out, when we try and evaluate utility, especially for non-human agents, we end up in ‘ridiculous situations’

Wilkox and I agree on this point and it was covered about as much as it could be in the last post. The evaluation of ‘utility’ (which when you consider the etymology of the word should have little to do with sufferring) with non-human agents removes the elegance of the system by adding fractions; fractions which challenge the singular value of 1 for each human and thus lapse into number crunching. But why do I feel the number crunching to be an advantage compared to wilkox, who I quote:

 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.  An ethical system which expects its adherents to perform impossible computations is intrinsically broken.

Wilkox here makes the distinction of economy with Hayek (who I have zero knowledge of, but I will take a rough guess at what is being aimed for) and the processes of an efficient economy compared to the calculations set forth by utilitarianism. Now, I am no advocate of Singer, but I would hazard a guess that, irrespective of the teleology that utilitarianism is all about, that he would feel a better thing would be done if we at least attempted to reduce sufferring. The number crunching is theoretically valid at least in extremes such as death. I can for instance, justify saving 1000 human lives (value 1000) over 2000 chicken lives with maybe a value of 50. There are definitely clear cut cases, but in more complex matters I don’t think it would be a bigger stretch for at least some appreciable direction. Saving the environment is a good thing if it helps people, making wells to give water to the poor and so on. Even at incredibly complex cases for instance when religion gets involved (do we allow the 10 000 worshippers of Azuk continue to practice their beliefs and feel spiritually enlightened, even if they occasionally digress into female circumcision?) if we attempt a decent direction to follow, Singer would probably be happier with it.
It is here however that we come into problems that I suppose I’ll answer now, so we’ll leave animals out of the picture for the time being. Consider what sort of words we are using compared to what Singer suggests. We allow the Azuk people to continue their spiritual journeys, Wilkox speaks of a central planner. We’re losing a lot of liberties here at the expense of a reduction in sufferring. Of course Singer as I previously mentioned uses better and worse and encourages as opposed to enforces- would Singer be happy with an enforced utilitarianism? If he isn’t, and he certainly is not advocating it, what sort of values or things is he accepting as an affront to his ethics yet accepts them?
It could be that Singer is speaking at practical terms. No one is going to listen to him if he denounces all else against sufferring reduction and enforces a strict regime against it. It could be that Singer realises the unrealistic requirements of utilitarianism (an honesty that Wilkox has said to me many times is one trait of Singer worth noting), that we cannot be utilitarian as it against our nature (which leads into animals but that’s for another time).
If I’m going to refer back to my previous post however, it may well be that Singer’s own ‘levels’ as I have hypothesised are inherently flawed. Consider the levels of sufferring below that of the individual. Base pain, a pain of physical attributes. A lost limb is a base pain. A higher, more complex sufferring is that of losing a loved one, or failing to succeed at something you wanted, or a desire for some ethereal understanding which has zero affect on your survival. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that the lower levels of satisfaction must be met in order to attain the next-physical needs at the lowest, love needs at the highest. The sympathy of someone with a physical sufferring is weak for somebody who satisfies those needs. In this way, those who can help are all animal liberationists- we skip the levels, ignore them even, they are a part of our lives and slip away unnoticed. Those in physical need cannot help others in physical need or else they will die or suffer more (utilitarians would not agree with their actions therefore), but those who are above the level of physical sufferring are detached from that understanding at least in part. It is our nature to mix with people at our levels of understanding in any case, and perhaps this is a force Singer appreciates and says we must battle with. Perhaps the levels of sufferring do not merely expand, they also shrink.
More later… sorry for the delay btw.



~ by freeze43 on February 8, 2009.

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