More Singer, this time on giving to the poor

It is almost Thanksgiving.  Most of us will spend Thanksgiving in comfort – perhaps a warm fire, certainly a large meal (the kind of meal where you have to undo the top button of your pants in order to make room for pumpkin pie dessert).  Well, chew on this while you gorge yourself:

Singer’s argument about our moral obligations to the poor (by the way, of all of his work, I think this is his best argument)

Singer makes 2 assumptions, both of them look like REALLY safe assumptions.

1) Suffering and death from lack of food, water, shelter, and medical care are bad

 2) If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance, then we ought morally to do it.

Since it is in our power to prevent people from starving to death (by giving more $ to the poor), then we ought to do it.  But notice how radical this is.  His strongest version is that we ought to give up to the point that any further gift would make us worse off than the one to whom we are giving.  Even his weakest version is incredibly challenging: If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening (someone from starving to death), without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, then we morally ought to.

Morally significant things would include education, so I think it would be morally permissible to spend money (or save money) for college expenses.  But, on this view, any and all trivial spending would constitute a failure to live up to our moral obligation to prevent bad things from happening to other people.  

No more movies, no more dinners out, no more unnecessary food at home (pumpkin pie with cool whip, garish holiday feasts).  No spending money on clothes for the sake of being fashionable.  No spending on frivolities of any kind!  

Many in my Social Ethics course this semester agreed to try this for 7 days.  All have reported it to be extremely difficult.

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About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

28 thoughts on “More Singer, this time on giving to the poor

  1. Kleiner Post author

    For a startling statistic: last year, Americans spent 28 BILLION dollars shopping the weekend after Thanksgiving. Sure, it is the season of ‘giving’, but who are we giving to? (are the recipients of most of our xmas gifts really in need?). As it turns out, Americans give (on average) only 3.5% of their annual income to charity.
    Consider taking part in ‘Buy Nothing Day’ next Friday.
    And if you are looking for a charity, I’d highly recommend Heifer International.
    It is a ‘teach em how to fish so they can eat for life’ focused charity. You buy an animal (anything from a rabbit to a water buffalo). The animal is given to a family (along with training and education), and can provide income and nourishment for years to come (milk, meat, fur, offspring, etc). They also ‘pay if forward’ – the first offspring of an animal must be given away, etc etc.

    One more note: I am not casting aspersions here, I am equally guilty. In fact, to quote Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov): ‘Each of us is guilty in everything before everyone, and I more than anyone else.’


  2. Anonymous

    This argument is thought-provoking. However, it is difficult for me to take a philosopher of ethics seriously who endorses the euthanization of handicapped babies. And even this argument is hypocritical, considering that he reputedly only donates 25% of his indubitably sizeable Princeton income to charity. Singer exemplifies the degeneration and obfuscation of philosophy: from Aristotelian virtue ethics to mandatory euthanasia and casual abortion! If one wants to ‘do’ moral philosophy, he should look to the teachings (and lived examples!) of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Theresa, not neo-nazi utilitarians like Singer.


  3. Kleiner Post author

    I am no utilitarian, and no fan of Singer generally. He argues for some things that I find morally atrocious. That being said, I find this argument incredibly moving.

    What worries me about Anonymous’ response is that it would make for a lousy general principle. Suppose we dismiss every argument made by a philosopher who fails to live up to his own principles or who has argued for other things we disagree with. Well I am not sure if we would ever take any argument or philosopher seriously. (Even the mighty Aristotle, who I think is the greatest moral philosopher ever, and his brilliant virtue ethics would be off the board for his sexism).


  4. Anonymous

    Touche. I agree, for the most part. My response was polemical and itself hypocritical. I suppose Singer’s authorship incited a poisonous response because I so vehemently disagree with almost everything I’ve read of his (which is admittedly limited to a few articles and interviews). He does make a strong case for animal rights and moral obligation to the impoverished, though.

    I don’t know that I would go so far as to call the argument too ‘moving,’ though. Convincing, absolutely. Well-reasoned, certainly. But it must have the weight of embodiment to most deeply move me. If Gandhi had said it, it would be another story. I find Mother Theresa’s life moving. I find Walt Whitman’s compassionately attending to wounded civil war soldiers moving. Peter Singer I would be hesitant to call very ‘moving’ in this way. But perhaps this quibble is just semantic…


  5. Dan Tate

    Singer’s argument seems sound to me, whatever his personal failings (though I agree that any argument carries the most weight when embodied). The difficulty for me, however, is in how broad the argument seems to be. Certainly one should avoid triviality in expenditures of all kinds. But we should define triviality.

    Is my writing this blog a trivial use of time (time that could be used in aiding the poor in one manner or another)? One could certainly argue that it is. Or one could argue that it is educational. Is pumpkin pie necessarily trivial? Food is a part of culture, and culture is of utmost importance in one’s education. Listening to or playing Mozart might be an equally unnecessary expenditure of time (cognitive psychologist Stephen Pinker calls music merely ‘intellectual cheesecake). But immersing myself in Mozart might also be one of the best things I can do to educate myself.

    Some expenditures are undeniably trivial- reading the ‘Twilight’ series, for instance (I’m intentionally being culturally controversial here)- but others are more ambiguous or subjective. There must be a dividing line between the necessary and the unnecessary, but sometimes it’s not so clear where that is.


  6. Kleiner Post author

    Singer gives three versions of the moral principle, from strongest to weakest:
    (1) Give to the point of marginal utility. By this he means give to the point where if you gave more you would cause as much suffering to yourself/dependents as you are relieving.
    (2) Give up to the point where more giving would require you to sacrifice something of comparable moral importance.
    (3) Give up to the point where more giving would require you to sacrifice something of moral significance.

    He seems to think that (1) is the real force of the argument, but he is willing to moderate it.

    On (1), you would have to give until you were almost as bad off as, say, tsumani refugees.

    On both (1) and (2), I would think that music would be out. While I think music has ‘moral significance’, surely it is not comparable to someone being saved from starvation. I think Singer wants us to have in mind not just poverty, but ‘radical poverty’. This blog might have some ‘moral significance’ insofar as it is a part of education, but can its moral significance really be compared to life and death struggles for food, clean water, malaria, etc?

    (3) allows for substantially more ‘wiggle room’. It is the only version I think anyone will take all that seriously (the others are just too severe). On this, I think you could take some time for Mozart, but probably not as much as you do! :)

    Singer also suggests that you should not retire early. And you should work as much as possible, second jobs, etc. (Work up to the point that more work would actually make you less productive). In both cases this is because any ‘unnecessary’ leisure time you might take is just time that you could have been spending working (and hence having more to give to prevent bad things from happening).


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  8. K. M.

    Singer’s first assumption is

    1) Suffering and death from lack of food, water, shelter, and medical care are bad

    Bad to whom? By what standard? What would the good be on this standard?


  9. Kleiner Post author

    I think the more apt question might be – on what standard is starvation not bad?

    But to give a more positive account: Human beings seem to be the kind of thing that have an interest in avoiding unnecessary pain. And they are the kind of thing that tends to value continued existence. I am really trying to not be overly-theoretical about this, it is supposed to be intuitively obvious that starving to death is bad.
    Bad to whom? Well, to begin with, bad for the person who is actually starving or thirsting to death. Bad for the person who is actually suffering with these preventable and unnecessary ‘conditions’.
    The good, on this standard, would be something like health and happiness.


  10. Anonymous

    K.M.’s questions baffle me. Kleiner’s response was quite gracious and his restraint had an air of nobility, but there exist such things as absurd questions (moreso when they are also so inhuman).


  11. Scott Stevenson

    For me, Singer’s most powerful part of his essay comes towards the end. He states “What is the point of relating philosophy to public (and personal) affairs if we do not take our conclusions seriously?”


  12. K. M.

    Fair enough. So would you agree that the standard is life?
    By the standard of life, unnecessary pain and suffering would be bad for the person who is suffering. But life is a personal standard and therefore cannot be used to compare the suffering of different people. Can the suffering of a starving man be compared in any way to the suffering of a man who has just lost some money? Can one say that one suffering is greater than the other? Every life is an end in itself.

    With this let me rephrase Singer’s assumptions:

    1) Suffering and death from lack of food, water, shelter, and medical care are bad for the person who suffers

    2) If it is in my power to prevent something bad from happening to me, without thereby sacrificing something of comparable moral importance to me, then I ought morally to do it.

    I agree with both the major and minor premise now. But they do not lead to any conclusion. All I have done is to insert the missing moral agent in the premises.


  13. K. M.

    This being a philosophical blog, no question is absurd enough to be dismissed without argument. And fundamental questions very often appear to be absurd or self-evident.

    About the questions being inhuman, that would be true if you already accept the conclusion or the premises (in their entirety). But that is precisely what I was challenging (Look at my comment above, where I indicate what is missing from the premises). Therefore calling them inhuman is pointless.


  14. Kleiner Post author

    Why does it being a philosophy blog make absurd questions more credible or acceptable? Just because you can say something absurd does not mean that you should. The presumption you’ve made is that philosophical discourse does not follow any rules and that it does not have some inherent intelligibility – as if any and all positions and questions are on equal footing. That said, I agree that sometimes the truth may be counter-intuitive, but in those cases I think it is on the person raising the apparently absurd question to make the argument. I think ‘common sense’ (what we recently called ‘Implicit Philosophy’ on this blog) gets some priority until it is demonstrated that common sense is wrong-headed. You asked a counter-intuitive question, but you initially provided no argument (for why we should think that starvation is not bad).

    To your revised Singer assumptions:
    I think your mistake here is to presume that just because something is experienced by an individual person it is thereby radically subjective. Just because life is ‘personally lived’ and suffering is felt ‘personally’ (it is the individual person that feels it) does not mean that there is no objective standard by which we might ‘measure’ or take account of the pain. I don’t know any utilitarians that don’t think there is some objective standard for pleasure and pain (see Mill’s Utilitiarianism). We would have to make an appeal to experience, but I don’t think it will be all that hard to come up with a rough and ready sliding scale of pains (from trivial to severe), and I think there will be widespread agreement that the pain associated with severe malnutrition would be a far worse pain to have to experience than the loss of money.

    So my response (and I suspect Singer’s) would be this: human beings are the kind of thing such that the suffering caused by serious malnutrition is worse than other kinds of suffering (like losing money). So the assumptions would read like this:
    1) Suffering and death from lack of food, water, shelter, or medical care are among the worst bads for people (any human person that experienced such things would experience them as very painful and bad).
    2) If it is in the power of a human person to prevent something bad from happening to a human person, …. then they ought morally to do it, and we ought to try to prevent the worst bads first.

    All of that said, your revision does raise an important and good question. Even if you grant the point that pain is bad for human persons generally and that certain pains are worse for human persons generally, it may not be immediately obvious to some why I should bother trying to reduce the pain of anyone other than myself. One might think that all (1) shows is that I should try to avoid pain for myself, who says I have to give a shit about anyone else? So even if we grant objective standards in pain, your point is that Singer’s argument seems to have a hidden premise – to move from (1) to (2) requires (2a): that we care about other people.

    Why be moral? That is the question here.

    Well, why should we care about other people? I’ll appeal to Aristotle – we should (and non-vicious people do) care about other people because we are by nature social creatures.


  15. K. M.


    “Why be moral? That is the question here.”
    You are assuming that being moral (being good) is the same as caring for others. That is what I am challenging. Morality is about choice, about those actions that are not necessitated by our nature. Let me make this clearer. By nature, our body digests the food we eat. Digestion is not a moral issue. We do not care for others by nature, we do it by choice and that makes it a moral issue. If it is biologically established that some aspects of “caring for others” are a part of our nature as humans, those aspects would not be moral issues. It makes no sense to say I ought to do so-and-so, if it is my nature to do so-and-so.

    I agree that there can be an objective standard for pleasure and pain. What about happiness and sorrow though? Any standard for these concepts will have to be contextual (not subjective), the context being the individual’s choices and desires. Can you compare the happiness I get from solving a mathematics problem to the happiness someone else gets from writing a blog? Or to the sorrow someone endures on losing a game? Or to the pain someone feels by starving for a day? Can you weigh these and say one is more valuable than the other? Even if you can find a way to know all the contextual information required that is not enough to weigh these. Let me take a simple example (nothing other than physical pain is involved).
    I and someone else (a stranger to me) both have to starve for a day for want of money. You could say that both experience the same amount of pain. But that does not mean that my starvation is equally important to me as the starvation of the stranger. There is no standard to compare these. And since you talked of man’s nature, the fact is that I experience my starvation directly but do not experience the stranger’s pain.


  16. Kleiner Post author

    I don’t think caring for others is necessary, even in some biological sense (I am not sure what you mean when you say it has been ‘biologically established’). While we might be, in some sense, biologically ‘programmed’ to care for our young, there are moms and dads that choose not to. You are right that digestion is not a moral issue, since digestion is not properly an act. But caring for others is an act, as it arises ultimately out of choice (though I think proximately it arises out of habit).

    You can’t get an ought from an is, is that your point? If so, well I think you can.
    ‘Good and being are the really the same, and differ only according to reason. Good presents the aspect of desirableness, which being does not present’ (Aquinas, Summa I.5.1).
    One other point: what I mean by ‘nature’ does not involve necessity. It is a strange fact about human beings that was is natural for them does not come ‘naturally’ (they require education, including moral education). This is because we are free and rational, rather than determined and merely instinctual.

    Regarding objective standards – what you’ve done is shift the terms of the debate, but doing so does not change anything. Since you now grant that there could be an objective standard for pleasure and pain made by an appeal to human nature, we’d have to sort out how pleasure and pain are different from ‘happiness and sorrow’ (you shift to those categories and now deny that there is any objective standard with those). Frankly, if there is an objective standard for the one – made through an appeal to human nature – I don’t see why there wouldn’t be an objective standard for the other. This is precisely what Aristotle does with respect to happiness, he works out an objective standard by appealing to human nature and function. Besides, the utilitarian (like Singer) treats ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ as basically synonymous.


  17. K. M.

    I agree with most of what you said but you did not address my main point – that the concept value cannot be separated from the valuer. To put it in terms of an example. My starving for a day could be as painful for me as the stranger’s starving is for the stranger. But what does the stranger’s starving mean to me?

    “Besides the utilitarian (like Singer) treats ‘pleasure’ and ‘happiness’ as basically synonymous” Not just that. He also says that all men should be equally important to every moral agent. What is the basis for that?


  18. Kleiner Post author

    I don’t usually come to the defense of Singer, but I will play the part here.

    Singer is an egalitarian, that is why he thinks all men deserve equal moral consideration. Frankly, I don’t think that is a bad principle. It is hard to see how giving more moral consideration to person A over and against person B would be anything other than ultimately arbitrary or dangerously tribal.

    I take it you have now come to agree that there is an objective standard for pleasure/happiness and pain/sorrow. Your question is now ‘what does the stranger’s starving mean to me?’ When you say that the value cannot be separated from the valuer, I take it you are saying that reason only moves us to care about their own welfare, and that one need not care about the welfare of others? Is that what you are saying? If so, then you are asking, ‘why be moral?’ Why should I care to maximize value for anyone other than myself?
    I think the short answer is that you need not, there is no necessity in it. People are free to be selfish and immoral assholes if they want, right? Why ought you care for the other? How about this: all men have a natural desire for the good (to be ‘happy’). Moral action and participation in the moral community (care for others) is a basic part of human flourishing (happiness). This is a vulgar form of Aristotle’s argument (I must make it vulgar to respond to the selfish challenge), but essentially the claim would be this: you want to be happy, but being moral (caring for others) is a basic part of the happy life. You cannot be really happy unless you are really moral.

    But I am inclined to think that account is unnecessary, and unnecessarily ‘abstract’. The response to you that I would really want to make would be a ‘pre-theoretical’ and phenomenological point. I have in mind Levinas and Buber. Why should the sufferings of others matter to you? They simply do, and this is obvious when you look at the ‘face’ of the other. The ‘face’ of the other itself places a demand on you. This demand is ‘older than’ moral philosophy. Before moral philosophers try to sort out duty and obligation and interest, the face of the other always already says ‘feed me, care for me, do not kill me.’
    One is free to refuse that call, but refusing the call entails a grave devaluation of the dignity of the human person, and I am inclined to think it tells a ‘bad lie’ about man (that he is a radical individual rather than being an inter-dividual).

    Quick aside: I recall some years ago I was making a similar argument – why should I care about anyone else’s value, it seems I should only care for my own. My professor replied to me (close paraphrase): ‘Not all moral positions deserve argument. Those that think they should simply care for themselves and not a wit for others don’t need moral arguments, they need a spanking.’ I think he is right. Recall that Aristotle thinks you can only do moral philosophy if you already have properly habituated moral beliefs. One does not engage in moral philosophy with children, and the view that I need not care for anyone other than myself is, frankly childish.

    I have a feeling, though, that I am still missing your point. I hope I have not been attacking a mere straw man here. If so, let me put a question to you. Do you think that the starving of others does not mean anything to you? Why do you think it does not matter to you what happens to others?


  19. K. M.

    You are attacking something of a strawman. If you read my comments carefully, you will notice that I never said that I do not “care about others”. I merely asked why I should care for others and what standard should I use to decide what their values mean to me. Those were not rhetorical questions.

    Your comments indicate that you define ‘moral’ as caring for others. You give three reasons for why this is so. Let me take them one by one.
    1) Caring for others is a basic part of human happiness.
    I am happy when I achieve my desires. Being free, I control and choose my desires. Other than a desire to be free from pain, I have no natural desires. And even the desire to be free of pain can be resisted, and sometimes is resisted to satisfy other desires. Thus caring for others is not a natural desire, but a chosen one. The question is why should I choose that and hold it above a desire to make money, a desire to study physics, a desire to make friends, a desire to have good food etc? Again this is not a rhetorical question. I am looking for a real answer. And the answer should also enable me to rank those other desires.
    2) The suffering of others matters to me because the ‘face of the other’ places a demand on me that says ‘feed me, care for me, do not kill me’
    Frankly, very few people I have met actually make such demands, nor do I make such demands on others. You might say that the demands are not made openly, but they are there implicitly. Why are they not made openly? Is it not because people generally feel ashamed in asking for help for their own problems? Is it not because the capacity of not requiring help is a crucial part of one’s self esteem? Is it not because pleas for food and care are beneath human dignity? And even if a tiny minority does make such demands, that does not answer the question, “Why should the demand be accepted?”
    3) Not all moral positions deserve argument, some deserve a spanking. That might do for a child not yet capable of thought. It will not do for an adult and I am not a child. You can choose to redefine words and have ‘moral’ mean ‘caring for others’ (that is certainly not the dictionary meaning of the word). That would be valid if it were self-evident, but my arguments in 1. and 2. above should make it clear that it is not self-evident.

    Let me now stop asking questions and present where ‘caring for others’ fits into my value hierarchy and why. A value is an object of desire. Something that i do not desire is not a value to me. Since desires belong to individuals, and since no one can force a desire on me, it is only my desires that determine what I hold to be my values. The satisfaction of my desires gives me happiness and that is something that is an end in itself, in the sense that I do not seek happiness to serve some larger goal. I seek it for its own sake. But I cannot choose desires at random and expect to achieve them. Some desires might be harmful for my health or my life, or may simply be impossible to attain. It is irrational to choose such desires. This gives me a standard to evaluate and rank desires, the standard of life and reality. I can ask questions like “Is this desire possible to attain?”, “Is this desire harmful to my life in the long term (or even in the short term)?” The answers to such questions give me an objective way to evaluate, compare and choose between desires. How does this relate to “caring for others”? First I realize that other humans, by virtue of being human, are also free and capable of being rational. That they share the same necessities of life with me and are capable of obtaining them by their efforts. That just like me, they are better at some kinds of work and worse at others. That I can trade with them. That their pursuit of values is not a hindrance to my pursuit of mine but a potential value (through trade). That living in a society of men who trade with each other makes my pursuit of values much easier. That such a society requires certain social, legal and political structures and most importantly, a proper definition of rights. This is what I mean by “caring for others (strangers)” – respecting the fact that others have rights just as I do, choosing not to initiate force against them, regarding them as potential values. I also choose friends by evaluating their character and their values and hold them as actual (not potential) values. This is also what I mean by “caring for others (friends)”.

    To summarize, my life and happiness is my ultimate value, reality (circumstances) and the requirements of my life are the standard by which I choose my desires (and values), rational thought is the process by which I do so, character and rationality are the criteria I use to judge others and decide whether to care for them or to regard them as a threat. Caring for others is merely a conditional consequence of my moral code, not its defining characteristic and certainly not the equivalent of morality.

    Now it seems clear that you mean something more than what I indicated when you talk of “caring for others”. What more and why?


  20. Kleiner Post author

    I did not accuse you of not caring for others (I don’t know what you do), I just restated your question – your question is, “Why be moral?” (I am taking that in some broad, pre-theoretical sense here, something like ‘Why should I give a crap about anyone other than myself?’). I have not meant to reduce morality to ‘caring for others’, though I certainly think caring for others is a big part of morality. Morality concerns how we ought to live, and this includes how we ought to act with respect to others.

    I think you understate how many natural desires you have. As it happens, you agree with Singer when you say that your only natural desire is to avoid pain (psychological hedonism). I disagree with you and Singer here. I think we also have, for instance, a natural desire for knowledge, for community, for intimacy, for friendship, etc. These natural desires can be frustrated, we can choose to habituate them or not.

    I happen to think you cannot do much ethics until you have done some metaphysics of man (philosophical anthropology). This is why I kept appealing to the nature of man. We need to sort out what our natural desires our, what is good for our nature, etc. You seem to take yourself (as most moderns do) to be a radical individual. But I think an adequate philosophical anthropology will show us that man is more ‘inter-dividual’ than individual. It is not the case that first we are individuals and then we enter communities (through social contracts or some other principle of modern political liberalism). Rather, I think we are first members of communities, we are with others before we are with ourselves, so to speak.

    Regarding Levinas – of course people don’t make these demands overtly (usually). And this is not because they are ashamed or think asking others for help is beneath human dignity. One would think that community (asking others for help) is beneath human dignity only if they first thought that what it is to be human is to be a self-sufficient island unto themselves.
    The point about the face is that, once we get behind the modern myth of radical individualism and the isolated and self-sufficient ego, we see that before we have even thought we are already being-for-others. Because of individualistic ideologies, we tend to cover the ‘face of the other’ over. But when you have kids, you will see the face in the young and dependent infant.
    But here is the trick – you (and I and everyone else) are just as dependent as that infant. Try, please try, to live for 1 week without depending on anyone else for anything. (Heat your own home with wood you chop. Eat food you have grown yourself. Make your own clothes. Etc etc)

    But our dependence is even deeper than that. Everything you think is shaped by your cultural inheritance. So I am also not convinced that someone cannot ‘force a desire’ on you. Again, I think you drastically overstate our individuality, you take us to be radically distinct individuals. To the contrary, I think we are all first and foremost members of communities and cultures. All of your desires are learned (I almost completely reject the category of ‘spontaneous’ or ‘free’ desire). Where did your desires come from? From you parents, your culture, advertisements, etc. Parents actively shape those desires in their children. You did not invent yourself or make yourself from scratch. Once you are old enough to even be reflective, you always already have a personality, a collection of beliefs about the good and true and beautiful. There is no Cartesian starting point, no presupposition-less beginning for reflection. Reflection always begins with an inheritance.
    So I agree that you desire happiness for its own sake. But what that happiness consists of is not randomly chosen by you. It is a function of your nature and your culture – your inheritance.

    You are an psychological egoist of sorts – you think that the sole motivation for human action is self-love. This includes buying completely into the modern concept of the individual and some sort of social contract as the basis for community. You sound a lot like Ayn Rand. Now, like all psychological egoists, you avoid the charge of being merely selfish by redefining self-interest to include the interests of others.

    My objection to psychological egoism is first and foremost ‘metaphysical’. The philosophical anthropology is wrong. Reasons for thinking this: (a) We sometimes act in ways that we know will not promote our own happiness (jealousy, envy, love). In other words, I am not sure about your definition of value as an ‘object of desire’. Can’t some desires be disordered? In other words, the satisfaction of some desires might actually be bad for you, some objects of desires would not then be ‘values’. (b) Just because we might get some pleasure from satisfied desires does not demonstrate that this was the reason why we acted. Aristotle, for instance, argues that we become happy when we aim at something other than happiness. Happiness is a welcome side effect of moral action, not the immediate end.

    To the psychological egoist, I would ask these questions
    i) What is it that makes you so special, that your interests are to be pursued solely (caring for others only when it is in your ultimate best interest)? Does the sun rise and set over you and no one else?
    ii) Can you make any sense of gift-giving? Can you make any sense of love? Mustn’t you, on your view, reduce those things to mere contractual exchanges aimed at self-aggrandizement? In so doing, aren’t you precisely not giving gifts, not really loving? Isn’t love at least this – the state of affairs where one chooses the good of the other, even if it has nothing to do with their own good (and may actually be contrary to it)? In other words, the egoist cannot really say ‘for better or for worse’.
    You might bite the bullet here and admit that you cannot love in this sense, and you will likely accuse me of creating elaborate cover-ups. I have little response to that, for the egoist there is always a hidden self-interest lurking somewhere. It is hard to argue against that position, since they insist on something that is in the end really counter to our moral intuition (and even our own sense of ourselves when we report doing altruistic things), just for the sake of sticking to an ideology. In the end, I end up thinking it rather sad.

    By the way, I don’t think all adults really are capable of moral thought. You seem smart enough, but smarts do not guarantee moral clarity, and age does not guarantee an advance over childishness (marked principally by thinking only ‘me me me’). I am not calling you childish – I don’t know you at all. I’m just saying that some adults, particularly small-souled childish adults whose chant is always ME ME ME, might need a ‘spanking’.


  21. Alex

    It’s been quite some time since I’ve posted here, though I’ve continued to frequent the site on a daily basis. Just wanted to stop by and give my ‘thanks’ for keeping this site such a fantastic place to raise ideas and questions – even if the answers remain elusive :-)

    I remember this article from Social Ethics last year and how it challenged EVERYONE in the class. Singer’s basic presumptions are, to me, simply too fool-proof to attack his argument. I wanted so very much to be able to dismiss his conclusion (especially since it seems to be such a radical conclusion to two very simple starting points) but I simply couldn’t. Unless someone (Perhaps K. M?) pokes a hole in Singer’s logic, we’re all (99.99% of people?!) going to be revealed for the bastards we truly are.

    The administration at USU needs to step-in and tell Kleiner to stop presenting this article on Thanksgiving weekend, my turkey was curiously less-tasty last year. You’re a sick, sick man!


  22. K. M.

    You are quite right that one can’t do moral philosophy without metaphysics. From the parts of your comment relevant to the nature of man, you claim
    1) Man has a natural desire for knowledge, for community, for intimacy, for friendship, etc.
    2) Everything man thinks is shaped by his cultural inheritance. Reflection always begins with an inheritance.
    3) Man is an inter-dividual, first a member of communities.
    4) Man is dependent on others (or society).
    5) All of man’s desires are learned.
    6) Man’s happiness is a function of nature and (inherited) culture.

    First, completely missing from this description (notably points 4, 5 and 6) is any mention of choice. Do you believe in determinism? If you do, then I am afraid I wasted my time. Until you confirm that, let me assume that you do not believe in determinism.
    Let me address your points one by one
    1) Desires for knowledge, community, intimacy, friendship etc are learned desires, not natural ones. The desire to be free from pain is natural because man’s body is “programmed” that way. There is no choice about it. It can be resisted but cannot be erased. The other desires can be erased.
    2) You are right that culture plays a major role in shaping man’s thoughts, but the key word is ‘shaping’ (not ‘determining’). I wrote a post some time back that analyzes this role. The crucial point is that man always retains the ability to examine, evaluate, accept, reformulate or reject any of the ideas that he has “picked up”, provided he chooses to do so. Reflection begins with an inheritance but doesn’t end there. This ability of man is the engine of change and progress, both scientific and cultural. It is by rejecting the authority of religion that (some) men became secular, by the rejection of god that they (some) became atheists, by the examination of nature that they became scientists, by the reformulation of existing ideas that they evolved their theories. Culture shapes the thoughts of children. Some of these children grow up into men and then shape culture. Everything that is learned from other men (via culture) can and should be questioned and validated, most importantly one’s principles. That is why we do philosophy.
    3) Certainly man doesn’t enter a community as a fully formed individual. He is in a community the moment he is born and its culture shapes his initial thoughts. But that does not change the fact that there is no such thing as group-thinking. Every decision a man makes is ultimately his own choice. We communicate with individuals, we argue with individuals, we cooperate with individuals. To convince a group of men, you have to convince every single individual. We do not control other people’s thoughts or even access them. That requires communication. And communication is only possible if both parties actively process it in their minds. If one of us succeeds in convincing the other (or even if not), it will be because both of us have made the voluntary and independent choice of engaging in a debate – trying to understand the other person’s argument, and framing a counter argument, purely an individual effort on both our parts. ‘Knowledge’ and ‘understanding’ are words that only make sense in an individual context. 2 + 2 = 4 is not knowledge for me, if I do not know the symbols. a + a = 2 * a does not give me an understanding of algebra, until I validate it by induction.
    4) Yes, man is indeed dependent on others – for food and education as a child. Adult man (living in a post savage society) is also dependent on others for trade. But in itself, this fact only provides motivation for discovering what the appropriate interaction between men should be. In itself, it does not provide a standard for evaluating the importance of other people’s values. It just shows that other people’s values are important. One has to look at other aspects of man’s nature to understand how important they are and what their relationship is to his own values.
    5) Some of man’s desires are certainly chosen and any learned desire can be unlearned with effort. This is essentially a matter of determinism versus choice.
    6) Since some desires are chosen and any learned desire can be unlearnt, happiness is a function of choices, nature and culture. The only things man can control are his own choices, and proper principles for making choices is what morality is all about.

    So what do I consider to be the nature of man?
    1) Man is conscious.
    2) Man is capable of choice.
    3) Man has the capacity of understanding his surroundings and himself by thinking (using reason and logic) and retaining his thoughts in the form of concepts and principles.
    4) Man’s mind works as an independent entity. It cannot be forced. Force can only destroy it.
    5) Man is mortal and therefore his life is his ultimate value. No values are possible if he is not alive.
    6) Man has a built in pleasure-pain mechanism that makes certain physical stimuli naturally desirable or undesirable.
    7) Man’s psychology is such that the satisfaction of his desires gives him happiness.
    8) Man requires a certain period of time (around 15 years) to develop his mind and body fully.


  23. K. M.

    Now let me address some other points in your comment that I object to.
    You claim that like all psychological egoists, I avoid the charge of being merely selfish by redefining self-interest to include the interests of others. I do not. I merely claim that normally the interests of rational people do not conflict. My interest is my life. Living in a society, in normal circumstances (outside of emergencies), the pursuit of my interest is helped by and requires cooperation with others as long as they are rational. Even while I cooperate with rational men, my interest does not include theirs, nor does their interest include mine. Our interests do not conflict. And in the case of dealing with irrational men, when interests do conflict, I would not hesitate to kill someone if he attempts to use lethal force against me if that is practical. And I do not hesitate to support a government that has among its powers, the power to use lethal force in retaliation by objective and pre-defined procedures.
    You wrote
    ”I am not sure about your definition of value as an ‘object of desire’. Can’t some desires be disordered? In other words, the satisfaction of some desires might actually be bad for you, some objects of desires would not then be ‘values’. (b) Just because we might get some pleasure from satisfied desires does not demonstrate that this was the reason why we acted.”
    I think you are arguing against hedonism and I agree. I should have been more precise. Objectively, value is an ‘object of desire’ if the desire is rational. That is, if the desire is not contradictory to man’s ultimate value – his life – by the standard of the requirements of life and the nature of circumstances.
    You asked
    ” What is it that makes you so special, that your interests are to be pursued solely (caring for others only when it is in your ultimate best interest)?”
    The fact that psychologically, my happiness is an end in itself, and it can only be achieved by the satisfaction of my own desires.
    ” Can you make any sense of gift-giving? Can you make any sense of love?”
    Not in the way you define love. To me, love (and on a decreasing scale – reverence and admiration) is the ultimate trade – where one trades spiritual (for lack of a better word) values and not just material ones. ‘for better or for worse’ means material circumstances, not flaws of character. I would not continue loving someone if that person lost my respect. To do so would be both unjust and destructive. To me, love like any other proper interaction between men must be earned. Unconditional love is either self-deception (and therefore harmful) or fake.
    You mentioned that I sound a lot like Ayn Rand. I certainly owe her a lot for my ideas and I would have mentioned that earlier, but for the unfortunate fact that any mention of her name usually rules out the possibility of further debate, free of unnecessary name-calling.
    Finally, this is the first time I have put these ideas in writing in this level of detail and I thank you for your replies which motivated me to do so. When I posted my first comment, I did not think it would develop into this exchange. By the way, here is an example of how cooperation is possible without “caring for others”. I do not know you one bit and certainly do not “care for you”, and yet we can have a meaningful debate.


  24. Kleiner Post author

    KM –
    It does seem to have been a fruitful discussion, not that we came to any consensus but some interesting ideas were explored. I am afraid I will have to ease off the discussion now, I have a pile of papers to grade and have to focus my efforts on such end of semester duties.
    At the end of the day we disagree, in large part because I have a broader conception of human nature than you do. A quick list of differences:
    – You have (from my point of view) a rather reduced conception of man. He has only one natural desire (presumably only things that are ‘biologically programmed’ like avoiding pain).
    – You also have a much wider notion of freedom. I am not a determinist, but I am not nearly as libertarian as you are when it comes to the human will.
    – While I agree that culture only conditions rather than determines, I see that conditioning as much stronger than you seem to. While it is the case that one becomes, say, an atheist by rejecting [the culture’s] god, we should remember that the West produces atheists of a certain kind. Even in their rejection, the culture still shapes not just what they think but, more dramatically, how they think.
    – As such, while I have a pretty high view of human reason, it is not as high as yours. I don’t think it boils down so neatly to ‘individual rationality’ or tidy presupposition-less starting points from which the individual privately chooses.
    – Finally, I think gifts and love are real, perhaps the most real things of all – even if they are, in some sense, ‘beyond reason’.

    Some people think Rand is just the cat’s meow. I must confess, I just don’t see it. It seems to be to just an ideology of the individual. But you present a well thought out point of view.

    One parting shot in response to your last comment: I don’t know you, but I do care for you. I engaged in the conversation not simply for my own sake but also for yours. And I don’t think I am deceiving myself or being fake when I say that.

    Happy Thanksgiving!



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