Peter Singer’s op ed on the distinction between good and bad charity is a provocation. It’s a provocation because he makes a strong assertion—that his brand of Utilitarian ethics can help philanthropy “make the biggest possible impact in the world,” and because he supports this assertion with the barest hint of an argument. He presents what are typical Utilitarian-style dilemmas and invites the reader to resolve them—e.g., should you use a $100,000 gift to help build a new museum wing or to save 1,000 people from blindness?—but these thought experiments fall far short of establishing his thesis, and they suffer from a number of hair-raising leaps in logic that are, in my experience, typical of academic moral theory.* More troubling, perhaps, Singer takes great care to narrowly frame the choices faced by the average donor, magically reducing the breadth and complexity of these choices to a bare Utilitarian disjunction.
To understand Professor Singer’s point of view, it helps to know something about the theory of Utility developed by Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, and elaborated upon by scores of moral philosophers ever since. In a nutshell, Mill argues that when making a choice between two actions, we should choose the action that maximizes the overall “utility,” or, equivalently, that produces the most good. For Mill the greatest good, the summum bonum, was happiness, which he further defined as pleasure and the absence of suffering.
Note that this is not a theory about how people do in fact make moral choices; it’s a prescription for how we should make these choices. It’s intended to regulate rather than describe behavior. And it appears to lead us to right action in a wide variety of cases we encounter daily.
I will spare the reader the dizzying number of arguments made for and against Mill’s views; the creative variations (Rule Utilitarianism, Preference Utilitarianism, etc.); the head-spinning alternatives to Utilitarian-style theories. I will, however, sketch some of the most salient problems with the theory and invite the reader to do a little more research, weighing all these things in his or her heart:
1. The first challenge facing any prescriptive moral theory is the question of why we should accept it in the first place. There are, after all, competing formulations (e.g., the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, etc.) that inspire what many of us would judge to be “moral” behavior, and that are not clearly equivalent to the Principle of Utility. Professor Singer criticizes the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) website because it asserts that there’s no objective answer to the question, ‘What is the most urgent issue that a donor might address?’ He then attempts to prove his point by sketching an argument grounded in the Principle of Utility. But since there is no deductively valid argument establishing the truth of the Principle of Utility, why should we accept his argument? I should clarify that there is no such deductively valid argument anywhere—not in Singer’s article, nor in his books, nor in anybody’s books. It’s not in these places because it doesn’t exist. Inductive arguments abound, but there is none that moral theorists universally judge to be strong. In light of this uncertainty, RPA’s assertion doesn’t seem so far off the mark.
So how do you make a case for any moral theory? At the very least you would want to show that the moral judgments generated by your theory accord best with those made by … whom? the Dalai Lama? Kim Kardashian? some other competent moral authority? If our theory doesn’t yield the judgments we expect, shouldn’t we abandon it? And here we come to a second problem with Singer’s argument …
2. The Principle of Utility appears to support some outrageous moral choices. Since Professor Singer is fond of hypothetical scenarios, here’s one of my favorites from college days. Imagine that in some post-apocalyptic world, you are a denizen of a nation of sadists. You take pleasure in watching other people experience pain. One day, the only other human being on earth chances across your borders and is taken prisoner. One of your number suggests that each day at six o’clock in the evening, the unfortunate prisoner, who is by no means a masochist, be tortured and that his torture be televised throughout the country bringing pleasure to hundreds of millions of sadists. As a good Utilitarian you reason that the pain inflicted on the prisoner is far outweighed by the overwhelming amount of pleasure you produce for your fellow citizens. If the Principle of Utility requires that we torture a human being for the pleasure of others, can it really be a guide for right action?
This is but one of hundreds of counterexamples adduced throughout the years to cast doubt on Utilitarian theories in their many variations. You can find a classic thought experiment, the so-called the “Trolley Problem,” and some of its cousins described here.
3. Those readers who are already on their second or third cup of coffee will have noticed some of the lacunae in my gloss of Utilitarian theory. How do we, except in a few very narrow cases, know what action will produce the most good? How can I measure the good I produce? And who gets to determine what it is that we should try to maximize—i.e., what it is that constitutes the “greatest good”?
On this last point, you will find a great deal of shimmy-shammying in Singer’s article. Initially, he asks us where a $100,000 donation will do the most good, without telling us what he assumes the nature of that good to be. In the very next sentence, we’re asked where this donation will “lead to the bigger improvement in the lives of those affected by it.” But is this the same as producing the most good? A little further on in the article, it’s “the biggest possible positive difference to the world” that we’re after, which then shifts immediately to “the most positive impact for your time and money.” Are these all equivalent? And if so, doesn’t Professor Singer need to establish that they are? And what, in instrumental terms, does any one of them mean? These are his formulations, but might not the greatest good for some be that we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and that we love our neighbors as ourselves?
* * * * * *
Here’s the kicker: Professor Singer is intimately acquainted with these and many other objections to Utilitarian-style arguments. And yet he proposes to bring into philanthropic choice-making—as part of some purported “emerging international movement”— the same apparatus that has failed to win consensus in the domain of moral theory and that moreover, in the eyes of many, leads to manifestly bad, and, in some cases, horrifying moral choices!
Professor Singer is clearly counting on the philanthropic community to engage the argument and sort these issues out in reasoned debate. This, for reasons I’ve alluded to before, is not likely to happen.
In my view, the biggest challenge to Singer’s suggestion is the problem of the philanthropic “blank slate”— what I’ve called elsewhere the “Ur Question” in philanthropy. In Professor Singer’s scenarios, the choices for the donor have already been tightly narrowed: e.g., you either prevent blindness or you help open a new museum wing. Some form of Utilitarian reasoning might help you there. But many donors, when they start out on their philanthropic journeys, do not face such stark choices. They want to do the most good they can for the world but encounter an infinite number of possibilities. Is it better to fund direct services for the poor, or to fund the changing of those social, economic, and political structures that produce poor people in such prodigious numbers? It might be true that all lives have equal value, but do I or do I not have a greater responsibility to those in my own country? Shouldn’t I get my own house in order first?
These pressing questions are not addressed by Singer’s suggestion that, “In general, where human welfare is concerned, we will achieve more if we help those in extreme poverty in developing countries, as our dollars go much further there.” Nor is there the slightest hint in Singer’s article that we might maximize the Good by addressing the causes of extreme poverty in these countries. Once we start contemplating these and other options as donors, the space of possibilities becomes rather more crowded and the dream of a hedonistic calculus governing right behavior in philanthropy becomes that much more distant.
* I had the opportunity to study moral theory as a graduate student and later taught it, both as a teaching fellow for Michael Sandel at Harvard University and as an assistant professor of philosophy at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. The strangest argument in Singer’s article is the one that proceeds as follows:
Suppose you have a choice between visiting the art museum, including its new wing, or going to see the museum without visiting the new wing. Naturally, you would prefer to see it with the new wing. But now imagine that an evil demon declares that out of every 100 people who see the new wing, he will choose one, at random, and inflict 15 years of blindness on that person. Would you still visit the new wing? You’d have to be nuts. Even if the evil demon blinded only one person in every 1,000, in my judgment, and I bet in yours, seeing the new wing still would not be worth the risk.
If you agree, then you are saying, in effect, that the harm of one person’s becoming blind outweighs the benefits received by 1,000 people visiting the new wing.
This last conclusion doesn’t follow at all from Singers’ premises. There are countless reasons why we might avoid the new wing without our being forced to accept the conclusion that “the harm of one person’s becoming blind outweighs the benefits received by 1,000 people visiting the new wing.” We might forego a visit, for example, because we know that there’s another equally good museum down the road that has no record of blinding its patrons through the effect of shadowy “demons.” We are not, in other words, forced to make the choice Professor Singer believes we must make.