A New Critique of Peter Singer

by Benjamin Studebaker

A while back, I wrote a piece called “A Critique of Peter Singer“, one of my more popular pieces on moral theory. Since I wrote that piece, I’ve spent more time reading and thinking about Singer, and I am now prepared to offer an additional critique that in some places supersedes and in other places adds to that one.

For those unfamiliar with Singer, let’s start off by summarizing the relevant views we’ll discuss today. In Writings on an Ethical LifeSinger claims to have 4 core premises, which I will now paraphrase:

  1. Pain is bad, and similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be. For Singer, “pain” is to be understood in a wide sense and includes suffering and distress of all kinds. Conversely, pleasure and happiness are good irrespective of who experiences them, although it can be wrong to gain pleasure at the expense of another.
  2. Non-human animals can also feel pain, although the nature of non-human animals will affect how much pain they will feel in any given situation.
  3. The moral badness of killing a being depends on the individual characteristics of the being and not on its race, sex, or species.
  4. Moral agents are responsible not only for what they do but for what they could have prevented (e.g. it is wrong to fail to intervene to save the life of a drowning child).

From these premises, Singer is able to generate a variety of conclusions. Two of these are pertinent to today’s discussion:

  1. Non-human animals are worthy of moral concern.
  2. It is wrong to fail to donate all of one’s excess income beyond the bare necessities to charitable causes that will save the lives of people in poor countries.

These conclusions, if we accept them, would massively challenge the way most of us behave. Large scale industrial agriculture causes a lot of suffering to animals, and consequently it would be wrong on Singer’s view to eat meat. The second conclusion is even more demanding–Singer claims that people living in affluent western countries should donate all but about $30,000 of their incomes to relieve suffering in the developing world. Because these conclusions are so demanding, they should be subjected to close scrutiny before they are accepted.

I want to take issue with Singer’s first premise, particularly the notion that “similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be”. I do not deny that the truth of this claim in an objective sense–it is objectively true that there is nothing about my pain that makes it intrinsically more relevant than someone else’s pain. What I will instead deny is that individuals are obliged always to act as if they had the objective perspective.

All equal quantities of pain are metaphysically the same, but the same amount of pain can be experienced differently depending on your point of view. There are several kinds of pain:

  1. Pain that is experienced directly (e.g. when you burn your hand).
  2. Pain that is experienced indirectly first hand (e.g. when you see someone else’s hand get burned).
  3. Pain that is experienced indirectly second hand (e.g. when you hear from a friend or on the news that someone’s hand was burned).
  4. Pain that is not experienced, but nonetheless exists (e.g. when someone in a foreign country or on a distant planet you don’t know about burns his hand and no one tells you about it).

Pain is bad, and equal amounts of pain are equally bad objectively, but it is worse for me if I experience pain than it is if someone else experiences the same quantity, because it is worse to directly experience pain than it is to experience it indirectly or not at all.

Every person is someone, and every someone can experience pain directly, and consequently every someone has an egoistic reason to place a higher priority on avoiding direct pain than on avoiding indirect or unknown pain. This is the egoist principle. All people (including you and me) act on the egoist principle to some degree. Consider the following:

Your child is sick and requires surgery–without the surgery, your child will die. The surgery will cost $10,000. Alternatively, you can donate the $10,000 to famine relief in a poor country, saving 50 lives at $200 per life. What do you do? We know that in practice, most people won’t donate the money to famine relief, because they are in this kind of situation all the time–you really can save 50 lives in poor countries with $10,000 dollars (at least according to Singer–he says lives in poor countries are saved at around $200 a piece). If instead you use that money to buy a car, or a house, or pay for college or retirement, you are seemingly acting on the egoist principle. Many westerners spend money on non-necessities, and in every case, they are, on Singer’s view, wrongfully failing to save the lives of starving people in poor countries.

Now, Singer can rightfully claim that the mere fact that most of us won’t give the money away doesn’t mean we aren’t obliged do so. But here’s a larger question–why should we deviate from the egoist principle in the first place? Why not always act in accordance with what benefits us individually?

Singer writes a little bit about this. He claims that egoistic thinking is pre-ethical, and that one shifts from thinking in this pre-ethical way to a properly ethical one. But for what reason? To convince an egoist to change his behavior, one must necessarily appeal to his egoism, to his self-interest. There must be a self-interested reason for the egoist to widen his circle of moral concern. What reason might that be? Well, to start, the egoist principle alone would lead to horrific consequences. If all of us prioritize our own pleasure and are indifferent to the plight of others, social cooperation becomes impossible. Without social cooperation, the benefits of civilization–even primitive civilization–cannot be had. The egoist realizes he has more to gain by cooperating with others, and so he includes those others in his moral circle. To maintain the benefits of cooperation, we have to build trust in one another. This means that even when we have the opportunity to get the better of each other, we generally must continue to behave cooperatively, lest we be perceived as untrustworthy partners in society. The key way societies have historically preserved this trust is by punishing those who violate it. We call a non-cooperative behavior that demands a punitive response a “crime” (and to the extent that a crime is not a “non-cooperative behavior that demands a punitive response”, it should not be a crime).

So our willingness to show moral concern for others–to be ethical–necessarily rests on our belief that this behavior will be good for us in the long-run. If acting morally ceases to be generally beneficial to the actor, it will cease to be a meaningful priority. States recognize this, and they work tirelessly to ensure that moral behavior is rewarded and immoral behavior is punished. They subsidize what they take to be cooperative benevolent behaviors and they tax or criminalize those behaviors they take to be uncooperative or malign. There are many things we simply could not get people to do for the benefit of the community if we did not introduce punitive coercive measures (e.g. pay their taxes).

So what’s the problem with Singer’s moral theory? Singer claims that individuals are required to participate in self-harming when that self-harm would provide greater benefit to others. This undermines the usefulness of acting morally to the individual, leaving the individual to ask “if it does not benefit me to be moral, why should I care about being moral?” Singer’s view cannot provide an answer to such a question, but unfortunately most everyone is to some degree or other that kind of person, and an answer is required. We need to generate the best behavior human beings are capable of given the egoistic creatures that they are. It is not helpful to ask human beings to do voluntarily things that they can only do under coercion.

Instead of trying to impose a conception of morality that in theory would generate the best outcomes for all beings, we should instead try to create a conception of morality that in practice will deliver the best humanly feasible outcomes. Doing this requires that we recognize two related principles:

  1. The Reciprocity Principle: No person ought to be morally required to show moral concern to any other person unless that person is willing to reciprocate the benefits of that concern either directly (e.g. the relationship between two friends) or indirectly (the relationship between two fellow citizens who do not know each other personally).
  2. The Exploitation Principle: Exploitation occurs when one person is forced to self-harm for the sake of another without any prospect of reciprocity. It is always wrong for a person to be asked to participate in his own exploitation. Under special circumstances, it is sometimes necessary for the state to exploit individuals for the common good (e.g. drafting them in the army to repel an invasion), but the individual is never under a duty to cooperate freely. Instead, he is entitled either to be incentivized or to be coerced, whichever is more effective.

Many animals are not willing or capable of reciprocity. There are exceptions–pets, draft animals, or animals that we happen to enjoy having around for aesthetic or environmental reasons. We should show moral concern for all animals that are capable of contributing to our society in any substantive way, irrespective of species and regardless of whether they do so willing or under the influence of incentives.

People in foreign countries have not agreed to be citizens–they have not agreed to be reciprocating, cooperative participants in our  society. Consequently, we are not obliged to show them moral concern. However, if foreign people wish to become citizens of our society, we should admit them provided they are willing to reciprocate the benefits they receive through cooperative, law-abiding behavior. Correspondingly, if a foreign state wishes for its people to receive equal consideration by our state, it should agree to become part of our state–to abide by our laws and to pay taxes to our government.  No society is obliged to confer benefits upon a foreign society that refuses to pay taxes to it or abide by its laws. When a society diverts the resources its people have paid in taxes to foreign societies, it fails to reciprocate with its own citizens and delegitimizes itself. Conversely, a state is obliged to take seriously the equal standing of all of its citizens. If it shows preference to some citizens over others (on basis of class, gender, race, species, religion, ethnicity, orientation, etc.), it fails to reciprocate with those citizens it marginalizes and thereby delegitimizes itself.

Singer might counter that this position affirms a status quo bias, but it is quite robust, even radical–no extant state properly shows equal concern to all of its citizens, and many animals that are worthy of moral concern are not consistently shown it. Additionally, it has further radical implications for how we confer citizenship. A person ought not to be granted citizenship unless the state is willing to take responsibility for that person’s contribution, unless it genuinely believes that the person can and will be willing and capable of reciprocity. The mere fact that a person is human, born in a given territory, or born to a given set of parents is not relevant. Any person or territory that can reciprocate and wishes to do so should be admitted by our state. The only thing that should bar any being from admission is that being’s own incapacity or lack of will to participate as an equal in our society on fair terms.

If we adhere to these principle, we will be able to defensibly say to all citizens, in no uncertain terms, that the moral system we ask them to uphold exists for their benefit. We are far more likely to get consistent benevolence from people this way than we are by guilting and shaming them for being insufficiently objective. People get sick of being made to feel inadequate, and if moral philosophers act as scolds, holding them to standards they cannot possibly satisfy, people will ignore them.