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 Life, Singer claims to have 4 core premises, which I will now paraphrase:
- 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.
- 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.
- The moral badness of killing a being depends on the individual characteristics of the being and not on its race, sex, or species.
- 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:
- Non-human animals are worthy of moral concern.
- 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:
- Pain that is experienced directly (e.g. when you burn your hand).
- Pain that is experienced indirectly first hand (e.g. when you see someone else’s hand get burned).
- 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).
- 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:
- 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).
- 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.
[…] an additional piece on Singer that deepens and in some places supersedes this one, entitled “A New Critique of Peter Singer“. In particular, it dispenses with the claim I made regarding how “interests” […]
[…] not all philosophers believe that there is such a thing as supererogatory action. Peter Singer, for instance, holds that every person has a moral duty to donate all income in excess of $30,000 […]
[…] valuable (i.e. those that can feel pain and/or happiness). This is an increasingly popular view. Peter Singer is one noteworthy […]
I know you touched on animal consideration more in your 2013 post, but I’d be curious to hear about you opinion on Singer’s comparison of killing animals for taste with dog/cock fighting.
The basic argument is that as we now know that meat consumption is (by and large) unnecessary for supporting optimal human health, the only justification left is enjoyment or the pull of the palate. If enjoyment is the only remaining justification, then is forced dog or cock fighting permissible as it is also similarly unnecessary yet apparently pleasing to the human facilitators?
As you know, I take the view that we only have moral duties to beings that are willing and capable of reciprocity. So if an animal can participate in a reciprocal relationship with humans, it deserves quite a bit of concern from those humans. For instance, if a cart horse contributes to society on the same scale as a person, it should be entitled to the same level of concern as ought to be shown to a human who made a similarly sized contribution. This might mean limiting the number of hours a horse can legally be made to work, providing wages or retirement benefits for the horse (to be managed by a human trustee). etc.
The other side of this is that when an animal cannot reciprocate or when it can only reciprocate by suffering (e.g. animals that are eaten, fight, or get experimented on in laboratories), we cannot derive the benefit without inflicting the suffering. Typically animals that are treated in this way are bred specifically for this purpose and would not otherwise exist. I do think we have a duty to minimize the suffering they endure insofar as this is consistent with our objective. So we can eat an animal, but we should give it a good life and kill it with as little pain as possible. If animal fighting is permissible, we would be similarly required to treat the fighting animals well in other aspects of their lives whenever possible.
Making animals fight is distasteful to me, because I don’t like the idea of directly deriving pleasure from the suffering of another life form. It disgusts me. But insofar as sadism is wrong, it is wrong because it is practiced upon non-consenting beings with moral value. Animals that would not otherwise reciprocate do not have this moral value, so my disgust may not be wholly justified by reason. That said, there are a few other reasons why one might decide to prohibit animal fighting:
1. If there are a lot of morally important beings who find animal fighting deeply upsetting, we might prohibit it purely for their psychological comfort. In theory, this argument could also apply to meat eating or lab research. In the meat case, it is countervailed by sheer numbers–far more people like meat eating than find it distressing. In the lab case, it is also countervailed by other discrete social benefits.
2. If an animal could be in some other relationship where it would reciprocate more, we could prohibit animal fighting on the grounds that it prevents these animals from being able to fully reciprocate and is therefore anti-social. For instance, fighting dogs could instead be pets or service animals, and fighting chickens could instead be food. We could argue that making animals fight is never more socially beneficial than the available alternative uses.
3. If animal fighting encourages people to be sadists and to commit sadistic acts against non-consenting morally relevant beings, that in itself would be enough reason to reject it.
Thanks for the swift response. Some questions and potential counterpoints.
So in your view of reciprocity, animals earn any and all moral consideration through the human need/want for their contribution? (Which is to say, the benefits that animals naturally confer by, for example, helping to balance an ecosystem through grazing, predation, etc., do not count, as it is only contributions designated by human employers?) How do you take Singer’s example of the non-contributions of mentally disabled humans?
On this topic you briefly state:
“No one individual necessarily contributes to each and every one of our individual lives, but someone gets some benefit from them, even if it’s just the joy of knowing they’re alive, as might be the case for the parents of mentally deficient children. No one cares about infectious bacteria, and no one would care about them even if they could feel pain like we do. The only reason anyone cares about animals is because some people like them.”
This claim is problematic. I could easily claim that I would derive more joy in knowing that the world’s bee population survives extinction than my mentally deficient son lives out one, two, or even decades of a debatable quality of life.
You also admit a disgust for dogfighting that is not necessarily justified by reason. The same disgust could also be felt regarding to the slaughter of animals for mass food production and consumption. Both events are unnecessary from the standpoint of physiological need. If other needs are brought in, such as the emotional component involved in eating some type of food (e.g. my deceased mother’s meatloaf recipe), similar emotional components could feasibly justify dogfighting, no?
The three example you give in conclusions are not exclusive to the reprehensibility of dogfighting.
1. Many morally important people are also upset by animal slaughter and testing. The “sheer numbers” of people on the other side is unimportant, unless we also say that the mass of people who enjoyed human slavery in the US were justified in doing so solely because of their numbers.
2. This applies to farm animals as well. The numbers are only too great because of industrial breeding practices.
3. Animal slaughter also contributes to sadism. The illusion of natural hierarchies often justifies the infliction of pain on supposedly morally-irrellevant beings.
It may appear that I’m being anthropocentric, but this is only because I was considering what duties human beings have to animals. When I am considering the duties humans have, it follows that I would consider the reasons humans have to recognize and respond to potential duties. If you asked me what moral duties a rational bear ought to recognize, I would establish the bear’s moral duties by looking at the reasons a bear has to care about the interests of other beings. The only reason we do not generally argue about the duties a bear has is that real bears cannot recognize or respond to reasons or arguments, so the exercise is futile. But in theory, if animals could respond to reasons, many of them would have duties to each other, and many would have no reason to show concern for human beings, depending on the extent to which humans and these other animals reciprocated with them.
On the mentally deficient–when the state grants citizenship to a being, the state makes a permanent commitment to take responsibility for that being. So if the state grants citizenship to someone and that someone later becomes incapable of reciprocity due to mental incapacity, age, inadequate socialization, or some other cause, the state remains bound to show concern and to heal or rehabilitate the citizen if possible. Reciprocating animals should be granted citizenship in this sense–a cart horse should continue to be shown concern if it breaks its leg or otherwise becomes infirm. This does two very good things:
1. It reassures citizens that they will not lose the concern of the state.
2. It gives the state a strong incentive to admit citizens with potential and to enact policies that actualize that potential.
So I do not think the state should cease to show concern for citizens if they become mentally infirm, but I do think the state would be justified in denying fetuses and infants with serious mental infirmities the citizenship, if they are truly not capable of reciprocating in any sense.
That said, I do think we should recognize soft reciprocity as legitimate. Here I distinguish between two forms of reciprocity:
1. Hard reciprocity–the production of economic or material benefits and the doing of concrete services.
2. Soft reciprocity–the psychological and emotional contributions beings make by providing others with friendship, companionship, beauty, harmony, or other abstract values.
There are a lot of beings that do not reciprocate with us in the hard sense but may nonetheless reciprocate with us in the soft sense. Many human beings care about ecosystems even when they have no hard reciprocal reasons to do so. The fact that they still care implies the presence of soft reciprocity, and soft reciprocity is just as legitimate as hard.
So if you were to ask me if we should show moral concern for some lion that does not reciprocate with us in the hard material sense, I could still answer “yes” on the basis that there are a large number of people who derive happiness from the knowledge that lions exist in the wild and from the knowledge that the lion’s ecosystem is intact. But this has nothing to do with the lion and everything to do with the way we feel about the lion. If people were indifferent to lions or actively disliked them, we would have no good reason to care about their interests.
The large numbers of people who enjoy eating meat is definitely morally significant. Slavery is not an analogous case for two related reasons:
1. It is possible to get the material economic benefits slaves produce without exploiting slaves or failing to show them moral concern, so we have an obligation to do this, and that means granting slaves rights such that they cannot continue being slaves. It is not possible to show full concern for an animal that you are going to eat, use in a fight, or experiment on. It is possible to show full concern for a service animal, like a cart horse. The cart horse is the proper analogue to the slave, and as I said, cart horses are entitled to much better treatment than they presently receive.
2. When we are dealing with a being whose suffering is a constituent part of the benefit it confers (i.e. not like slavery, where the labor could instead be obtained in a way that is consistent with concern), the decision about whether or not we ought to use the animal in this way depends on whether or not it is actually beneficial to people to do so So it is relevant that many more morally relevant beings like to eat animals than like to make them fight, that many morally relevant beings do not experience a benefit in animal fighting but do experience a benefit in animal eating.
Can we find an alternative reciprocal purpose for every farm animal? I don’t think so–certainly not in the hard sense. Given that many people enjoy eating meat and would like to continue doing so, I doubt we could find alternative purposes in the soft sense either. Additionally, because of their limited rational faculties, these animals do not necessarily have to experience being bred for food as a harm. Indeed, they shouldn’t–if we’re going to eat animals, we have a duty to show them as much concern throughout the rest of their lives as is consistent with eating them. So we have strong reasons to treat farm animals with more concern, but it is still permissible to eat them.
I don’t think it necessarily follows that animal slaughter contributes to sadism, at least not in the same way that animal fighting does. Those who enjoy animal fighting directly derive pleasure from the suffering of the animals. Those who enjoy eating animals may want those animals to live otherwise happy lives and be killed with minimal pain.
I don’t make any appeal to natural hierarchies–the reason we can eat some animals is not that they are inferior, it is that this is the only and best way those animals can benefit us. If those animals could better benefit us in some other way that would permit us to show them reciprocity, we would have a duty to allow them that. For instance, one good objection to eating horses is that horses could work as cart horses instead and reciprocate with us in a stronger and less exploitative way. I would also point out that a rational bear would have many good reasons to eat humans, assuming those humans could not respond by killing or hurting the bear. We could have a situation where a rational bear and a human being both have good reasons to eat each other, which means that both would be justified in denying the other concern, beyond what is consistent with the eating.
You raise several issues but at the moment I would like to focus on your distinctions between animal breeding/slaughter and slavery. I can see why the cart-horse appears as the most obvious comparison, but I am more concerned with notions of necessity and supposed benefit, hence I think the example still works.
1. a) The counter-argument could made that the production of certain material benefits are only possible through slavery, as any humane treatment of these ex-slaves (if they were still working) would severely diminish the accumulation of the benefits. Often slavery is maintained for exactly this purpose – huge material gains that cannot be otherwise extracted due to cost.
b) Given that a) is not accurate regarding meat production and consumption, for meat is not an actual necessity whose benefits cannot be otherwise reaped, then these animals could be better considered. I would personally tack on Singer’s argument for the moral concern of the animals’ own interests, but in your reciprocity theory I could also feasibly claim that their natural impact of the world’s ecosystem provides more than any use we could engineer.
2. “it is relevant that many more morally relevant beings like to eat animals than like to make them fight, that many morally relevant beings do not experience a benefit in animal fighting but do experience a benefit in animal eating.”
Since physiological necessity is nonexistent, the “benefit” of eating animals can only be reduced to taste. The mere fact that more people “like” eating animals than torturing them does make either a defensible benefit. This is why I introduced the idea of slavery. But with slavery, in light of the counter argument above (1a), the justification could feasibly be argued from the stance of irreplaceable material benefits. This is where moral concern for the slaves themselves comes in, as you mention. Such concerns may require new technologies to produce the desired benefits without the slaves.
In the case of animals, one still has to grapple with the lack of actual necessity of eating animals, even if we disregard moral concern for animals themselves (which is difficult given Singer’s points). The fundamental lack of necessity is much stronger here than in the slavery example. Without a necessity that goes beyond placating the senses (which are highly adaptable), then cruelty to animals for the sake of entertainment could also be included as a “like” and a “benefit”. You may argue that such cruelty has negative results for humans, hence the need for condemnation, but we often kill animals for products that have been shown to be marginally healthy or even quite unhealthy.
I deny 1a, I don’t think there is any material benefit that is only achievable through slavery. In every slave society, the slaves must be fed and housed, and they still need healthcare and whatever education is required for their labor. The master must pay the cost of some or all of these things, and generally the provisions are poor. In each of theses cases, the slave could instead receive a wage and various legal protections to ensure longevity and physical and psychological health. Slave societies take poor care of their workers, leading to short life expectancies and a poorly educated workforce. It is for this reason that slave societies are not economically competitive with capitalist societies. Legally sanctioned slavery has disappeared in the advanced economies not merely because it is immoral but because it is bad economic policy.
I also take issue with 1b. The aesthetic taste benefit of eating meat cannot be otherwise had. You are right that this is a trivial benefit compared to the dietary benefit some meat eaters falsely claim meat provides, but it still cannot be denied that if you enjoy eating meat, the only way to get the benefit is to eat meat. I also deny the claim that farm animals would benefit ecosystems if we did not eat them–many varieties of farm animal have been genetically engineered in such a way that they cannot survive in the wild, and extant wild species would be harmed by the competition for food and resources. Rational wild animals would strongly oppose the mass introduction of farm animals into their ecosystems. They would rightly see these farm animals as invasive species.
On 2, I don’t see why you give necessity this level of importance–the mere fact that it is not necessary for our survival to inflict pain on another being does not necessarily preclude us from permissibly doing so if there are benefits that are more important. When you object to the benefit of eating meat, you are not denying that people enjoy eating meat–you are not denying the existence of a benefit–you are denying that eating the meat is a sufficient benefit to justify the harm done to the animals. But this presumes that the animals have independent moral value to the human beings making the decision about whether or not to eat them. For animals to have that value, they would need to be able to reciprocate in some other way that benefits us more than eating them does. In many cases, it’s plausible to argue that this alternative form of reciprocity is possible and that we act wrongly by eating animals rather than having reciprocal relationships with them, but this is not always the case. There are some animals that do not make suitable pets or service animals and who should not be introduced to an extant ecosystem. These animals would not be bred for anything else but food and could not serve any better purpose. We may have a duty to treat them with concern throughout the rest of their lives, but I still think it’s permissible to eat them.
In sum, I’m not committed to defending the eating of all animals in all circumstances, but I am committed to defending the eating of animals that could not otherwise reciprocate in any superior way, so long as in aggregate the people who enjoy eating animals enjoy this more than the people who are disgusted by eating animals are disgusted. If this is done with minimal pain and suffering, it should not have the potential sadism consequences that animal fighting has. Animal fighting is far more often found disgusting than it is enjoyed, and fighting animals are far more likely to have other possible superior reciprocal roles.
(*I admit that the topic of laboratory testing is more complicated, especially when it is not frivolous testing – namely cosmetics- but tests for cancer, HIV, etc.)
I’m happy to hear that you see scientific lab testing as distinct from animal fighting and animal eating.
Thanks for all the discussion. In closing I would say that I still do not find reciprocity as the fundamental basis for human moral concern. But, admitting that premise (as this is your forum), I would still argue that:
1. All species contribute benefits to the ecosystem (including for humans), whether it is obvious or not. The pollination of insects is of immense benefit but this was not known until relatively recently. Humans have very limited knowledge of ecological machinery. I do agree that the present number of farm animals makes their immediate liberation and reintroduction problematic, but their overpopulation owes to flawed human intervention. Those numbers would have to be tapered.
2. Eating animals is not an irreplaceable benefit. You say “The aesthetic taste benefit of eating meat cannot be otherwise had.” This is speculative and any “aesthetic taste benefit” depends on a highly malleable palate. Furthermore, the same logic could be used by a well-to-do urbanite who claims that the “aesthetic feel benefit of wearing animal fur cannot not be otherwise had.”
3. Even if if the contribution I argue in 1 is very small (if convincingly calculable at all), this would still outweigh an aesthetic taste benefit; the latter is physiologically unnecessary and not shared by all humans. Humans however, may very well all benefit from the present or future, known or unknown, ecological contributions of a species. I think this satisfies your testament that, “For animals to have that value, they would need to be able to reciprocate in some other way that benefits us more than eating them does.”
So we may agree to disagree. Yet either scenario would greatly improve the current state of affairs regarding the treatment of animals.
I have a question. You may have heard of “in vitro meat”, where meat is grown in a lab for consumption. One of the claimed advantages is that it would eliminate the need for the slaughter of farm animals for food. At the moment it isn’t commercially viable, but one day it could be.
Here’s my question: if in vitro meat was developed to the point that it was just as cheap and safe as normal meat, would consumers be morally *obliged* to prefer it, even if they (or even a vast majority of people) may be personally indifferent to the plight of farm animals?
Another way of phrasing this would be: are people obliged to take action to minimise suffering if that action would have no cost, even if the beings who benefit can’t reciprocate?
Interesting–you’re essentially asking me if the reciprocity principle would matter in cases where there is no possibility of exploitation because the costs of showing concern are zero. I’m inclined to say yes, if the costs are truly zero. We generally need reciprocity because without it we can be taken advantage of, but if the costs are truly zero we cannot be taken advantage of and therefore we do not need reciprocity.
> As you know, I take the view that we only have moral duties to beings that are willing and capable of reciprocity.
You’re certainly welcome to take that view. But Singer spends many, many paragraphs systematically dismantling it (see: Argument from Marginal Cases). It’s the most (in)famous argument in Animal Liberation.
Yet here you make no mention of it whatsoever, much less offer any sort of reply.
I personally don’t even find all of Singer’s arguments persuasive. But if you’re going to try to take him on, you really ought to do your homework first.
Yes, and those argument don’t defeat the particular critique I lay out here.
Well, they absolutely do at least *attempt* to defeat that particular critique.
Whether they are successful in that attempt is irrelevant.
The point is that you really ought to have something to say about them if you expect to be persuasive.
Did you read about the bit in which I discuss Singer’s claim that egoistic thinking is pre-ethical?
I did. But that isn’t the claim that I’m talking about.
Thanks for an interesting blog post! I one question regarding moral obligations towards poorer countries, and another one regarding state vs individual duty to fulfill these obligations.
You argue that it is not morally obligatory to donate a lot of money to utility-maximising causes abroad, since people only have moral obligations to those with whom they have reciprocal relationships. While the idea of reciprocality as a basis for morality makes sense to me, I’m not sure that the conclusion that one is therefore not obliged to donate money abroad applies. This is because we might indeed have restorative and reciprocal moral obligations towards people in poor countries.
These obligations could take 3 intuitive forms: 1) making reparations for past/ongoing injustices like colonialism, slavery and even climate change, which are significant causes of the poverty of developing countries today; 2) reciprocating for the benefit that we gained and continue to reap from these injustices (the west today would not be as rich as it is if colonialism and the climate-changing industrial revolution hadn’t happened); 3) reciprocating more fairly for services that we buy from poor countries, like metals we use in our phones which have significant negative externalities on the countries of origin.
Firstly, would you agree that moral duties can be incurred by past injustices? For example in the case of climate change, poor countries did not help us industrialise, so in that sense the relationship is not reciprocal. Could we still have a duty to help them deal with the harm that we have caused?
Secondly, would you agree that the reciprocal duties that I mentioned (2 and 3) are valid? I.e. is the benefit we have gotten from the industrial revolution and our access to cheap products like fast fashion and cobalt greater than the “cost” of these things remaining to to poor countries after subtracting the price we pay them and the measures the west has already taken to improve climate change etc.?
Therefore, would you agree that by your own definition of morality as reciprocality and non-exploitation, we do indeed have a duty to help developing countries by giving them at least some of our wealth?
If this obligation in Q1 exists, do you think it is the obligation of the state or individual people to fulfill it? Ie even if we have an obligation to help developing countries more than we do, perhaps individual humans with their selfish natures cannot be expected to make these voluntary donations. Do you think the state does have an obligation to force us to do so?