Peter Singer’s Solution for World Poverty has more philosophical and logical holes than a seive.

And I had to read this piece of garbage for my English 105 class. For a philosophy or even an economics class I can understand, but for an English class? There was no reason to make us read this.

I was asked multiple times while I was reading this essay if I was okay, because the further I read the further my jaw dropped and the wider my mouth opened. I probably looked rather scary to be honest. All I could say when I finished was that I was actually going to douse the book in gasoline and light it on fire when the semester ended. Considering I actually think that book burning is a worse thing than burning a country’s flag, you can see how serious I am. I told the other person in the hotel room with me that I had possibly just read one of the singularly most morally reprehensible things ever…for multiple reasons.

The first being that it actually read like a real life application of the “moral” code that destroyed the Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged. You can sort of distance yourself from that story when you read it in Ayn Rand’s book, because it’s fictional. When you find someone talking about doing something similar in real life; advocating those same principles and actually believing they will work, it is much harder to distance yourself.

The second issue is that Singer writes this essay as if he is so completely right. That there is no way you could ever argue with his philosophy or logic. He is so self-assured and, I suppose, that a man who has written so many books that are widely recognized and read and a man who has taught in huge colleges and universities, might have cause to feel self-assured about his logic and philosophies.

The problem is…I think that the only people who would believe his writing are those that already support his ideas. He is ‘preaching to the choir’ as they say. The point of any good philosophical book or essay should be to make those of the opposing view actually question their views…not laugh at you…or feel the need to throw up or take a shower after reading it.

I’m 21 years old and on my first reading of this essay I was already picking his logic and philosophy apart. If a 21 year old, Journalism student can do that, clearly you have some issues with either your writing or premises. In Singer’s case…I would say it’s a bit of both, a lot of the latter though.

By all means, before I rip this essay apart with my bare hands and liberal use of my teeth, read it for yourself.  Form your own opinion on it first. Then read what I have to say and see if you agree. If you don’t, then let me know. I would love to know what other points of view this essay could be read from.

Read it?

Okay, this is going to be a long one. Maybe I’ll break it into pieces.

In the Brazilian film “Central Station,” Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless 9-year-old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted —he will be killed and his organs sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor’s plain speaking, she spends a troubled night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.

Suppose Dora had told her neighbor that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV’s too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well, he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems herself only by being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.

At the end of the movie, in cinemas in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora’s new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts —so much of our income is spent on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.

All of which raises a question: In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need?

Singer asks his first question. One with I will answer, with ease I might add.

There is an obvious distinction here. That distinction is how the money that being spent is made. I know for a liberal like Singer, who clearly sees money as evil (A true “Bertram Scudder”) (note I say “a liberal like Singer” so don’t come shouting at me, “I’m a liberal and I DON’T think money is evil!” Clearly you aren’t like Singer then.), would find it difficult to understand the difference between money that is made ethically and money that is obtained by selling a child to have his organ’s harvested on the black market.

Instead of comparing Dora (a woman who took money for doing something she believed was right, only to later discover that she was wrong and then does her best to fix her mistake) to a family using their ethically earned income to buy themselves luxury items. A better comparison could be made between Dora and the CEO of a major pharmaceutical company.This CEO makes hundreds of thousands of dollars off of a drug that his company been developing for years. This drug is supposed to do great things. Only after it starts to be prescribed, people start getting sick or dying because of an unforeseen side affect or a side affect that one of the scientists covered up in tests. The CEO didn’t know he was doing anything unethical by putting the drug on the market, but when he finds out something is wrong he does a total recall of the drug and begins doing his best to make amends for what he, unwittingly, did.

In Singer’s defense, he admits there are differences between the two scenarios…however the difference he sees are definitely not the ones I’m see.

Of course, there are several differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself —that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences— if the upshot of the American’s failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city, then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn’t need to embrace my utilitarian ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer’s behavior as raising a serious moral issue.

The American economy, in fact the economy of most of the world, is built on production and consumption. Of course, the more I read about Singer’s background and his philosophies, the more I realize that we will always disagree because he would much more prefer a socialist society where no one really owns anything, no one is actually paid for anything, they only get enough to take care of their basic needs (his argument exactly, later in the essay). Yes, because that has always worked so well. *rolls eyes*

Singer’s essay is not horribly long, but I don’t want to post my response to it in one large post…that would be a little overwhelming. For me and for you.

So I’ll post this tonight and continue my response tomorrow. See you then!

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22 Comments

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  6. He says “what is the ethical distinction”. you answer “That distinction is how the money that being spent is made”.

    So you have to show that “how” is ethically relevant. The onus probandi is all yours.

    Also show where Singer “clearly sees money as evil”. Please give a quote, otherwise you’re just setting up a straw man.

    I think your argument is incredibly weak. Robert Nozick had much better arguments of course, but even those were not convincing.

    • First we are starting off on the wrong foot because you are the sort of person who uses the term “onus probandi” instead of the common English term, Burden of Proof, in your comments on a blog. Who does that? Not even a lawyer would do that. So I’m going to assume, I could be wrong of course, that you are using large words to overcompensate for something.

      I have to show how there is a difference between making money ethically (through a paycheck at a decent job where you earn what you make through honest work) and selling organs on the black market? I would have thought that was obvious to anyone.

      The fact that it isn’t obvious to you (or to Singer) is why I state that Singer sees that money is evil. He has no understanding that money is a neutral thing, it’s how you make the money that makes it ethical or not. It would have been perfectly ethical for Dora to keep the money if she had actually been acting as a go between in an adoption, however what she was unknowingly doing was acting as a go between in the black market trade for human organs…therefore the money was made unethically and it would have been immoral to keep it.
      I don’t need to cite a specific sentence to prove that Singer sees money as evil. I have an entire essay by him that proves that point clearly. Why should I need him to outright say it? I know how to analyze an essay and read between the lines to see what he is saying.

      My argument is weak? How? Were those the only instances of “weaknesses” you could find? If so, that’s not a very convincing statement.

      Haven’t read Robert Nozick’s argument on the subject actually, but I’ll be sure to check it out now. Thank you.

    • Two things. First the Latin teacher in me needs to tell you it’s “Onus probandi” not “The onus probandi” the article is already implied by Latin phrase.

      Second the idea that means is just as important as ends has been a ground rock principle of all ethics since Plato and Aristotle, onus probandi would actually be on Singer to prove that means isn’t relevant since it flying in the face of settled understanding of philosophy. Singer can’t just ignore basic principles of ethics (especially for someone who claims his title is Bio-ethicist), get called on it, and you then demand that proof be provided for why his idea is wrong. It’s wong on the face of it. It was his responsibility to provide a basis for a purely ends based ethics (which logically is quite silly and can’t be supported) and he didn’t. He can’t say 1+1=3 and then the burden of proof is on me to prove him wrong. It’s wrong on the face of it.

  7. Hello everybody, thanks for assuming lots of things about me, but I see we’re doing little progress here. This is not my native language, so feel free to make fun of any mistakes.

    Onus probandi, a posteriori and prima facie are normal terms among philosophers, it’s not your fault if you’re not familiar with them.

    What you are looking for is the “Wilt Chamberlain” argument, made by Rober Nozick in his famous Anarchy, State and Utopia. It’s been the starting point for these kind of discussions for the past thirty years. You’ll find many defenses and refutations on the web.

    In Nozick’s terms you are assuming that a “patterned distribution” is incompatible with whatever principle you’re trying to defend (Is it “freedom”?). He devotes a good part of the book to that, which shows at last that it is not valid prima facie, “on the face of it”, and it was actually against the orthodoxy of the time, as it was represented by Rawls’ “a theory of justice”.

    Now, Singer understands all this, it’s a very well known argument among philosophers, and you are not looking credible when dismissing him using sentences like “money is evil”. He never said anything close to that, and you’re just setting up a silly straw man to knock down at your pleasure. You’re not impressing anybody and you seem to ignore the basic literature on the subject.

    Nozick was an immensely talented thinker. I have the utmost respect for him (while still disagreeing on some points). I suggest you go back and read his AS&U, it will give you enough ammunition to counter most of the arguments you will find in your life.

    Unless you run into somebody who has already studied that and the counter arguments made during the past thirty years, of course.

    • The Snark and I are quite familiar with Latin, hence our making fun of you for misusing them.

      ” It’s been the starting point for these kind of discussions for the past thirty years” Actually if you study philosophy and have any sense of knowledge you tend to start with the pre-Socratics and the golden age of Athens which all but refutes everything since Kant, 2000 years before Kant wrote. I’m not familiar with Nozick argument so I can’t refute exactly what you say about it…however since you state it is based on Rawl joke of a book “the theory of Justice” which has nothing to do with justice, liberty, logic, right, or even good grammar, I will take that Nozick’s argument, and whatever you’re basic it on to be invalid since it’s based on hogwash. Yes I am dismissing the last 30 years of philosophy because the last century of philosophy has been hacks trying to say something new rather than serious philosophers (Adler and Balzac excepted) trying to find truth.

      Basic reading comprehension shows that Singer has an underlying premise that “money is evil.” Every example he give suggest that if we care about ourselves and earn money to spend on ourselves, rather than sacrifice all to help poor children in the third world, is wrong. Granted I’m simplifying here, but in modern discourse among people out of the dark dusty corners of philosophy departments, this idea is generally represented by the phrase “money is evil” by both those who believe it and those who disagree with it. We are simply using the parlance of normal human speech which a blog is meant for, if we wanted to talk to philosophers we’d be philosophy majors (however my experience with philosophy majors suggest they know the least of any group about the good, the true, the beautiful, or the right). The phase “money is evil” is an effective short hand for all of the venom and vinegar he spews at joy and wonders of capitalism. Nor is it straw-man we are attacking the leftist viewpoint, and at most using it as a signal to read our rather voluminous attack on the evil and unpractical nature of leftist economic beliefs (we do this on a daily basis, so we expect our readers to know how stupid any hint of altruism as a basis of economics is).

      Up until now I don’t either of us have attacked Nozick, certainly SInger, but not Nozick. However, I just looked him up on the internet (as I don’t particularly respect philosophers after Locke, I’m not familiar with them) and it says he’s a utilitarian. Now if this is true, this is stupid as Utilitarianism is beyond preposterous (not to mention the justification for every major evil of the 19th & 20th century, and has never been the justification of any good) and the philosophy of weak minds. If the internet is incorrect, my apologies.

      And, English may not be your first language, but you’ll never learn if people don’t point out your mistakes. “Valid prima facie” is redundant, “prima facie” implies validity, only when the argument fails to be valid would you say something along the lines of “it does not meet the burden of a prima facie case”

    • You assume I don’t know what those terms mean, when in fact I do. I only pointed out that there are plain English versions of those terms that would be much more welcome and useful to use in the comments section of a blog. The fact that I know what “onus probandi” means does not mean I will use it in day to day discussion because A.) it is more likely to confuse people than inform and B.) It makes me look like an insufferable know it all.

      I was not, in fact, attempting to defend any principle…accept perhaps that of spending your money intelligently whether you are spending it on yourself or on charity.

      I never claimed that Singer said that money was evil, I said that it was clear he believed that was so from what I have read in this essay, several of his other essays, and from what I have read about the man himself. The ability to analyze and think critically and come to conclusions about another persons philosophies, based on their writing and life, is actually a good thing.

      Now that we’ve addressed the so-called weaknesses in this argument, did you realize that this was the first in a 5 part series about this essay? My argument against Singer’s theory has various levels that you might want to read, just for shits and giggles I suppose as I assume my arguments will not change your mind.

      The first four “pingbacks” in the comments section lead to the other pieces of my series on this essay.

      I did not dismiss him merely with the sentence “money is evil” as you claim. There is, in fact, several other points on which I refute his essay.

  8. Hello both. meredithancret, I appreciate your more moderate response.

    I don’t think I have more time for mr. crisap444 who says: “Yes I am dismissing the last 30 years of philosophy because the last century of philosophy has been hacks trying to say something new rather than serious philosophers”. Good for you.

    And no, Nozick was not an utilitarian, his “monster” is actually a famous argument against utilitarianism. Of course you wouldn’t know that, since you’re dismissing the last 30 years of philosophy without knowing much about it. You probably want to read Nozick, since he defends something very close to your position. But he does it with intelligence, taste and knowledge of modern philosophy. Of course “the internet” is not wrong, you just have to learn where to look. Good luck with this modern technology, I hope you’re not dismissing it because it’s too modern.

    meredithancret, you’re free to disagree with Singer of course, there’s a rich and serious literature that attacks his many positions (on animal liberation, poverty, human life …), but to be credible you should at least use a more respectful language and show that you know the relevant literature and arguments. So far, you failed on both points.

    You are only impressing those who already agree with you, and those who reject by principle things they don’t know and don’t even bother checking (as mr crisap444 who, in his own words, doesn’t respect philosophers he’s not familiar with. Maybe because they’re bad at English and Latin.)

    If you show me I can learn something here I will come back, otherwise I consider this my last post, regardless of how witty and “snarky” your attacks will be.

    Good luck

    • So you do to Cris and myself what you (falsely) accuse me of doing to Mr. Singer’s work. You dismiss us out of hand because we are too rude, pointed, etc?

      I did not dismiss Singer out of hand and, in fact, read his entire essay as well as several other pieces of his own, but you will not finish reading my argument against this essay? Hmm….

      I give Singer as much respect as I feel his philosophy is due…and that is exactly nil. The fact that Singer is apparently well known and well respected in the world is no reason for me to show him respect. I feel respect must be earned and he did not do that through this essay or any of is his other work. I felt distinctly sickened by most of his philosophy and I don’t give respect and credence to people who turn my stomach.

      I was not responding to Singer’s arguments on the basis of modern philosophy, but on the basis of reality and cold hard facts about why his argument fails drastically in both form (his ability to convince anyone other than people who already agree with him that he is right. Oh look, that’s what you said I failed at.) and function (That his ideals are bad for other countries, the ones both giving and receiving aid are harmed through his philosophy.)

      But of course you wouldn’t know that, since you refuse to read the rest of the argument (though it is no longer than Singer’s essay) and only read the opening salvo instead of the rest of the argument. You just might learn something if you read the rest of the argument, because only reading the opening section is both rude to me and irresponsible of you…especially when you dismiss me without reading it.

      You are welcome to stay or go as you please. I do not write this blog to please anyone other than myself and those who enjoy reading it and would never dream of stooping so low as you change my style of writing just to impress one more reader. I have more integrity than that.

  9. Pingback: A tribute *snort* to Peter Singer « The Snark Who Hunts Back

  10. Consequentialism is one of the most hideous of ethical theories in existence. Besides, it reduces itself into absurdity: if the consequences are what determine whether an act is good, then clearly the consequence are good. But consequence and cause are merely relative terms: the consequence (effect) of one cause is the cause of other effects. I think you get the picture. Ultimately, a cause cannot give what it does not have (good), but it doesn’t mean that an evil cause cannot have good effects. This is to deny virtue and its derivative character. Again, absurd.

    Besides, it’s untenable to know the full consequences of one’s actions. Usually you’ll hear “to the best of your knowledge” as a counterargument, but that’s just an epistemic reductionism that makes good meaningless. After all, if my knowledge is what determines the good of the action, then we make good dependent on the knower which is of course absurd. That’s like saying that the earth is as round as I know it, ergo, for flat earthers, the earth is flat. This is what contemporary philosophy is like. It’s institutionalized irrationality. Irrationality, unfortunately, is not susceptible to argument and that is why it persists.

    Singer is, in summary, nothing but a representative of the degeneration of philosophy in most of academia. He is a charlatan. A good philosopher acknowledges what is obvious as obvious, what is not obvious as not obvious, and begins from there to find both the truth and the causes of both. People like Singer can’t even achieve the absolute minimum requirement for any kind of intellectual work, i.e., common sense. He fares no better than those who remain slaves to popular opinion because like them, he lacks that desperately needed common sense.

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