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Check out our top ten most popular articles from last month:

 

Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: Exposition and Appraisal

Jason Zarri

In his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Peter Singer gives a seemingly devastating critique of our ordinary ways of thinking about famine relief, charity, and morality in general. In spite of that very few people have accepted, or at any rate acted on, the conclusions he reaches. In light of these facts one might say of Singer’s arguments, as Hume said of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism, that “… they admit of no answer and produce no conviction.” While I do think that Singer’s considerations show that people should do considerably more than most people actually do, they do not establish his conclusions in their full strength or generality. So his arguments admit of a partial answer, and once properly qualified may produce some conviction.

 

Aristotle’s Definition of Citizen, State, Constitution, & Government (Also available as a PDF)

Joseph Zarri

In order to answer the question, “What is a State?” Aristotle begins by asking, “Who is the citizen, and what is the meaning of the term?” This he does because the state is a composite whole made up of many parts—the citizens who compose it. The citizen whom Aristotle is seeking to define is the citizen in the strictest sense, against whom no exception can be made, so that “a citizen is not a citizen because he lives in a certain place; nor is he a citizen who has no legal right except that of suing and being sued; for this right may be enjoyed under the provisions of a treaty.”This latter class are citizens only in a qualified sense, in the same way that children and old men are said to be citizens imperfectly, and not simply. In practice a citizen is defined as one who is born of parents who are citizens, but this is not a satisfactory definition because it cannot apply to the first inhabitants or founders of a state, nor to those who have had the franchise conferred on them by the state. A citizen in the proper sense of the term, then, is one who shares in the administration of justice, and in offices.

Aristotle’s Theory of the Origin of the State (Also available as a PDF)

Joseph Zarri

Aristotle opens his “Politics” by stating the obvious fact that the state is a community of some kind. (By state Aristotle has in mind the Greek City-State). Like all other communities, the state must exist for an end, and the end of the state is the highest good of man, which for Aristotle means the life of virtue and contemplation.  “But, if all communities aim at some good, the state or political community, which is the highest of all, and which embraces all the rest, aims at the good in a greater degree than any other, and at the highest good.”

A Summary of Mackie’s “The Subjectivity of Values” Also available as a (PDF)

Jason Zarri

In his essay “The Subjectivity of Values”, J.L. Mackie aims to show that values are not built into the structure of the universe. He begins by clarifying his position, addressing possible reactions and trying to prevent misunderstandings. Some would reject Mackie’s thesis as being morally subversive, others would accept it as a platitude, and still others would say that the question of whether there are objective values is itself illegitimate. Mackie’s thesis applies to all purportedly objective values, not just moral ones. Also, his thesis is a second-order rather than a first-order claim: It states that our values have nothing objective corresponding to them, but one who accepts this claim is not thereby committed to adopt any particular attitude towards private conduct or public policy. One can think that values are ultimately subjective while still valuing things, practices, or states of affairs—or perhaps not valuing much of anything at all—because valuing something does not presuppose that valuing it has an ontological ground.

A Synopsis of Singer’s The Life You Can Save

Jason Zarri

In this article I provide a synopsis of Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, in which he tries to get his readers to consider, or reconsider, the question of what their obligations are to those who are trapped in extreme poverty. To make the connections between the different ideas and subjects easier to perceive, I will proceed topically, which means that the order in which I discuss certain things is sometimes different from the order in which they occur in the book. As is almost inevitable when summarizing a book of any appreciable length, I will fail to discuss some sections and even chapters, in order to devote more attention to those parts of the book that I regard as the most important. Also, unless otherwise noted, all page references are to The Life You Can Save.

Notes on another Reading of Martin Luther’s “Freedom of a Christian” (PDF)

 Peter Krey

Martin Luther (1486-1543) stated that his pamphlet, “The Freedom of a Christian” contains “the whole sum of the Christian life.” Oswald Bayer, perhaps the foremost Luther scholar of our day, notes that this work “has not yet received from Luther scholars the attention it deserves.” As his best-seller, “The Freedom of a Christian” came out in 38 editions during Luther’s life time. This number included ten editions in Latin and 22 in German. The more popular German edition is shorter than the Latin, simpler, and very spiritually direct, like Luther’s Small Catechism. This edition is mostly unknown, however, because all English translations in America are from the Latin edition. Read this edition available in Luther’s Spirituality and you will find such gems as “One who hears the word becomes like the word, pure, good, and just” (page 268) and “Which is the word that gives such abundant grace and how shall I use it? The answer: it is nothing but the preaching of Christ in accordance with the Gospel, spoken in such a way that you hear your God speaking to you!” 

Juergen Habermas: the Life-World and the Two Systems (PDF)

Peter Krey

Jürgen Habermas has been called one of the two greatest sociologists in the world today; the other is the late Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). His theory about the life-world and the two systems is a sophisticated social model, archetype, or construct by which to understand and criticize the present late-stage of capitalistic society today.

To oversimplify what is a very comprehensive and complex theory: Habermas argues that the life-world is based on communication, agreement, and consensus. The economic and political systems require instrumental rationality for the sake of control. His theory posits situations embedded in broader “horizons” that are in turn grounded in the life-world.

No matter whether one starts with George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) from basic concepts of social interaction or with Emil Durkheim (1858-1917) from basic concepts of collective representation, in either case, society can is conceived from the perspective of acting subjects as the life-world of a social group. In contrast, from the observer’s perspective of someone not involved, society can be conceived only as a system of actions such that each action has a functional significance according to its contribution to the maintenance of the system.

The Impact of Language on Society (PDF)

Peter Krey

 

What is the impact of language on society, and what role does language play in social change? Although Jürgen Habermas calls language the medium of the life-world, the way money and power are the media of the economic and political systems respectively, can language be so powerful to play a role in changing the systems as well? Robert Bellah notes that people have often tried to bring the world closer to the life-world by making it a more human place, and they have tried to do so through language,

because on the whole they do not have a great deal of worldly power, but only the words they speak. But through the words they speak and the practices they inaugurate, they create community.

In this way Bellah supports the controversial position I am taking: language can change society. But even if I do not want to short change the media of money and power, I believe the role language plays needs more focused attention, and could reward such analysis and investigation in helping to understand how it is involved in societal change. To discount what Emile Durkheim calls the linguistic culture would be a mistake. He places it along-side of the scientific and historical cultures. If a historicization of totality brings reward, introducing evolution into the study of nature and biology, for example; and the scientific examination of totality also brings untold benefit, then despite the reductionism involved, the investigation of the linguistic totality might also bring reward. Reality is more than the verbalization of it. Thus what role does language play in social change and personal growth?

Don’t Think of a Square Circle!

Jason Zarri

It has been noted (by George Lakoff, among others) that if someone tells you “Don’t think of an elephant!”, it’s pretty hard not to do it. Though it would take empirical research to fill in the details, the answer as to why this is so does not seem hard to discern: To understand the order—to understand what one is not supposed to think of—one must understand the term ‘elephant’, and thus come to think of one. I’d wager that in addition to thinking of one an image of an elephant popped into your head as wellThis is probably because the concept of an elephant is an empirical concept—no crisp, abstract definition of an elephant comes readily to mind, so a stereotypical image is needed to make it intelligible. By contrast, if someone were to tell you “Don’t think of the number 2!” it is less likely that an image would come up, unless you confuse the numeral ‘2’ with the number 2—or, at least, that the image would be unlikely to be constant for different people, or for the same person at different times.

What, though, if someone were to tell you “Don’t think of a square circle!” Is it so hard to comply in this case?

Well, maybe it is: Do I really know what it is I’m not supposed to think of? If not, I’m not really complying with the order, because I fail to understand it. I’m merely doing what it says. Nevertheless, what interests me here is not our concept of compliance, but rather that of conceiving or imagining the impossible.

Should We Colonize Other Planets?

Nathaniel Bates

 

When I was young I grew up watching Star Trek.  On Star Trek, goodness prevailed over evil, and intelligence over ignorance.  Humankind overcame war and managed to colonize planets.  Very soon, aliens and humans put aside their differences in order to form the United Federation of Planets, an experiment in cosmic humanism that could only mean continual progress.  The handsome Captain Kirk always stood up for the “American Way” gone galactic, the idea that commerce would overcome borders and cultural differences.  The Enterprise was there to defend democracy, not to practice it.  Captain Kirk had to be obeyed, but only because he was first among equals and not because of any royal birth.  The message of Star Trek was that planetary colonization would only lead to a world of expanding horizons and continuing exploration.  It was a message that resonated with the imagination of youth.

What ends the naivety of childhood is not the realization that light is the cosmic speed limit, a fact probably prohibiting easy transport to the stars.  I knew that then, and such a trifle did not end the imaginative cocoon of childhood. Nor was it the fact that aliens probably don’t look like humans.  This was pretty obvious to me at that time given my basic familiarity with Darwin and natural selection.  What ends the naivety of childhood is not scientific fact since that is often more the handmaiden of imagination than anything stifling a young mind.  What ended childhood was the realization of complexity. 

And here is our most popular article in full:

 

Singer’s “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: Exposition and Appraisal

Jason Zarri

(To learn more about famine relief and what you can do to help,

see A Synopsis of Singer’s The Life You Can Save)

 

You can check out the audio version of this article on YouTube here.

1. Introduction

In his article “Famine, Affluence and Morality” Peter Singer gives a seemingly devastating critique of our ordinary ways of thinking about famine relief, charity, and morality in general. In spite of that very few people have accepted, or at any rate acted on, the conclusions he reaches. In light of these facts one might say of Singer’s arguments, as Hume said of Berkeley’s arguments for immaterialism, that “… they admit of no answer and produce no conviction.”[1] While I do think that Singer’s considerations show that people should do considerably more than most people actually do, they do not establish his conclusions in their full strength or generality. So his arguments admit of a partial answer, and once properly qualified may produce some conviction.

 

2. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: An Exposition

Singer argues that people who live in affluent countries must radically change their way of life and their conception of morality so that they will become committed to helping those in need. He begins by asking us to consider cases of famine, such as the one in Bengal in 1971, where people were suffering severely and neither governments nor individuals did anything near what would be required to relieve it (505)[2]. He sets the stage for his argument by putting forward two principles:

First, suffering and death are bad, whether from hunger, deficient housing or inadequate medical care.

Second, if one is in a position to prevent a morally bad state of affairs, without sacrificing something of roughly equal moral importance, one should do so (506).

From the first principle it follows that whether one should help those who are suffering or dying doesn’t depend on how close one is to them, unless that makes helping them more difficult, because their distance from one does nothing to lessen their suffering. From both principles together, it follows that one’s obligation to help those who are suffering or dying doesn’t go away if other people who are also in a position to help them aren’t doing anything, because the presence of other people who do nothing is, in moral terms, no different from the absence of people who do something.

Singer comments on this argument by adding that he could get by with a weaker version of the second principle, which would have “something of moral significance” in place of “something of roughly equal moral importance” (506).  He also gives a hypothetical example of the second principle in action: If one is in a position to save a child drowning in a pond, one should rescue the child even though that means dirtying one’s clothes, because that is not a morally significant cost and the child’s death would be an extremely morally bad state of affairs (506).

Singer next considers a couple of objections (507-8). One is that if, e.g., everyone were to donate what they should to famine relief, each person would only need to contribute a small amount, and thus there would be no reason for one to contribute more than a small amount. Singer responds that it’s just not true that everyone donates what they should to famine relief, so this objection is irrelevant given the actual situation. Another is that, since not many people donate much to famine relief, those who do should keep giving until they reach the point where their well being is roughly equal to that of the people they are trying to help. This would result in them donating more than they need to, which means that things would be better if people didn’t do quite as much as they should. Singer says that this would happen only if they didn’t know how much others were donating, and if they all acted at the same time. If they do know, and don’t all give at the same time, they may, and will, donate less than they otherwise would.

Taking himself to have satisfactorily answered the past two objections, Singer regards the second principle as established, and says that if necessary he can still make his case using its weaker version (508).

Singer thinks the foregoing has wide-ranging consequences for our moral thinking. Most people feel that they are perfectly within their rights to give whatever they choose to charity, whether it is nothing, a large amount, or something in between. According to Singer this is wrong (508). The money that people of wealthy nations spend on luxuries should instead be donated to charity because the poor and the needy need it to survive.  Donating one’s money to help them isn’t just good, it’s obligatory. The distinction between what’s (just) good and what’s obligatory might still exist, but it doesn’t apply to cases where affluent people can help the poor and needy.

Some would object that Singer’s position calls for too radical a change in moral norms (508-9). First, Singer considers a hypothesis put forward by J. O. Urmson [3], which is that the distinction between what’s (just) good and what’s obligatory developed because certain actions, the obligatory ones, are a necessary precondition for people to live together in a society; the (just) good actions may help, but are not necessary. In particular, helping those outside one’s society is not necessary. Singer says this may explain why many think there’s a distinction between what’s (just) good and what’s obligatory, but that doesn’t justify them in not donating to charity. Morality requires that we look beyond our own society because the needs those starving in other societies are just as pressing as our own, if not more so. Second, some have suggested that our moral codes shouldn’t require too much beyond what people are (thought to be) able to do. If they do, people will stop obeying them. Singer responds, first, that a strong version of this thesis is false. Even if people failed to do their duty by donating to famine relief they wouldn’t go around killing people. Second, what people are (thought to be) able to do varies with different circumstances and is influenced by what others do as well as by what others expect them to do. Third, it is worth taking the chance of a moral breakdown in order to relieve famine. Finally, the foregoing applies only to what we require of each other, not to what one should do oneself.

Another objection to Singer’s conclusions is that if Singer is right we should work constantly to generate as much happiness as we can (509-10). Singer says this doesn’t follow because his argument applies only to relieving suffering and preventing death, not generating happiness. Nevertheless, we should work full time to relieve suffering and prevent death. This is not what most people would accept, but Singer thinks that it is our ordinary moral code that is at fault, not his argument.

Singer next considers three practical points that are supposed to show that donating money is not the best way to achieve famine relief (510-11). Some say that it is the government’s duty to supply foreign aid and that if people donate individually the government won’t be motivated to fulfill its obligation. Singer thinks this assumption is factually incorrect. Furthermore, even if it were true that would just mean that people should devote their energy to trying to get the government to do its job. Others think that without population control there would be more starvation in the future rather than less and that we should therefore not donate to famine relief. Singer replies that this assumption is also factually incorrect, and that in any case, if one believes it is true, one should try as much as one can to relieve famine by supporting population control. Finally, if people did as Singer wants them to, on either the strong or weak versions of his second principle, our consumer-oriented society would be damaged. Singer agrees that this would happen, but thinks it would actually be a good thing. It would be bad to give away so much of the Gross National Product that we would have to give less in foreign aid in absolute terms, but since the goal is to help as much as we can we should not give away that much. And as before, this applies to how much societies should give, not to how much individuals should give.

Singer concludes by saying that, contrary to some, philosophers are competent to discuss famine relief, and moreover ought to discuss it (512). Just as importantly, philosophers should have the courage of their convictions and do what they know they ought to. It may not be an easy thing for one to do, but Singer believes that by doing so one can begin to reconcile theory and practice.

 

3. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”: An Appraisal

I think we aren’t in general required to do as much as Singer thinks we should, for if we were that would detract from our moral autonomy. I think that people are morally free to live their own lives and pursue their own interests, at least up to a point, and this entails that one is morally permitted to devote one’s time, energy, and money to activities that don’t directly have an impact on famine relief or similar worthy causes.

It frequently happens that certain pursuits have beneficial consequences that may not be intended or could not be foreseen. Mathematics and physics are two related examples of disciplines from which we have obtained many practical goods, services and technologies that in many cases were not among the goals of the intellectual activities that produced them. If we were not free to pursue our intellectual interests when it is not clear what positive impact they might have, or whether they would have any positive impact at all, we would, paradoxically, probably be worse off than we actually are.

How is this connected to Singer’s arguments? It is relevant in this way: If people are obligated to do as much as they possibly can, to “work full time” to relieve famine, they would have to give up many of their projects in order to do so. For those that do, we could end up missing out on their possibly unique contributions to human knowledge and any consequent betterment of human welfare.

This does not imply that people are morally permitted to pursue whatever interests they may have, especially when it has been shown that those interests have practically zero probability of bearing any socially beneficial fruits. It also doesn’t imply that people are morally permitted not to contribute to famine relief or similar causes, nor even that they are only obligated to contribute a small amount. There is a big difference between being free to pursue one’s interests and being free to waste one’s time, energy and money on luxuries. Things like—to borrow an example from Singer (508)—buying stylish new clothes should not count as legitimate ways of pursuing one’s interests. Aside from those who make those clothes, no one benefits from the money spent on them. Even if we suppose that they did, such benefits pale in comparison to how much the poor and starving would benefit from one donating one’s money to famine relief. However, I do think the above implies that we are morally permitted, to an extent, to choose what to do with our lives insofar as that is required for us to be free to pursue those of our interests that we know could have some chance of yielding socially beneficial fruits.

Singer could raise two objections to my arguments. First, he could say that the benefits of contributing to famine relief are almost certain, while the benefits of pursuing, e.g., higher mathematics are not. Second, Singer could say that since it is unlikely that many people would be swayed by his arguments, not many people would end up abandoning their interests, so the negative impact of their doing so would be negligible.

In reply to the first objection, I would admit that it is pretty clearly certain that donating to famine relief will have good consequences, and that it is pretty clearly not certain that pursuing higher mathematics will have good consequences. Nevertheless, pursuing things such as higher mathematics has unquestionably, on the whole, produced some very good consequences, and so it is pretty clearly certain that there is a non-negligible chance that you will produce some such consequence.  This naturally leads to a reply to the second objection. If you suddenly stop doing higher mathematics and devote yourself to working “full time” to relieving famine, you could indeed save many lives that you otherwise would not have saved, but it may also be that because of that you have failed to make a contribution that few others, if any, could have made to human knowledge and hence nullified any potential practical benefits that might have eventually followed from that. The problem is that we just don’t know.

Note that I’m not saying that one is obligated to pursue one’s interests, only that doing so is morally permissible. What I would say is that (a) it is up to each of us to choose whether to pursue our interests and (to an extent) how much time, energy and money to devote to them, and that (b) people are, when in a frame of mind where they are both rational and honest with themselves, probably in a better position than others to judge what the consequences of such choices are likely to be.

 

4. Conclusion

In spite of the above, once everything I’ve said has been taken into account, it is still true that people should devote a great deal of their resources to famine relief and similar causes—in all likelihood far more than most people in affluent nations, including me,  either do contribute or want to contribute. I would thus say that Singer’s main argument is sound, provided we accept the weaker version of Singer’s second principle, i.e., that one should prevent morally bad states of affairs if one can do so without sacrificing something morally significant. It’s just that I happen to think that having the moral autonomy to pursue one’s interests is something morally significant, and from the foregoing it should be clear that this means one is morally free not to devote oneself to working full time to prevent famine. However, I would question the stronger version of the second principle, i.e., that one should prevent morally bad states of affairs if one can do so without sacrificing something of roughly equal moral importance to the bad states of affairs one is trying to prevent. I question it not because I think it is false, but because I think in many cases it is vague whether two or more states of affairs are of roughly equal moral importance. In the case I considered earlier, there was a tradeoff between choosing to do something, namely donating to famine relief, which has a high probability of producing very beneficial results, and choosing to do something else, namely pursuing one’s interest in such things as higher mathematics, which has a much lower but still non-negligible probability of producing very beneficial results. The problem is that it is by no means obvious how we can compare the “beneficiality” of these results when we simply don’t know what results pursuing one’s interests might have, nor how beneficial they might turn out to be. For these reasons I think that while Singer’s conclusions are correct, they aren’t quite as correct as he thinks they are.

 

References

Hume, David. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, Edited by Tom L. Beauchamp. Oxford University Press, Oxford 1999

Singer, Peter. “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, Ethical Theory: An Anthology, edited by Russ Shafer-Landau. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007

Urmson, J. O. “Saints and Heroes,” in Essays in Moral Philosophy, ed. Abraham I. Melden. Seattle and London, 1958.

 

[1] Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (203), footnote 32.

[2] This and all subsequent page references are to Ethical Theory: An Anthology.

[3] “Saints and Heroes.” p. 214.

 

 

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