The Moral Monster in All of Us

How do you help those in need? What is your responsibility? Peter Singer argues that the well-to-do should give a fair percentage of their income away and that failure to do so makes you a bad person. But things aren't always that simple.

Young_woman_beggingRecently, I was returning to my car after doing some work at a retail shop in one of the more affluent neighborhoods outside of Seattle. A woman approached me in the garage, tears in her eyes and a small, unkempt boy in her arms. She explained that she was from the east side of the state and, stupidly, left her car in Seattle unlocked. Her purse and keys were stolen and she was trying to get home. She told me that after some research, she figured she needed $120 for the trip on the bus for her and her boy. She said if just 5 people gave her $20 she could make it home. She had desperation in her voice and was pleading.

Even in the moment, I believed little of it. In fact I had heard of scams like this many times and her facts were inconsistent, contradictory, and seem contrived. Typically, I do one of two things in these situations. I either will lie to the person and tell them I have no cash and can’t help, or, if circumstances allow, I buy them the food or tickets they’re asking for so I can help with the immediate need (if its real) and I know where the money is going. In this case I did neither. My immediate thought was that if this woman, with an infant in her arms, is desperate enough to approach strange men—regardless of what her real situation is, I should try to help. I reached in my pocket and gave her twenty dollars. She was extremely grateful and asked me to pray for her.

The next day, I read in the local news that a woman, consistent with the age of the woman that approached me, was found in the early morning passed out drunk having struck a parked car. Her infant son was in the back seat. The boy was about the age of the boy the woman was carrying as far as I could tell. I have no idea whether this was the same woman but it very well could have been given what I knew. I haven’t been able to stop thinking whether I was the indirect cause of harm here, and, had circumstances gone even more wrong, the potential death of this small boy. My desire to help someone in need may have enabled an even greater evil.

So what is one to do here? Honestly I don’t know. I’m haunted by problems like these because I do think I have a responsibility to help those in need when I can. I don’t always know who the needy around me really are and how best I can help them.

On Being a Bad Person

I have to admit, I’ve wrestled with Peter Singer’s ethical model for years. I have strong intuitions (driven, perhaps, by selfish desires) that he goes wrong in the fundamentals and his small errors in the basics produce large errors in the outcome. Yet his essential premise seems attractive: reduce as much pain and suffering in the lives of others as you’re able. In general, I have a hard time reading Singer’s work because his material strikes me very much like the religious fundamentalism I’ve long since abandoned from my childhood: do things my way or you’re an evil person. The best theories when delivered logically, it seems to me, should be attractive and resonate at a fundamental level. Singer’s never have. If I have to be guilted into doing the right thing, something seems to have gone wrong in getting me there. 

An interesting article on Philosophy Now titled, “Peter Singer Says You Are a Bad Person” caught my attention. The author, Howard Darmstadter, summarizes what he views as Singer’s primary thesis and then attempts to explain why Singer’s ethical theory really doesn’t work. Singer’s thesis according to Darmstadter is this:

Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally.

Applied, Darmstadter claims the theory, according to Singer, entails that, “you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity.”

Darmstadter claims that Singer’s thesis doesn’t work because there are counterexamples that show the principles can’t be (or aren’t ) applied universally—which is what Darmstadter believes Singer is calling for. He also says Singer ignores the role of context.

In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time.

Darmstadter also picks apart Singer’s view on animal suffering mainly calling on the opacity of what it means for a non-human animal to suffer. Course-grained views (all suffering is of exactly the same kind) break down as we move down—or across if you think that term poisons the well—the evolutionary chain.

It’s Partly a Knowledge Problem

In reading Darmstadter’s piece, it became clearer that the reasons why Singer’s universal principles don’t resonate may have to do with an epistemic challenge in treating what we see as ethical problems to be solved. The more distant we are from problems, the more opaque the cause of those problems become and the more opaque the value of our “help” is to us. Certainly there are clear cases of horrific suffering that many of us are able to help with. Claiming “epistemic opacity” sounds like the hollow excuse it is when we consider those clear cases.* But there is something to the opacity issue particularly when we consider whether our help treats only surface symptoms and really fails to deal with core problems like abusive governments, oppressive religious beliefs, tradition, and educational issues. Treating symptoms has value if we’re also working on remedying the causes of those symptoms and treating symptoms only may lead to larger, more insidious problems. The money I gave to the woman in the garage may be an example of just this.

Further, many situations seem simple and effective on the surface like giving 10% of one’s income to help the poor. But even these are fraught with complexities (as Darmstadter notes). Where is the money going? What is the money being used for? Is this the most effective way to help those in need? Admittedly, given my circumstances I’m buffered from direct exposure to extreme suffering and know only about the worst humans have suffered through books and direct and indirect testimony. And while I tend to believe I should be more thankful than guilty for my situation, I also fully realize that my exposure to serious need and extended suffering has been limited. (Recently, the school where I teach attempted to address this problem by hosting Tent City for three weeks. It certainly raised awareness and helped provide some perspective.)

But solutions to the suffering and need that I do see is, many times, epistemically opaque. The surface need may be clear but there seems to be a whole host of ambiguity beneath the surface. I can say this though: in general seems better to me to learn about the genuine needs of those in my direct orbit and I can best do this by plugging into the lives of others. This means that focusing on solving local problems for which I can see genuine solutions and changed lives may reduce the opacity problem and provides me with an opportunity to invest in people on a variety of levels—not just financially. That seems to me to at least be a good starting place.

**Update 3/21/2012: Peter Singer will be speaking on responding to global poverty on April 3rd, 2012. Info here.


* The obvious, and it seems to me fallback, response to the opacity problem is to default to take a “better safe than sorry” approach. If you don’t know if a person is in need, assume the best and help. If you don’t know whether an animal feels pain, assume it does and don’t harm it. But as I tried to illustrate in the opening anecdote, this isn’t always the best policy. Course-grained approaches to complex issues seldom net a positive benefit over the long haul even though it may seem to provide surface benefits in the short term. Long term negative benefits tend to outweigh the short-term positive ones. I was reminded of this recently from an interesting article in Business Insider titled, “Doctors Choose A Different Way To Die Than The Rest Of Us.” Having said this, it’s also fairly clear that many of us help far less than we’re able and perhaps should.
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