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RS97 - Peter Singer on Being a Utilitarian in the Real World

Release date: November 24, 2013

Peter SingerFew philosophers have as wide of an impact on the general public as ethicist Peter Singer, this week's guest on Rationally Speaking podcast. Singer's utilitarian arguments about how we should treat animals, why we have a moral obligation to give to charity, whether infants should count as "people," and more have won him widespread fame -- and notoriety -- over the last few decades, and launched multiple movements. Tune in to hear his discussion with Massimo and Julia about why he's a utilitarian, and how his views of utilitarianism have recently changed (and find out how he influenced Massimo's life years ago).

Peter's pick: "The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined"


"The why and how of effective altruism"

Reader Comments (16)

In the case of the drowning child and the expensive suit there are quite a few problems with Singer's logic:

1) The listener is supposed disagree with human intuitions about moral proximity because of a subsequent moral intuition about it being wrong to leave the child in the puddle, but in fact there's no reason to toss out that particular intuition. Even if you take his analogy to be solid, it simply shows that you can't hold both of those views simultaneously. One could just as easily dismiss our moral responsibility to the child in the puddle to rescue our intuition that we lack responsibility to starving children in the third world.

2) The analogy is flawed. Spending 5000 dollars to help people at home and 5000 dollars to help people abroad has very different outcomes. The person in front of you is a member of your community whose existence means a lot to those around you, and will in turn affect you rather directly. The child's parents may buy you a new pair of boots, you'd deal with their wrath if you let their kid die, and you might be rewarded in various ways. Your reputation in the community will also increase. Where helping someone abroad will not necessarily positively impact your life at all. Will the money you give even be spent on helping? Who knows. You won't get to see the results most of the time.

3) You've already purchased the shoes you'd ruin. Charity requires donation of liquid resources, and is therefore a totally different thing. Ruining a 1000 dollar suit to save a kid isn't the same thing as donating 1000 dollars.

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJason

A well-done and well-structured interview -- thanks!

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ball

So, when Peter Singer travels all over the world for academic conferences or talks (quite expensive and not needed for his basic well-being), does he take personally responsibility for deaths of the many children that could be saved by that money?

Or does he believe the utility of his own self-promotion is ultimately greater than those children's lives?

Ok, end of trolling. Utilitarian ideas are important and useful to some degree, but people shouldn't claim that they actually practice them very thoroughly.

Also, if your expensive shoes are worth 5 children, maybe you should let the child drown and donate your shoes for a net of +4 saved children.

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterks

Two remarks, on two distinct ideas discussed:

Yes, it might be true that from the perspective of the Universe, my happiness would be as important as the happiness of anyone else (or any other animal, for that matter). But why hang on to this particular premise in the first place? The universe isn't conscious, so the notion of perspective and emotional significance doesn't even apply to it in the first place. And even if it did, it would be just as arbitrary as any other perspective. Fact is, there is no rational reason to prefer any perspective to any other. But biology makes it easy for us to prefer our own perspective. It isn't a fallacy in need of argumentation, more than any other choice is.

The fact that 1 + 1 = 2 isn't a truth we need to discover empirically, although we can find numerous examples where that happens. But the types of minds for which it makes sense that 1 + 1 = 2 are minds that are made of, and which live in a world composed mostly of fermions, which behave in a way consistent with what we call Pauli's exclusion principle. So my hypothesis is that the kind of math that seems obvious to us is actually made possible by the physical nature of the world around us. 1 + 1 = 2 seems natural to us because the basic pieces which allow us to notice that behave in the same way, down to almost the fundamental level. Change the axioms and the rules, and 1 + 1 might not be equal to two. But the choice of axioms is arbitrary.

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNemo

Haha yes utilitarian ideas can only be expressed "thoroughly" (is that a reducto ad absurdum of just a straw man?) Or else a philosopher is just another charlatan? Your pithy trolling is useless, it's hilarious that you believe he could justify his self promotion, but the idea that this type of ethics should be taken seriously is clearly false, or that anyone could "actually believe in it". Hahahaha you poor pitiful nihilist. Calculations are too damaging to your world view eh???

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdurn

@ks, Singer has almost certainly done net good in his travels by spreading his utilitarian philosophy and convincing others to donate. If he had donated that money he would have done quite a bit of good, yes, but in recruiting the donations of many others he has done orders of magnitude more. Based on his philosophy it would be immoral for him NOT to travel and speak.

December 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJacob

while singer's reasoning is compelling to a degree, it gets worse when you take it to its logical extension for these reasons:

1) you are compelled to be a martyr. any consumption above basic caloric needs and survival could be considered immoral. since there are no theoretical limits to the number of famines, droughts, people having children they cant afford to raise, etc… there are no limits to the amount of sacrifices you may be compelled to make. so you must recognize right away there are limits to this "they are as important as me" logic unless you take a vow of poverty. and even if you did vow poverty, you'd fall into trap #2…

2) if failure to do the most good is wrong, then failure to make the most money you can is also wrong. if i live in a country with economic opportunities, and choose to work very little and live simply, i am sinning, because i have the opportunity to work hard and route more funds to starving people. lets say we have a hippie who wears sandals and a dirty t-shirt and makes 12k a year who decides he should make 50k so he can send more to charity. he has a very complicated calculation ahead. how much can he skimp on suits and shampoo and still make good money? the question becomes "what is the most i can make for others while maximally depriving myself?" not only can it be wrong to be rich, it can be wrong to be poor!

i think when you look at it carefully, not a single person on earth both accepts and lives by this standard. you need to set from the beginning limits on how much you are willing to do, so you don't slip into perpetual guilt and martyrdom. everyone, including singer, sets these limits. and once you set limits, you have abandoned singers "objective" assertion that all lives are equally important. to one degree or another, we all give ourselves preference. if evolution has ingrained one thing in us, its "don't smother yourself in BBQ sauce and have your body shipped to Congo"


3) the idea of objectivity in ethics is ridiculous. there is no "objective" reason to prefer a human life over a tree or a rock. we can go much further… there is no reason to prefer a universe filled with creatures, spaceships and christmas trees over a universe that is a featureless void, unless you have some preference for life and activity to begin with. whenever i hear someone evoke objectivity in a moral argument i sprain my eyes rolling them. objectively, our entire planet is an irrelevance. people want to be "objective" when it gives them a pretty answer, but true objectivity is a sociopath. if you have any feelings at all for the human race don't aspire to be objective. if you were, you wouldn't give a rats ass about what happened to anyone.

December 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterowen

The reason it feels wrong not to save the drowning child is not that the child is nearby per se, but that you're the ONLY ONE who can save the child. If there were lots of people in and around the pond, you'd feel much less obligated to save the child. That's the bystander effect. If you do save the child, you'll be a local hero, but if someone else is in a better position or more qualified to save the child, such as a lifeguard, then he'll feel more responsible.
But where are the child's parents, huh? Maybe it's the Singers, who are too busy rescuing African children to look after their own children, since all children are equal to the Universe.

December 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Can facts ever inform morality? Yes. Our huge overpopulation is grossly damaging the planet. A hundred years ago, procreation decisions seemed to have mostly private consequences (and moral effects). But now it is a moral imperative that we reduce our world population from &7+Billion to about 1B. But past is prologue. Decades ago religious, political, media, and cultural leaders should have been speaking out against "wrongful procreation." But we don't hear that even in these last hours. Changing population humanely and with a minimum of suffering has huge inertia which is built in and therefore has been grossly neglected to the sorrow of next generations.

This even extends to the drowning child in the pond. While it is obvious that your shoes should be sacrificed to save her, every effort to help the poor and the wealthy must have a large contraception component. Our precious planet and the only home of humankind can never be saved until religions realize these facts speak out as well as to take concrete action. It is maximally immoral to oppose all contraception. I hope that Pope Francis (and other religious authorities) wake up now.

December 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAllen Webb

It's always a joy when I listen to a podcast and find myself talking back to the participants. This one had that affect on me.

One quick comment: Julia Galef said, " don't have any force that argues to people that don't already care about human flourishing as to why they should care."

Don't worry Julia, evolution will take care of people who don't care about human flourishing. We don't need to worry about them. :-)

December 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel T.

The podcast was very interesting (as it always is) but I agree with the comments above that proximity DOES make a difference, and that being the only person in a position to save the child is very relevant. We are by nature more concerned about those closer to us in space, closer in biological relationship, and closer in emotional attachment, i.e., friends, relatives, neighbors, than we are with those far away.

Further, while humans are capable of using logic to solve problems, we do not make decisions based on logic. We make decisions based on emotion. As a friend of mine once commented, Pepsi does not issue a white paper giving logical reasons for choosing Pepsi over Coke. Rather, they hire someone famous to sing upbeat, feel-good songs about Pepsi.

The sight of a drowning child creates a visceral reaction that we do not get from simply knowing the statistics about world-wide child mortality. That's why charities show pictures of children in their ads rather than showing a talking head explaining the Italian shoes analogy. I give money to charity, as I presume most of us do, not because of the shoes analogy, but because it feels right to share some of the bounty of living in a wealthy society.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel

I have a specific (non-philosophical) comment: I don't know the state of the art on this, but I think that it could be nice to include the nutritional value (for humans, of course) of each food in the animals' suffering equation.

January 18, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Naya

Comment on the "pick" (the Steven Pinker book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature")... There have been some interesting points made in opposition to the book. Specifically, see the article "Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong" by Stephen Corry at (from 11 June 2013). ... Also see Christopher Ryan's post at Psychology Today, "Steven Pinker's Stinker on the Origins of War" (March 29, 2011). Ryan describes the errors Pinker made in his 2007 TED talk regarding the tribes he used as the basis of his ideas that our hunter gatherer ancestors were overly war-like.

January 21, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterStephen B.

Very good points Jason and one more thing to add to your three arguments:

4) Most of the cases donation is not paid once, like ruining your shoes ones. The children in the poor countries, always need help. So it is not like one drowning child you helped once. The more accurate analogy would be the following: Imagine that you see drowning children every day and you know that it will continue for whole of your life. I don't think you are going to rescue every single one of them with the same enthusiasm as you would do, for one child and one ruined pair of shoes. In this case it doesn't seem so wrong and different from donation's case in terms of moral intuition, that we are doing something wrong by not helping every child every day for the whole, or most of, our lives.

November 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLev
This podcast is pretty old, but I felt like Singer's views needed some extra defense here for anyone stumbling across this later. His views are actually very nuanced - and, perhaps, wise. I certainly don't agree with him on everything. I don't quite subscribe to utiliatarianism, and I disagree with him on animal rights. I think there are a number of arguments that can be raised. However, I think you'll find that all of these objections are addressed in Singer's various writings and lectures. You might not agree, but he has certainly considered them seriously.

1) It would be easy to extrapolate Singer's views to arrive at the conclusion that almost any spending beyond basic survival needs is immoral, since this is money that could go to a starving child or what have you. This is not the view that Singer takes. What would happen if you actually pursued this goal? You might succeed for a while, but inevitably you would lapse into unnecessary spending again. Then you would throw Singer's book off a bridge and forget it ever happened. This is a net negative for good in the world. You have to calibrate for your own human weakness while making a decision, while still taking a certain amount of responsibility. Trying to give up all non-vital spending would be like trying to lose weight by starving yourself. In practice, it doesn't work. You gain it all back very quickly. Instead, he advocates giving only 10% of your income at first to effective charities, with the possibility of increasing this amount in the future.

2) Singer readily admits that the person who lets the child drown in front of him is of a different sort of character than a person who doesn't donate the equivalent amount of money. The person who sees the child die in front of him without caring must be something of a psychopath, since natural human instincts would cause most people to act. A person who does not donate money is not this reprehensible. However, Singer argues that we should not use our instincts as a guide in our moral action, but rather our higher powers of reasoning. It's not a matter of character judgement.
October 30, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJair
Hedonistic and Preferential Utilitarianism both fail to correctly describe what we really want for maximal happiness. Therefore, we need another type of Utilitarianism.

It makes more sense to rescue the drowning child in front of you instead of the unknown child in a developing country due to familiarity. With the drowning child, you have actual present personal knowledge of the circumstances of the drowning child and know what to do to save her or him. Julia describes this as the "directness" of the aid provided. With the unknown children, you can make some assumptions about their circumstances, some further assumptions about how a relief organization might help them, and donate some money, but you never really know for sure if you helped anyone. Some relief organizations actually have the children send donors a postcard, but even then you have to wonder if you have just fed someone for a year who will then have lots more children that their country cannot feed, or that politics, economics, crime, or disease will kill off the kid you just saved.

Don't dairy cows continue to produce milk well after they ween their calves?

Physicians practiced euthanasia as a standard service until a lot of religious and political concerns made euthanasia a legal issue, but really every person has a fundamental right to die.
January 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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