Author Archives: Jean Kazez - Page 2

The Life You Can Save (chapter 2)

singer1Now we get to the argument why it’s not just nice to give, but we ought to, it’s a moral obligation.  What I find particularly interesting about the chapter is the way Singer starts off with Bob and the Bugatti and switches half-way through to the deductive argument he made back in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in 1972.  Bob and the Bugatti is a thought experiment due to Peter Unger, which Singer also focused on in a New York Times Magazine article in 1999. (Do read Unger, if you’re interested in a vigorous philosophical work-out.)

Bob’s got all his retirement savings wrapped up in his old and valuable Bugatti and he’s close to retiring. Fool that he is, he’s left it sitting at the end of a railway siding. He goes for a walk up the tracks and in the distance he can see an empty runaway train coming down the other track.  (It’s typical of thought experiments like this that they’re full of implausible details.  Do not ask how he knows that train is empty!)  The train is heading for a small child he can see up ahead, dawdling around on the tracks.  Wonder of wonders, he sees a a switch he can pull to divert the train from hitting the child to hitting his Bugatti.  Does he have to do it?

You’re probably going to think “Yes, by all means.”  And by analogy, you’re supposed to become convinced that you must make contributions to Oxfam, which can use your money to save the life of a child just like the one on the tracks.

So why does Singer switch to the old deductive argument half way through?  For one, he is not keen on relying on intuitions, because many of his positions in ethics are actually counterintuitive.   He also seems to want to acknowledge some disimilarities between Bob’s situation and the situation of someone contemplating saving lives in a distant country.

I also think the switch might be tactical.  I do think Singer’s main goal in this book is to get us to give.  The Bob thought experiment does a good job of leveraging greater giving unless you start thinking about its ultimate import.  The moral is not  “give 5%” or “give 10%” or  “give whatever you don’t need for necessities.”  The moral is—give everything you’ve saved for retirement!

Some people will no doubt think there’s got to be something fishy about the case for obligatory giving, if it means we have to give away that much.  They might not be able to identify the flaw in the argument, but they’ll think there must be one.  And that might make them turn their backs on giving.

So Singer switches to the argument he’s been making for over 30 years, which doesn’t so transparently urge gargantuan sacrifices.  It goes like this:

(1)  Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.
(2)  If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.
(3) By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.
Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Singer stresses that “without sacrificing anything nearly as important” is vague.  He says he’s leaving it up to you and me to make honest comparisons.  That’s good strategy, but is it good philosophy?

The Life You Can Save (chapter 1)

singer1OK, so let’s begin the chapter-by-chapter discussion of The Life You Can Save I’ve been promising.  If you’re reading the book, I hope you will join in.  Let’s not make this a general, diffuse Singer-fest. I want to talk about what’s specifically said in the pages of this book.

Singer’s primary goal, clearly, is to get the reader to give. He starts his appeal with a litany of our sins.  On the first page: we could drink free water, but we buy sodas.  One coke costs all the money some people have to live on for an entire day.  It’s easy to remember the old statistic that one billion people live on just $1 a day.  It turns out it got worse in 2008.  The extreme poverty line is now $1.25 per day, and 1.4 billion have less than that.

We could make coffee at home, but we pay $2.60 for a latte at Starbucks.  That’s all that some people have to live on for two days.  We could spend $20 for a watch, but some people spend $5000.  (That’s more than over a billion people will have to live on for 10 years.)  27,000 children die of poverty-linked causes every day, and we don’t prevent it.

All this is already quite persuasive, even without any explicit arguments about what we are obligated to do (which come in the next chapter).  It’s just immediately obvious that it’s grotesque to buy bottled water, or lattes, or $5000 watches, when there are so many people in such desperate need.

Two things immediately worry me, though.  One is about what makes people give.  Does it really trigger giving to talk about coke vs water?  Bill Gates is a huge giver—to the tune of $29 billion, so far—and not a coke vs water kind of guy.  He lives in a 40,000 square foot house with every luxury imaginable.  Could it be that a sort of (dare I say) Nietzschean exuberance and fulsomeness is actually all to the good (in some people)? Do people who “live big” also “give big”?  Is it kind of pinched and potentially miserly to be counting your waters and your cokes?

Speaking of Bill Gates, another worry I have about all this “coke vs. water” thinking is that we can’t be an affluent society with lots to give unless there are entrepreneurs selling goods and services  that aren’t really necessary, and consumers buying them.  You don’t get thriving commerce without people who are really serious about getting rich and consumers who are really interested in all sorts of goods and services, not just the critical ones.

Note: I’m not putting this thought forward as an excuse not to give.  I’m just worried about “coke vs. water” sort of moral calculating.  (a) Does it make people big givers? (b) Does it make for the sort of wealth there has to be, if the world’s problems are going to be solved?  I think Singer talks about both issues in later chapters, so I shall “stay tuned.”

The Life You Can Save, starting Friday

singerWe’ll chat about one chapter at a time and keep going every day or two until the book is done.  This is a discussion for people who have read the book–I won’t be doing much explaining or summarizing.   I’ll bring up whatever’s on my mind, but so will other readers…I hope.  (We’ll see how this goes.)  See you then!

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapters 3-5, More Life, Less Art?, The Miserable Planet

The Life You Can Save

singerI’m writing a review of Peter Singer’s new book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (for TPM) and will be posting about the book here in a week or two.  So…get your copy now, if you want to join the discussion.  The book is pitched to a very broad audience, but I think/hope there will be goodies in it for the anointed as well.

I’ve been amused to see early reactions around the Internet.  One Amazon reviewer says that Singer is Hitler, yes Hitler, for encouraging people in affluent countries to make major sacrifices to end extreme poverty.  On the other hand, someone at wrote in to say she has started giving everything away, sounding as if she’d just read the book.

Singer starts by asking if you happen to have a soda in hand as you’re reading.  The $1.50 it cost you is more than “the bottom billion” have to live on for an entire day.  The whole book is an exhortation to do more, but whether it succeeds or not, it’s interesting. Is having a soda morally wrong?  It’s a great question.

Group Twitter

Lately I’ve been sounding like a grumpy old woman, at least to myself. I keep railing about “kids today” and the way they text each other constantly. In my defense, I think: Hey, I have a blog and a website, and I use email constantly!   But the constant trivial back-and-forth of texting!  Tsk. Tsk.

Even worse, what about Twitter?!  Who needs to send little 140 character reports about what they are doing out into the world?  How trivial! How self-absorbed!  Tsk. Tsk.

All these things–texting, twittering, emailing, blogging–lift you out of the social world around you, as if the really important connections must be with someone else “out there.”  When my daughter texts while sitting with her family in a restaurant, she does imply that we’re not quite up to snuff. But then, as she wisely points out, I do the very same thing when I sit in a room with my kids and visit TP or answer email.  Isn’t Twitter just adding to the disconnection?

But then I started getting curious.  I visited a few Twitter pages, and discovered there’s a kind of poetry and immediacy that results from the constraints. Plus, the tantalizing sense of getting a real-time glimpse into someone’s life.  You might find out what they really think, or what they really eat for breakfast. OK, maybe not that tantalizing.  But there might be something to this!

I’m curious about the art form.  So here’s what I propose:  group Twitter. You and I get to see what it’s like to Twitter, without really doing it.  You have to say what you are doing, in 140 characters or less.  One more contraint–this is a philosophy blog (in a broad sense).  So don’t say you are buttering toast.

I promise to contribute, if anything interesting happens today.  So far it’s just me, my computer screen, a cup of coffee, and the squirrel I can see out the window. It’s a day like any other day.  We’ll see if anything develops!

Questions of Truth (II)

The earlier thread is so long it’s surely at the breaking point.  Here’s a radio debate between Nicholas Beale and Julian Baggini.  Have fun.

Eating People

underI’ve finally just about recovered from reading Under the Skin, by Michel Faber, this past weekend. I believe this is the only book I’ve ever read that literally made me sick to the stomach.

Yes, it’s about eating people, a topic I find myself having to think about because a chapter of my book (still untitled) is about why it is permissible to eat animals, in order to survive.  You can’t just blithely say that it is, and not consider whether it’s OK to eat people to survive.  What if you and I were on an expedition in the Arctic and our vegetarian provisions slipped through the ice. Could I eat you to survive?

I’m not sure if I should recommend this book. One review says it’s “Stephen King meets Animal Farm.” Indeed.  The horror builds up slowly, with hints of insidious doings that are gradually revealed in barf-inducing detail.  Maybe I’m just over-sensitive, but the lurid details wound up swamping everything else.  By the end I just wanted to throw the book out, not think about it.

But now it’s 48 hours later, and I’m feeling much better, thank you very much.  I won’t tell you too much, in case you decide to read the book, but this much is revealed pretty fast.  The main character, Isserley, is not “one of us.”  Indeed, she considers herself human, and us animals.  This, despite the fact that members of her species … Well, I don’t want to give too much away.  Because she thinks of herself as human, she thinks she’s on a higher plane.  We animals are pretty loathsome, and our feelings are not of any concern.

This is a book Peter Singer should read, if he hasn’t already, because Isserley perfectly exemplifies the outlook Singer calls “speciesism.”  Everything she says about humans and animals is eerily familiar–the use of “human” as an honorific, the use of “animal” to refer to everything else, the contempt and denigration for animals, and the indifference to their feelings.  All this is just normal and non-reflective for her.  She’s not some kind of a psychopath.  But since we are the “animals” in the book (“vodsels,” we are called) we know that her biases are blinding her to some awful (awful, awful) realities.

Farber seems to want us to see ourselves in Isserley, and wonder about our own ideologies.  Is our insistence on a sharp human-animal divide any better than hers?  “Yes, yes, it’s completely different, because we really are on the same plane as Isserley, though she doesn’t know it.  Cows and pigs, on the other hand, really are on a lower plane than us.”  The problem is that as soon as you start formulating a self-protective reply, you hear yourself sounding just like Isserley.  My favorite paragraph in the book mocks our self-justifying theories. Here’s Isserley, speaking about vodsels in half-English–

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of lsan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did their creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

After reading this book, it’s very hard to settle into good old specieism as usual.  Farber has made it sickening. But maybe too sickening.  Don’t blame me if you read the book.  I warned you.

Descartes Was a Vegetarian

descartesWhat? Yes, this is what I read in Tristram Stuart’s comprehensive history of modern vegetarianism, The Bloodless Revolution. The man so famous for thinking animals are mere machines lived on a diet of vegetables from his garden! According to his friend and biographer Andrien Baillet, at least at home he ate “vegetables and herbs all the time, such as turnips, coleworts, panado, salads from his garden, potatoes with wholemeal bread.”

Not only was he a de facto mostly-vegetarian, but he apparently accepted a good chunk of the reasoning that leads to ethical vegetarianism. He thought that if animals did feel pain, then we’d be wrong to raise them and kill them for food. I think I’m going to have to atone for my heretofore tendency to vilify Descartes as a completely heartless enemy of animals. Most people today don’t even accept that much of the reasoning for vegetarianism, but he did.

Furthermore, I was astonished to read that Descartes’ thinking about animal minds was partly driven by concerns about ethics and theology. If you think there’s a God who created animals, “and saw that it was good,” it’s very hard to see why he made them out of very tasty meat, practically luring us into acts of violence against them. Apparently this conundrum about God and meat-eating disturbed Descartes. To suppose that animals are mere machines, and feel no pain–as Descartes did–resolves the whole puzzle, just like that. God is acquitted and so are we.

Of course, there’s a lot more to the reasoning that leads Descartes to say animals are non-sentient machines, but thoughts about God and meat-eating were apparently an element. He wasn’t lacking the thought that animal suffering would be a serious barrier to the things we do to animals, and even to theism, if it were real.

Please don’t ask me the meaning of the word “panado.” Apparently it’s something tasty to eat that grew in Descartes’ garden.

Title Crunch

If you’d like to help me with the title of my forthcoming book, I’d be very grateful if you took a poll, here.

Also, Jeremy told us we should add his lovely new website to our blog rolls, RSS readers, etc, “because I don’t have any readers” (sniff). So I’ve just added his site to our blog roll. Please take pity on him and pay him a visit. The site sure is pretty.

“Welcome Gays, No Gay Behavior Allowed”

An issue about religious freedom and discrimination has been a hot topic at philosophy blogs, recently. You can check it out here, here, and here.

The background: The American Philosophical Association (APA) has an anti-discrimination statute that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Nevertheless, it accepts ads from Christian colleges that require all employees to sign contracts and promise not to engage in various “un-Christian” behaviors. Having a gay partner is one of these un-Christian behaviors.

Now, by tolerating these schools, is the APA living up to its own statutes? It does have another relevant policy, to the effect that it’s OK for religious schools to seek to hire people with the relevant religious affiliation. Christian schools may seek to hire Christians, etc. But that’s not quite the same as letting colleges impose bans on gay behavior.

A petition has been signed by about 1,200 APA members to the effect that the APA should stop accepting ads from Christian colleges. (I haven’t signed, just because I’m not a dues-paying member.) But then there’s a contingent that says the APA has actually done all it needs to do: it’s fully in compliance with its anti-discrimination statute. In fact, it says even the Christian schools are in compliance.

What? One argument in a counterpetition, signed by a number of prominent Christian philosophers, is that there’s an important distinction between orientations and acts. If discrimination on the basis of orientation is prohibited, it’s still permitted to prohibit certain acts. Then we hear various analogies. You can protect adulterers, or felons, or drinkers from discrimination, but still require them to cease and desist.

So…if a college knowingly hires gay and lesbian faculty, is it discrimination based on sexual orientation if they are expected to get rid of their partners, or seek no partners, while their straight colleagues enjoy marriage and family?

We don’t have to ask this question in a vacuum. There are statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in many cities, states, and businesses. The general intent behind them is clear—like men and women, or blacks and whites, gays and straights are to be treated as equals. Homosexuality is not to be treated as a moral pathology, if heterosexuality is not treated as such.

To press the super-subtle question about orientations vs. acts, you actually have to support or have considerable sympathy with the regime at these Christian colleges. Yet the regime is mean-spirited and downright creepy. A graduate student at Prosblogion talks about his gay Christian friends like this: “These people found deep freedom in not acting out their homosexual orientation, and many, I would say, found a deeper companionship and communion with God.”

Pretty words, but it’s a sad picture: gay faculty finding “deep freedom” in containing themselves, while their straight colleagues enjoy all the satisfactions of marriage and family. And it’s fantastically unrealistic. What we’re really talking about is loneliness, shame, the effort to change what won’t change.

I consulted a friend of mine who has worked for 20 years at the EEOC (the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) what she thought of the act/orientation hair-splitting. She said this would not hold up in a court. If a business had a rule prohibiting Muslim acts–wearing hijab, going to mosques, etc.– that would be regarded as a pretext for not hiring people with a Muslim orientation. The business wouldn’t get to say that Muslims find deep freedom in suppressing their religious impulses.

I quoted her over at Prosblogion and she was immediately dismissed by a commenter as not knowing what she was talking about. Well, maybe after another year at the EEOC she’ll know as much about anti-discrimination law as a philosophy graduate student.

Make no mistake about it, these people are unkind, but they’re sly and creative, and they’ll use every slippery distinction in the book to keep gay people from living normal happy lives. I’m just glad that at least in the philosophy world, they’re in a very small minority.