More Life, Less Art?

singer1Skipping chapters 6 and 7 (an excellent, honest discussion of aid organizations and the cost of saving a life), here’s something interesting from chapter 9. Singer writes:

dt8[P]hilanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious. In 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small Madonna and Child painted by the medieval Italian master Duccio. In buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see.  But if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost.  At $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given 100,000 women another chance at a decent life.  At $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives–a football stadium full of people.  How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that?  If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?  And that’s just one child.

What do you think?

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  1. “In the retreat of 1941 before the German onslaught, the curator of the Turgenev Museum in the city of Orel packed up the contents and placed them in a railcar. The centrepiece was a worn sofa upon which the famous writer had thought great thoughts. At every station the curator was faced with an angry crowd of refugees struggling to find space on the train to take them eastward. Each time he explained that the jumble belonged to the great Turgenev, and each time the mob relented.”

    - Richard Overy, Russia’s War

    While SInger’s moral calculus might seem compelling, I’m not sure it provides much insight. I agree that the sum paid for this work of art is difficult to justify, but change the script slightly and it becomes more problematic.

    Let’s say African country X has a budget which supports a) cataract operations and b) keeping the country’s musical tradition alive; according to Singer, that country should switch all of its money to cataract operations at the expense of its musical tradition. I’m not sure that many people actually in that country would accept that as a good deal.

    In some ways this is sleight of hand on Singer’s part – it’s possible for him to argue this because he has separated “us” and “them”. “We” pay ludicrous sums of money for meaningless works of art; “they” suffer and die while we look at the meaningless art. Consequently it’s easy for him to make his point appear more forceful than it actually is.

    Ironically this strikes me as being patronising to both sides – does anybody else feel the same way?

  2. Singer’s example strikes me as extreme. Not all works of art cost 45 million dollars. However, using Singer’s logic, we should auction off all art work in all museums and all books in our libraries (except, possibly, the complete works of Singer) to help the poor. Something’s wrong here. Art has value too.
    Let me go on. Let’s imagine we can sell advertising space on the U.S. flag or others: the flag will now say “Coca-Cola” and the money will go to help the poor in Africa. From now on, the president of the U.S. and of all rich countries will wear tee-shirts with brand names, for example, brands of beer, and the money will go to help the poor. Would that be a good idea or does dignity have a value too? What I’m say is that there are other things in the world with value besides human life. By the way, I’m not a big art fan.

  3. Jean- Yeah that struck me as kinda odd when I read it too. Now that I think about it, this is a pretty interesting piece of argumentation. I don’t think many things have intrinsic value, but I think art has intrinsic value.

    So here we have two competing intrinsic values, art, and a human life. How do we decide which one is more important. To an extent, we can quantify in dollar amounts both objects (ironically the artwork is worth more… only because of scarcity)… But morally speaking (not economically speaking) one is clearly more valuable than the other. Given the choice, you save a child in a burning building, not the Duccio.

    But as Singer is fond of arguing, when it comes to helping our own versus strangers, we can reasonably do both. I think this is one of those instances where we should try to do both.

    Alternatively, I think we can make analogous relationships between zoos and art museums. Zoos keep wild animals around, to raise awareness and help our animal causes. Similarly art museums can help make the illeterate, literate, and raise cultural awareness so we can help the poor and starving (whether that actually happens or not is something different.)

    amos- Singer would say that dignity is in there… again, if you think selling ad space on the flag is undignified, and that is of comparable moral value (purposely vague and open to individual interpretation) to a child’s life, then you stop there. I think I would agree, that dignity is important, and that we ought not sell ad space on the flag. Ultimately the thrust of the his argument is that most people do nothing, and that is simply unacceptable. Charity is simply not supererogatory.

  4. Yes, in a fire I’d save the child and not the 45 million dollar painting (of course, if I owned the painting, I’d think twice). That’s almost instinctual. Singer is appealing to our instinctual, first-reaction here.
    Now, let’s say that the choice is between saving one child in the fire and the only copies of the complete works of Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Wayne Yuen and Jean Kazez. Let’s say that we know the child and that we sense that he is a future psychopath.

  5. “So here we have two competing intrinsic values, art, and a human life. How do we decide which one is more important.”

    I am surprised by this comment and ones like it. Surely Singer’s point about the child in the burning museum answers it? Would anyone hesitate over which to rescue? And to be fair to Singer we have to keep the argument in the terms he proposes. He is not suggesting there is no value in art, he is arguing specifically about the moral implications of spending millions to make a small addition to a vast art collection when those millions could save or transform thousands of lives. Personally, I think Singer is bang on with this one. The donors who spend their money on this stuff while the world is full of dying people are acting immorally and should be ashamed. The Duccio is a minor work too, artistically speaking.

  6. I found this passage of the book persuasive. $45 million for this painting really is absurd and insane, considering what else could be done with that money. I think what Singer is saying, mainly, is “don’t donate to the arts, instead of to poverty relief organizations.” In fact, I don’t donate to the arts. It’s always struck me as absurd to support already rich institutions while people far away are starving.

    But then, when I think about it more, it does get tricky. I make no donations to arts organizations, but I go to art museums and the symphony. I pay a frightening amount so my two children can have music lessons, and an even more frightening amount so one of them can play the violin in an orchestra. So I am not consistently prioritizing saving lives over the arts.

    This is where I think Singer’s thinking becomes altogether puzzling–when you think about how far we must go with making moral comparisons. Do I have to let them prevail over my behavior every minute of the day? Can’t I buy my daughter violin lessons?

  7. “Do I have to let them prevail over my behavior every minute of the day? Can’t I buy my daughter violin lessons?”

    I think the stroing Singerian position must be yes, it is wrong to give your daughter violin lessons if the money could save the life of another child. After all, you would not prioritise your daughter’s musical education iof the child in question was drowning right in front of you and you could fish her out by using the violin, even if it was the only violin you could ever afford.

  8. Right, I think that’s his position, and it’s not that it makes no sense. Recently I’ve been thinking somebody needs to write a book called “How To Be Bad.” All being bad is not equal. If you must be bad, doing so by giving your daughter violin lessons is the way to go. I don’t think it can really be as bad as neglecting the child in the pool. Of course, it’s very, very tricky to say why it’s different.

  9. john- To be fair to me, I did say you save the kid…. :) I’m with Singer on this one too.

    Does it really matter what piece of art we’re talking about here though? lets say we have Michaelangelo’s Pieta, vs a starving child, or Munch’s The scream, or (insert your favorite piece of art here). Seems to me that the child always wins out.

    Amos- well if it was just my complete works, we wouldn’t be losing much, just a few dabbles in pop culture and philosophy mostly about dead things (two papers on vampires and one forthcoming paper about the end of the world). But Hume?! that would hurt. In some ways I think philosophy would be better off without Wittgenstein. ;)
    But anyways, back to the thought experiment, if we knew that the child was a psychopath, and all of the works of the philosophers in question were in a fire, we save the works, and leave the child to die. I’m not sure if Singer would be with me on this one, since he’s willing to let a baby burn for a dog if the baby was severely mentally handicapped (read no brain), but mentally handicapped isn’t quite the same as a psychopath.

    To your other point, this argument clearly appeals to intuitions, and nothing more…. But instead of thinking of this argument as supporting the basic argument for giving, think of this as exploring the limits of what is of “comparable moral significance.”

  10. John – how do you respond to the accusation that Singer is using sleight of hand here, presenting two extreme proposals and pretending that they are universals? Few would hesitate to save a child from a burning museum, but presumably Singer himself would leave the child to die if it was a newborn baby with severe learning difficulties.

  11. Also, it’s worth noting that Singer’s complaint is against the purchase of an art work – that art will still exist even if it’s not purchased by a museum. Look at it this way: on the “strong Singerian” (nice phrase, John) calculus, art has no value next to human life. Let’s accept that and move to a thought experiment.

    A god suddenly appears and declares that It is a strong Singerian, and can stand by no longer. This god will save the life and preserve the health of every living human, but the price is the complete and irreversible destruction of every human artistic tradition. All of it gone – music, painting, writing, dancing. Gone.

    On the face of it, that seems to fit with Singer’s argument – yet somehow I don’t think there’s a person on the face of the earth that would accept that as a reasonable proposal. That means two things: either people are unable to accept Singerian arguments, no matter how watertight they are, or those arguments are fundamentally flawed in how they measure value.

  12. “Does it really matter what piece of art we’re talking about here though? lets say we have Michaelangelo’s Pieta, vs a starving child, or Munch’s The scream, or (insert your favorite piece of art here). Seems to me that the child always wins out. ”

    I agree, it does. But it might not if we were talking about art or culture as a category. In fact, didn’t we make the decision in the 40s that it was worth killing thousands of children (and their parents) to defend a culture? That still seems a reasonable decision to me, but I agree wqith Singer that we should look it in the eye.

    “John – how do you respond to the accusation that Singer is using sleight of hand here”

    It often feels like this to me, at first blush, but then looks less like it when I mull it over. In this example he is being very explicit that we should save a child rather than add a small amount of art to an already huge collection, he is not suggesting we give up art completely.

    “If you must be bad, doing so by giving your daughter violin lessons is the way to go.”

    But everything in me rebels at that (the badness of the violin lessons). There must be something wromng with this line of reasoning, mustn’t there?

  13. “It often feels like this to me, at first blush, but then looks less like it when I mull it over. ”

    Interesting – it’s the opposite way around to me.

  14. Paul C,

    Can we leave babies with disabilities out of it? That issue has no relevance at all to this book.

    I don’t think your Singerian God would act quite as you say. The Singerian God is a preference Utilitarian. He (or whatever) wants the world to be as full of satisfied preferences as possible. That means lots of people, but it also means there must be a setting in which they can have a rich set of desires and satisfy them. I don’t think this God will want to save every single life if it means that nobody has a life with rich satisfactions. He will have to strike some balance between keeping people alive and preserving the setting that allows people a good life. He will want to preserve schools, libraries, and maybe also art museums.

    But now imagine the Singerian God is choosing between the $45 million Duccio and 45,000 lives. Think about it. Does this one painting really generate so much satisfaction that it’s better to preserve it than to save all those lives? Surely not. So the Singerian God will save the lives, not the painting.

    It does not follow the SIngerian God will always prefer to save lives than to preserve art.

  15. Jean, I was under the impression that Singer does not believe that certain categories of human being have the right to life. That being the case, it does seem relevant to point out that this position, combined with the argument we’re discussing, potentially creates a moral recommendation which most people would not feel comfortable with.

    I believe thatt this in turn exposes the sleight of hand that is at work here, because I feel very strongly that it is sleight of hand. I agree that in this instance the purchase of the Duccio is a waste of money, but it’s not being destroyed so it doesn’t create any conflict for most people. That’s why I proposed the Singer God.

    Singer is specifically arguing that we should give all excess income to save lives. As has been pointed out, the strong Singerian position suggests that art cannot be considered comparably valuable to human life, and therefore by that argument we should not give any money to the arts at all. This in turn destroys “the arts” as we know them (i.e. high art, which is what most people think of). So I believe my Singer God fits the argument well.

  16. Paul, Singer works in many areas of applied ethics–especially on issues about poverty, animals, and end-of-life decisions. There is not reason to look at all his ideas at once. You can agree with him about poverty, but not about animals. You can agree with him about poverty, but not about end-of-life decisions. His position on disabled newborns is actually very complex and not quickly stateable. It just doesn’t matter what it is, since it’s easily detached from his view about poverty.

    I don’t think you’ve responded to my point about your Singerian God. I’m all for talking about what he would choose. I don’t think you’ve responded to my argument that he would not actually always choose life over art. See above, 9:19 am. He would choose 45,000 lives over this one painting, but that doesn’t mean always life over art.

  17. I might not be explaining this very well! I am not saying that one needs to agree with everything Singer says, or that Singer himself is not being consistent. I am only trying to explore whether we are being tricked by rhetoric – asked to agree with something which seems intuitively obvious but does not necessarily provide us with a solid foundation to build on.

    The Singerian God is not Singer’s philosophy embodied – perhaps I should have chosen a better name, and made clear that it is not the Preference Utilitarian God. For the purposes of the experiment, let’s just say it’s a God whose motives are inscrutable to us, offering the same deal.

    I assert that there is nobody on earth who would accept that deal, even if they didn’t particularly care for art. That means that there is something wrong with Singer’s argument, since it’s based on an assumption about the relative value that people place on things. People clearly value art more than life in certain circumstances.

    Which brings us back to the Duccio. The reason I suspect sleight of hand is because Singer has not really exposed what’s at stake. The logical conclusion of his argument is that we should not pay – in any form – for any art. (Oral rehydration salts can save a baby’s life and cost almost nothing, so pretty much any art will cost more.)

    If we accept this argument then the “arts” (by which I mean high art and commercial art, which is what Singer and ourselves are really discussing, I think) disappear in short order. So the cost of this philosophical position is actually far higher than Singer makes it out to be in the excerpt presented.

    Unless he’s arguing that the Duccio is an exceptional case, and not that we should make a universal argument from it. However I was assuming that it formed a kay plank of the same platform that he’s argued previously.

  18. If the god you have in mind always chooses life over art, he is not operating with principles Singer endorses, and so your faulting this god doesn’t mean faulting Singer. The god device is only pertinent if you make him operate using Singer’s principles.

    Seriously, I don’t think Singer is saying life must always be saved rather than art. Say that in a refugee camp there is a place where kids can do art. A certain amount of money is spent on paper and paint. Kids can spend a decade in one of these camps, so activities like this are important. Aid agencies and donors do pay for them. Must Singer object, and say the money should all go to food and medicine? I don’t think so. As a preference utilitarian he will care about both quantity and quality of life. It is very hard to say how to balance these two things, but quality does count.

    In the passage I quoted in my post, he is objecting to extreme spending on the arts–one painting, rather than 45,000 lives. From that one painting you’re not going to get enough total preference satisfaction to outweigh all the dissatisfaction involved when 45,000 people lose their lives.

  19. Wow, I’m really not explaining this well. I’m not using the God to fault Singer’s principles, I’m using the God to fault Singer’s assumptions about what humans value and how they assign that value, which does not lend itself to the blank calculus that I believe he subscribes to. My understanding of his position is based on past writing – for example, in 1999:

    “In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening. That’s right: I’m saying that you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit… the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”

    Given the items that Singer lists, it seems to be a fairly safe assumption that he would define any art as a luxury, not a necessity. I object to extreme spending in the arts as well, but this is the rhetorical sleight of hand that Singer is pulling (acknowledging that I haven’t read the book) – using an extreme example that all will agree with to lead to his real point.

  20. Paul, You keep trying to re-explain yourself, without responding to anything I say. Why not just respond?

    For example, what about my refugee camp example? It shows Singer would not in fact “define any art as a luxury, not a necessity.” I think you’re operating with too crude a notion of his thinking. You have to understand that he’s a preference utilitarian, and all that folllows from that.

  21. Let me see if I can help out here…. Singer doesn’t believe life itself is intrinsically valuable, but rather what the kind of life that it lives. If its a life that has interests then it is valuable. Some disabled infants don’t have interests, so they aren’t valuable.

    However, its not just having interests that makes it a good life, and maximizing utility would mean trying to get the most people living a good high quality life, but not at the expense of some people living a low quality life, or not having the necessities of their lives being met.

    So the Singerian God would try to have everyone’s interests satisfied. This simply isn’t possible, so we do the next best thing, and satisfy all basic needs, and move up from there. Then we start indulging them in luxuries and such.

    Fortunately satisfying basic needs can be done in a wide variety of ways. Such as Jean’s example of the refugee art camp. There they are getting protection, being fed, and engaging in a constructive activity, that lets say will be used to bring awareness to their plight and hopefully stop whatever it is that is endangering their lives.

    Singer talks about Oxfam’s mission to educate women, and I think thats a good example. Educated women have fewer babies, more likely to be self-sufficient, and thusly be reduce the amount of poverty in the world. But that education might be in the arts, or something even more frivolous, like discerning Monets from Matisses. Whatever it is, so long as it gets them out of poverty. Now we might want to steer them towards less frivolous educations, since those would be more likely lead to self-supporting career paths.

  22. Hmm, I’m not sure if I’m going to buy your description of the Singerian god as one who first satisfies all basic needs, and then moves up from there. Such a god is a little too interested in keeping people alive, and not interested enough in making sure that everyone has a reasonably good life. I can see a Singer-approved aid agency allocating some money for “enrichment” in a refugee camp, even if it could mean one less survivor, or two less, or…well, not clear where it ends. But it’s important not just that people survive, but that their lives are satisfying.

    The point of the enrichment is not just so that they can grow up to have fewer babies, and be more self-sufficient, but so that there’s some quality of life during the time they spend at the camp. People can live a big chunk of their lives in these places, so it matters what life is like for them there. There’s no point in keeping people alive, if their lives are awful. (And by the way, that relates to the issue of disabled newborns, which we are endeavoring not to get distracted by!)

    I think the title of Singer’s book (The Life You Can Save) and the amount of attention to “saving lives” in the book makes him seem a bit more focused on simply keeping people alive than he is in other places.

  23. Wayne: Why do you consider that philosophy would be better off without Wittgenstein? What would philosophy be like today in your opinion, if Ludwig had dedicated his life to the family business? I ask from idle curiosity, as they used to say, without any fixed opinon on the subject.

  24. I agree pretty much instinctually with Singer here, as I almost always do. It is absurd to spend 45 million on a painting when that money could be spent in saving countless human lives. But then I inevitably have a somewhat uncomfortable realisation: that, had the organisation that funds my postgraduate study done what they morally should have done and used the money to save lives, I wouldn’t be doing a PhD. Which leads me to the even more uncomfortable realisation that my education is being bought – by Singer’s reckoning, which I feel compelled to agree with – at the cost of probably dozens of human lives. I imagine I’m not the only person reading Jean’s post to have this unnerving thought?

  25. Mark, that is really a dilemma. Not reading the book, I shouldn’t have any say in the issue. But the suppositional dilemma I find quite interesting. Actual situation, however, might be more complicated than this binary dilemma. Should there be some benefit/cost calculation at play here? One simplest case is, if the PhD cantidate be funded and equiped with certain knowledge in a *qualified* way, shouldn’t the person be more capable of , by his labor, earning more and saving more lives (not considering the “time” element, of course)? So this is just like the “wave-diffusion” effect. Anyway this might not be an ideal example—as it inolves a “hetereogeneous” comparison: intellectual life vs. biological life. But if it is a “homogeneous” comparison between intellectual lives, it should depend on the result of the calcualtion in terms of productivity, and see which choice is more worthwhile.

  26. That’s an interesting point, J. Francis. I don’t think, though, that there’s any kind of moral cost-benefit analysis in which my PhD research might be justified. Maybe if I were doing it in ophthalmology or cancer research or even international development, I might be able to squeeze it through Singer’s ethical security clearance. As it’s in English literature, I don’t think there’s any excusing it. Not that I’m going to start refusing the cheques at this point, but it’s the kind of thing that makes you think, as a relatively privileged middle-class Westerner, about how what one has and what one is morally entitled to are not always the same thing.

  27. Jean – as far as I can tell I’ve responded to pretty much everything you’ve said, so I find your accusation a little unfair. I understand that Singer is a preference utilitarian, that this means that he considers quality as well as quantity, and that as a result he may include art on the “necessity” side of his balance sheet. As I said, I am making assumptions about Singer’s position regarding art, based on his previous writing – if redecorating one’s house isn’t a necessity, I fail to see how buying a work of art to hang in the house can possibly be. Possibly I am wrong, but I don’t have the book in front of me – does he in fact include purchasing art or going to a concert on the “necessity” side of the balance sheet for the rich of the world?

    For the sake of argument, I am happy to accept that the refugee camp example shows that Singer does in fact accept art as a “necessity” in some circumstances, and that one of those circumstances is children in refugee camps. I’m just not sure how that is a useful contribution to the discussion. The only difference between refugees and non-refugees is a legal determination of their status, so presumably we’d want to make sure that poor children in general have access to art materials. If that’s the case, then should rich schoolchildren also have access to art materials? The fact that they happen to have born into rich families doesn’t seem to be a strong basis for denying them that access. So your general principle appears to be that access to art materials is acceptable full stop, which doesn’t seem to be of much use as a practical guide on how to behave morally.

  28. p.s. The refugee camp example also comes back to the point I made in my first comment: Singer’s argument seems to rest on an artificial distinction between “us” and “them”. In this respect, he’s buying into the institutional perspective of the organisations he’s asking us to support, whose fundraising historically relies on the discomfort generated by the us/them divide. I’ve read enough of his work to realise that Singer is a more subtle thinker than that, but until I read the book I’m afraid that I’ll remain as suspicious of this as I do of all our organisations’ fundraising claims.

  29. What if the seller of the painting, who received that $45 million from the museum, then used some or all of this money to pay for those operations or other worthy items?

  30. Paul C,

    You complain that my refugee camp is not a “useful contribution to this discussion,” but it is. This was your opening criticism of Singer.

    A god suddenly appears and declares that It is a strong Singerian, and can stand by no longer. This god will save the life and preserve the health of every living human, but the price is the complete and irreversible destruction of every human artistic tradition. All of it gone – music, painting, writing, dancing. Gone.

    I took this argument seriously, so responded in two ways. I answered by challenging you on what a Singerian god would do. And then I gave you a real life example in which art might be supported even at the expense of a certain amount of life–the refugee camp (details of the example way up), where quality of life matters for people who might live there for many years. As a preference utilitarian, Singer needn’t disapprove.

    So–the refugee camp’s a counterexample to your view of Singer’s priorities. That’s how it’s relevant to this discussion. The reason for using this specific example is that it does involve decision making that pits life against art/quality of life. It’s an example that allows you to see how Singer might not actually always side with life and health (as you put it) over art.

    But making the point in a more general way–it seems silly to charge Singer with always preferring life to art, just because he’s for saving 45,000 people instead of buying one painting. That’s a lot of life, and only a little bit of art.

    Of course the next question about art vs. life is about how to generalize the point–how to prioritize in other situations. At one point does arts spending become unethical? Obviously, it’s hard to say anything exact about this. But is it a flaw in a theory that it doesn’t yield clean, crisp answers to every question?

  31. Jean- Yeah, you’re right about the Singerian God blindly meeting basic needs…. Since at some point there would be disutility created by adding more people to the mix. Singer does want to maximize preferences, but not all preferences are equal, clearly basic needs preferences are more important than other preferences (like art and soda).

    amos- I just have an incredible distaste for philosophy of language, and the linguistic turn of philosophy that Wittgenstein started. Its dry, boring, and maddening (in the insane sense). So I blame it all on Wittgenstein.

  32. Mark O: If you’re studying English literature, I suppose that you value literature. Without teachers of literature, the young will not appreciate its value and stop reading. I’ll simplify my argument a little: what is the value of the work of Shakespeare (which I assume will not longer be read without teachers of literature, a simplification) versus the value of the life of a child in a refugee camp? How many children is King Lear worth?

    Wayne: I realize that you’re half jesting, but while the linguistic turn of philosophy, Wittgenstein’s children, may be boring, Ludwig himself isn’t boring, and without having gone through the so-called linguistic turn, philosophy would not be what it is today, that is, while you reject the linguistic turn, you are a product of it.

  33. You complain that my refugee camp is not a “useful contribution to this discussion,” but it is. This was your opening criticism of Singer.

    I’m not very happy about being misrepresented by somebody whose thinking I quite respect. First, I didn’t “complain” that the refugee camp example “is not” a useful contribution, I said that I’m not sure how it’s a useful contribution – that is, I’m not sure what function it serves). I then explained why I’m not sure, because it doesn’t appear to generate any principles that can be applied to help our decision-making. You assert that it’s a counter-argument to my view of Singer’s priorities – but the only conclusion I seem to be able to draw from the example is that Peter Singer approves of providing art materials to schoolchildren, which I don’t find very useful since it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere..

    Second, that was not my opening criticism of Singer: my opening criticism appears in the first comment on this thread, where (apropos of the Second World War example I quoted) I said:

    Let’s say African country X has a budget which supports a) cataract operations and b) keeping the country’s musical tradition alive; according to Singer, that country should switch all of its money to cataract operations at the expense of its musical tradition. I’m not sure that many people actually in that country would accept that as a good deal.

    Nobody responded to that, so I upped the ante by making it a Singerian God. You suggested that a Singerian God wouldn’t act that way, and I explained that I didn’t mean a God that was a literal embodiment of Singer’s philosophy, merely a thought experiment to suggest that Singer’s rather obvious example of the Duccio doesn’t very well reflect the value that people place on art (or indeed on anything else).

    But making the point in a more general way–it seems silly to charge Singer with always preferring life to art, just because he’s for saving 45,000 people instead of buying one painting. That’s a lot of life, and only a little bit of art.

    I’m not sure why it’s silly to charge Singer with that, given that his previous writing is quite explicit on this point. As I said, if he believes that painting your house is immoral, it seems a fairly obvious conclusion that he also believes that paying money for any art is also immoral. We can all agree that $45 million is too much to pay for a minor work of art, but that’s a tabloid headline rather than a philosophical argument.

    Of course the next question about art vs. life is about how to generalize the point–how to prioritize in other situations. At one point does arts spending become unethical? Obviously, it’s hard to say anything exact about this. But is it a flaw in a theory that it doesn’t yield clean, crisp answers to every question?

    If one’s theory requires people to give away a large proportion of their income, but fails to answer fairly basic questions they might have about the theory itself, then yes, it’s a massive flaw.

  34. Basically, I see it like this: you said Singer would have us get rid of all the arts. That strikes me as untrue. That portrayal of him doesn’t mesh with the fact that he is a preference utilitarian who will care about both quantity and quality of life. I made that point in general terms, but I also tried to drive it home with a vivid counterexample. Where does the counterexample lead? Well, to thinking through how the arts might have some room in Singer’s sense of what’s worth supporting or not supporting. But now we’re at an impasse, because I’ve never seen him discuss this in print. I don’t know what he’d say in any detail.

    Just curious. Where does he say that painting your house is immoral? (But on the other hand, isn’t that really more like buying new clothes, and not in the category of art at all?)

  35. Basically, I see it like this: you said Singer would have us get rid of all the arts. That strikes me as untrue. That portrayal of him doesn’t mesh with the fact that he is a preference utilitarian who will care about both quantity and quality of life.

    That may well be the case, but I can only go on what I’ve read of his work. You’ve given a specific example in this post where he is very clearly saying that a particular piece of art should not have been purchased because it could pay for other goods. I agree with that (uncontroversial) claim, but if he’s claiming that it’s a general principle and we want to take that claim seriously, then the logical conclusion is that any piece of art that you or I could buy should be foregone even if it’s $1 (the price of a packet of oral rehydration salts, for example).

    You clearly realise this because you said that it made you worry about your childrens’ music lessons. If I have correctly described Singer’s logic – and please bear in mind that I don’t have the book in front of me – and you accept that logic, then the conclusion is clear: your childrens’ music lessons are immoral. Full stop. They are not necessary for their survival, they don’t preclude your children enjoying music (or even from learning music – it’s just that you choose to pay), and removing them won’t significantly impact on your childrens’ quality of life. Luckily I don’t accept Singer’s logic – in this instance, at least – so I suffer from no such dilemmas (it probably helps that I don’t have children either!).

    The quote was from his 1999 essay “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” at As I said, if painting your house is immoral, then the logical conclusion that buying a work of art – any work of art – to put in that house is equally immoral. You may want to argue that painting your house is more like buying clothes, but you probably won’t be surprised to find that I think that his argument against buying clothes is equally weak. People are kept from poverty by having jobs making clothes more surely than they’re kept from poverty by the work of Oxfam.

  36. p.s. And this is why I think Singer is using sleight of hand. He gives an extreme example so that we all nod our heads and agree that this is terrible, and then elides that example into a general argument. While we scratch our heads and go “that doesn’t quite sound right”, it makes it difficult to object to his argument because we already feel like we’ve agreed with it. This is a cheap rhetorical trick, but I realise that he’s a more subtle thinker than that and probably goes into more depth in the book.

  37. Paul, I definitely agree that it’s very puzzling to try to think through what SInger would allow us to do. Yes to some art, I think, but no to luxurious art. Where does my spending for my kids’ art classes and music lessons fall? I would think that it falls on the side of luxury, and that means I am a sinner by Singer’s standard. No doubt he’s a sinner too…I’m betting he bought his kids some music lessons when they were growing up, or other kinds of luxuries. If you’re going to adopt Singer’s standard, I think it helps to get yourself “the supplement”–as in, the rules for how how to be bad. It doesn’t seem like all being bad is alike. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s offered the supplement!

    Thanks for the reference…that’s a pretty striking example of a “not allowed” activity.

  38. OK, I think I can buy there’s a bit of a sleight of hand. We agree that the $45 million for one painting is crazy, but then we have no idea where to go from there. What parts of our daily lives are moral unacceptable? But then again, he does give us the tools to figure it out–the preference utilitarian standard. It’s just that it’s hard to work out the details.

    What bothers me more is that we all really do have a sense of there being a difference between being seriously bad (buying a yacht collection–a great example in the book) and being tolerably bad (buying kids music lessons) but Singer’s outlook doesn’t allow for there being a sharp difference.

  39. jean- I wouldn’t place that on Singer per se, but utilitarianism in general wouldn’t allow for there being a sharp difference between yacht collections and children’s music lessons.

  40. What about music lessons for a child who has great musical talent and may in the future contribute something valuable in terms of music to our culture? That seems to have more priority than a yacht, to me at least. For the record, my son is a professional musician and university music professor.

  41. amos- Singer says that would be permissible. So spending money for a college education so that you can make more money in the future so you can donate more money in the future is good enough justification for not donating now, so long as you have a reasonable belief that your investment will pay in the future. But say you were like me, and decided to pursue a philosophy degree… (Singer doesn’t say this) I think I would be much less justified investing in my education, than if I were say a business major, since a philosophy degree’s career aspects are not nearly as wide nor lucrative.

  42. Wayne: But having studied philosophy is precisely what enables Singer to convince others to give away their money to help the poor. In fact, it may be that your studies of philosophy will enable you to come up with even better arguments in favor of giving money to the poor than Singer has. However, I would say that we all have a right and perhaps a duty to perfect our talents, a duty to ourselves and to the world, and that’s one of the reasons you should study philosophy and my son should continue his graduate studies in musical composition. What’s more: diversification has a value. We don’t know what the future will bring. It may be that someone invents a miracle pill and world famine disappears, and all those who have dedicated their lives to the problem of hunger will find themselves at loose ends. Perhaps then the world will call for more philosophers, more musicians and fewer people who have studied business in order to amass great fortunes which they will donate to the poor. In any case, I suspect that people who study business on the average are less disposed to worry about world hunger than those who study philosophy are. So Singer might rethink who his target group of donnors are. Of course, if philosophers studied business, they might do business more philosophically, but then again, they might not be very good at making money.

  43. “But say you were like me, and decided to pursue a philosophy degree… (Singer doesn’t say this) I think I would be much less justified investing in my education”

    Yes, I agree with this, and, going back to the subject of art, I don’t think anyone in the Singerian moral universe could morqally justify becoming a creative artist if he or she were able to become an (for example) accountant instead. In fact, it is difficult to justify working for a charity if you are able to work instead for a bank and make much more money to donate to the world’s poor. I think in a Singerian view, a person who dedicates him or herself to aid work overseas (a net drain on chaitable donation) is of much less moral value than a hedge fund manager who donates thousands of dollars to charitable causes through his taxes. This is the trouble with the utlitarian approach, I think, it delivers a world that would be horrendous to live in.

  44. Jean and John – your points illustrate the fundamental problem with Singer’s moral calculus. We (“the rich”) are exhorted to give up our “luxuries” (like decorating our house) in our lives in order to contribute to the alleviation of poverty (of “the poor”). Nearly all their sufferings are assumed to stem from their poverty – they cannot afford operations, clean water, proper education, etc.

    Yet why do we want to lift them out of poverty in the first place? So that they can have similar (not identical) opportunities to the ones that we have, that they can live lives of dignity and autonomy, that they can realise themselves as people and attain the quality of life that a preference utilitarian believes is right. Presumably if a poor person, upon building up their resources so that they join the “middle class”, wants to redecorate their house, then this version of preference utilitarianism would say that is fine?

    So if we follow Singer’s logic, your children must give up their music lessons so that poor children might one day have music lessons. Not only is this silly, I don’t think it’s what poor people themselves want. I’ve met a lot of poor people, and very few of them would like their lives to be improved at the expense of other people’s.What they want are more opportunities to better themselves, and they would prefer to achieve that through their own efforts rather than through our charity.

    The problem of modern poverty is a political one, not an ethical one. I respect Singer greatly as a philosopher – Practical Ethics had a huge impact on me – but the more I read about The Life You Can Save, the less compelling I find the arguments.

  45. “Presumably if a poor person, upon building up their resources so that they join the “middle class”, wants to redecorate their house, then this version of preference utilitarianism would say that is fine?”

    I don’t think it would, I think it would find that that this person is morally required to surrender some of their income for the even-poorer. And this is a line worth pursuing, it seems to me. The case looks one way when we are referring to westerners who are extravagently wealthy by world historical terms, but what if we are talking about subsitence farmers who raise their income from a dollar a day to, say, four dollars a day? Can we really say (as I think Singer must) that they are morally required to surrender some of the difference, say a dollar a day, to charity?And can we really say (as I think Singer must) that a subsistence farmer who thus gives away a quarter of his income is making an act of less moral value than an investment banker who donates $25 a month to Oxfam?

    There was an interesting discussion about this sort of thing between Peter Singer and Tyler Cowen still available on Blogginheads, I think. It got a bit frosty when Tyler suggested that Peter Singer was actually not working in the tradition of preference ultilitariansimsof Bentham et al, but was a moralist in the rabbinical Jewish tradition. He might have a point though.

  46. Paul C.,

    Possibly you’re not contemplating the sort of extreme poverty that this book is about. We’re talking about people with almost nothing, having to watch their children die of easily preventable diseases. I think they’re perfectly happy to see the lives of their children saved through charity.

    That’s what Singer is urging us to do–not to stand by as terrible suffering and death take place. It’s really not about music lessons…we’ve just gotten into hat topic because we’re trying to generalize these basic principles and see where they lead.

    But OK, we do want to generalize…so let’s see. Must I continue giving to the point that another person can give their kid music lessons? There are two problems with thinking so. First, given the way the world is, there’s always going to be a more urgent problem to solve than some relatively well-off family’s problems with paying for music lessons.

    Second, there’s nothing in utilitarianism that says that it’s any better for someone else’s kids to enjoy affluence than for me and my kids to enjoy affluence. So I don’t have to turn my music-lesson money over to someone else, so they can have exactly the same thing. What I might have to do is turn the music-lesson money over to someone who’s abjectly poor, and watching their child die an easily preventable death.

  47. John – yes, exactly. It’s easy to condemn “the rich” when they have our level of wealth, but it looks slightly different if the only difference between “the rich” and “the poor” is that the rich has managed to save enough money to open a small convenience store with his family.

    Your point about Singer’s rabbinical qualities is pertinent. As far as I can tell, this is a religious argument dressed up in philosophical clothes. I’d be interested to hear if Singer takes economics into account in the book, since he doesn’t seem to have realised that his recommendations would remove the incentive for getting out of poverty in the first place.

  48. “A moralist in the rabbinical Jewish tradition”…I have had that thought about Singer too. There’s a practically religious sensibility underneath all of these urgings, maybe some guilt about sins of over-consumption, and a lot of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

  49. I think the problem comes because poverty is a continuum not a state; even the definition of “absolute” or “extreme” poverty are problematic on many levels. That’s not to say that such definitions are useless – they’re not – or that Singer doesn’t have a point – he does. However unless he talks about the economic systems that generate and sustain poverty and wealth, and how to impact those, then I’m afraid his philosophical stance simply doesn’t make much sense to me.

  50. Paul- Poverty is a continuum, and Singer says that we should focus on absolute poverty. He makes a point in his book illustrating what the average american in poverty has (something like a home, A/C, a car, a TV, etc.). Not to say they are undeserving of help, but Singer, I think, would openly admit that his argument couldn’t necessarily be extended to aid these people, thats why he focuses on absolute poverty, and children in particular (since they can’t be blamed for causing their own poverty in any realistic way).

  51. eek, hit post too soon.

    And he does spend quite a bit of time talking about how aid has to be responsible aid, not just giving money to the poor, precisely to build up economies making them self-sustaining.

  52. clearly I need some coffee… I just reread your post paul and now I’m thinking my first comment was kinda irrelevant.

  53. Eric MacDonald

    I keep dipping into the ongoing conversation, and I have to say that it sounds a lot like religious angst to me. Singer seems to be, not only rabbinical, but almost agonisingly pietist in his morality. If our use of money, say, that is, any money that is not strictly necessary for the maintenance of life, is to be sorted out along a continuum of minimially bad to seriously bad, then it doesn’t seem we have a place for human goodness at all, in the sense of the good, the noble or the civilised, and that, to me, is very troubling. It might also mean, if people took heed to it, which they are not likely to do, that economic life itself might be seriously stifled.

    I do not, in general, give to charities that provide relief for poverty elsewhere in the world. though I do on occasion, and not as a regular practice, give money to Oxfam. I haven’t much to give. I could, I suppose, be incredibly mean spirited with myself and generous to others, and help my local economy to tank even more than it is doing now. I have some particular charitable concerns and I give to those, but it seems to me that more good would be done regarding world poverty, on the whole, if we tried, somehow, to see that global economic realities were not so harsh, and that includes making sure that there are not the incredible disparities that exist in the countries to which much aid is given.

    For instance, India is a fabulously rich and fabulously overpopulated country, with disparities between rich and poor that simply boggle the imagination. There are similar disparities in many African nations, and elsewhere in the world where poverty lives alongside obscene wealth.

    Now, this may all be, as Jean suggested earlier, just a salve to my conscience. It’s okay to do nothing, because nothing will really come of it anyway. But I don’t think that aid is the best way to deal with economic problems. I wonder what good aid has really done, for example, for Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the world, at the same time that it shares an island with the Dominican Republic which, while by no means rich, at least provides more adequately for its citizens, though there is still significant poverty. To quote from the encyclopaedia of the nations:

    No recent statistics exist, but it is widely accepted that Haiti is not merely the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere but also one of the most unequal. A small elite of no more than several thousand families is extremely wealthy, including many millionaires among their number. In stark contrast, an estimated 80 percent of Haitians live in absolute poverty.

    Actual GDP per capita has decreased in Haiti over the last ten years, despite the obscenity of the super-rich and the super-poor in that nation.

    This doesn’t mean that I am opposed to aid. I simply think it isn’t the way to solve problems on the whole. Singer may say that aid should be used to help economies become self-sufficient, and I agree, but that’s only going to help if the surrounding political-economic climate is favourable, and in many cases it is not. But if I have to choose between buying winter tyres for my daughter’s car, so that she will drive more safely, when she can’t afford them, though she might have been safe with all-seasons, then that’s where my money will probably go, even though the calculus says that some people will die without the $650 it took to do that.

    I recall the story of the missionary who was giving a talk about life in China. He said, ‘Do you know that every time you take a breath someone in China dies?’ A child hearing the talk was seen a bit later very deliberately taking breaths in and out, and when asked what she was doing, replied: ‘Killing Chinamen.’ Well, in a sense, that is what Singer’s morality does. When I spend a dollar for an icecream cone, say, I am killing someone, so, though only minimally bad, there is something wrong with a morality that does its calculations in that way. The truth seems to be that since we are now aware of global realities in a way that we were not before, we are still most concerned with acting locally, and that’s where moral language has its bite. If we extend the range of our moral responsibilities globally, then we are inevitably caught in a web, and everything we do has a moral taint. Intuitively, to me at least, this makes Singer’s morality wrong-headed. Jean shouldn’t have to wonder about giving music lessons to her children. Whether or not they are gifted their lives will be richer as a consequence. Is that worth the life of someone starving in Africa? If we have to go down that road, then we will be in a perpetual state of guilt. I don’t think the moral consequences of actions can be calculated like this.

  54. Eric: Aren’t you bringing back the distinction between the deserving and non-deserving poor? First of all, I’m not sure that the masses of Haiti or any African nation are responsible for the corrupt elites who rule them. Second, people who need help, even in rich nations, generally have messed up lives or otherwise, they wouldn’t need help. The more one studies the lives of neighbors who need help, the more one sees bad decisions (aren’t we responsible for our decisions), lack of self-discipline, laziness,
    weakness of will and character, etc. One could well say as a justification of not helping said neighbor that one worked hard, disciplined oneself and that the neighbor with a messed up life should have too, but he or she didn’t. In fact, some people are weaker than others, less rational than others, less
    mentally organized than others; and their messed up lives only signal messed up selves. That’s the way the world is, and one can decide to help or not. That being said, Singer does not convince me 100% either, and I would buy the tires for my daughter too.
    However, I’m not sure that it’s bad that people feel a bit guilty about having good lives, when so many people have bad ones. It’s not good to be complacent or comfortable about one’s life, in my opinion. That’s not directed at you, by the way, since you don’t seem to be a complacent person by any means.

  55. Well, yes, Amos, I don’t think people should be complacent either. But I don’t think that morality should be wound so tightly that every choice we make is on a continuum from minimally bad to seriously bad. This makes a nonsense out of morality, so far as I can tell. And this concern has nothing to do with the deserving vs the undeserving poor.

    I may not, for example, agree with the Metropolitan Museum’s use of large amounts of money for a painting. But, of course, that’s what they’ve got money for. It’s not meant to be used to help starving people, and if it were used for that purpose, trustees and supporters would rightly object that the purpose of the museum is to preserve and display important works of art. Is this immoral, when people elsewhere are starving? I don’t know. I guess that’s my question.

    But if doing what the Met Museum did is immoral, then maintaining the fabric of European cathedrals is immoral too. And so we could go on. Where does it come to an end? When we are all reduced to equivalence? That wouldn’t do either, for then nothing would be worth anything – because no one would feel morally able to preserve anything of great worth.

    That’s why I likened it to pietist morality, because for the pietist it was virtually impossible to do the morally right thing for the morally right reasons, and they were always in a state of incipient moral despair. I don’t think that’s a healthy way to live a life.

  56. Eric: I agree with you that it’s not a healthy way to live. However, I’m not sure that the most ethical life is the healthiest one or at least not in the sense that we’re talking about ethics. That’s one of Nietzsche’s chief themes: that concern for others isn’t especially healthy. Nietzsche is right, as far as I can see. There are no easy answers here, but Singer does raise some disturbing questions. Nietzsche also raises disturbing questions, and I think that one has to learn to live with ambivalance, between Nietzsche and Singer, who, as you point out, has much of the pietist moralist, pietism being one of the targets of Nietzsche’s criticism and scorn.

  57. Eric: Singer is discussing charity, not aid; the two are distinct concepts, and even the most ardent anti-aid advocate rarely objects to acts of individual charity.

    I’m not sure why you feel inequality within a country is such a deal-breaker. India has a better Gini coefficient than the United States, for example.

  58. Taken to extreme, Is this to do with quality of life (paintings) vs. quantity of lives? The idea that if there are many of us, and we don’t have the arts (say) our quality of life is poor…but if there are a few of us, we enjoy the quality of our life with the paintings…?
    Or that a painting can far outlive a human’s life span…

  59. Um, Eric, isn’t your main argument here something along the lines of “I don’t like the consequences, therefore the argument is invalid”…?

    Fair enough that you don’t like the results, but I don’t see where you’ve proven the reasoning to be wrong.

    (Also, I’ve only had my copy of Singer for literally about ten minutes, so I can’t make a better argument yet, but from my quick skim I think your “what about these extreme cases?” position is actually covered in the book.)

  60. Is life worth more than art?


    But is life worth as much with out art?


    Preservation of art can be seen as preserving a piece of life.

  61. While I don’t contest Singer’s basic point that society’s resources should be better allocated to relieve severe poverty, the question presented (and the discussion here) overlooks the difference between a transfer in wealth and a reallocation of productive resources.

    When a museum purchases a painting, there is a transfer of wealth (one item valued by society, art, in exchange for money, which is a medium of exchange and considered a store of value), but there is no (or very little) reallocation of productive resources (i.e., as a result of the exchange, human, land, and capital resources will not be used differently than they otherwise would have). The museum does not exchange the health of children for a painting, but transfers the ability to reallocate resources to help children (money) from itself to the seller of the painting. The seller can just as easily purchase services for children with the money received as the museum could. If the seller loved children as much as Singer, no harm done.

    In contrast, consider if the museum had decided to build a new structure to house its collection; machines, humans, and land would be used to produce the new building. These resources would then be unavailable to improve the health of children.

    Each individual’s choice occurs at the margin–is your $50 better spent on new shoes, or on sending resources to africa? However, on a larger scale, society’s wealth is defined by what it is able to produce, and not all productive resources are (currently) best suited to help children at risk of malnutrition or death. The question presented by Singer sidesteps questions of diminishing returns. Perhaps it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country now, but what if massive transfers of money were made to perform all cataract operations, all fistula operations, and all other public health projects in developing nations? Might there be a limit on the number of skilled persons to perform such operations? Would cataracts operations still only cost $50 to perform?

    It is interesting to think what the world might be like if everyone limited their personal consumption to the “necessities.” Would almost all people be engaged in education, health, and food production? Would there be massive emigration from the US to the third world–areas where this work would take place?

  62. mm, Thanks for the very interesting comment. Lots of food for thought there, especially about transfer of wealth vs. reallocation of resources.


    An interview with Singer, in which he accepts the present unequal distribution of wealth in developed nations as the inevitable order of things.

  64. People are so quick to offer advice on distribution of wealth, until it is their turn to pitch in some money. Those who quietly engage in philanthropy win my applause (but then again, I would not know about them). People that promote how they engage in philanthropy have an additional motive.

  65. I would say the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as an excellent engagement in philanthropy without additional motive, other than to put the good money to best use.

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