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April 19, 2009



I agree that moral evaluation of acts and character are distinct. (I think this is the standard position for consequentialists, at least since Parfit's Reasons and Persons.) Curiously, much of your criticism seems to rest on failing to draw this distinction yourself.

In particular, the question of the strength of our moral reasons to act is not the same as the question how blameworthy or "vicious" we would be for failing to act as we should. Singerian 'equivalence' claims only plausibly apply to the former. We have (very strong, pressing) reasons to donate money to charity, just as we do to save nearby drowning children. Nevertheless, the latter failure represents a far greater defect of character: chances are, someone who could watch a child drown before their very eyes is a more callous, morally unconscientious person than one who (like all of us) fails to save every distant life that he might.

I'm not sure what's gained by calling these character assessments "aesthetic" rather than "moral". If someone is unusually insensitive to moral reasons (even when right before their eyes), this is a different kind of character defect than, say, unattractive insecurities or poor humour. And there's a pretty straightforward sense in which the defect is moral in nature.

The issues become much more straightforward if you ditch the outdated deontological language of "duty" and talk directly in terms of moral reasons. Clearly we have moral reason to positively help others in need (if your view denies this, it is simply insane); and greater insensitivity to these reasons thus constitutes a greater moral defect of character.

Later, you discuss "comparisons of the intrinsic value of persons" in a way that again seems to confuse different kinds of evaluation. We can ask how much a person's interests "count", when weighted against others, and here the answer is plausibly "equally!" Alternatively, we can ask whether some people are better people than others -- in the sense of having characters that we have more reason to admire or want in ourselves and others -- in which case the answer is obviously "yes". But having a more (morally or otherwise) admirable character does not entail that your interests count for more. So the fact that moral philosophers offer egalitarian answers to the one question does not entail that they similarly "avoid comparisons" when answering the other, very different question.

Overall, you seem to be attacking a straw man. You rail against the "moralist who can't see a difference between people who don't give to Oxfam and those who would let a child drown." But I'm not convinced that any such person actually exists.

Michael Peyton Jones

First off: great article. Although I would say that since I mostly agree with you!

I think the key point where things go wrong is where you are discussing the maligned "sonofabitch". Now, you say that he is not a sonofabitch because he [i]does[/i] a bad thing. This I would agree with (I think moral luck considerations clearly rule that sort of evaluation out). However, this doesn't mean that the evaluation of his character must rest upon some non-moral ground. Even had he stayed at home, he still [i]would[/i] have let the child drown, had he gone out. That is, his character is bad precisely [i]because[/i] of his tendency to do Bad Things. Dostoyevsky's version might well have had [i]good[/i] character in that respect, even if he was so paralysed by something that he would in that instance have let the child drown.

Singer's argument then is just that not giving to charity is as much of a Bad Thing as is letting a child drown. The logic seems inescapable. You proceed from being directly present while the child drowns, to being nearby but [i]knowing[/i] that the child is drowning, to not being nearby but being able to phone someone to save the child, to being able to pay someone to save the child... and then you're there. The main difference I can see is that in the charitable case you are not saving a specific child. If there was a man with a gun in Africa with a website declaring that every hour he would shoot a child (videoed, of course) unless he was sent some money, I suspect people's sense of how immoral it would be not to pay would increase.

There is also the consideration that with charitable giving, other people may stick up the cost. If our favourite sonofabitch was on his way to an important meeting and there were several other people in the vicinity of the child, including a trained lifeguard (read: billionaire), it no longer seems so immoral to pass on by. However, in the case of charity, any given child might well be saved by someone else, even though in the aggregate, your contribution may lead to more children being saved.

What conclusion can we draw from this? Myself, I think that this is a case where philosophical ethics is genuinely prescriptive. I think this reasoning reveals (as Singer would have it) that we are indeed all people of fairly bad character. We [i]should[/i] be giving far more of our money to charity. However, I think the lack of specific engagement in the charitable case tends to confuse our intuitions. Also this idea is at odds with the psychological base of morality, which is more about protecting one's own community, and so our intuition tells us that people far away are less important.

ed hardy

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ed hardy

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A Facebook User

I would say a couple things: I can see where sonofabithcness is much stronger in closer proximity. It is easier for us to not respond to people far away because it is harder for us emotionally to grasp the gravity of the suffering. The person close to the child would not have this harder obstacle to motivation to help and so if even with the situation pressed right up against his face he still didn't help, it would be more than just the mind's natural ability to underestimate the importance of situations far away, it would be a more generally callous or malicious disposition. And such a disposition makes him a sonofabitch and us more passive victims of a mind that can't be brought to care or act adequately in ways that we have not been conditioned evolutionarily to care or act (our brains are wired to help those near, not those who are effectively concepts to us).

But, nonetheless, if we can bring the realization of the real suffering far away to our minds more and more closely and yet still not act, we become more and more a sonofabitch ourselves, the more we steal ourselves against making an important sacrifice. And if we avoid really knowing about the suffering far away, either on purpose or implicitly, this bespeaks some degree of callousness and even active desire to remain callous. We deliberately allow ourselves to become more sonofabitch than we had to be.

So, while I think you do a nice job of helping elucidate one part of why we don't feel as bad about the non-donator as we do about the non-rescuer, I think there is still what you call an ethical critique of ignoring suffering far away regardless.

And I am really really unconvinced that we have no obligations without contracts. I find that a bewildering source of rationalizations that I can barely understand how anyone believes. I can understand if you are a radical subjectivist of some sort about morality. Maybe like Ayer in your example. But I don't get it otherwise and always thought that Thomson's article on abortion is an amazing feat of contortionism to justify abortion. She is willing to say there are no moral obligations even to cross a room and put your hand on their forehead when it could heal them. ALL to say under no conceivable circumstances could an abortion ever be morally criticized. It's warping all of morality out of fear that anyone would ever argue a woman had an obligation to carry to term. It's completely counter-intuitive to me. So, you have to make a case to me how we do not have moral obligations we did not actively sign up for first before I accept that. I mean, what is more basic to morality and obligations than that they involve things we have to do even against our strongest preferences sometimes?

Finally, on Nietzsche, I don't see him as having contempt for the heroically charitable. There is a lot of praise for those who deliberately go under to create something great in the future. There is a "will to power altruism" that I intend to write about. What Nietzsche is attacking is pity, the demoralization of the object of help, the attempt to gain power over someone with the disingenuous claim that you are only being selfless. That's what's so repulsive. And where does he explicitly talk about his superior humans being free to murder? What his goal is is that values and valuable things advance, even if in some means to this will be things that are hard to swallow. But that's not an anything goes policy for higher humans by any means.

So, those are my rough impressions for what they are worth.


"I offer our good opinion of Singer and Singer's good opinion of himself (look at that picture), despite his drinks and shows and vacations, as evidence for my view."

Is this "evidence"? You seem to be saying that hypocrisy or atleast an at-ease hypocrisy (the profession of standards contrary to one's real character or actual behaviour) is the one flaw that mustn't be tolerated. It's a logical flaw perhaps but that wouldn't make it a higher order flaw in the opinion of a drowning child surely.

In fact why can't a lack of hypocrisy be a flaw - a lack of moral imagination - rather than a virtue?

Self-mortification over our hypocrisy is not necessarily productive in increasing our moral behaviour. Neither is lowering moral standards so that the hypocrisy disappears however. If our goal is to give more to charity than we currently do then perhaps a willingness to include hypocrisy as crucial to our moral development is the way to go.

Account Deleted

This could be off-topic, but if you're anywhere in or near LA, there are a lot of fundraising events for the benefit of the less fortunate where you can participate in. Donate your clothes and shoes like what Greenopolis.com did and be rewarded for your actions. http://youtu.be/jk1mH9JvRr0

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