Ethics in an age of self-interest

The sub-title of How Are We To Live?, a self-help manual (basically) by Peter Singer. I had Singer pegged as a straight Benthamite, so the existential bent of the book (the title is significant, if a bit ungainly) was a surprise. Don't really have time to do more than summerize for future pondering, unfortunately. Pretty convinced on the whole, tho more pessimistic abt the last part. Notes follow:

Genetic explanations for altruism towards yr family (they share yr genes to some extent). Also, more broadly, anyone you can establish stable reciprocal relationships with: since these structures help survival. Thru an experiment with "prisoner's dilemma" games, some basic rules for exchanges are laid down. Always be ready to co-operate, stop co-operating if the contract is broken (no turning the other cheek here), forgive if guilty parties show clear signs of wanting to co-operate again, don't let envy stop you co-operating. Most systems of justice, in most societies, follow this pattern. So in many areas, our natural inclinations point in an ethical direction (Singer pretty much defines ethics as the opposite of self-interest).

So far, so very David Hume. The problem is that all this co-operative behaviour is essentially local. We're not helping those who are not helping us. Singer needs a way to enlarge the circle of sympathy. Ethics is about going beyond self-interest.

The religious answer is dismissed: encouraging an ethical life thru fear of hell is nasty, and with the decline of religion, unworkable. Kant's categorical imperative alternative (no rewards, just duty) is junked for driving an unnecessary line between ethics and self-interest (the amiable Humean position set out above). Closing off morality in this way means you are not able to justify it to those who do not accept the rules you lay down. (Howev, see below...)

Hume (and genetics) could also be used to counter the existentialist response to the decline of religion (that there is no morality, so all our choices are arbitrary). But Hume's benevolence is still local, and questioned by Bentham's more pessimistic utilitarianism: self-interest (pleasure and pain) governs behaviour, and to resolve the conflicts between individual and social pleasure maximization, you need the law.

Singer then swivels to talk about how to make life meaningful, setting out the existentialist solution of generating yr own project, and work towards it, regardless of what it is. Singer sanctions this plan, but wants to be able to evaluate the choice. Some projects are more worthy than others. Obsessive emulation and psychiatric inwardness both come under fire for being ineffective at providing fulfillment. Surprise, surprise, the best projects are the ethical ones, because they are the easiest to justify.

What are the criteria for evaluating the merits of life projects? This is where Singer's Benthamism shows up: reducing evident pain and suffering. From the P.O.V. of the universe, yr pleasure is no more important than any other being's pleasure, no matter how 'other' they are (animals therefore qualify). Singer brings up Marx as an example of an ill-conceived project along these lines, but says these mistakes shouldn't deter us.

But, that pesky Hume problem: this lovely citizen-of-the-world stuff doesn't square with our genetic wiring. Singer has to concede this point. Kant is right in some respect: reason suggests an ethic that conflicts with our interests. We can observe that there are other beings who experience pleasures, and that (from the P.O.V. of the universe) pleasures are equally privileged, so the fact that we care for certain people's pleasures more than others is contradictory. And with the rise of global communications, the contradiction becomes ever more evident.

John Stuart Mill muscles in at the very last moment to raise the quality of pleasure question. Yeah ok, absence of physical pain might not be the only value we value, but it is the most immediate and universally agreed upon. Pain always puts higher pleasures (like beauty, autonomy etc.) on the back-burner.

Singer admits that a life of absolute impartiality is both impossible and undesirable. He just wants to modify our vision a little, make us aware of the broader picture: poverty, animal cruelty, the environment. I think he also wants to square this with self-interest. Commitment to a good cause can provide that life project we psychotherapy-addicted consumerists all seem to want.

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