Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Respect for all forms of life: A discussion of the philosophy of Peter Singer

I have been slightly influenced (both positively and negatively) by the philosophy of Peter Singer because I think that he makes some good points and some bad points. The goal of this post is to compare and contrast my own philosophy (that the goal of life is to grow life) with his philosophy of life (that the goal of life is to maximize the happiness of sentient beings.)

In some respects, his philosophy is just an extension of 'utilitarianism' to non-humans.
He seems to be very concerned with suffering and happiness...and ultimately, the problem with his philosophy is that it is rest of the qualitative definitions of the words: happiness and suffering. [Check out this previous post in which I discuss the problems with utilitarianism.]
With that having been said, I'd like to praise Peter Singer for at least not being a post-modernist. He's not like Richard Dawkins who believe that each of us should create our own meaning in life (well, unless that meaning has anything to do with God!) Dawkins seems so unnecessarily angry with religious people, and I find this absurd because in his books he says that "We actually provide the purpose in a universe that would have none...We can make a new goal: complete understanding of the universe." What I don't understand is why Dawkins gets so angry with religious people if he's okay with people creating their own meaning in life. We need to watch out for post-modernism in the disguise of evolutionary biology, and we need to avoid post-modernism because a) there is a purpose to life (to grow) is not meaningless or relative as Dawkins would suggest, and b) post-modernism seems to be creating a society that is not growing.

Peter Singer rightly sees that there's a problem with the post-modernism (especially the post-modernism of Richard Dawkins.) The problem is that if you remove a well-defined meaning to life for all life forms, then people will fall back into the bad habits of previous philosophies of life. Singer is trying to re-impose ethics into a world of post-modernism unleashed by people like Nietzsche, Sartre, and even Dawkins. This is a worthy goal. The problem is that his ethics rests on the ill-defined concept of utility.

So, I'd like to go through a list of some of Singer's main points and analyze the problems with some of them.

Singer Point#1We should extend our concept of person-hood to non-humans, and then we should try to maximize the happiness of all sentient beings

While I'll all for extending the concept of personhood to other life forms and while I think that there is merit in trying to understand the consequences of our actions,  there is no quantifiable definition of utility, so it doesn't really matter if we include animals as sentient beings because we can't properly define happiness. For example, Singer even admits that he can't define happiness. To him, it's actually a paradox. He counsels that happiness is best found by not looking for it. This can lead to some crazy circular logic...such as, am I only happy when I'm not trying to be happy. Either way, another problem with Singer's form of utilitarianism is that it is too constrained.  Sure, he wants to expand the concept of person-hood to non-humans, but if one is constrained to only consider sentient beings, then how do we account for killing of trees. Just because a tree doesn't scream when we cut it down, doesn't mean that we aren't killing life. Our philosophy of life needs to include trees, bacteria, primates, dolphins and humans.
We need a more general philosophy of life. We need to realize that the goal of life is to grow all life (both sentient and non-sentient life.) This is quantitative because we can measure life by its consumption of exergy, i.e. its generation of work and eventual generation of entropy. There are ways of measuring how much entropy was generated by living species and how much entropy was generated by non-living processes. What I'm saying is that 'life' can be quantified, but 'happiness' can't be quantified, so we need to throw out the concept of utility for any philosophy of life.

Singer Point#2: We ought to have equal concern for all human beings

While I mentioned above that we need a more general philosophy of life, we also need to recognize that we should have some natural preference for replicating our own genes over the genes of other species. The difficulty is knowing how much to grow the genes of other life forms compared with growing one owns genes. (I don't have a specific answer to this question. I have no clue how my mind weighs the competing demands of other life forms with my own demands; however, I do know that I've risk my life a few times trying to save animals from being run over in the road. I really have no clue what calculation went on in my head, but I do know that I value other life forms even when there is personal risk.)

Another reason that I disagree with Singer's "Equal concern for all humans" is that I think that we should value those life forms that 'get-it' more than those life forms that 'don't get it.' And by 'get-it' I mean "understanding that the goal of life is to grow life." Why should I have equal concern for a meth-addict as I do for a doctor? Why should I have equal concern for a crack dealer as I do for a power plant engineer?

Sure, we should value all life forms, and we should be increasing the rights that we assign to non-human life forms. But we need to give more concern to those life forms that recognize that the goal of life is to grow. By this logic, I should have more concern for dolphins than I do for certain anti-growth humans.

There should be an expanding ring of concern, with yourself in the middle as most valued, and then working your way out to other life forms. For example, we should value sentient life forms, but even more so, we should value self-conscious life forms (such as humans, apes, dolphins). But we should values humans more than apes and dolphins. We should also value humans who share our memes more than humans that don't share our memes. And further, we should value genetic relatives more than non-genetic relatives.

What I'm saying is that we need to value all life, but we must weigh our own life higher than other life forms. How much? I don't have an answer. I don't think that there's a specific 42. It's not as simple as Hamilton's Equation. I also don't think that we should just trust our instincts. I think that we should trust on instincts when we are short on time, and at other times, we need to sit down and really try to estimate the effect of a certain action of life in general. (Especially when we build power plants. For example, we might not be growing life if we were to cut down a forest to install a solar power plant. We need to do a full calculation.)

Singer Point#3: The rich should donate 25% of their money to the poor

Singer argues that the rich should donate some of their money to the poor because a poor person will obtain more utility from the food bought with the money than if the money were spent on a fancy car. That's probably a true statement. The problem is that it's not an relevant statement.

1) How do we give money to a poor person? Do we trust the people who say that they will give our money to the poor? And how do we decide which person deserves it more?

2) The question is not whether to give money to the poor vs. spending money on one's self. The question is:  what will yield the greatest rate of return on investment?

Why can't the rich person lend out his or her money to whomever is willing to pay the highest interest rate? This is how we grow wealth. By doing so, perhaps the poor person will have a chance to have a paying job that will feed a family of poor people.
While charity to the poor is probably a good thing in some cases, it seems like the best strategy is to loan out your money at the highest rate possible. This strategy will on average  grow wealth and grow life the fastest.

So, while I don't think that genetic selfishness in of itself is a virtue,  I do think that, if you know how to grow wealth and to grow life, then you should focus on growing your wealth and growing life around you.
Why give your money to somebody who might or might not grow wealth/life with that money?  I would argue that life will grow faster if you loan your money to a business that hires a poor person than if you were to directly give the money to the poor person.

Singer Point#4: The rich will be happy if they donate their money to charity

It's clear that Peter Singer is not naive about the benefits of hard work. For example, he praises the fact that Warren Buffet donated $30 billion to the Gates Foundation. Though, he praises the action by Buffet because he assumes that it made Buffet happy, and he assumes that a lot of people will be saved by the medicine that the money will buy. Hence, according to Singer, the world is a lot more happy than before Buffet donated the money. The problem is that Peter Singer is stuck in a world in which happiness gets positive points and suffering gets negative points. It's an unscientific philosophy of life. There's no way to measure happiness versus suffering, so let's just give up trying to base a philosophy of life around happiness/pain. 
 And of course, here's the real kicker.  In order to donate the money, Waffen Buffet had to take the money out of his Berkshire Hathaway investments. What Singer is forgetting is the lost opportunity to invest the money elsewhere. What I'm arguing is that we can grow life the fastest if we are focused on obtaining the highest rate of return on our investment.
Who knows...perhaps by taking the money out of Berkshire Hathaway, some drug company had to stop working on a new drug that could cure breast cancer...we'll never know which action (donating or not donating) would have had the better effect on society. And while there is no way to prove which action grows life the fastest, my guess is that we should try to obtain as high a rate of return on investment as possible.

So, while I've been mostly criticizing what I see as the problems with Singer's unquantifiable utilitarianism. I'd like to finish this post by pointing out what I see as the positive aspects of Singer as a person:
1) He has lead to a greater awareness of the horrible conditions on many animal farms 

2) He has lead to a greater appreciation for non-humans life forms

3) As a teacher, he does a great job of getting people to question their own philosophies of life. He does it in a Socratic, positive way...not in a harsh, dogmatic way like Dawkins.

4) Singer often admits when his arguments are still being developed. Likewise, he has kept away from dogmatism (like what happened to Ayn Rand) and extremism (like what happened to some radical animal rights advocates and some vegetarians.)

5) Finally, Singer as a person seems to have a great respect for all life forms, even though his philosophy some times leaves out the intrinsic value of non-sentiment life forms. And while 'Singer the philosopher' often leaves love out of the equation when he tries to ground his philosophy of 'non-speciesism' in logic and reason, I think that there is an underlying love for all life forms in 'Singer the person.' We shouldn't forget this when criticizing his philosophy.

Let me if your thoughts on Peter Singer and/or his philosophy of life.

1 comment:

  1. "If you haven't any charity in your heart you have the worst kind of heart trouble" to cure it help people, let's unite for one good cause, be a volunteer"save lives"!