Reason, Action, Passion

While describing effective altruists, author and philosopher Peter Singer makes a distinction in the philosophy of reason and how we can look at effective altruists.  Singer establishes that effective altruists, or those who seek to do the most good that they can possibly do out of a sense of value for all people as opposed to seeking to do the most good they can do out of religious convictions or warm glow sentiments, empathize with all individuals across the globe because they are able to recognize the shared value in all humanity.  An effective altruist is drawn to help those who are in the most need and those who can be helped the most efficiently. Singer argues that their actions result from a strong sense of moral reasoning derived from the individual faculties of mind of effective altruists.  Moving in a very philosophical direction to examine the views of effective altruists Singer writes,


“The strongest objection to the claim that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists comes from Hume’s influential view that reason can never initiate an action because all action starts with a passion or desire … This is, in modern parlance, an instrumentalist view of reason.  Reason helps us to get what we want: it cannot tell us what to want or at least not what to want for its own sake.  To argue that reason plays a crucial role in the motivation of effective altruists, we have to reject this instrumentalist view of practical reason.”


At the end of the quote above Singer states that we need a different view of rationalization to be able to understand the actions of effective altruists.  The view reflected by Hume would suggest that effective altruists are truly only motivated by the warm glow we receive from helping others. He would argue that we receive an incentive to live altruistically because of the rewards generated by our actions. Singer on the other hand would argue that we would recognize these incentives only as byproducts of a positive lifestyle, and not the underlying goal for our actions.


Ultimately Singer is trying to place reason and rationality above emotions such as passion and desire.  For me this has always been a tricky area to disentangle.  We are very skilled at rationalizing our behavior to fit the reason we want our actions to be centered around. While Hume is arguing that our passions are what truly drive us at all times, singer is arguing that our passions grow from our reason.

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