A Theory of Others

How much do we value other people, and how much should we value other people? At the core of ethics lies this question, and philosopher Peter Singer addresses it in his book The Most Good You Can Do. Singer refers to Canadian philosopher Richard Keshen’s ideas to build his vision of what ethics look like in an age of reason and tackles questions of how we should think about other people. In his book Singer writes, “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and their well-being matter as much as our own.”

 

This piece of advice is very similar to the Golden Rule, but with one notable distinction. The Golden Rule puts us at the center, focusing on how we want to be treated, and then expanding outward. Singer’s foundation for an ethical person starts with other people and a recognition that the lives of others are just as important in the world as our own life. It builds on common humanity and pushes past areas where see human ethics frequently fall short such as, tribalism, merit, and perceived responsibility. If we cannot start from a place where we accept that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own, we cannot move forward with truly equitable ethical foundations.

 

Singer’s ethical base also reminds me of childhood developmental studies and Theory of Mind, which focuses on a young child’s early recognition that other children and people have thoughts and feelings. This recognition builds until we are able to perceive, predict, and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others. From our own consciousness we can begin approaching other people as if they are rational conscious individuals just like us, even though we can never see their consciousness or prove that they have thoughts just like we do. Ultimately, Theory of Mind, a recognition of conscious thought in other people (often also projected onto other living and even inanimate objects around us) begins to shape the ethical foundation of our life.

 

This seems to be built into Singer’s worldview through recognition and reflection of life and consciousness. On a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, guest Yuval Noah Harari discussed Rousseau who said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he was critical of Rousseau’s fictitious “I,” or the self  created by Rousseau out of nowhere and built on in story. Harari explained that the conclusion Rousseau should have reached is simply, “Thought exists, therefore thought exists.” This view does not diminish the reality of our consciousness, but helps us understand that the “I” discussed by Rousseau is simply the story that thought creates. We know that thought exists so it is not unreasonable to believe that others can think, and if others think and can build their own story to create a fictional “I,” then Singer’s ethical foundation still exists and is perhaps bolstered as we recognize the stories we tell ourselves and  as we accept that our thought is in no way fundamentally different from the conscious thought of others which gives rise to our imaginary “I.” Ultimately, we must realize that we are limited in how we experience the world and that others experience the world in the same way. Increasing our ability to think of others and interpret the stories they create for themselves helps us to further our ethical thinking and behavior.
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Reasonable Decisions

I am a public administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and what my studies this semester have taught me is that there is no true way to separate politics from policy and administration. The way in which we govern, the bureaucrats that we ask or need to govern, and the decisions that are made will always be political because it is not possible to take self-interest out of the decision making process. We can be technical and rational in our approaches to a problem or in our implementation of policy, but ultimately the direction and base of our decision making is a value judgement. Rational thinking can establish the best means by which we can accomplish something but the ends are always value judgements that we make.

 

With that in mind, we can use empirical evidence to shape our decision making and we can base our ultimate goals on evidence and research, but we should recognize that the goals we set are ultimately shaped by value judgements, even if they are reasonable value judgements. This is where Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, comes in. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and his recent book focuses on effective altruism and how to live a life that is more impactful and like the title suggests, provides the most good to humanity.

 

At one point in his book, which I read well before my venture into a public administration masters program, he focuses on moral decision making from the point of reason. In synthesizing other philosophers he writes,

 

“A reasonable person seeks to hold beliefs that are in accord with the relevant evidence and values that are not open to reasonable criticism by others. … Sound ethical decisions as those that others cannot reasonably reject. Granted, all this leaves open what values are reasonable, but at a minimum reasonable values are values that are not influenced by biased thinking and hence can be defended to others.”

 

Values and moral judgement can flow from rational thought as an individual expands their perspective and synthesizes more information. Self reflection and moral considerations can help an individual develop a worldview where their ethical frameworks are shaped not by emotion but by empirical evidence and rational thought. We can develop strong arguments that the moral and ethical world views created in this manner support the ultimate well being of all humanity, but first we must establish what we will use as our measure, and in his book Singer suggests that we use suffering as our measuring stick. The more our actions reduce suffering across the globe, the more our actions are in line with rational values that can be empirically measured and rationally defended.

 

Where I see an ultimate breakdown is that the ultimate decision, that humans should act to reduce all suffering on the planet, is still a value judgement. It is one that can be reached through rational thought and relative to other goals can be defended through reason, but it is still a value judgement that we put forward. I agree with Singer and find his arguments for effective altruism incredibly motivational, but I think we must accept that our rational thought process is only establishing rational means to achieve a value based end, and we should develop a more open and honest forum for discussing the ends that we aim for.

An Artifact of the Media

In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Princeton professor Peter Singer introduces the idea that the world is improving and becoming a less dangerous place as we become more globalized, and as effective altruists and average citizens make greater efforts to help those who are the most disadvantaged.  Singer states, “If the world seems to be a more violent and dangerous place than ever before, however, this impression is an artifact of the media.” I strongly agree with Singer’s statement and believe that in many ways our world is an improved place, even though that idea is not presented to us by our politicians and national media.

 

Despite claims that we need to make America great again and that daily life in the United States is in danger, many people face few risks of even being moderately uncomfortable.  For me, remembering how challenging life is for those in third world countries helps provide me a better perspective of where I am, and how sever my struggles are relative to others.  Singer would argue that effective altruists are able to live their lives with greater happiness because they are able to recognize this fact and take steps to reduce their own needs while using their resources to help others.  When you can avoid fear, jealousy, and gluttony in the United States, you are able to live quite comfortably without being pressured by the negatives in capitalism. You are then able to use capitalism to your advantage by not consuming and spending more, but by consuming less and donating more in an effort to assist those who need it most.

 

Singer presents information in his book which backs up his claim that the world is slowly improving. He cites statistics from UNICEF that he included in a book written in 2009 which showed that nearly 10 million children were dying from avoidable causes related to poverty each year. The most recent statistic available from UNICEF as Singer completed The Most Good You Can Do in 2015 showed that 6.3 million children were dying from poverty related avoidable causes.  The reduced child mortality rates gave Singer hope, and to him served as proof that we were getting to a world with less suffering and unnecessary death.  Singer did not assert that effective altruists or any specific program was the reason for the reduced death rate, but he presented the information as a ray of light in the face of the doom and gloom of our national media.  We are bombarded with negativity every time we turn on the TV or pull up social media, but Singer argues that this negativity is created by our media consuming habits which dial in on the negative and tragic.  Our perception of the world has become worse and worse as we have taken major steps to shape the world into a better place.

Life in the Universe

Peter Singer shares with his readers a wide variety of areas where individuals can focus in an attempt to make donations of time, effort, or money with a goal of helping the world move in a positive direction in his book The Most Good You Can Do. He discusses donations to individuals in poverty in the developing world, donations to political advocacy organizations, and even donations meant to prevent human extinction through global (usually man made) crisis. Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer makes an effort to quantify the benefit and the return on investment of directing donations and efforts toward various causes.

 

When writing about the preservation of the human species through donations meant to prevent our extinction Singer states, “The universe is so vast and so sparsely inhabited with intelligent life that the extinction of intelligent life originating on Earth would not leave a niche likely to be filled anytime soon, and so it is likely to reduce very substantially the number of intelligent beings who would ever live.” By taking this view Singer is elevating the importance of the role of humanity in the universe and justifying any effort made to protect our species and the lives of humans into the future.  He is advocating that we fill a special spot in the universe because we are the only intelligent life that we have been able to detect in the surrounding areas of our galaxy which we can study at this point.  For Singer, there is an intrinsic value in human life simply because we exist and will exist into the (at the least very near) future.

 

For me, the quote above makes me question Earth’s value.  The vast space and time of the universe is on a scale so large that it is hard or possibly impossible for any individual to fully encompass.  On an episode of the podcast Startalk, Neil De Grass Tyson once said, “Think about a beach full of sand, and for every grain of sand on the beach, we have more planets in the universe.” With that in mind I cannot imagine that the intelligent life on earth is truly as unique as we imagine we are. We simply have not been able to view life on another planet in the space near Earth that we can study. Throughout the space-time of the universe which operates at a different scale than what we perceive and comprehend on earth it is incredibly unlikely that life has not been quite abundant relative to our standards and experiences in studying the universe to this point.

 

In my mind, Singer’s view of humans importance in the Universe overinflated the value of humanity. By focusing and placing so much attention on intelligent life Singer also leaves out other species on this planet that play an incredible role but may not be considered intelligent relative to humans. I think our role even on Earth is less than that which Singer imagines.  When human extinction does occur it will only be humans that truly suffer. Life will not suffer, as species will change and adapt and probably thrive with biodiversity returning to the planet in new ways.  The universe will not miss a single species no matter how intelligent or dominant they are within their section of the universe. Life, and the continued organization of the randomness of the universe will continue to expand be it intelligent or not.  I would therefor argue that providing for our continued existence as humans on this planet is less important than the improvement and elevated life quality of those who are currently living.

Political Advocacy

Political Advocacy is something I think of constantly. Personally, I am getting ready to return to school and I plan to study for a Masters in Public Policy.  What I find interesting is the idea of studying and understanding our problems and having a chance to truly consider what types of actions will benefit those who need help most. Often times the perception of our problems and the reality of our problems are not aligned, and we bemoan a particular policy even though it may not be as serious or have the negative consequences that our voices suggest. For Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, political advocacy is presented in another light, as a way to make changes that impact those who live in the most profound poverty, and to provide the means for changing situations which drive so many into poverty.

 

“Political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty, leaving its causes untouched” Singer writes to show that simply providing aid may not be  the most effective way to improve the lives of individuals. Organizations and groups that help develop fair trade, fight corruption, and advocate for the citizens of a country can shape the world for those living in poverty. Advocacy can help them find a more stable economic base, and it can provide for more clear paths out of extreme poverty.

 

Singer seems to be on the fence about the true impact of donations and efforts related to political advocacy. He argues for it but it is clear that he is concerned about how much anyone can claim that their lobbying impacted the decisions that were made.  He finds it a useful way to make donations or become involved to help others, but the difficulty of measuring ones true impact makes political advocacy seem to be a second tier form of difference making in Singer’s views of effective altruism.

Girls’ Education

Searching for the most effective means of using ones resources to help others is a cornerstone idea in the philosophy of effective altruism.  Throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer examines what this means, what we spend our money on, and how we can redirect our limited resources so that we guide a maximal amount toward causes that have meaningful and life-changing impacts.

 

One of the areas that effective altruists may decide to direct their monetary donations is toward girls’ education in the developing world. Singer explains the benefits of educating more girls and looks at why it is such an important issue in the world today.  He looks at several popular methods for addressing girls’ education and ways in which we have tried to improve girls’ attendance and completion rates in school. By outlining several strategies Signer invites the reader to consider which strategy seems the most obvious, which seems like it would have the greatest benefit, and which strategy seems like it would not be as useful as the others.  He then explains the results of a study from the Jameel Poverty Action Lab and shows the reader that the most effective way to improve education is to provide information to parents about the increased wages of those who stay at school. What Singer explains is that for each $100 dollars spent educating parents, daughters spend an additional 20.7 years in school, which results in girls being able to reach their full potential.

 

What I found particularly interesting is the fact that Singer focused on the well being of the individual girl as opposed to the society as a whole. Often when we look at things like girls’ education, we focus on the benefits it will produce for society such as a reduced birthrate, fewer single mothers, and fewer children in foster care.  We don’t often focus on the well being of the individual woman whose life we want to change. “…for every $100 spent on one of the least effective methods, $99.50 is wasted. When resources are limited and educations is so important to the future of children, that waste means that many human beings do not achieve their full potential.” This quote shows the mindset behind effective altruists who expect to use resources to better others, and want to ensure that their resources have the greatest impact possible because it allows others to live lives to their full potential.

Respecting the Well-Being of Others

Peter Singer focuses on the ideas regarding our interactions with others throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do, and he continually returns to the idea of how we value our life relative to the lives of our family members and the lives of those beyond our family.  Singer argues that the effective altruist movement would not be able to spread if people did not have the ability to empathize with others, and if people could not find ways in which they recognized that all human life holds the same value.

 

Singer references Richard Keshen, a Canadian philosopher, to explain the ways that effective altruists may view other people in the world. “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and  their well-being matter as much as our own.” Prior to this quote Signer quotes Keshen to explain that a reasonable person is someone who makes decisions and develops beliefs that are backed by evidence which can be defended. Their evidence may still be criticized and challenged by others, but the evidence can be used in a rational way to reach a real conclusion.  The base mindset of a reasonable person is that their thinking is unbiased, and the unbiased nature of their thought means that it is not influenced by personal factors and takes a more objective view of the world.

 

As I write this I am absolutely able to understand the importance of viewing the lives of others as equal in value to our own, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s views of reason and do not feel as though they completely add toward the point he is making.  I question whether or not we are able to take a truly objective view of the world regardless of the reason behind our thinking and regardless of how well we try to live without biases.  While I agree that living with the principal that the lives of all members of society are equal in value, I feel as though there are personal biases that have pushed me in this direction. I have been guided by more than just  rational thought, and I know that I am affected by my biases even if I don’t notice them.
I also wonder if the same argument presented by Keshen in support of effective altruism can be used to demonstrate the differences between the lives of those in society and ultimately used to show the importance of keeping wealth and resources within a close family unit.  I do not argue with Singer’s main point, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s view of a rational person, and I am not sure that his definition helps us truly understand the thought process and identity of an effective altruist.