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.

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.

Expectations and Boundaries

Fred Kiel addresses the importance of leaders and how they transmit their values and beliefs throughout their leadership teams in his book Return on Character.  He explains that it is important for leaders to hold strong moral values and principles, but he also explains the importance of leaders sharing those values and building them into the ethos of a company in a way that is clear and concise, and easy to connect with for everyone in the company.


Kiel explains the importance of leaders being able to clearly communicate their values and expectations in the following quote, “While most people are well intentioned, they also need to have clarity about expectations and boundaries.  If a leader claims that “integrity is the cornerstone of our culture” but fails to spell out exactly what that means in practice, then the claim has little weight or purpose.” What this shows that we must take lofty ideas and connect them back to the basic and every day actions of those within our teams.  Connecting the core values back to the basic process of every employee becomes vital so that the culture and the key values that the leader wants to develop within an organization can manifest in everything that a team does.  Having a leader who can demonstrate how those core values relate fit in with the business can help an organization in a trickle down manner.  The CEO can build those values into the decisions and actions of his leadership team, who can distill those values in practical manners to management levels throughout the company, and those team managers can build those values into the actions of those who they guide and work with.


While explaining this process Kiel admits that rules and core values do not fit nicely into a black and white dichotomy, but that there are wide gray areas. He argues that developing character throughout the company will help leaders make decisions that better align with the core values of the company when situations fall within these gray areas.  Having leadership and management teams that display character habits that are in line with the companies core values can help everyone from the CEO to the newest employee understand what is expected and how to act in a way that bolsters the company’s core values as opposed to feigning to adhere to company values.

Minimal Ethics

In his book, The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer discusses living a life driven by moral excellence. The secular philosopher builds on the idea of moral good based on our ability to reason and the faculties of mind which allow us to rationalize society and measure the positivity we add to the universe.  Singer explains that we can be very ethical in our approach to life, mostly ethical, or somewhat ethical in our actions without truly pausing to consider our ethics and our actions or decisions.  Throughout his book he contends that we can begin to understand just how ethical we truly are if we can honestly evaluate our actions through self awareness and through the difficult process of quantifying and measuring the benefits of our actions.


Singer writes, “Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can.” In this sense Singer is approaching the world with the view that a minimalist lifestyle should be promoted if we want to do the most good possible with the time and resources we have available to us.  We should look for areas where we have surplus, and find ways to share those surpluses with people who are not as fortunate.  However, he would advocate that we find the most effective use of those resources to make the biggest possible impact with them.


Throughout The Most Good You Can Do Singer explains that simply directing spare resources toward charities and the disadvantaged does not reach the most people and provide the most good. Finding an area where your extra resource will go the furthest and provide the most for those who are in need is what Singer argues should be the main goal of an effective altruist (his term for the most ethical individuals). An example from the book of an area where an effective altruist can have the greatest impact is in developing countries in Africa and other tropical regions. The greatest thing that can be done to prevent unnecessary deaths in these countries is the provision of bed nets for a greater portion of the population.  A single bed net can save a life for roughly $100, and it is hard to find another form of charitable giving or donation that can have as great an impact for as little of a cost.  Singer presents multiple examples of powerful uses of extra resources throughout his book.


He also addresses areas of confusion and misrepresentation in ethical behaviors and actions.  Singer contends that making donations impulsively, in situations where donations are being asked for in front of grocery stores or after tragic events, does not do as much good as we tell ourselves. According to Singer donations during these moments may be beneficial and help those involved, but we do not donate in these situations to be altruistic. The donations we make in these situations serve more to a help us avoid feelings of guilt, and we should never consider our own guilt when considering charitable donations.