Peter Singer: Part II (with an Excursion into The Brothers Karamazov)

“I must make a confession. I could never understand how one can love one’s neighbors. It’s just one’s neighbors, to my mind, that one can’t love, though one might love those who live at a distance.” –Ivan Karamazov

“The face of a man often hinders people not practiced in love, from loving him. But yet there’s a great deal of love in mankind, an almost Christ-like love. I know that myself Ivan.” –Alyosha Karamazov

Although I’m quite convinced by Peter Singer’s basic argument in The Life You Can Save, I’ve decided to take the time to gather a few thoughts about possible objections that I might have. I don’t think that any of these objections are damning to the truthfulness of the main conclusion of Singer’s argument that we can, and should, do much more than we are doing to end world poverty. Rather, these objections amount to an attempt by me to think critically about something that I find rather convincing. In this part, I consider the utilitarian and “rationalist” foundation upon which Singer’s argument is based.

In Peter Singer: Part I, I mentioned that one of the virtues of Singer’s argument lies in the fact that, in an overwhelming number of cases, the reader must accept Singer’s conclusion on pain of holding contradictory beliefs. If we believe that the alleviation of suffering is more important than non-necessity material goods–a fact that is revealed to us through the “drowning child” analogy–then, if we do not do something about the suffering of others, we are being inconsistent; the explicit contradiction is that we believe that “ignoring suffering is impermissible,” yet, by ignore suffering everyday, we are putting on display our belief that “ignoring suffering is permissible.”

What calls us to act morally then, I claim, is that we do not want to be inconsistent. We have good reason for not wanting to be inconsistent, at least if we think of our belief system as something like a formal (logical) system: if we believe an inconsistency–a contradiction–then we’re able to justify any belief whatsoever, even false ones. Since this renders reason and justification–our best tools for obtaining truth–as useless, then we are at our best when we purge our belief system of any inconsistencies.

On the one hand, I’m really attracted to this kind of moral motivation for action because it makes acting relatively easy. That is to say, if one acts only to be consistent, one doesn’t have to actually care about other human beings. This is nice because, as Ivan Karamazov hints, other people are messy; they’re often in your way; a lot of them smell bad. It is difficult to love them. If Singer’s main argument required that we genuinely care for others, we would be faced with a much harder task. Like Ivan, I am often at a loss as to how one can truly love one’s neighbors. I’m not sure if any logical argument could cause me to act from love–what Alyosha calls Christ-like love .

On the other hand, I’m inclined to think that being moral requires that we do something more than just be consistent and bring about good consequences. Perhaps these are necessary conditions; but, I wonder if acting from the kind of love that Alyosha embodies in The Brothers Karamazov is another necessary condition. My intuition is that being moral is closely tied to the will of the agent; a will motivated by genuine care for others seems to be ‘more moral’ than one motivated by ‘internal consistency’ (though I don’t have the tools to justify this yet!).

(Just as a side note, I don’t think that one has to be “religious” in any traditional sense of the term in order to orient oneself toward the world in the way that Alyosha does. After all, we are told that Alyosha, “was simply a lover of humanity.” There are hints throughout the book that suggest that he may have serious doubts about the existence of God. His religiousness was not a set of beliefs that he defended as true; rather, his religiousness was a way of acting in the world–it manifests itself through loving individuals up close, rather than abstractly and from a distance.)

The question that I have when thinking about Alyosha and Singer (one which I am not prepared to answer) is this: is there something more moral about acting from love? I certainly don’t know enough about debates between consequentialists and deontologists, but I’m wondering if Alyosha’s ‘position’ is represented by some deontologist. I don’t think it is Kantian, since it doesn’t seem like Alyosha acts from duty or a moral law. But, his actions do seem to put on display a genuine ‘good will’, which, to my mind, is Kantian.

I don’t think that the answer to my question in the above paragraph changes the importance of Singer’s conclusion; I still feel fairly confident (though perhaps a bit naively) that bringing about good consequences is a necessary condition for calling an action moral. If that is true then Singer’s argument seems just as strong. But, if something like, ‘displaying a good will’ or ‘acting from love’ is also a necessary condition for calling an action moral then this may just change the way we orient ourselves toward giving aid.


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Filed under Deontology, Dostoevsky, Ethics, Kant, Philosophy, The Brothers Karamazov, Utilitarianism

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