2007-11-01

The ethics of Peter Singer and Jesus compared

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by Neil Godfrey

Singer

Peter Singer is a moral philosopher currently based at Princeton University (see his Princeton homepage). He is most famous for his pioneering work on animal liberation but has advanced his utilitarian philosophy into a range of other controversial public areas as well. He has expressed disappointment that his arguments for alleviating human misery have been less influential than those he was expressed to reduce animal suffering.

The Singer Solution to World Poverty is a timeless argument, elegant in its simplicity and lacking only in suggestions that are consistent with what people have become habituated to doing and thinking. (And as “Bad” commented, it is essentially a discussion of Peter Unger’s argument in his 1996 Living High and Letting Die.)

Unger

I won’t repeat the argument here. It is only the equivalent of a 6 page chapter in his book, Writings on an Ethical Life. It’s readily available to all online.

But let’s compare relatively modern utilitarian ethics (judging an action to be right or wrong according to its consequences) with the ancient ethics of Jesus in relation to the poor.

Singer, like Jesus I suppose, concedes that his argument is contrary to human nature as understood by evolutionary psychologists. Singer does not himself say it, but evolutionary psychologists also argue that violence and rape are inherent in human nature. They also point out that that does not make them right, and that our societies have evolved systems that teach us to control urges and even thoughts of those behaviours. Maybe the next step in human moral evolution will be for societies to learn to appreciate how our current natural habits are responsible for so much suffering, both for human and non-human animals, and to learn to condemn these in the same way we have come to condemn and punish acts of violence and rape within societies.

Peter Singer is an atheist. He is calling for a modification of human behaviour and shows a way that this can be done quite reasonably and will little pain, yet at the same time spare the world of perhaps the bulk of its suffering.

Jesus also called for money to be donated to the poor. But with less consistency, and in a way that really involves total self-sacrifice and loss, and that is not even done ultimately for the sake of the poor anyway. And he did not appeal to the reasonableness and humanity of his audience, but to their desire for a reward of a payback that would be greater than what they would have to give up.

He praised the poor woman who gave all her livelihood (two mites) to the Temple (not the poor) (Mark 12:42-44). Singer does not praise any poor person who gives up even the little they have for a temple.

Jesus praised the woman who expended oil worth 300 denarii to anoint his body for burial (Mark 14:3-9), saying that the poor will always be around to help another day. Singer demonstrates that with a slight modification of outlook on the part of the wealthy there would not be any poor anymore. He would argue that by using that 300 denarii worth of goods at that time, perhaps 300 people suffered needlessly during that very evening. Singer discusses the couple who decide to forgo spending $200 at eating out at a restaurant one night, and what that $200 would achieve in real terms in the lives of individuals if donated to UNICEF or OXFAM.

Jesus even said that giving to needy among fellow-believers was indeed giving to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:40). Again, the focus is taken away from the poor as an end in themselves. The giver only offers help because as fellow-believers the recipients are really a means to pleasing God, not man.

Jesus commanded the rich man to sell all that he had and to give the proceeds to the poor (Mark 10:21). Singer argues no such thing. This would be a recipe for simply reversing the identities of who were to be counted among the poor. Back in 1999 Singer was calculated that most American families spend $30,000 on their needs each year, and that the rest of their incomes was on nonessentials. What a difference it would make if that surplus would be reallocated to those without even their basic essentials. (Singer finds it hard to begrudge those who give up 10% of their incomes in a world where most people give up next to nothing at all — 10% looks so magnanimous by comparison. It is, as Singer observes, really a pittance.)

Jesus promised those who gave up everything (became poor) would in fact have treasure in heaven. He promised them rewards far greater than all they had surrendered. Singer does not appeal to self-interest. He appeals to our humanity and innate sense of fairness.

Jesus’ solution is not even targeted at the poor. It is targeted at the rich and commands them to take up their own cross, to give up all, to suffer to the point of a kind of death. It promises them a greater reward in return. It is even admitted that poverty will not be ended.

Singer’s solution does target the poor. It merely asks them to give up from time to time some of the surplus they have after meeting their often quite costly needs. It promises them nothing more than a higher ethic. And it is demonstrated that such a change really would end poverty.

Humanity has moved on from its savage propensity to violence as a matter of day to day routine. We have moved on from the natural customs of watching criminals kill each other for sport, of tormenting animals and the handicapped for fun, of enslaving our fellow kind, of denying basic rights to women and children. It took a lot to raise people’s consciousnesses to embrace new ethics in all of these areas. The Jesus solution has not had much impact in 2000 years.

Maybe the Singer solution has more chance of getting a start up — one day? Singer has done a lot for changing people’s attitudes towards animals, but he began that work way back in 1975. What would it take for a similar change in comprehension of the relationship between our current habits and world suffering?

Perhaps if the French aristocracy around June 1789 could have foreseen the consequences of their “living high and letting die” the guillotine would never have been invented.

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Neil Godfrey

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0 thoughts on “The ethics of Peter Singer and Jesus compared”

  1. It’s worth noting for anyone that doesn’t read the full article that the argument and many of the core ideas are really originally Peter Unger’s, as Singer notes. He’s mostly here defending Unger’s position, and since he’s more well known than Unger, it’s become more associated with Singer in the public mind.

  2. n every tom’s existence, at some dated, our inner foment goes out. It is then bust into zeal at near an contend with with another human being. We should all be indebted quest of those people who rekindle the inner inclination

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