Practice What You Preach

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Just as I find myself wondering, tongue in cheek, about what the animal "rights" activists think of the animal experiments that precipitated a massive pet food recall, saving countless pets' lives at the cost of those of a few laboratory animals, Peter Singer pops up out of nowhere to give his two cents' worth on ethics. (I was mildly surprised that he didn't advocate that pet owners start sampling pet feed before setting out meals from now on. Perhaps he thinks it too obvious to mention.)

Posing as a champion of reason in a short piece, Singer discusses choices made only in highly abnormal situations -- all of them involving being forced to kill people or watch others die -- and ends by pronouncing all human lives as intrinsically valuable, and unabashedly embracing the logical, absurd extreme that results when one ignores such vital questions as, "What is a value?" and "Of value to whom?"

Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions.
Singer never elaborates upon whether there is an option to kill the person who forced the subjects to make such horrid choices in the first place. Or, to be less facetious (and simultaneously closer to real, actual life than the sophomoric "Moral Sense Tests" he cites), what if you could save the life of one stranger by killing five other strangers you reasonably thought were unjustly trying to kill him? If the one stranger were a countryman and the five Islamofascist terrorists? Before you accuse me of not giving Singer enough credit, consider the only reasonable inference we can draw from his sanctimonious mention of bombs. (It is also worth noting that he clearly isn't going to reach the Palestinians or the Iranians any time soon with that message and probably realizes this.)

And in the more metaphysically normal case of warfare, which Singer treats as being beneath serious consideration -- and this man is an ethics professor, of all things -- there is the whole matter of individual rights, the most fundamental of which is the right to live. Sometimes we are forced to choose to kill people when those very people threaten our rights as individuals. That happens when, by threatening or harming us, other people endanger our lives, making themselves, in the process, inimical to our lives and thus not valuable.

There is a hell of a lot more to the calculus of deciding to harm or kill others than making arbitrary choices or counting people like so many beans. And believe it or not, it can be moral to kill large numbers of people, some innocent. It's called fighting a war of self-defense with the goal of achieving victory. For starters, it might be worthwhile to consider what man is (a living being), what values are (the requirements for him to live and prosper), and why man needs ethics (because he must learn what he must do to survive). This is why, with my title, I reply to Peter Singer's arrogant one, to "Reason with yourself".


PS: I haven't the time to discuss this at any length, but the similarities between this piece by Singer and the recent discussion of what moves people to alleviate suffering by one Paul Slovic are interesting.

For example, both authors examine the natural ways human beings react to difficult situations in the abstract/general versus the concrete/particular without considering man's nature beforehand. Instead, each takes some variant of altruism as a given, and concludes that man is "deficient" (Slovic) or too poorly evolved (Singer) to cope. (A commenter to that post brought up the further point that, in addition to the problems I pointed out, altruism is a poor motivator.)

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