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Virtues, Ordinary and Heroic

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So, in the middle of all this, I finished reading the Peter Unger book, and I went rummaging around until I found a copy of Current Issues and Enduring Questions, which I knew had a copy of Peter Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality.”

For what it’s worth, that book also reprints Garrett Hardin’s “The Case Against Helping the Poor,” which is an attempt to directly counter Singer’s ideas without actually countering Singer’s–or Unger’s–methods. 

That is, both the essay and the book assume the existence of morality sort of a priori, without bothering to establish a foundation for that morality and largely without bothering to defend their stated core moral principles. 

For all these people, morality “just is.”  We have our Core Moral Principles, or, as Unger puts it, our Primary Moral Values.  We refer everything to them, no matter what they are.

On the other hand, there is something called “moral progress.”  I’m not sure how Unger, for instance, expects us to be able to tell that we are moving in the direction of “progress,” but progress there is supposed to be.  And that is what “philosophers” are for.

I put the word “philosophers” in quotes up there deliberately.  I do not think Unger is a philosopher, even though he has a doctorate in philosophy and works in a university philosophy department.

This is not what Socrates did, or Aristotle, or Liebniz, or Kant, even though Unger likes to refer to Kant a lot, sort of vaguely and in passing.

And I’m not really concerned about whether or not Unger and Singer live the lives of personal privation they declare to be the only decent moral behavior for first world people who should send all their money to starving people in the third world.

My guess is that neither one of them eschews nice houses (or apartments), nice cars and new clothes in order to send every dime to UNICEF and CARE, and Unger at least comes close to admitting that in his last chapter.

For the moment, I’m not even all that interested in the absolute train wreck of the arguments they present.  Unger at least tells us, at the outset, that logic isn’t an important consideration in moral philosophy, which makes it hard to counter his nonsense with, “But if you did that, then–”

Just at the moment, I want to consider just the  Core Moral Principles or Primary Moral Values Singer and Unger declare to be universally applicable, because I think if we do that, we get to a very interesting place.

They go like this:

1) If you know of a case of severe suffering and early death and you have the means to prevent it without at the same time causing harm of an equally immoral kind, then you MUST prevent it.

2) You must prevent it even at the expensive of your own life, if there is more than one life you will save by what you do.

3) You are morally obligated to do this not just for people you know or in your community, but for everybody, everywhere, all the starving children in Africa, all the starving and ailing people all over the word.

4) If the only way you can do this is to cause some harm to other people–say, by stealing their money or taking their property–you are morally obliged to do so.

5) The only criterion here is how many suffering people are saved from suffering, period.

I’m eliding a lot of verbiage, but that’s it.

And I’d like to point something out.

Singer and Unger think principles like those are good arguments for why you and I should give all our money away, down to depriving ourselves of decent food and housing if we have to.

I think principles like those are good arguments for empire.


Think about it.

The North Koreans are starving.  They aren’t starving because of natural disasters or cosmic bad luck.  They’re starving because they live under a government that is systematically starving them.

In fact, almost all the famine in the world for the last fifty years has had a political cause.

What’s more, children are dying in Africa and the Middle East because religious and government authorities spread lies that the vaccines sent by UN organizations are really poisons of one sort or another meant to wipe out blacks (in Africa) or Muslims (in the Middle East).

There is only one way to end all this suffering, famine and death, and that is to dislodge those governments and install others that do not victimize their own peoples in these ways.

And nothing else will actually do the job.

Of course, if you had other kinds of principles, the old fashioned ones that required logic and that sort of things, you’d have other reasons for not taking over the world to make sure the poor are fed and the ignorant are vaccinated.

But Singer and Unger have none.

Written by janeh

July 24th, 2010 at 8:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Virtues, Ordinary and Heroic'

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  1. Make that 100 years, minimum. It’s been at least that long since we’ve had a famine not instigated by a government, though in fairness some of the Chinese and all of the Indian famines were not done deliberately–that is, the famines were the result but not the objective of the policies.

    And I can’t see the ilk of Singer and Unger balking at empire–though they would stop at the WORD empire. Right thinking would be encouraged, and wrong–make that “hateful”–speech and writing suppressed, and the locals kept firmly in place, but the troops and government would be a “multi-lateral assistance force” and the ruler a “civil servant.” (You really MUST read Piper’s “A Slave is a Slave.”) The irony is, of course, that maintaining power would require punitive expeditions, the forcible displacement of populations and all the usual. Children and old people might not die directly of starvation and polio, but they’d die of malnutrition and typhoid, and they’d be just as dead. But it would be OK, because they were sacrificed for the Cause. And if you think I’m exagerating at all, read George Bernard Shaw–the original Fabian Socialist–on the Ukraine Famine. He was in favor.

    Conduct matching words–at least roughly–is proof of sincerity. If I say X is necessary for all men, and I don’t even try to do it, then you know I myself regard my argument as false. And if the advocate is known not to believe his own words, then why should anyone else study what he says?

    That said, the correct response to someone–sincere of not–who wants to dictate moral philosophy with neither divine revelation nor logic for a foundation is to close the book or leave the room. Life is too short.


    24 Jul 10 at 9:26 am

  2. Jane, didn’t you say that the Unger book was assigned reading for one of Matt’s classes? How did his professor use it? I mean, I would assume there was class discussion?


    24 Jul 10 at 11:36 am

  3. My first reaction to the argument by Singer and Unger was “reductio ad absurdium” – the conclusion is so absurd that we should question the premise. But Unger doesn’t accept that logic should apply to morals so I can’t use that.

    I think Jane is right about it leading to empire. Otherwise we accept an unlimited burden of bailing people out of trouble no matter how badly they mismanage their affairs.


    25 Jul 10 at 4:21 am

  4. Not only that – there is an assumption that the rich westerner knows exactly how to prevent starvation in the poor countries. I mean, it’s fairly obvious that after a sudden disaster like the earthquake in Haiti, that food, medical supplies, and experts in and supplies for reconstructing airports and seaports need to be poured in immediately. It’s not at all clear what the best actions are to prevent the hunger (and the corruption and poverty that leads to not only hunger, but the substandard housing that worsens the results of the earthquake) when there hasn’t just been a major natural disaster. As others have pointed out, these are largely the result of political choices, and sometimes people who are the strongest in favour of nationalism – or at least that version of it involved in ethnic self-determination – are also the strongest believers that We Must Do Something to fix things, even if that means sending in troops. You can’t have it both ways. I think myself that whether empires are worse than other methods of government depends on the way the empire is run and the charateristics of the other version, particularly its level of corruption, participation by the population, and degree to which they go in for ethnic purity and the effect that has on minorities.

    Certainly, though, empires have really bad names these days and they do seem to follow logically from that argument. If you don’t have logic, or any evidence for primary moral values or for the claim that changes in morality (recent or as proposed by the authors) are automatic improvements from any point of view, I can’t see there’s anything to discuss.

    Back to the poorer countries – I read yesterday that one of the reasons that China is doing so well in some of the ‘failing democracies’ I think was the term in Africa is because their help comes without any unpleasant interfering in humans rights issues. Not much is going to change in the way of reducing the suffering of ordinary people in such places that way…but interfering is empire-building, or neo-colonialism at the best.


    25 Jul 10 at 5:56 am

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