Saturday, 22 August 2015

Good Things Come from Good Intentions: Contemplating Peter Singer’s Altruism

By Fia Hamid-Walker

Peter Singer: The Activist Philosopher was sold out! Not really a surprise as the man is renowned internationally as the most influential ethicist and moral philosopher of our time.



Singer has made several Melbourne appearances in 2015 to promote his new book The Most Good You Can Do : How effectivealtruism is changing ideas about living ethically. As a philosophy student, Peter Singer makes reading Immanuel Kant’s writings make more sense to me, and philosophy subjects much more interesting. He is the Neil DeGrasseTyson of contemporary philosophy.

So who is ‘the Activist Philosopher’?  Singer thinks we are all activist philosophers because we have moral, intellectual and altruistic obligations to save the life of “drowning child” in non-affluent countries. But why are we morally obliged to help people who we do not know? After all, we have our own poverty problems in Australia.

Singer explained that our moral obligation to help the least fortunate could extend beyond our own circle of family and friends to those in poor countries. In doing this, we could help to reduce global poverty. Drawing from his preference for utilitarianism, he believes that reducing the suffering of sentient beings, which may include certain animals, is our greatest moral challenge.

Got that, Peter! But why should we help poor people in poor countries? The Abbott government has cut funding for our community services. That creates a struggle for some here in Australia.

Singer has the answer. He calmly took us through an event that happened in the United in States 1987 when a toddler got stuck in a well. It took days to rescue the girl in spite of deployment of the most advanced tools. The incident received so much media attention that people started to donate money to the girl’s family. Donated funds exceeded $1million. Singer commented that the rescue effort was outstanding and the amount of caring shown by people during the incident was incredible. However Singer thinks the donations and the emotional outpour were disproportionate. Singer thinks that they could have donated their money to fight diseases in Africa and saved hundreds of girls.

He continued to warn us that we couldn’t just randomly help people without any proper and thorough research on who and how to help. If you fail to research thoroughly and risk losing the money that you donated, this does not mean that you have failed to exercise your moral obligation.  Instead, you have breached your intellectual obligation.

Look no further. Singer suggests you check out TheLife You Can Save. Someone has done the research for us so that we will not waste our money by donating to unknown charities. So is that the intellectual obligation ticked off?

Yet Singer’s utilitarianism manifesto is not without controversy. The presenter, Maria Tumarkin, rightly asked about the issue of intention. Singer responded by saying that in utilitarianism we do not care so much about intention, but we care more about the consequences. If the consequences are good, the intention is not relevant. It is all about to bring good consequences.

Every single sentient being could easily proclaim themselves as a utilitarian when it suits them and to justify their actions. The Abbott government would also be able to argue that the “turning back boats” policy would bring good consequences for the greater good and greatest number. However, it is hard to believe that their intentions do not matter.

The most important aspect is how to get there, not solely the outcome. As Singer concluded, “Having a utopian idea of a perfect world is very dangerous because people can do whatever they think necessary, even violence, to create their ideal world”.

Edited by Margaret Robson Kett 

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