- Practical Ethics by Peter Singer
Cambridge, 237 pp, £10.00, February 1980, ISBN 0 521 22920 0
You possess two pain-killing injections and you encounter two casualties of an earthquake. Should you administer a shot apiece or give both to the person in the worse pain? Alternatively, you have enough medicine to treat one wound. Do you save the endangered leg of X or the endangered toe of Y, who has already lost a leg?
Those are two of the variations Peter Singer puts forward on the exam question that used to ask whether, in a fire of just such severity as to let you rescue one and no more, you would plump for your grandparent, your grandchild or the Titian that so surprisingly shared houseroom with them.
His new book takes, he says, ‘a broadly utilitarian position’, and it does nothing to shake my sneaking belief that the chief use of utilitarianism is to provide a decent intellectual cloak for souls too timid to entertain their fantasies of aggression naked.
Listing your friends in the order in which you would push them out of a leaky lifeboat is not nice, but it has point. At least you judge by the single, ascertainable criterion of your personal preference; and there would be a beneficiary – namely, you.
Ethics, however, Peter Singer begins his argument by declaring, transcends individual self-interests. Indeed, he locates the early stirrings of ethical thought in what he calls ‘the “Golden Rule” attributed to Moses’, which ‘tells us to go beyond our own personal interests and “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” ’.
Conceivably, when he describes the Golden Rule as ‘attributed to Moses’, Mr Singer means it was attributed to Moses and others by Jesus Christ, to whom Matthew VII, 12 ascribes the remark: ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ All the same, he does seem in something of the difficulty about which came first, the Old Testament or the New, that other philosophers have experienced about the chicken and the egg. He continues: ‘The same idea of putting oneself in the position of another is involved in the Christian commandment that we love our neighbour as ourself.’ That, however, is a Christian commandment that really is a direct quotation from the Pentateuch (Leviticus XIX, 18).
His brief, bumpy ride through the history of ethics quickly reaches R.M. Hare and the ‘universalisability’ of moral judgments; on to the ‘imaginary “impartial spectator” ’ or ‘Ideal Observer’ (published, I suppose, in an ideal world, on respectively Saturday and Sunday) from whose point of view such judgments are framed; and in next to no time he is drawing up lists for ejection from the lifeboat, using as his measuring instrument that pair of utilitarian scales which ‘requires me to weigh up all these interests and adopt the course of action most likely to maximise the interests of those affected’.
Readers are left to guess that by maximising an interest Mr Singer means serving it, not making the interest itself as large as possible. He does, however, explain that interest-weighing is an extension of the classical weighing of ‘what increases pleasure and reduces pain’, though he adds that, if it is true that ‘classical utilitarians like Bentham and John Stuart Mill used “pleasure” ... to include achieving what one desired’ and vice versa, then ‘the difference between classical utilitarianism and utilitarianism based on interests disappears.’
In fact, achieving what one desires is not always synonymous with one’s interest; and the achievement of some objects of desire makes one stop thinking them desirable. The terms of the utilitarian game are a poor fit on human – perhaps on generic animal – psychology. A blackbird outside my window is wearing himself thin and ragged getting food for his babies. Granted he is achieving what he desires, but it would be silly to wonder whether he is experiencing pleasure or pain, serving or disserving his own interest. The terms just don’t apply. ‘Like Einstein I am not happy and do not want to be happy,’ wrote Bernard Shaw, and he would be endorsed by entire noble or foolish armies of martyrs to duty, vocation, the Life Force, passion or pathological compulsion. Indeed, Mr Singer might have come closer to psychological reality had he, sooner than questionably quoting Moses, consulted the author of the modern and metabiological Pentateuch. He might have begun with the first of the Maxims for Revolutionists (‘Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same’) and gone on to two which, I imagine by Shaw’s intention, expose some of the ambiguity of the utilitarian terms: ‘The man with toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound,’ and ‘The most intolerable pain is produced by prolonging the keenest pleasure.’
Even aside from the shakiness of the terms, the utilitarian scales, classical and post-classical models alike, will always seem to practical temperaments an elaborate machine with no real function. Life, which is the only thing that can sensibly be credited with either interests or a capacity for pleasure and pain, occurs only in the form of discrete individual parcels. I can weigh one parcel against another in terms of my personal preference, because my preference links the two: if I like you more, I really do, in a squeeze, like him less. But replace an individual’s preference by the pleasure and pain of all concerned and you remove the power of one weighing pan to influence the behaviour of the other. You can put any amount of utmost bliss experienced by me into one pan and it will have not the smallest effect on the other, which contains your agony.