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Saturday, February 04, 2017

Hypocrisy on Parade

The NYT runs an intermittent series under the heading of The Stone; it purports to be "a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless."

I have previously (here and here) rubbished articles for grievously offending my logical sensibilities. Unfortunately, the comments threads were of no help in deciding whether the deficiency was mine or some contemporary philosophers and other thinkers.

Once again, it is time to reach for the Rubbisher.

Peter Singer is something of an enfant terrible: his niche in philosophy is to take a seemingly reasonable position, and extrapolate it to where shock and opprobrium is sure to follow.

Here are some examples:

Abortion: In Practical Ethics, Singer argues in favour of abortion rights on the grounds that fetuses are neither rational nor self-aware, and can therefore hold no preferences. As a result, he argues that the preference of a mother to have an abortion automatically takes precedence. In sum, Singer argues that a fetus lacks personhood.

Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood—"rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"—and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living."

Speciesism: Speciesism is an attitude of bias against a being because of the species to which it belongs. Typically, humans show speciesism when they give less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than they give to the similar interests of human beings.

[On the basis that a being able to think of itself as existing over time], one might argue that to kill a normal human being who wants to go on living is more seriously wrong than killing a nonhuman animal. Whether this claim is or is not sound, it is not speciesist. But given that some human beings – most obviously, those with profound intellectual impairment – lack this capacity, or have it to a lower degree than some nonhuman animals, it would be speciesist to claim that it is always more seriously wrong to kill a member of the species Homo sapiens than it is to kill a nonhuman animal.

Altruism: A minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of one's spare resources to make the world a better place.

These positions run the gamut from the apparently awful to the seemingly benign. I think they each rest on at least some flim-flammery, by either ignoring inescapable elements of reality — time, say — question begging, or failing to take an argument to where it demands being taken.

But no matter, that isn't what had me casting about for my Rubbisher.

It has come to some degree of notice that Peter Singer is spending significant resources caring for his Alzheimer's crippled mother. For most of us, more or less unburdened by a surfeit of philosophical posing, uhh, thinking, this is a no brainer. However, for Singer, this is clearly verboten, whether on the grounds of altruism or speciesism, at the very least.

Yet, despite his admonitions to the rest of us, he does so, nonetheless.

The philosopher Peter Singer was once attacked for contradicting himself. Singer advanced an ethical theory in which the most worthwhile thing was complex conscious life and feeling, and did not shy away from the logical consequence that the life of a severely mentally impaired human was worth less than that of a chicken. Journalists then discovered that Singer’s mother had Alzheimer’s and that he chose to spend his money taking care of her rather than helping chickens.

They called Singer a hypocrite and The New Republic even ran a cover with a picture of an addled old woman with a walker and the headline “Other People’s Mothers.”

Failing to notice the answer on offer, the author, by definition an esteemed contemporary philosopher or other thinker on issues both timely and timeless goes straight to missing the screamingly obvious:

So, how bad is contradicting yourself?

In philosophy, since Socrates (a troll before there ever was an internet), the answer has been “very bad.” If you find you believe two inconsistent propositions you need to do something about it. You owe a theory.

No, Eric Kaplan, this isn't contradicting yourself, this is allowing yourself that which you prohibit others. There's a fancy word for it, often improperly used, but not here: hypocrisy. Contradiction, entirely unrelated, involves having taken a position, subsequently taken on board discordant information, then reversing, or significantly changing your position; not just for yourself, but for everyone else, too.

Peter Singer has done nothing of the kind. But let's let that slide, so that Kaplan can have his say:

Part of the reason this mother/chicken puzzle is so hard is it runs up against two contradictory beliefs we have about human beings:

a) Humans are meaningful; the things they do make sense

b) Humans are things with causes like anything else — as meaningless as forest fires.

I could burden you with further pull quotes, but I won't because the chase that needs cutting to is right here. Kaplan, and on his behalf, Singer, have skipped right over a fatal error.

What do you think it is? Hint: it is contained in a single word.

14 comments:

Bret said...

I'm lost.

For a moment, let's take it as a given that a severely mentally impaired human, including Singer's mother, is objectively worth less than a chicken.

So it follows that ... um, I dunno, what?

People have pet chickens, so he has his pet mother.

How is that hypocritical?

erp said...

Bret, I really tried to read the Altruism link, but just couldn't make myself finish it. You are looking for one word, but I have two: Ox & Gored.

One of Singer's other great thoughts had to do with people killing their newborns (I don't remember up to what age) if they had second thoughts about not aborting them. The man is certifiable (BTW is that the word you were looking for?).

Reminds me a bit of Chomsky's loony ideas -- at least he's only killing language, not fellow humans.

I've arranged legally that if my mind goes (remember it's not nice to make snide remarks about the elderly,) my family should have me taken off all meds and life-support.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] How is that hypocritical?

Because in advocating utilitarian altruism, Singer would insist it was a moral failure. After all, how is one to justify, say, $60,000 spent over a year to prolong the life of one woman who is scarcely aware of her own existence when the same money could save, oh, I don't know, 50 people by providing them clean water.

That is the position he has advocated for others. He did not follow it for himself.

Hello, hypocrisy!

[erp:] One of Singer's other great thoughts had to do with people killing their newborns (I don't remember up to what age) if they had second thoughts about not aborting them.

Obviously, since new borns have no awareness of their own lives, or of time. Therefore, since awareness is the defining criterium, newborn humans are no more valuable than kittens, and perhaps less cute.

Hey Skipper said...

Here is the fatal error: Humans are meaningful;

What, exactly, does that mean? That humans have a meaning that is ascertainable from outside humanity.

Bollocks. Pure nonsense.

Meaning has no meaning outside humanity. Meaning does not have an existence of its own. Meaning exists only so long as humans exist.

On a utilitarian level, it is easy to see how donating $10,000 to the Susan G. Komen foundation, while it might make the donor's chest swell with pride, is far less meaningful than donating $10,000 for mosquito nets in malarial Africa. After all, untold millions have ended up in the Komen coffers, and has saved scarcely any lives. Money sent there is criminal altruism, because it, in effect, condemned many people to malarial death.

That is seemingly difficult to argue against.

Rusty the Alaskan Wilderness Adventure Dog is getting on. Odds are that within a year or so, he will develop a cancer that we could spend a couple thousand dollars treating, and maybe extend his life a year. Lots of people spend that kind of money on their pets. But look at that in comparison to the Lt. Dan foundation.

In what moral universe does it pass muster to extend a dog's life by a year, rather than help a wounded veteran?

Not in mine, it doesn't, because I attribute less meaning to a dog that has been part of my life for a dozen years than a veteran I've never met, and will never know. However, since meaning has no existence outside humanity, then meaning isn't a fixed concept. Put the way I have, when deciding how to allocate a portion of my life (which is what a couple thousand dollars represents), then it may well be more meaningful for me to spend that money on a dog, rather than a person.

(Don't tell Rusty, but for that very reason, he isn't a $2,000 dog. Your dollarage may vary.)

But wait, there's more.

Money donated now to the Komen foundation may not save any lives now, but presuming cancer is a problem within the reach of human ken, it might very well be nudging the ball along, no matter how incrementally, to saving millions of lives. Singer ignores time.

But it isn't just time, or meaning, that Singer misses. The provision of mosquito nets, or clean water, arent't down nearly so much to lack of charity as they are to crappy governance. Which means sending money to buy mosquito nets in some part serves to enable the very governmental pathologies that created the lack in the first place.

Those aren't the only obvious problems that philosophers and thinkers somehow managed to miss, but that should be enough for a start.

Bret said...

Hey Skipper,

I'll take your word for it. I don't know enough about Singer's particular brand of utilitarianism, to make any useful comments.

General utilitarianism would not inherently conclude that the mother must die.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] General utilitarianism would not inherently conclude that the mother must die.

It would, if in turn another, more "valuable" life could be saved.

Where value, again a wholly human contingent term, is treated as if it exists outside human definition.

Bret said...

Well, I'm not claiming to be an expert on phringe philosophies, but my understanding was that in the general case under utilitarianism, that different people could value things differently. Then, given everybody's value of everything, the idea was to maximize that sum total of all of those values.

If it's something else, then ok, I'll take your word for it.

Peter said...

I'm not sure I can get too into condemning a guy with a noxious philosophy as a hypocrite for doing the right thing in his personal life. Isn't it usually the other way around? I've enjoyed many pleasant hours criticizing and condemning Dawkins, but I don't think I'd jump all over the guy because he found himself praying during a high-risk operation for one of his kids.

Clovis e Adri said...

I am getting to the conclusion that contradiction is the main thing that set us as humans.

What differentiates Singer from, say, Skipper, who would complain of Obama's apology tours but voted for the guy who equated Putin to America?

Sorry to bring politics to this thread, but hypocrisy is what connects them. And us all, apparently.

Peter said...

Yeah, I don't fully understand why hypocrisy has become the ultimate modern sin. I guess a lot has to do with Freud and the therapeutic culture. We seem to have become fixated with probing our messy little psyches and proclaiming to the world whatever we find there in the name of honesty. No civilization could survive without a healthy dose of hypocrisy. Not many marriages either.

Bret said...

I was going to say I don't mind my own contradictions and hypocrisy. Ya know, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds" (according to Emerson) and all that.

Of course, I don't at all mind pointing on contradictions and hypocrisy in others. Yes, yes, I know, that's very hypocritical, but tough, no hobgoblins here! :-)

erp said...

Lots of us didn't think Obama had anything to apologize for concerning US actions.

Hey Skipper said...

[Bret:] Well, I'm not claiming to be an expert on phringe philosophies, but my understanding was that in the general case under utilitarianism, that different people could value things differently.

(I see what you did there)

I am not an expert, either. While I haven't read any Singer beyond articles he has published, I have read about his positions. He makes a great deal of hay out of the notion of consciousness and sentience -- they are some sort of gold standard of existential worth. If a bird, say a gray parrot, is more aware and intelligent than, say, a two day old infant, then the parrot's life is to preferred above the infants.

Now, as a thought provoking device to cause people to question how elevated humans are above other animals, that is fine. But he goes further, to attacking the whole concept of "speciesism": that there is no way to elevate the importance of one over another.

So, to the extent I have this right, Singer asserts there is an objective way to value lives, and that many times we value incorrectly.

Hey Skipper said...

[Peter:] Yeah, I don't fully understand why hypocrisy has become the ultimate modern sin.

A lot of times, as you say, hypocrisy masks sin. Clearly, that isn't the case here.

It's still hypocrisy, though.

Most telling is that his utilitarian morality, it didn't survive first contact with reality.

I would hope the result would be world wide dumpstering of his books.