Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Pete Singer's Call for Global Compassion Realistic?

I like Singer, and I agree with his call for global compassion - it's the only thing that may save our species and our planet - but not everyone thinks it's a realistic goal. The Guardian UK asked several thinkers to respond to his call.

What's wrong with Peter Singer?

Is his call for global compassion realistic? Why don't we feel the compelling compassion he says we should?

The question

The philosopher Peter Singer is controversial for a lot of reasons, but there is one thing he says that almost everyone agrees ought to be true: we should care more about strangers. In his most recent book, he says:

We all spend money on things we don't really need, whether on drinks, meals out, clothing, movies, concerts, vacations, new cars, or house renovation. Is it possible that by choosing to spend your money on such things rather than contributing to an aid agency, you are leaving a child to die, a child you could have saved?

And his point seems hard to argue against, respectably. Yet two questions arise. If he's right, what is the point of an ethical standard that's so impossible to live up to, and so much, apparently, out of sympathy with our emotional constitution? Or is he, perhaps wrong: is there any reason I am obliged to care for the starving in Africa as much as I might if I saw someone dying in front of me?

Tuesday's response

HE Baber: All that keeps us from caring practically for the poor is the paradox of choice

Wednesday's response

Razib Khan: Unlike Singer, Confucius recognised the natural impulse to impose a heirarchy on the value of human life – and his ideas endured

Thursday's response

Sue Blackmore: Giving money to help save lives abroad is fraught with complexities and unintended side-effects – and that's why I no longer do it

Friday's response

Jonathan Bartley: The challenge to care about those we don't know is something we should aspire to, even though we're likely to fail at it

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