Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Infinite Utilitarian Regress of Peter Singer

OK - I'm on a bit of a Peter Singer roll. Tonight I stayed home from Home Group Linda and I are in in our church. I hate to miss tonight but I have a cold that's causing a lot of sneezing, coughing, and nose-running + a sinus headache. So here I am, home alone. What do I do?

I went to one of my favorite websites, Arts & Letters Daily. There I began to look at all the Book Review sites listed. I got to The Australian and their book review section. There's a review of Singer's latest book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. Singer the atheist gives a lot of his personal money to humanitarian causes, for which I tip my hat to him. The review says, "Singer has always asked a lot from his fellow human beings: that we give till it hurts, respect animals as we respect ourselves, consider coolly such flint-hearted arguments as the needs of strangers and the drain on social resources in decisions about life and death."

I applaud Singer's actions.

I'm also interested in a question that's put to him in the review. We read: "But what is the final sanction when the utilitarian argument is regressed as far as it will go? What is the answer to a shrug and the question, "Why should I?" "In the end it's what kind of life do you want to lead," Singer says, amiable again. "When you are old and say to yourself, 'What did I do with my life?', do you want to say, 'I earned lots of money and I spent it on consumer goods and expensive things and personally enjoyed them'? Or do you want to say, 'I did something worthwhile to try to reduce the amount of suffering in the world and make it a better place?"' Heart-warming, but that doesn't answer the question, "Why should I?" Singer is unfazed. He is sure that enough people will care enough to make a difference, if only arguments such as his can reach and move them."

What can we conclude from this?

1. Singer's utilitarian ethics leads him to help reduce the suffering in the world. He hopes others will do the same. I see this as good, and feel thankful for it.

2. Singer's atheism gives him no answer to the question "Why should we do this?" On atheism I am guessing Singer will admit no such answer can be given. Because this is the inexorable logic of atheism it will leave this world's suffering people unhelped by any atheists who understand this and see themselves as having no duty to help them.

Finally, surely there are "Christians" who do little or nothing to help the poor and suffering.

And, there are many Christians who are leading the way in helping the suffering of this world, as USC sociologist Donald Miller records in his book Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Social Engagement.