“We Are Moving in a More Humanitarian Direction”: An Interview with Philosopher Peter Singer (Full Text and Video)

by Matt B. on September 30, 2011

Peter Singer is perhaps the world’s most influential philosopher and the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In late August, I sat down with him to discuss his most recent book, The Life You Can Save. Full text below.

At the outset of your recent book, The Life You Can Save, you lay out two goals: to challenge readers to think about their obligations to those trapped in extreme poverty, and to convince readers to choose to give more of their income to help the poor.

What do you mean by extreme poverty?

Well, when I talk about extreme poverty, I use the definition that the World Bank has, which is really based on people having enough income to meet their basic needs for food, shelter, and maybe to educate their children, or some very minimal, basic healthcare.

The World Bank has calculated that in order to do that, you need to have the purchasing power equivalent in your local currency of US $1.25. So, we’re really talking about people who have less than what you can buy for $1.25 in the United States. It’s not what you would get for US $1.25 if you went to a bank in Mozambique or Mauritania. It’s what would have the same purchasing power in those local currencies as $1.25 has in the United States, and that’s what you have to live on for a day. If you have less than that, the World Bank classifies you as being extremely poor.

As you lay out your case as to why we should feel obligated to give in order to relieve those conditions, you offer what you call “a remarkably simple argument.” Walk us through that argument.

Well, the argument is based on a little story that I often tell my students about walking through a park, and there’s a shallow ornamental pond. You know it’s not deep because you’ve seen kids playing in it. At the moment, there’s nobody playing in it, but you see a very small child has fallen into it, and it’s too deep for a toddler to stand up, so this little child appears to be drowning.

Of course, you look around and you say, “So, who’s looking out for this baby? Where is the parent? Where’s the babysitter?” But you can’t see anybody. It’s just you and the child.

So, your first instinct is to rush down into the water and save the child. Then, imagine that the thought occurs to you, “Dear, I’m wearing my favorite shoes, and they will take me a while to get off. The child might drown if I try to take them off. Anyway, maybe I shouldn’t worry about the child. After all, I’m not responsible for this child. It’s not my child. I didn’t push the child in the pond. And I don’t want to ruin my shoes. So, I’ll just forget I ever saw the child and walk on.”

So, I ask students and other audiences what they would think about a person who reasons that way and ignores that drowning child. Everybody says that would be wrong. That would be monstrous even. It would just be an awful thing to do.

So, I think people recognize that we have an obligation to rescue someone if their life is at stake, they’re innocent – it’s no fault of theirs – and the cost to you is minimal – something like ruining a nice pair of shoes.

Well, if you accept that, then I think that is really the situation that we’re in with regard to those in extreme poverty in the world, because extreme poverty does cause millions of people to lose their lives prematurely, including small children. About 8 million small children a year, according to UNICEF, die because of avoidable poverty-related causes.

And we could help them. We could save those lives. We could help to get people out of extreme poverty for roughly the kind of money that it would take to buy a really expensive pair of shoes.

To the extent that people resist your arguments, I suspect that a lot of it has to do with feeling daunted by – or maybe even resentful toward – their dramatic implications. Rather than face some high standard and fail, say, better to reject the standard altogether – a sort of pre-emptive defense against being overwhelmed.

In this book, though, you take an interesting tack. You explicitly ask people not to think in those terms: “I should say up front that I believe you should giving more than 5 percent, and that I hope you’ll ultimately move in that direction.  But that’s not easy to hear and not easy to do.  I recognize that most people aren’t likely to be moved merely by philosophical argument to make drastic changes in the way they live, and further, that one cannot make such drastic changes overnight.  The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.  So I’m going to advocate a standard that I’m confident will do a lot of good. That means suggesting a level that will get you started, and put you on a path toward challenging yourself and working toward doing more.”

This feels more like a concession to pragmatism than I’ve seen from you before. Have you moved in a more pragmatic direction? Not away from your basic utilitarian commitments, but in terms of the pace of change you’re willing to accept or comfortable encouraging in your readers – a kind of meta-utilitarianism.

Yes, I think that puts it quite well.  I’m glad you’ve said I’ve not changed in terms of my basic utilitarian commitments. But I think what I now see is that given the way the world is and given the way people are, it would really be inconsistent with those utilitarian commitments to advocate a policy, which in some theoretical sense might be right but which was not going to lead to the consequences that I want and that are the best for everyone.

So, if simply reiterating the idea that it’s wrong to spend anything at all on any luxury as long as there are people starving in the world, if that’s going to turn people off in the way you suggest, if that’s going to mean that people will say, “Well, I’m not even going to think about this as a moral issue because if I do, I might have to so drastically turn my life around in the way that I don’t want to,” if that’s going to mean that people don’t do anything about it…

And if conversely, if you start to get people giving at a quite modest level, they begin to see that this is not too difficult and in fact this is quite fulfilling and satisfying in many ways, they get something positive from it and that might lead them to give more…If the result of that is that you get further towards solving the problem of extreme poverty in the world, then obviously that’s what a utilitarian view implies you should be doing.

You’ve talked extensively and publicly about how you first came to consciousness about both poverty-related issues and animal rights-related issues, and how you then began doing academic work in those fields. Would you be comfortable talking about the way your personal commitments have developed as well? Have you become a larger giver over the years?

Yes, certainly, they have. In terms of my own development, I can go back to what someone has called, I think, the first television famine or something like that – the famine in Biafra during the civil war in Nigeria, when there were all those photos of starving kids with swollen bellies and so on. At that time, I guess I felt bad that I wasn’t doing anything, but I didn’t actually do anything, I must admit.

And it was only a bit later when I started really thinking more about ethics, including, as you mentioned, the ethics about how we ought to treat animals and started to think that maybe the way I was eating wasn’t really ethical and I needed to change that. But I also thought, well, this is another ethical issue where maybe the way I’m living is not really ethical.

So, you know, I talked to my wife about it and she agreed with me, and we decided to start by giving 10% of what we earned to Oxfam. We were living in Oxford at the time – I was doing my graduate work in Oxford – and their office was just off the road, and I liked what I knew about them anyway.

So, we started off with that 10%, and for quite a while, I guess we maintained that level. We didn’t really have great abundance, but gradually as we got more comfortable, we’ve been pushing that up over the years, so it’s now moved from maybe around a tenth of what I earned to roughly a third of what I earn.

I’m not satisfied with that. It’s substantial, but I think I’m still quite comfortable and I could certainly do more. That’s why each year, I look at what I have and try to push it up.

In the book, you lay out a policy scheme for most Americans to give 5% of their income and for people in more affluent categories to give 10 percent or more.  

You also argue that it generally makes sense to give now rather than waiting until you have more to give in the future.  I’m paraphrasing, but you suggest that unless you’re Warren Buffett, your investment returns won’t keep pace with the increasing cost of fixing social problems.

I’m a student at the moment.  I’ve got almost no income, and I’m racking up debt – and interest on that debt – as I go.  In your view, does it make sense for me to give now and swallow the interest charges later?  Will that do more good than refraining from giving until I’m on better financial footing?

I think it probably does make sense to give now for the reason you mentioned, that there are a lot of problems that I feel we may have a chance to get a hold of now and in the next 50 or 100 years, and they could just get worse if we don’t. So, that’s one possibility.

One of these issues is if we educate people now who are currently not getting much education – particularly if we make sure that girls get an education – we’ll give them control of their fertility in a way that they don’t have otherwise, and all of the evidence suggests that they will have fewer children and we won’t have the same or as bad a population problem as we would have further down the track. So, that’s definitely one reason for giving now.

Another, though, is more personal. It’s more character-driven, and that is, I think it’s good for people to start reasonably young to get in the habit of giving. I started giving when I was still a graduate student, and I think that was good because it proved to me, at a time when I guess I was still fairly malleable, that it wasn’t a difficult thing to do. I think as people get older, they find it harder to change – not impossible, but harder.

So, I would say even if you’re not giving very much, do give something on a regular basis, and then you can gradually build up from there. That will be easier than having to start from scratch later on.

When I’m reading your work, I get the impression that you imagine the highest form of moral development to be the most selfless one – one in which we are always ready to give of ourselves if there is even a single person on earth in need.

I don’t necessarily disagree with that vision.  But I do wonder where it leaves me in the near-term.  I’m not capable of that level of selflessness at this point. I get tired, or depressed, or down, and sometimes what I feel like I need more than anything is to go spend ten bucks and see a movie.  I know these are small things, but I’m not sure I’m capable of giving them up just yet.  

Well, I certainly wouldn’t have you be hard on yourself because every now and then you want to go and see a movie. You know, I do the same. So, I think this is the point that we were talking about earlier, that if you try to set a standard so high, it’s going to have negative consequences. I think you should apply that to yourself as well. I’m not trying to say to people, “You should feel guilty every time you spend $10 on something you don’t need because that could have gone to Oxfam or some other organization that’s saving children in developing countries.”

I’m trying to say you ought to look at how you’re living your life as a whole. You ought to try to make some decisions about what I can do to make a difference as part of an overall life plan, and you ought to try to stick to that. When you say, “What can I do to make a difference?” I think you have to be realistic. You don’t have to say, “Well, I’m never going to go to a movie. I’m never going to go to a cafe. I’m never going to go to a restaurant. I’m always going to live as cheaply as possible.”

I mean, there may be some people who can live like that. There may be some people who even enjoy living like that, but they’re rare. And you shouldn’t be hard on yourself if you’re not one of them. What you should do is set reasonable, achievable goals, try to keep them, and then for the rest of the time say, “Well, I made this decision. I’m not going to agonize over it every five minutes when I get tempted to spend a dollar here or there. I’m going to live a normal life and when the time comes to make my annual donation, maybe I’ll think whether I’ll up it a bit.” But, you know, just feeling bad with yourself all the rest of the time is just going to be counterproductive.

Let’s talk about philanthropy on a larger scale. In the book, you write, “Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious.” You then tell a brief story about how in 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid something like $45M for a painting by a medieval Italian master named Duccio. You note that in buying this painting, the Met is adding to a museum that already has lots of great paintings for people that are lucky enough to go and see them.

In contrast, you point out that “If it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. Or at $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives – a football stadium full of people. How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child?”

I want to push this a little further: if it’s morally dubious to give in support of the arts, how do you think about existing artistic and cultural institutions, particularly very well-endowed ones? Should the Met be up and running at all? Would it be better to shutter the place, sell of its masterpieces and use the proceeds to save lives in poor countries?

You know, I think there are a number of different questions you have to ask here. One is, given that the Met exists, given that people have donated money for the Met with a certain purpose, would it be proper to shut the Met, take that money, and use it for quite a different purpose?

Obviously, there are some problems with that, because people gave with certain expectations. It’s a little bit like a breach of a contract. It would mean that the people could not be confident that the way they bequeath their money or the way they give it would be how it would be used. So, there are costs to that.

That’s a very different question from whether when the Met came knocking to wealthy donors and said, “We have an opportunity to buy a Duccio for $45M. Would you give us some of that money?” whether anybody should have said yes. So, on that latter question, I would emphatically say no; people should have said, “Go away. Leave the Duccio in whatever hands it is. I’m sure it’s being looked after okay. I’m going to use my money for much more urgent needs.”

So, I think you can consistently say that we should not support paying $45M for a single painting in a world like this one. At the same time, you could say the Met does have some duties to people who gave money to keep running along the lines it does and not necessarily to try to raise more money.

But there is also another question, and that is, is it worth preserving some of these works of art for future generations? I think that’s a different question, given that we hope that the human species will exist for tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of years, and that therefore untold future generations will enjoy being able to look at great works of art.

I think it’s reasonable to say we ought to take whatever steps are necessary to see that the great works of art are preserved. But, you know, that doesn’t justify the Met buying the Duccio, because if the Met had not bought the Duccio, presumably some other museum would have bought it or perhaps some private collector. You can be quite sure that whoever owned that very valuable rare painting would have looked after it so it would have been preserved for future generations.

So, that’s not the issue either. The issue really is a new purchase for a collection that is already a very rich collection. You know, if you go to the Met, you can’t possibly see all the great paintings that they have in one visit, and doing that against this background where that amount of money could have saved a football stadium full of people’s lives.

You place priority on alleviating the needs of those in extreme poverty – food, shelter, medical care, education. What about less tangible needs – sources of hope or inspiration like art, for example. Is there always a clean sequence of needs among people in dire straits? 

Well, I see what you’re getting at, because it’s certainly true that even people living in extreme poverty will spend small amounts of income on things that are not the basic necessities. For instance, they will spend it on festivities of some sort, maybe for religious festivals that they have or perhaps a birth or a wedding celebration or something of that sort.

So, obviously, that shows that those things are really important to them, that they help to make their lives worthwhile. I think we can understand that or we can sympathize with that. So, I don’t object to that. I think it helps to make their lives a little more tolerable, perhaps dignified even, more human than they would otherwise be.

I think what we ought to be looking at in terms of our assistance is what will enable them to actually move up out of poverty and to provide the basic necessities for themselves and their family and not to remain dependent on others. Then, they can have those choices about spending on other things once they can be reasonably assured of covering their necessities.

So, I certainly think it’s reasonable for people to want to have some of these things in their lives. I’m not objecting to that. I am objecting, as you said, to spending these huge amounts of money in societies that already have such riches in terms of the cultural and artistic heritage that’s open to them.

Do you see distinctions between what governments should spend and what private individuals should spend in the name of poverty relief?

Well, governments are giving tiny amounts to poverty relief. Even those governments that are giving the most, like Sweden or Norway or Denmark or the Netherlands, are still giving less than 1% of what people earn, so less than $1 in every hundred that people earn. The United States government is giving about 22 cents, I think—the last time I looked—in every hundred dollars that we earn. So, I don’t think you could say that because of what they’re giving, they’re in any way unable to fulfill their responsibilities towards their own citizens. They’re clearly not.

So even those governments that are doing well are giving very little, and the United States government is giving much less than that even. Moreover, it’s not all going to deal with people or help people in extreme poverty, because a lot of it is given for political reasons. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the biggest recipients of US aid for the last few years because of their geopolitical significance in the wars we’re fighting there, not because they have the largest number of people in extreme poverty.

So, I do think that it’s good that governments should give, because that’s a way of making sure that everybody contributes in accordance with their means, because it’s coming out of tax revenues. But on the other hand, I think that there are probably limits to what governments can do that relate to the acceptability of that in the general public. I mean, governments can lead, and often should lead, but they can only get so far ahead of where the electorate is, at least in democratic governments.

And that’s why I think that individual citizens can do more, because individual citizens can make their own choices about how much they want to give. If they want to give 5% or 10%, or even 25% of their income, they can. It wouldn’t be reasonable for a government to give 25% of GNP to global poverty, unless that’s what its citizens really want them to do or in some way understand that that’s a good thing to do. Certainly, we don’t have that degree of understanding of the situation in any country at the moment.

What’s the end game?

Imagine we were successful in creating the “culture of giving” that you describe and that we rounded up the funds necessary to lift everyone out of extreme poverty.  At that point, we’d still have billions of people living a meager existence – $1.25 or $2 per day, say.

Do you conceive of a point at which fairness or justice will have been achieved?  Or is that point so far into the future that we don’t have to worry about it, especially given the pressing needs we’re facing?

Well, it’s probably that I think it’s so far in the future that we don’t really need to think about it, but there’s another factor as well. I think that it is really important to relieve extreme poverty because of the suffering and premature death that it causes.

But once you get people above that level, it becomes harder to say how much of a positive benefit more resources are to them, how much happier that makes them. I mean, we know that there’s a very steep curve up when people are below the level of extreme poverty, in terms of how much it benefits them to give them higher income.

But the level at which it rises starts to slow. We start getting to a point where the transfer costs become more significant. The disincentive effects on people not working because they have other ways – because they’re being given money – that also becomes relevant. So, I’m not really sure at what point it starts to actually cease to have important net benefits to continue to transfer resources and income from people who are wealthy to people who are poorer.

I mean, I think you might want to do what is done in a welfare state, and you might want to do that on a worldwide basis, so you provide some basic security levels, you provide some basic health care, you provide some free education, and clean water and sanitation – things like that.

But once you’ve done that, maybe you can say, “Well, now, people are really on their own.” They’ve got to make their own way because their basic needs are met, and it’s really hard to know that further transfers are going to have a bigger payoff than they’re going to have a cost.

Let’s talk about utilitarianism more generally.

You’re obviously right that my buying a movie ticket or a Twix bar or any number of other things is less important than helping a starving person to get some food.

But I’m wondering about the effects of thinking this way all the time.

Broadly, utilitarianism would have us conceive of ourselves as interchangeable vessels for the creation of good.  Our own projects, pursuits, and commitments matter, but only insofar as they lead to the creation of the greatest good. So if following our muse leads down a satisfying path – but one that doesn’t necessarily create the greatest good – the utilitarian would have us think seriously about giving it up.

Is that a fair characterization of utilitarianism?

I think that characterization does leave something out, because in saying that we’re only justified in doing these things for ourselves if it somehow leads to greatest good, you’re looking at it at the level of the individual and the individual’s immediate project.

But I think what you also need to look at is the kind of expectations that morality ought to place on people and how you can have a society in which people are essentially happy or are achieving goods in their own lives, if morality places demands on them that they feel are enormously burdensome and that essentially leads them to have negative feelings about themselves, to be racked with guilt or to feel a lack of self-esteem or that they’re not worthy or something of that sort. I think morality can only seek to gradually raise the standard of beneficence or altruism that people have. It can’t just suddenly impose the standard that’s way up beyond where most people are.

So, I think that you’ve characterized utilitarianism accurately in the sense of how it would be if we were somewhat different kinds of beings. I think utilitarianism recognizes the kind of beings we are and, in practice, suggests rules and standards that are less demanding than the ones you referred to.

You discuss six psychological obstacles that make us less likely to give. Let’s talk briefly about those obstacles and how you believe we might move past them.

They’re all different things, and there’s no one strategy for moving past them all. There are different ways of making a difference.

The first one suggests that we relate better to identifiable individuals and that we’re more likely to give if we know the name or have seen the face of the person we’re giving to. Now, some aid organizations respond to that by getting people to adopt particular children or getting the children to write letters to the donors, which does seem to work in terms of getting the donors to continue giving.

But it’s probably not the most effective form of aid. Some of those organizations have actually moved away to the extent of telling donors, “Well, your donation isn’t really going to this particular child. It’s going to her village and it will help her, along with others in her village.” And so, that’s something you can do.

I’m also optimistic that in the future, the use of the internet will help to overcome that gap. That once we get decent broadband internet in developing countries, we’ll really be in closer contact with people there. We’ll be able to communicate more directly or be able to see people’s faces, even in remote villages, and we may then develop a lot more bonds and relationships where we really know a lot about people in other areas and in a particular local community.

Others, it’s just going to be more education, more persuasion. I mean, the sense of futility, for instance. It’s something that people get because they think, “I can’t solve the problem, even if I give every penny I’ve got. It’s just a drop in the ocean.”

That’s just a bad way of thinking, because you’re not thinking about, “I could make a difference to a family and maybe save their child’s life,” or maybe make a difference to a village and help them have clean drinking water, so that women don’t have to walk two or three hours a day carrying water.

So, we have to get people to see that they should focus on specifics. And maybe what I was talking about before, having particular relationships with particular communities, could do that.

Let’s talk about money for a moment.

Your book includes testimonials from people – some of incredibly modest means – who have begun to give heavily and have found doing so deeply satisfying.

But I can imagine lots of readers considering whether to give and thinking, ‘Well, I could go online and give, and that’d be noble, but it would also feel a bit detached.’ In other words, giving in this way can feel separate from our day-to-day projects and relationships and commitments.

Can this kind of giving be sustainable for most people? And are there ways to embed the habit of giving into the larger context of our lives?

I think what you’ve just said is part of the story about why money is alienating, because it is something I know is separate from your life. I think, as I’ve talked about in the book, there are actually even stranger and deeper ways in which just even having the idea of money in your head makes you less likely to help. It’s quite surprising, but you have to look at the research and it does seem to be true, that it has that impact.

But how can we change that is not a question to which I have any easy answer. The obvious thing to say would be, “Well, instead of giving money, why don’t we get people to join the Peace Corps and to go to developing countries and help for three years?”

But a lot of people can’t do that, and it’s not even clear that that is always an effective way of helping. A lot of people have no skills that would add to what a local community already has. I mean, if you’re just providing labor, that’s something that they already have. Yes, you can teach English if English is your language, and that’s beneficial in many cases.

But I think we really are going to have to give substantial amounts of money in order to make the differences that we want to happen. That’s the way you provide schools and healthcare and so on. You can’t just go there and do it yourself.

So, I’m not really sure how we get around this idea that in some way it’s not a satisfying part of your life as it would be if it were a project that you’re actually working directly on. Perhaps by having communities of people who give, who talk about it, and support each other – there’s evidence that makes a difference. Religious communities tend to be good at encouraging giving in that way, because they talk about it together and it’s something communal.

When you think about constructing arguments and building campaigns to persuade people to give, do you look to particular cases of moral change in our history for instruction? Is there any challenge that we’ve overcome that can provide wisdom about how to convince large numbers of people to do what you’re encouraging?

Well, there are certainly great moral campaigns of the past. The campaign against slavery is an obvious one. I’m not thinking specifically of the campaign against slavery in the United States; I’m thinking about the movement for the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, which did not require a war to succeed. It succeeded essentially by persuading public opinion that slavery was wrong and that the slave trade ought to be stopped and that slavery ought to be abolished in the British colonies, in places like Jamaica where it was prevalent at the time. So, that was a great moral campaign that succeeded.

There were certainly others. Campaigns to reform the Poor Laws in Britain, say – the influence of the literature of Charles Dickens would be an example there.

In more recent times, I think we are seeing success now with campaigns for animal welfare – not exactly for animal rights in the sense that I would like to see it, but certainly quite substantial changes in the way we think about animals and what we regard as acceptable treatment of animals. That’s changed quite dramatically just in the period that I’ve been involved in that cause, which is now 35 to 40 years.

So, yes, there are encouraging examples of these kinds of moral campaigns. Can we learn from them? Well, I suppose what we learn is that you have to keep plugging away at them even when it seems like nobody’s listening and build up a group until eventually it’s an idea whose time has come.

Right now, many governments are implementing austerity measures, and our own government is implementing deep cuts to social spending. How do you think about this moment in relation to the goal of relieving extreme poverty?

I think I would say that the long-term trajectory is upwards, that there are obviously going to be lots of bumps and dips before we get there, but I think we are over the long term moving in a more humanitarian direction. You can see that in a whole lot of trends. A couple of centuries ago slavery was accepted, for instance – we’ve come a huge way not just on that but on other forms of cruel treatment. Prison reform could be another, and there are many of them.

So, I can’t believe that we’ll indefinitely allow a world in which there are more than a billion people living in great affluence and another billion in extreme poverty. I think that we will get through that in the end, but I wouldn’t want to predict how long it’s going to take.

Your colleague Kwame Anthony Appiah has suggested a framework for predicting which of our practices might be morally condemned by future generations.  He argues:

“First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn’t emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries. Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counter-arguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, ‘We’ve always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?’)

 And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they’re complicit.”

Do you think future generations will look upon us with moral horror for failing to deal with the poverty that exists during our time?

Yes, I think future generations will find it hard to understand that we could know that people are dying because of lack of basic healthcare or safe drinking water or adequate diet, and that we could know that we have the ability to change that, to help them, and yet instead of doing anything about it, we would spend our time living lives of great luxury in other parts of the world.




{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Lian October 17, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Really enjoyable read!

I found Singer’s little story about the toddler drowning in the pond really compelling. It’s so hypothetical that in terms of its modes of reasoning, I find it hard to distinguish this from those trolley-murder scenarios. But certainly Singer’s story is much more emotionally persuasive and arresting.

Also, I was REALLY interested in the discussion of giving as a character-driven habit. I think habits and the question of incorporating giving into our wider social (and intellectual, and professional, etc.) lives is crucial and as someone in architecture, it’s something that I’m particularly interested in. One of the ways in which architecture (or the built environment more generally) can have an impact on broad societal actions like this is by supporting and encouraging some habits and ways of life over others. I think this is the most powerful, yet most subtle, ways that architecture can serve society, and it’s this combination of power and subtlety that makes this a really tricky and fascinating question.

But talk about a difficult persuasion project. Even with Singer’s solid
reasoning and thoughtfulness, and our pretty widespread collective
recognition that extreme poverty is a major problem, I think it’s still a
really uphill battle to ask the majority people to open their wallets
in a serious way.

Anyways, thanks for posting this text version of the interview!

Chris October 20, 2011 at 3:06 am

Matt, found this interview via @PeterSinger:twitter  — congratulations for asking Professor Singer better questions as an interviewer than I’ve seen anywhere else.  It really shows that you engaged with consequentialism and are asking the non-obvious questions about when you try to follow it consistently.  Kudos!

Matt October 20, 2011 at 12:38 pm

Wow – thanks for the high praise, Chris!

Matt October 20, 2011 at 12:59 pm

I agree, Lian; I find the pond case way more moving than many of the trolley cases – at least the ones that ask whether it’d be legitimate to push someone onto the tracks to save a larger number of others.  Those scenarios offer a whole series of interesting questions about ethics and moral psychology, but they often feel so goofy as to be distracting.

As for habits and character-building, yup: I think that’s where the juice is.  Moral argument matters – it can help us question, understand, and change our attitudes and behaviors, and it can pull us back on track when we’re tempted to slip up.  But I suspect that if we are to build the world we want to see, it’ll involve raising our children and cultivating our own virtues in such a way that being good feels natural and commonplace. 

With regard to persuasion, I agree – it’s an uphill battle to convince people to give.  As far as I can tell, Singer relies pretty heavily on a) straight-up moral argument and b) convincing folks that giving is both doable and fulfilling. I’m not sure he leans heavily enough on the affective, aspirational dimension of moral change (though I think he’s moving in this direction).  

Franklin Chen October 23, 2011 at 2:45 pm

A very interesting interview. Thanks for sharing!

Regarding the hypothetical child-saving scenario, what do you think of the recent uproar over the death in China? http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Asia-Pacific/2011/1019/In-China-toddler-left-for-dead-sparks-heated-debate-about-society-s-moral-health

And is it really sensible to draw conclusions about “moral decay” and the like given the bystander effect? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_Effect

Matt October 23, 2011 at 5:13 pm

You bet, Franklin!

The China case is obviously disturbing.  Part of me finds it hard to fathom what it would take to walk by a child who’d just been hit by a car (though the article you sent certainly puts some of that behavior in context).  On the other hand, we routinely walk by suffering fellow citizens – homeless folks, addicts, the newly unemployed.  And for most of us, I would imagine that rationale is something like, ‘Well, I’m not well-placed to help this person.  Surely it’d be better if some government agency or other organization took care of these folks.’  I suspect that there are more similarities between these cases and the China case than we’d care to admit.

On a larger scale, though I think I’m at least as troubled – or troubled in a different way – by the ways that we stand idly by as our fellow citizens are oppressed and exploited.  The difference, of course, is that we rarely get to see these kinds of treatment; they’re hidden behind complicated economic and social structures.  Of course, that doesn’t strike me as an adequate excuse for inaction.

As for moral decay: I tend to be suspicious about narratives of decline.  In my experience, they often come from a kind of misplaced (or selective) nostalgia: ‘Things were way better in MY day.’  That said, I’m also extremely wary of using the bystander effect – or any observed psychological effect – as an excuse for failures of character.  

Ned Pelger October 25, 2011 at 6:19 am

Hey Matt, Lex sent me this interview and I read it without knowing you were the person asking the questions. I’ve continued to be challenged by Singer’s push for ever increasing. As I read the interview, I thought about the intelligence of the questions. Then I finished reading and saw it was Matty! Congratulations. I plan to forward the interview to our pastor who currently challenges 10,000 folks a week to give to reduce poverty around the world. It’s cool to see our Lancaster County church lead the nation (I think) in giving to World Vision.  

Franklin Chen October 25, 2011 at 8:19 am

Here’s discussion of the China case that just came my way, from a economic perspective: http://www.psyfitec.com/2011/10/lollapalooza-effect-capitalism-death-of.html

I think that when there are a lot of incentives to behave in a certain way, then moral intuitions go out the window. So I have always been skeptical of Peter Singer’s utilitarian  calculus since it conflicts with “regular” people’s ways of actions, which are not based on calculation unless for their own benefit, and are altruistic mainly when they are not calculating (e.g. we know from research that people will respond more to the plight of one media-hyped starving child than the plight of millions of faceless starving people all at a time).

Matt October 25, 2011 at 2:51 pm

Hey Ned!  Great to hear from you, and thanks for the good words.  Even more thanks for passing this along to your pastor – I’ll be keen to hear what kind of response you get! (Which congregation are you a part of?)

Matt October 27, 2011 at 9:59 pm

Thanks very much – really interesting article on Psy-Fi. 

You’re right to point out that Singer’s approach runs counter to the way
many people consider their obligations to others – fairly seriously
when it comes to the people they’re close to, but less seriously as
relationships become looser or more remote.  And you’re also right that
there are a number of psychological obstacles to people acting in more
consistent solidarity with people who are suffering far away.

Still, people do sometimes respond to moral argument, no?

Franklin Chen October 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

Sometimes people respond to moral argument, but my assumption is they rarely do (there are whole fields of psychology and behavioral economics right now studying all this). I would expect that people respond to penalties and shame and ostracizing and habit formation, which is why the world’s religions have been such a useful way to control and encourage various forms of behavior. Why has smoking gone down in the US? This has happened because of sin taxes and because of successful campaigns to make smoking seem uncool. Friendship is also another way that people change their minds about something. For example, hating gay people has become increasingly uncool over the past decades, in large part because of courageous individuals coming out of the closet and being examples for people close to them to start thinking about their attitudes. In other words, people don’t stop hating gay people because of some moral argument, but because they know someone gay they already like, and extend outward from there.

Matt November 1, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Yup, I agree that the forces you list are often more powerful than moral argument in effecting behavioral change.  Generally speaking, I suspect you’d want to array as many of them as you can – including moral argumentation – at a particular problem.  Since it’s incredibly difficult to predict which factor or combination of factors will make the difference in any given instance, you’d want all the resources you can have at your disposal.

Franklin Chen December 9, 2011 at 1:40 am
Matt December 11, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Thanks so much, Franklin!  Just read this – quite a lot of great stuff to process here!

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