Thursday, November 25, 2010

Informative and entertaining debate between Singer and Slote

Here's the debate. Peter Singer wrote a famous article about 40 years ago titled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243).

The basic conclusion is that we are under the same moral obligations to donate as much money, time and effort to relieve the world's desperately needy as we are in saving a drowning child in a shallow pond we happen to come across on a stroll through the park. We will ruin our nice cloths in pulling the child out of the water but will obviously not incur any further harm to ourselves as the pond is shallow. To not do the saving is a gross moral wrong. Singer argues that not donating all we can possibly afford in saving the needy of the world from starvation and preventable disease is a comparable wrong.

Slote, I think, hit it right on the head when he basically argued that evaluations of actions must take into account motivations and character traits. There is no way around that. This is (partly) why our legal system takes into consideration malice or other intentions in choosing the appropriate the kinds of crime to classify an act which violates the law and the severity of punishment in punishing that act. In no way is a person who refuses to donate money displaying as bad a character trait or motivation as someone who refuses to save a drowning child at minimal cost to himself. The later is almost certainly displaying monstrously evil motives and has a very bad character and hence, worse from a moral evaluative perspective. The moral badness comparison gives much of the original argument Singer uses much of its oomph.

OTOH, I thought Singer gave devastating arguments to Slote's reduction of the problem to the trait of empathy. Slote argues that we are justified to blame those who refuse to save the drowning child more than those who refuse to donate (which does fall into more accord with our intuitions) because the former shows a greater lack of empathy. So while I agree with Slote that motives and character evaluation must come into play here and elsewhere in moral evaluations of action, it can't possibly come down to just an evaluation of empathy. Singer's argument here is similar to the one I gave in my critical review of Slote's book, "The Ethics of Care and Empathy."

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