Altruism according to Singer

Though Singer touches upon an increasingly important issue, I’m not all that convinced that the utilitarian argument he endorses addresses some of the most basic issues that many people would question. Firstly, he proposes that we are equally morally responsible to remote strangers as we are to those intimately part of our lives, and though the idea that “all human life is equally valuable” sounds like a wonderful ideal, it doesn’t seem to gel with our common moral intuitions. If it were a choice between saving a remote stranger – whom I am told may potentially find the cure to one strain of cancer – or my own child – calculatively (for utilitarianism is about disengaged calculations), I would save more human lives were I to sacrifice my own child’s life. But what kind of mother would that make me? Surely, we do value the lives of those closest to us more, and there is something to be said for the qualitative investment and manner of bonding with those with whom we are intimately connected that I for one would not want to abandon.

Also, the whole thing is premised on the idea that making more money to give more money will give the one contributing to these organizations happier, because such a life is esteemed to be more valuable or meaningful. I’m pretty sure many people would question this assumption; i.e not all people would experience more happiness sharing their wealth and making others happy, than taking a trip around the world! This is indeed one of the many issues of utilitarianism, it can not discriminate between objects of hedonic satisfaction.

Finally, I think it is worth exploring whether indeed it is fair to suggest that someone’s hard earner money should be “simply” given over to those who the fates were less generous to. Many people would object (not saying I’m one of them) that it is not their fault some people are unlucky in life, and if it is not my fault, and I have lived an honest life of integrity, why should I be made to feel guilty for other people’s misfortunes? Surely that responsibility, they may retort, belongs to their governments!

I would also suggest that we do not, in fact, esteem that all human life is equally valuable. Indeed, on Singer’s own admission, the life of the altruist is more valuable both because s/he gives more happiness to the greatest number, but also because this person is self-sacrificing and not some dense consumerist!


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