Thursday, June 21, 2012

Let’s Hear It For the Arts

In Singer’s Chapter Nine – Asking Too Much? – he argues that if rescuing people from dying is the greatest good – more important than anything else one could do – then all of our resources (beyond the barest necessities of sustaining our own life) should, for us to be ethical, be given to efforts that save lives.  “My argument does imply that it is wrong to spend money on those things [gourmet food, music systems] when we could instead be using the money to save people’s lives and prevent great suffering.”   Later on that page 149, after the example of buying good stereo equipment, he asks, “Can it be ethical to live that way?”  His implied answer is surely “No.”

Likewise, he says, giving to the arts is, in our world, “morally dubious.” 

Singer, of course, does not think many people will live by his argument that any expenditures beyond our basic needs should be given to help the extremely poor.  He realizes that, in fact, few of us will.  He contents himself to challenging rich people to give away a mere 5% of their income, and the rest of us perhaps 1%.  His challenge is quite modest, and achievable. 

As compelling is his logic, and as informative are his statistics (about poverty and about the super-rich), however, it seems to me that he neglects the human need to create.  We do not stay alive merely to stay alive.  There is something within the human spirit that longs for beauty, for joy, for creativity – the arts.  The world, of course, could easily do both:  pay for amazing artistic activities, and save the dying too.   If only the rich would just spare the rest of the world some change.

For our part we can donate to efforts that seek to save lives. But we can’t do that if we neglect other parts of the soul – community, art, joy, leisure, rest.   A culture that neglected these, I think, would soon care little for the dying, or for each other either. 

Is it possible that a dying soul is as bad as a dying body?


  1. Ralph, that is not Singer's suggested standard of giving, but Clinton's:

    "Clinton goes on to suggest a more modest scheme, in which those in the top 1 percent give 5 percent of their income, and the rest of the top 10 percent give just 1 percent. For those in the top 10 percent but not the top 1 percent, that is only one-third of what they already give, and would require nothing more redirecting a portion of that giving from domestic charities to those working in the world’s poorest countries.14 ...
    "Surprisingly, Americans earning less than $20,000 a year actually give a higher percentage of their income—a substantial 4.6 percent—to charity than every other income group until we get to those earning more than $300,000 a year.15 That suggests that if the rich had the same culture of giving as the poor, they would give more than Clinton proposes."
    (hardcover pgs 165-6)

    Singer's standard is a little more demanding and sophisticated than that:

    The Standard

    Anyway, your argument is based on an estimate of the consequences of Singer’s (or Clinton’s) suggested standard: “A culture that neglected these, I think, would soon care little for the dying, or for each other either.” Singer admits that his standard depends on the consequences. Also, be careful that you don’t confuse Singer’s suggested practical ethical standard with the more demanding abstract theoretical moral principle that is behind it:

    “In this chapter, I propose a much easier target: roughly 5 percent of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, and rather more for the very rich.” ...
    “I concede that this standard falls far short of the moral argument I put forward earlier, for it remains true, of course, that most people could, after giving 5 percent of their income to reduce global poverty, give more without sacrificing anything nearly as important as the lives they would be saving. So how can I now say that people who give 5 percent are fulfilling their obligations when they are still far from doing what my argument concludes they ought to be doing? The reason lies in the difference between what I ought to do, as an individual, and what set of principles, or moral code, I should advocate and seek to have acted upon by most people in our society.”
    (pg 152)

    Singer’s standard is actually intended to leave room for the sort of quality of life enhancements that you are concerned with:

    “Against the background of a world in which most affluent people give only a trivial proportion of their income, or none at all, to help the poor, the agreement among the four of us that we all have, at a minimum, moderately demanding obligations to help the poor is more important than the differences between us.”
    (pgs 148-9)

    “So neither the “fair-share” view, nor any of these more moderate views, gives us a tenable answer to the question “What ought I to do to help those in great need?” Nevertheless, I think that these views do have a place in answering a different practical question, to which I now turn.”
    (end of chapter 9, pg 150)

    I think the goal is to create a “culture of giving” (Singer’s phrase) in which we get more personal satisfaction out of choosing to give a much greater benefit to others, compared to a trivial benefit to ourselves. This reminds me of the goal that JS Mill, in _The Utility of Religion_, argued ought to be goal of a “religion of humanity”, which is the promotion of the unselfish sentiments:

    “The religions which deal in promises and threats regarding a future life, do exactly the contrary ... and are one of the most serious obstacles to the great purpose of moral culture, the strengthening of the unselfish and weakening of the selfish element in our nature...”
    “...the greatest thing which moral influences can do for the amelioration of human nature, is to cultivate the unselfish feelings in the only mode in which any active principle in human nature can be effectually cultivated, namely by habitual exercise"

    that I will make a matching donation, approximately equal to the amount that I spend on nonessential luxury items over the remainder of this year, to an organization, or organizations, helping people throughout the world who live in extreme poverty by giving it to GiveWell ( for the sole purpose of re-granting it to some of their top charities, according to their next round of charity evaluation research, without using any of it for their own operating expenses.

    Steve Barney
    Oshkosh, WI
    June 23, 2012

    PS: By making this pledge public, I hope that I am, in my own small way, "creating a culture of giving" (title of chapter 5):

    "The most important reason for pledging is that by doing so you help to change the culture of giving."...
    --The Life You Can Save >> The Pledge >> Why?

    This is my self-imposed luxury or consumption tax, similar to one described in Singer’s book:

    "Israel Shenker, founder and CEO of the Philadelphia-based real estate firm ISS Development, is happy to tell others about his standard. He matches everything he spends on discretionary items—vacations, a luxury car, a larger house than he needs—with a charitable donation of the same amount." ...
    "Shenker’s standard is a self-imposed consumption tax—if you spend extravagantly, you will also be giving substantially. But much will depend on how strictly the category of "discretionary item" is interpreted: Remember that bottle of water. On the other hand, a consumption-related standard allows those who are reinvesting their income productively to live modestly and continue to do so. The very rich, though, should go beyond merely matching their philanthropy to their consumption."...
    --Peter Singer, _The Life You Can Save_, pg 160-1.