Some of you may already be tired of listening to me rant about Peter Singer and utilitarianism.* Unfortunately, I still think about it all the time, and since this is my blog and the only place that I choose to put my rants in writing, I will continue to do so.
Peter Singer concretely lays out the argument here: http://people.brandeis.edu/~teuber/singermag.html
He tells the story of a man who sees a train speeding down the tracks, ready to run over a small child. The man has the ability to throw the switch and save the child-the only catch is that by throwing the switch, he’ll divert the train to run over an extremely valuable (uninsured) car that he owns and was planning to sell to finance his retirement.
Of course, we’d all think poorly of this man if he were to choose to sacrifice the child instead of his car.
But in fact, I am making a very similar choice tomorrow. I’ll be going to go see a production of West Side Story. That’s going to cost me $18. That $18 could easily be given to any of a number of charitable organizations that would put that money to better use.
When it comes to my time, I can make any number of excuses as to why it’s a better call for me to use it to do what I want to do (hang out with my friends, etc.) than to spend it volunteering to benefit the less privileged. But when it comes to my money, it’s much more difficult for me to justify using anything beyond the bare essentials to help others.
To talk even more about my life, I have substantial student loans. Those loans charge about 7% interest. Every time I make a purchase beyond the essentials, I think about if that purchase is worth the 7% tax that I’m essentially paying on it, since I necessarily defer loan payments by making that purchase.
It might not be realistic for me (or most people) to immediately give up on all their comforts to help others (emphasis on the might). But at least, every time I make a purchase I can think about the costs deferred in what those funds could do for those who are truly suffering. I’m paying a tax in the sense that there is so much suffering that my payments could defer if I was willing to limit my own consumption. I think that may moderate my lifetime spending even more than my student loans, which will be gone (hopefully) in 16 months or so.
By the way, I’ve never really heard a good argument against Singer’s moral philosophy. If anyone has one, I’d love to hear it in the comments or by emailing me.
*Especially since nearly all the readers of this blog know me personally and realize how selfish I am in my own life.