The Magazine

Giving Sophistry a Bad Name

Princeton's Peter Singer, baffled by charity.

Dec 31, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 16 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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IN RESPONSE TO SEPTEMBER 11, people from many walks of life performed their jobs with spirit and guts and aplomb. Exhibiting a high degree of seriousness and professionalism, the police and the firefighters, the doctors and nurses, the ground zero construction crews and the media, the mayor and the president, and the military and their man Rummy in the Pentagon have risen to the occasion. Alas, if Peter Singer's latest offering is in any way representative, the same cannot be said of academic moral philosophers.

Singer, the reader may recall, is the Ira W. DeCamp professor of bioethics and fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University, best known for his writings on behalf of animal rights, in defense of euthanasia, and in support of the right of parents to have their severely handicapped newborn children killed. He favors massive global redistribution of wealth, having argued in the New York Times that American households have a moral obligation to live on $30,000 a year or so, enough to cover necessities, and give whatever remains of their income to the world's poor. And sex with animals, he maintained earlier this year in a breezy essay for the online sex magazine, is fine so long as the act does not injure the animal.

Singer has sold more books than any other living professor of philosophy. He is often praised as a brave and iconoclastic thinker, willing to follow the logic of an argument wherever it may lead. What his arguments frequently reveal, however, is their author's imperviousness to reasoned inquiry, insensitivity to evidence and opposing points of view, and odd unfamiliarity with fundamental features of moral and political life.

True to form, in a piece posted in Slate on December 12 and headed "Who Deserves the 9/11 Cash Pile?" Singer sets out to debunk the conventional wisdom about how funds raised for the families of the victims of the terrorist attacks should be distributed. His analysis is a minor miracle of compressed incoherence.

Understandably, the grieving families differ on how the more than $1.3 billion that the public has thus far donated should be spent. Do the families of police officers and firefighters deserve more charity than other victims' families because their loved ones died in the course of saving others? Or do the families of all casualties in the attacks deserve equal treatment? A classic moral dilemma pitting the claims of desert against the claims of equality, right?

Not by Professor Singer's lights. For him there is no dilemma because the answer is transparently clear:

"It makes sense for the community to reward the families of those who die while bravely trying to save others, for doing so both recognizes and encourages acts of great benefit to the community. This is not a matter of equity or distributive justice but sound social policy."

Put aside the questionable empirical assertion (for which Singer offers no evidence) that giving more money to the families of those who died seeking to save the lives of others would in fact encourage more of the same. Put aside as well Singer's failure to consider the cost of unintended consequences--whether, for example, giving more money to a few families would spark resentment among the vast majority of the families, whose loved ones were not struck down in the line of duty, and whether unequal giving would promote the undemocratic and illiberal idea that some lives are worth more than others.

Put aside also Singer's failure to give any moral weight to the fact that it was not social policy but the choices of private individuals and non-governmental organizations that resulted in a disproportionate amount of donations on behalf of police and firefighters. The root problem with Singer's reasoning is that his conclusion--that in this case, the claims of desert triumph over the claims of equality--is based on a false distinction between "equity or distributive justice" and "sound social policy." Actually, one of the factors that makes social policy sound is its success at reconciling incentives that benefit the community with the claims of equal treatment.

As if these flaws in his thinking were not bad enough, Singer proceeds, abruptly and without explanation, to reverse course in the remainder of his article, arguing, on the basis of the same false distinction, that the question of how to distribute funds to those in need is not a matter of sound social policy after all, but rather a matter of equity and distributive justice.