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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When one, Singer says, takes a larger view and places the loss of life in New York and Washington in global perspective, then one is forced to ask, "How can we justify giving such huge sums to the families of the firefighters and police when we do so little for people in other countries whose needs are much more desperate?" Difficult as it is to wrap one's mind around this question while American parents and widows and children continue to grieve and struggle to rebuild their broken lives, Singer's question is a real one. The mind-numbing numbers of the desperately poor across the globe do present a baffling challenge to the moral conscience.

Professor Singer, however, is not baffled. Once again, the answer is to him crystal clear--only it's the opposite of the answer he proffered five paragraphs previously:

"We would be a better nation if our generosity was more closely related to need and less closely tied to whether someone is a fellow citizen, or a victim of terrorism, or even a hero."

Contrary to the unequivocal reassurance he gave his readers a few short steps earlier in the argument, he now asserts that the decisive criterion in determining how to spend the charitable contributions in the aftermath of September 11 is not desert but rather equal treatment. Moreover, in characteristic fashion, Singer casually derogates or excludes from his calculus relevant considerations, such as the moral worth of the human attachment to one's own, one form of which is care for one's fellow citizens, or patriotism.

Singer's simple language and laconic style create the illusion of clarity even as they sow confusion by obscuring genuine complexities. He formulates hard questions which give the impression of intellectual seriousness, but his one-dimensional answers imperiously ignore competing principles and goods. One is tempted to say that it is not philosophy or even academic moral philosophy but rather sophistry to which Singer's arguments in Slate give a bad name. Thankfully, Singer's failure to perform his job well has not hampered the many upon whom we have relied since the September 11 attacks in the performance of theirs.

Peter Berkowitz teaches at George Mason University School of Law and is a contributing editor to The New Republic. He is the author of "Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism."