The Unlikely Ethics Dunce, And Why Nobody Pays Attention To Ethicists And I Don’t Blame Them

Wait, how can the nation's most famous ethicist be an Ethics Dunce? It's not easy...

Wait, how can the nation’s most famous ethicist be an Ethics Dunce? It’s not easy…

Ethicists have managed to make ethics nearly invisible in our cultural debates, and nearly useless as a decision-making tool, when it ought to be the most useful tool of all. They accomplished this over centuries of work, making the discipline of ethics abstruse, elitist, abstract, and worse of all, boring. Nobody should be bored with ethics, hence my statement, “Ethics isn’t boring, ethicists are.” Once ethics was pigeon-holed in the realm of philosophy, however (it belongs with “crucial life skills” and “critical thinking”) and philosophy became associated with scholarship, advanced degrees and academia, the jig was up.

The problem is that academic ethicists teach and write about abstract ethics, and life is not abstract. Their quest is for one formula to determine right from wrong, and life and human beings are more complicated than any one formula can encompass. When I started this blog, I got a lot of grad students writing me who demanded to know whether I was a Utilitarian,  Kantian Deontologist, a follower of Natural Law Ethics,  a Virtue Ethicist or a devotee of Stakeholder theory. My answer was “all of the above and none of them.” All of these and more are useful tools of analysis, but none work all the time, and the amount of words loaded into jargon to explain and debate the nuances of any of them render them all useless except for  writing scholarly papers.

The ethics that the public learns, as a result, are what pop culture and society teach them, and most of that isn’t ethics at all. For example, in the cable series “The Affair,” a well-educated older man was advising a young woman, the mistress in the affair, about how to think about the illicit relationship that broke up he lover’s marriage. Wise and thoughtful, he described his own adulterous affair, and then said, “What you did wasn’t wrong. You didn’t kill anybody. You didn’t break any laws.  Don’t be so hard on yourself.”  There is no ethics in that statement. Itis just employs two popular and facile rationalizations (#4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical,” and #22, the worst of all, #22. The Comparative Virtue Excuse: “There are worse things.”) with another lurking but unspoken one, the Cheater’s Special, #23. Woody’s Excuse: “The heart wants what the heart wants,’ underlying the whole scene.

That’s ethics, I would guess, to about 90% of the population. Scary. This is, however, where ethicists have taken us. They could be so important to the culture, if they would get their heads out of their asinine models and explain ethical principles that are relevant to real lives in a manner that doesn’t make normal people become hostile to the subject.

This brings us to Peter Singer, Princeton’s acclaimed professor of bioethics who has been called the most influential ethicist alive. It is admittedly faint praise, but probably correct.

He is what I would call a bloodless utilitarian, who has proved to be a useful idiot for various radical causes. Most famously, he has argued that killing infants is no different, and thus no more ethically reprehensible, than aborting late-term fetuses. Since killing baby girls helps farmers in China survive, kill them, he has written. He has argued that if a baby is severely disabled and the parents don’t want it, they should be allowed to have the baby killed.  Thus it follows that if tests show that a child might be born severely disabled, there would be no need for an abortion. Wait and see what comes out, and only the disabled babies would die. Fewer abortions! More healthy babies!

He has, not surprisingly, derided the idea that a human life should carry any special intrinsic value once it no longer benefits anyone and cannot function due to illness or disability:

“The notion that human life is sacred just because it’s human life is medieval. The person that used to be there is gone. It doesn’t matter how sad it makes us. All I am saying is that it’s time to stop pretending that the world is not the way we know it to be.”

Singer also believes that no life, even family members, should have priority over another. Saving your child’s life when the same expenditure could save the live of many strangers, for example, fails his ethics test. “It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor’s child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away,” he wrote in one  essay. Singer also believes we are obliged to give money away until our sacrifice is of “comparable moral importance” to the agony of people starving to death. “This would mean, of course,” he says, “that one should reduce oneself to very near the material circumstances of a Bengali refugee.”

OK, Professor! Thanks for the tip!

And so forth. This kind of ethics divorced from reality is not just worthless except for sparking entertaining academic debates, it devalues ethics itself.  Human beings don’t live life this way and won’t live this way, so the fantastic abstractions of Singer, the most influential ethicist in the world, mostly influences people to distrust ethics.

As it turns out, he doesn’t even believe this crap himself.

Michael Spector has written a profile of Singer for The Independent, and we learn this…

His mother, Cora, who was once an intellectually active and vibrant woman, has fallen ill with Alzheimer’s disease. She no longer recognises Singer or his sister or any of her grandchildren….She always said, `When I can’t tie my shoes and I can’t read, I don’t want to be here.’…

Singer would never kill his mother, even if he thought it was what she wanted. …When Singer’s mother became too ill to live alone, Singer and his sister hired a team of carers to look after her at home. Singer’s mother has lost her ability to reason, to be a person, as he defines the term. So I asked him how a man who has written that we ought to do what is morally right without regard to proximity or family relationships could possibly spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private care for his mother. He replied that it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money. That is true. But it does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they’re doing.”


Ethicists are great rationalizers!

The essay continues in part..

“…it hardly fits with Peter Singer’s rules for an ethical life. He once told me that he has no respect for people who donate funds for research on cancer or heart disease in the hope that it might indirectly save them or members of their family from illness, since they could be using that money to save the lives of the poor. (“That is not charity,” he said. “It’s self-interest.”) Singer has responded to his mother’s illness the way most caring people would. The irony is that his humane actions clash so profoundly with the chords of his utilitarian ethic.

…We were sitting in his living room one day, the traffic noisy on the street outside his window. Singer has spent his career trying to lay down rules for human behaviour which are divorced from emotion and intuition. His is a world that makes no provision for private carers to look after addled, dying old women. Yet he can’t help himself. “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult,” he said quietly. “Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”

I don’t know why anyone should listen to any ethics opinions from a man who just figured out, at the age of 69, that it is “different when it’s your mother.”


Sources: Neo Neocon, The Independent


17 thoughts on “The Unlikely Ethics Dunce, And Why Nobody Pays Attention To Ethicists And I Don’t Blame Them

  1. I nominate Singer’s rule: It’s not all bad! Related to numbers 13, the Saint’s Excuse; number 22, Comparative Virtue; and number 29, the Altruistic Switcheroo; this tactic seeks to nullify and diminish all perceived problems with a course of action by focusing on a single positive result. Looking for the positive in a bad situation may well be a virtue – claiming an unethical course may be followed because of a single positive data point is assuredly not.

  2. No, Professor Singer, it’s not “different when it’s your mother.” The way it is with your mother is exactly the same as it is with everything else. You’ve just been missing it all this time.

  3. “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult,” he said quietly. “Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before….”

    Where did this guy go to high school or college? Isn’t that the sort of statement you’d hear from some know-it-all during a discussion section for a freshman college course? Stunning.

  4. sorry – first one didn’t show up – which leads me to create a Theory of Delayed Influence and the Misapplied Ethics of Repetition

  5. “…most influential ethicist..” ?
    Influential for whom, specifically, and to what end? I put more stock in Jack’s “useful idiot” characterization. “Dunce” is a generous term to apply here.

  6. This isn’t utilitarian ethics. It is one-worlder-feel-good socialistic nonsense. He gives no value to society, civil rights, or knowledge. If his advice were followed, it would result in the death of the majority of the people on this planet. Now, a convicted environmentalist would be in favor of this. Their view is that humanity should act like all the other animals on the planet, but more peaceful. We should gather nuts and berries and be happy when we are eaten by wolves.

    Sending money to starving people overseas is not usually productive. They usually aren’t staving because of a lack of food, but because their culture has deprived them of food. Sending food to the very people who are depriving the starving of food (like in Ethiopia) just props up the bad situation. If we impoverish ourselves to the point that we are the same squalid state as those he endeavors us to help, how will we be able to help them, or us?

    • It took 69 years for Professor Singer to figure out that things change when your family’s involved? How obtuse do you have to be? Your son breaks a leg in bike accident but you should send the money you are going to spend to fix your son’s leg to starving people in Kandahar? That thinking isn’t ethical; it is sociopathic. Ethics would dictate that you have a moral and ethical obligation to your family first (even in a utilitarian belief system).

      Michael R:

      “Sending money to starving people overseas is not usually productive.” Agreed. That is exactly what Bob Geldof and the Live Aid for Africa found out after the raised millions of dollars, gathered containers full of food and clothing, and tried to assist the starving in Ethiopia. Yet, the end result was anything but helpful to the starving Ethiopians. Corruption, incompetence and incompetents, and lack of real planning resulted in a good deed going into a bad place, thereby not helping the starving. Food rotted on Ethiopian docks because bribes weren’t paid; money got siphoned off to prop up corrupt warlords, and organized were criticized for (1) holding too much control over distribution of aid (Western privilege and arrogance), and (2) allowing too much local control over distribution of aid (Western privilege and arrogance).


      • I would assume nobody wants to mention Somalia? The point, here, being that pointless charity because it makes the giver feel good is just that…pointless. And promoted by grifters. A short time ago, my oldest son and I were at a department store. In the parking lot a woman approached him, claimed she hadn’t eaten in three days and asked for some spare change. He declined. Once in the store, he bought a wrapped sandwich and a box of fruit juice and when we left the store, he found the woman, who was still soliciting in the parking lot, and gave her the sandwich and juice. As we drove away, I saw her dumping both into an open trash container. Translate this into an international relief effort, to include adequate security and I might go for it. Until then, I say keep our money.

    • You’ve got it, Michael. Added to this is elitist academician who has justified in his own mind the murder of infants. I can’t think of a more convincing argument for abolishing the tenure system in colleges. People that divorced from mainstream human society need to be regularly cycled out of their ivory towers into the real world so they can recognize it when they see it. The entire notion of societies ruled by cloistered “intellectuals” of this sort is a grim one, indeed.

  7. This ua the best essay on everyday ethics I’ve read. You should make it a yearly post for your blog.

    As to utilitarian ethics, I can’t understand why it has so many adherents given the obviously stupid results it yields. As has been implies by the other commenters, a hardcore utilitarian is not a saint, he’s a sociopath.

  8. This is unbelievable! This famous professor is Jewish and lost relatives in the Holocaust. He must realize that the Nazis started their extermination with the mentally disabled. I wonder what committee of dunces at Princeton gave him tenure.

  9. Whenever Singer’s brought up, especially in the context of his… moral myopia, shall we say?… I am rather forcibly reminded of Harriet McBryde Johnson’s Unspeakable Conversations (available online at ).

    Among other things, it tells the story of the time that Singer invited Johnson, a disabled attorney, to speak to his class as “the token cripple with an opposing view” on whether or not she should have been murdered as an infant.

    This included arguing to her face that she should have been killed as a baby. The entire story is highly disturbing, and I strongly recommend reading the entire thing.

    • Saw and loved that article, have remained unimpressed and disturbed by Singer ever since. By the way, as he argues for killing people, he’s also a vegetarian.

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