Thursday, November 29, 2012

[PL 431] Practice What You Preach

In the introduction to his interview with Peter Singer, Ronald Bailey writes:
To all appearances, [Singer] lives on far more than $30,000 a year. Aside from the Manhattan apartment--he asked me not to give the address or describe it as a condition of granting an interview--he and his wife Renata, to whom he has been married for some three decades, have a house in Princeton. The average salary of a full professor at Princeton runs around $100,000 per year; Singer also draws income from a trust fund that his father set up and from the sales of his books. He says he gives away 20 percent of his income to famine relief organizations, but he is certainly living on a sum far beyond $30,000. When asked about this, he forthrightly admitted that he was not living up to his own standards. He insisted that he was doing far more than most and hinted that he would increase his giving when everybody else started contributing similar amounts of their incomes. There is some question as to how seriously one should take the dictates of a person who himself cannot live up to them. If he finds it impossible to follow his own rules, perhaps that means that he should reconsider his conclusions. Singer would no doubt respond that his personal failings hardly invalidate his ideas.
Does the fact that Singer does not practice what he preaches mean that his ideas should not be taken seriously? Do his personal failings cast doubt on the cogency of his arguments? Or is Singer right in saying that his personal failings do not invalidate his ideas?


  1. Perhaps, if someone advocates for a socialist society (not that Singer does), it is not reasonable to demand that they redistribute all their wealth, despite the fact that they advocate doing so. The reason is that, I would argue, one cannot sustain a private economic system. Economic systems, are, well, systems. They only make sense in the context of lots of people participating in them. Redistributing wealth comes with an expectation that everyone else is doing the same and that one is reaping the benefits of everyone doing the same. In the absence of the benefits one is supposed to reap from such a system, it is unreasonable to expect people to support the costs anyway. So I am sympathetic with Singer's position.
    (G. A. Cohen would disagree with this, and if I remember correctly, has some argument supporting the conclusion that it is merely hypocrisy that keeps Singer living well.)
    Also, it should be recalled, that Ayn Rand is frequently charged with hypocrisy for taking medicare and social security, and (if the rumors are true) Robert Nozick was also not a fully practicing libertarian, certainly not to the extend he argued in ASU. In both the latter cases I would argue as I did above, that one cannot be expected to be a libertarian (or whatever Rand was) in isolation. If you pay taxes, as they both did, but didn't approve of (more or less), then it is unreasonable to say that one should not benefit from the government's redistribution of those funds.

    1. Thanks for the comments.

      Perhaps Singer is not advocating for a socialist society, but he is publicly urging people to donate a large portion of their income to charity. Does the fact that he fails to do so a reason to dismiss his ideas? Perhaps. Here’s why:

      1. Singer says that we have a moral obligation to give a large portion of our income to charity and keep just enough to get by, but Singer himself does not abide by this moral precept.
      2. The best explanation for (2) is that Singer’s arguments in support of that moral precept are not compelling
      3. (Therefore) Singer’s arguments in support of that moral precept are not compelling.

      Of course, an alternative explanation for (2) is that Singer is just not a rational person, i.e., he is not the sort of person that is responsive to reasons and arguments. But this alternative explanation seems implausible.

    2. (2) should read "The best explanation for (1)," of course. And then "an alternative explanation for (1)," not "an alternative explanation for (2)." Sorry.

  2. There is the possibility that Singer is actually more Kantian than he would ever admit. Actually, he sort of admits this. He claims that he wants to live in a world where everyone gives a certain portion of their income to charity. If everyone did it, he would too. Short of that, he gives a lesser amount.
    So it could be that it is not exactly his argument itself, but the broader utilitarian idea that is being refuted by his inability meet his own standards.
    (Perhaps I am putting too much stake on his claim that he would give more if others did too.)

    1. Good point. Although I think that “the possibility that Singer is actually more Kantian than he would ever admit” is covered by (2) in the IBE outlined above. Since Singer’s argument is based on a “broader utilitarian idea,” namely, some utilitarian calculation of pain and suffering, and his inability to meet his own standards undermines this utilitarian idea, it follows that his argument is not compelling.


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