Friday, November 26, 2004

Peter Singer's Fallacy

Peter Singer -- the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values of Princeton University, a proponent of animal rights, and a bĂȘte noire of the right -- says this about his ethical position:
...I approach each issue by seeking the solution that has the best consequences for all affected. By 'best consequences', I understand that which satisfies the most preferences, weighted in accordance with the strength of the preferences. Thus my ethical position is a form of preference-utilitarianism....
Which his source defines as a
[m]oral theory according to which the good consists in the satisfaction of people's preferences, and the rightness of an action depends directly or indirectly on its being productive of such satisfaction. Like other kinds of consequentialism, the theory has satisficing and maximising variants. The latter are the more common ones: the more people get what they want, the better. Syn. preference consequentialism
And "consequentialism" encompasses such concepts as these:
...On the "total view", an increase of the total number of people is an improvement (other things being equal), as long as the additional individuals have a positive welfare or happiness score, however marginal. On the "average view", the important thing is to seek to increase average pleasure, happiness, welfare, or the like. A situation in which there are a larger number of people would not be better (other things being equal) if the average welfare remained the same."
That is to say, Singer sets himself up as an omniscient arbiter and weigher of the preferences of billions of individual humans (and other animals), in the belief that he has a formula for determining "the greatest good of the greatest number." That is a bankrupt formula, as I have written:
...It's patently absurd to think of measuring individual degrees of happiness, let alone summing those measurements. Suppose the government takes from A (making him miserable) and gives to B (making him joyous). Does B's joyousness cancel A's misery? Only if you're B or a politician who has earned B's support by joining in the raid on A's bank account.

Something like "the greatest good for the greatest number" can come about only in a representative democracy, where political bargaining about legitimate government functions leads to a compromise that's satisfactory to most members of the body politic. An example would be an agreement to have a defense budget of a certain size and to authorize (or not) the use of the armed forces for a particular defensive objective....
Peter Singer joins Cass Sunstein on my list of "respectable" thinkers who seductively espouse serfdom in the name of freedom. (For my take on Sunstein, go here, here, here, here , here, and here.)