Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Singer's Moral Calculus

Peter Singer has been in the public eye recently with his new book, The Life You Can Save. Those of you familiar with Singer know that he is a utilitarian who makes rather provocative statements of applied ethics. For example, in 2001, Singer, er...expanded the variety of human sexual experiences to include our four-legged friends in his article, Heavy Petting. Singer is controversial, outspoken, and widely read. One of the chapters of his new book deals with philanthropy for the arts. He writes:

Philanthropy for the arts or for cultural activities is, in a world like this one, morally dubious. In 2004, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a sum said to be in excess of $45 million for a small Madonna and Child painted by the medieval Italian master Duccio. In buying this painting, the museum has added to the abundance of masterpieces that those fortunate enough to be able to visit it can see. But if it only costs $50 to perform a cataract operation in a developing
country, that means there are 900,000 people who can’t see anything at all, let alone a painting, whose sight could have been restored by the amount of money that painting cost. At $450 to repair a fistula, $45 million could have given 100,000 women another chance at a decent life. At $1,000 a life, it could have saved 45,000 lives–a football stadium full of people. How can a painting, no matter how beautiful and historically significant, compare with that? If the museum were on fire, would anyone think it right to save the Duccio from the flames, rather than a child? And that’s just one child.

It is hard to disagree with Singer's extreme example, especially given our instinctual response to saving the child from a burning building. However, Singer's moral calculus is aligning two entities with intrinsic value: art (culture) and human life.

Would you respond differently if instead of a painting that money was spent on preserving the cultural record of a dwindling Native American tribe? On an archival project to preserve musical heritage (ala John Lomax and the Blues)? Outside of a capitalistic structure that values art at $45 millions dollars, how do you quantify the value of culture?


ce said...

On a related note: does it make more sense to invest in the painter or the painting? There was an article quite some time ago (I think it was by Kreutzmann) that discussed pirating music, and that the real harm is not to the industry per se, but that making a (commercial) success of an artist is what enables the artist to continue working. If you can't keep making music, then all those people who loved your music, downloaded it, ripped it to their mp3 players, etc., will be denied any future endeavors of yours. You simply won't be able to make another album.

By feeding the starving artist, you feed the art in a much more vitally important way. Without artists, the industry dies. If we lost Mozart when he was still a child star, look at everything we would have lost.

Preserving a culture seems like a different case. Cultures are still alive in a sense. A single painting? Probably not a big deal, regardless of which painting it is. At least, not when weighed against lives lost. But when you lose a culture you lose something of the people as well, and the people related to the culture lose something of themselves. Just look at the Welsh, Scots, and Irish. They're sill trying to preserve the language and music, etc., of their ancestry. If it's lost, they have lost something of intrinsic worth. Lives haven't been lost, but quality of life has been lost in an important sense.

That seems different than losing a trinket, no matter how pretty.

Anonymous said...

The value of art should be divorced from its capitalistic value - this is why art museums have always seemed empty in a way to me, for all of the money that exists inside four walls (isn't public art more accessible, and interactive)? However, artists should also not be penalized for providing a cultural value that is considered excessive or above the most basic of needs, when, if everyone did have those basic needs, surely they would still require art/music/books/culture in their lives.

These things do fall under basic needs. They're less basic than food/water/shelter/medical care, but aren't other essentials as well - like love? Friendship? People can technically survive without these things, but I think most would agree that human life is significantly bettered by their presence, and art falls under than umbrella (i.e. human creativity). Artists are unfortunately penalized then that their work must by necessity fall under the realm of 'patronage', since we live in a capitalistic system that requires patronage - because our society fails to fund art as readily as business and science.

Josh said...

I agree with both C.E. and Anonymous that quality of life stands above basic existence.

However, Singer is framing the questions globally, equally and ethically. All of our resources should be put towards ending poverty, according to Singer. The arts, culture, music, dance, and all other creative arts should be secondary to such a task. If someone can't see, what good is a painting?

Global poverty is a multi-faceted problem of politics, economics, and culture. Singer's simplistic reduction of poverty to mere dollars and cents ignores more complex issues of distribution.

Nevertheless, Singer makes it very hard for us to explain to a starving child in a third-world country that our donation to the Royal Opera House is more important than their next meal.

Of course, the opera is very different than the extinction of a culture.

TR said...

However, Singer's moral calculus is aligning two entities with intrinsic value: art (culture) and human life.Singer, and utilitarians in general, do not believe that "art (culture)" is intrinsically valuable, because they're hedonists. The only thing that is intrinsically valuable is utility, pleasure, happiness, whatever you would like to call it. Art is only derivatively valuable in as much as it produces that which is valuable, utility.

Josh said...

TR -

It depends upon which version of utilitarianism you want to subscribe to (preference, ideal, classical etc.)

Ideal utilitarianism differs from classical or hedonist utilitarianism in that the "good" is more than mere pleasure. It can be aesthetic. Beauty can be an intrinsic good that we should maximize in ideal utilitarianism.

Singer is a self-described preference utilitarian. To Singer nothing has intrinsic value. Utility is defined by the satisfaction of individual preference.

This is one of the reasons why Singer's views tend to be so controversial (i.e. Heavy Petting).

TR said...

The only thing that is intrinsically valuable on Moore's theory is the good, because good is irreducible, though beautiful things are good.

But it is still a monistic theory of value, and so there is still no question about what you should do. Maximize the good.

The same is true for any maximizing consequentialist theory with a monistic theory of value. Which is all of the ones I am familiar with. There is no problem unless you think there are incommensurable values. If the values are commensurable, then you can maximize the overall value. And anyone with a maximizing view obviously has an incentive not to admit that there are incommensurable values, because then there would be no way to get what they want.

I am inclined to think that "satisfaction of preferences" and "pleasure" are the same thing (see, for instance, Butler's comments against Hobbes), so "preference utilitarianism" is the same old theory with a new name. For that matter, Moore's theory is badly named; it suffers from having been invented before the word "consequentialism." Hedonism and non-naturalism shouldn't be called by the same label.

ce said...

Of course, the opera is very different than the extinction of a culture.Which was a more specific criticism of mine. The destruction of a culture and the destruction of a painting are not analogous, interchangeable nor in any substantial way comparable. It's a fundamental difference of kind.

But that does avoid the primary issue. And as such, I should clarify on my usage of "intrinsic". If one is Welsh as a matter of personal identity, then the persistance of that identity and therefore anything maintaining that identity (i.e., that which is Welsh) has an intrinsic value or something, which is valued simply by its natural property of being Welsh. I hope that's succinct enough.

As such, if one is Navajo, then the simple fact that something is Navajo is sufficient to incline one towards is preservation. Now, the same may be true of a person's painting. If it is your painting, then it may be of important personal meaning, and so intrinsically (i.e, merely because it is yours) it has value.

However, this should not be confused with inherent value. Inherent value seems like hippie fluff (no offense intended to all you hippies). Life has value related to quality. If one feels that there is no quality to life, that there is no good to be had, then life itself may in fact become utterly lacking in any value. If Singer is willing to commit to preferential evaluations of value, and as such nothing is inherently valuable, then he must accept that life in and of itself does not have value, meaning, worth, etc.

As such, he has another step before he can push us to even respond. Why are those lives valuable? What good do they provide? What joy is had? Which preferences are fulfilled? Certainly, it is not just my preferences, which matter. But if starving, uneducated, sickly persons are on the cusp of giving up on life anyway, why should we spend money and waste resources, when the path of least resistance is just to let them die? It's not clear that the path to the greatest good is in salvaging people, who might well be miserable in their dirt hovel lives, while we could be happy with a pretty painting.

That was harsh. And it's probably wrong. But I'm just taking Singer at his word.

He does have a stronger case, when he's dealing with procedures, which would actually preserve and improve quality of life. But in the cultural case, it seems a matter of quality of life versus quality of life, and it's not obvious, which one wins. In the case of the painting? I don't think it's even close to a push. The painting gets hosed.

Hanno said...

I do not see satisfaction of desires and pleasure as being equal, and I see preferences being different still.

I can have desires that are not pleasurable to me or to anyone else, or certainly desires that are less pleasurable than others while still preferring the less pleasurable.

Proper heroin use is certainly more pleasurable than anything else I have heard of, and in moderation, I cannot see how it would not be part of the hedonist life. Yet I do not think that this is preferable, and I have no desire for such a life. Perhaps I am being irrational, but to assume that is to beg the question.

I do not think it is inconsistent to prefer something I have no desire for, either. It may be odd, but not inconsistent.