March 09, 2007

Is Singer's principle consequentialist?

Yesterday I had a letter published in the Observer where I gave essentially the same argument from Singer's principle for universal health care that I used in the post from a few days ago. This was in response to a column the previous day by a much less pleasant libertarian than Andrew Bailey.

I had some compliments from an officemate and a few students, which was nice, but several people said they were surprised to see me say something so consequentialist.

But I don't think Singer's principle is consequentialist. To see why, let's first remind ourselves what Singer's principle says.

If we can prevent something very bad from happening by doing X, and if we can do X without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, then doing X is morally required.

Singer is, of course, a consequentialist, so in the sense of the origin of the principle, it would be fair to call it a consequentialist principle.

But that's kind of a silly reason to call it consequentialist. Just because a consequentialist was the first person to formulate a principle doesn't mean that principle is verboten to ethicists of other theoretical camps. When we say a principle of ethics is consequentialist, we mean only a consequentialist can consistently endorse it. And, since I said Singer's principle was as close to an analytic truth as one would like, if the principle was consequentialist in this sense, it would seem that consequentialism is analytically true.

Which, while many consequentialists would stand up and applaud here, is probably not right. What I want to claim is that any ethical theory, not just consequentialist ones, can endorse Singer's principle.

Let's look at a classical example: suppose we can save the life of a skilled and influential doctor by harvesting the kidneys from a homeless person. Crude consequentialism takes Singer's principle as a major premiss, takes as its minor premiss the claim that the life of the doctor is of more moral worth than the life of the homeless person, and concludes that the sacrifice of the life of the homeless person is morally required to save the life of the doctor.

Now, no-one (at least, not very many ones) thinks this conclusion is acceptable. The problem is in the minor premiss: crude consequentialism gets things wrong when it starts saying that the life of one person is of more moral worth than that of another person. That is, the problem is not with the idea that different goods have different relative moral worth (as in the major premiss, Singer's principle), but instead with the particular assignments of different relative worths made by the theory (the minor premiss).

Every theory of ethics and politics is going to need to give an account of which goods are more valuable than others. This is the concrete difference between different theories, and possibly the only concrete difference. When the Aristotelean says that X is part of our natural function and Y is not, while the consequentialist retorts that Y will promote more aggregate good than X, is the argument really over anything but which of X and Y is of greater moral worth?

Thus, Singer's principle is an absolutely general -- and analytic -- principle of ethics, and one that, in some form or another, will be endorsed by every theory of ethics. (Perhaps communitarians will dislike the language of `sacrifice', and Aristoteleans might not like the language of `requirement', but they will still agree that some goods are to be favoured over others.) What the principle does not tell us is how to do the comparing of goods, how it is to be applied to a given situation. That is where different approaches to ethics will disagree.

Finally, I note that those disagreements do not always come up in every situation. I think universal health care is a good example: pretty much every serious approach to ethics is going to say (at the very least) that maximally unrestricted property rights are less morally important than individual lives. (Non-collectivists should note that I have said `maximally unrestricted property rights', not `all property rights per se'.) The ethical judgements that we take to be obvious and irrefutable serve as data for good theories. For example, if a theory says that organ harvesting is morally required (as in crude consequentialism), then we consider that a reductio ad absurdum of the theory. `Common sense' or pre-theoretical ethical reasoning is useful for getting at these ethical data. Hence, to the extent that there is a substantive domain of obvious and irrefutable ethical judgements, we don't need highly articulated ethical theories to actually do ethics. This is the level at which I generally try to write both on this blog and in my letters to the Observer.


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Which, while many consequentialists would stand up and applaud here, is probably not right. What I want to claim is that any ethical theory, not just consequentialist ones, can endorse Singer's principle.

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