This couple lives on 6% of their income so they can give $100,000 a year to charity. “Julia Wise is a social worker and her husband, Jeff Kaufman, is a software engineer. In 2013, their combined income was just under $245,000, putting them in the top 10% of US households. And yet, excluding taxes and savings, they lived on just $15,280, or 6.25% of their income. What happened to the rest of their income, just under $100,000? They gave it to charity.”
The world is full of suffering. How far should you go to prevent the suffering of others, especially the suffering of strangers? Ought you spend way too much to enjoy a fancy coffee drink while children are dying of starvation? Larissa MacFarquhar discusses extreme altruism, illustrating her points with a fascinating example. “In wartime – or in a crisis so devastating that it resembles war, such as an earthquake or a hurricane – duty expands far beyond its peacetime boundaries. In wartime, it is thought dutiful rather than unnatural to leave your family for the sake of a cause. In ordinary times, to ask a person to sacrifice his life for a stranger seems outrageous, but in war it is commonplace. Acts that seem appallingly bad or appallingly good in normal circumstances become part of daily life. This is the difference between do-gooders and ordinary people: for do-gooders, it is always wartime. They always feel themselves responsible for strangers; they know that there are always those as urgently in need as the victims of battle, and they consider themselves conscripted by duty.”
Are professional ethicists more moral than others? Apparently not. According to Eric Schwitzgebel, many professional ethicists tend to be “cheeseburger ethicists.” A cheeseburger ethicist is someone who reasons that it is morally wrong to eat meat and nevertheless enjoys a cheeseburger because everyone else does it. “In most cases, we already know what is good. No special effort or skill is required to figure that out. Much more interesting and practical is the question of how far short of the ideal we are comfortable being.” And professional ethicists seem more or less as comfortable as everyone else in falling short of their moral ideals. So … what is the point of philosophical reflection about how we ought to live? “Genuine philosophical thinking critiques its prior strictures, including even the assumption that we ought to be morally good. It damages almost as often as it aids, is free, wild and unpredictable, always breaks its harness. It will take you somewhere, up, down, sideways – you can’t know in advance. But you are responsible for trying to go in the right direction with it, and also for your failure when you don’t get there.”
In an interview with George Yancy, Peter Singer discuss the origins and nature of racism and speciesism: “I don’t see any problem in opposing both racism and speciesism, indeed, to me the greater intellectual difficulty lies in trying to reject one form of prejudice and oppression while accepting and even practicing the other. And here we should again mention another of these deeply rooted, widespread forms of prejudice and oppression, sexism. If we think that simply being a member of the species Homo sapiens justifies us in giving more weight to the interests of members of our own species than we give to members of other species, what are we to say to the racists or sexists who make the same claim on behalf of their race or sex? … The more perceptive social critics recognize that these are all aspects of the same phenomenon. The African-American comedian Dick Gregory, who worked with Martin Luther King as a civil rights activist, has written that when he looks at circus animals, he thinks of slavery: “Animals in circuses represent the domination and oppression we have fought against for so long. They wear the same chains and shackles.”
A New York state court heard arguments that chimpanzees can be considered persons with some legal rights. In connection with that case, the philosopher Peter Singer argues that there is no good reason to keep chimpanzees and apes in prison: “The ethical basis for extending basic rights to chimpanzees and the other nonhuman great apes is simple: chimpanzees are comparable to three-year-old humans in their capacity for self-awareness, for problem-solving, and in the richness and complexity of their emotional lives, so how can we assign rights to all children and not to them?” And if chimpanzees have any kind of rights, can chimpanzees who were research subjects in developing vaccines that save human lives be left to die on an island when no longer needed for research?
Seven philosophers discuss seven movies that address some of philosophy’s big questions: How can we do the right thing? What makes a life worth living? Can anything really be justified? Is there more to us than biology? Are the things that we imagine real? What is the enduring self? Is the quest for good a road to evil?
According to Peter Singer, “the refusal to pay ransoms to terrorists can seem callous, but in truth it is the only ethical policy.” So if refusing to pay a ransom to terrorists is the only ethical policy, the “rule of reason” v. the “rule of rescue” not really a dilemma at all … according to Singer.
Test your thoughts about what we owe others with this philosophy experiment based on articles by Peter Singer.
Using three philosophers as examples, Nicholas Kristof explains we cannot dismiss the humanities. “These three philosophers influence the way I think about politics, immigration, inequality; they even affect what I eat. It’s also worth pointing out that these three philosophers are recent ones. To adapt to a changing world, we need new software for our cellphones; we also need new ideas. The same goes for literature, for architecture, languages and theology.”