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Utilitarianism Without Data

This interview with Peter Singer highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of his brand of utilitarianism. On the strengths side, Singer comes off as both idealistic and pragmatic -- idealistic in setting lofty goals, but pragmatic in encouraging people to make small steps in the here and now. For example, he praises Chipotle for making efforts to improve where they obtain their ingredients, and he notes that even he sometimes eats food that is merely vegetarian (not vegan) while traveling or visiting. Utilitarianism is sometimes criticized for its unattainability -- only a saint could manage to truly maximize happiness all the time, which means everyone else is condemned to be a sinner. This criticism relies on importing into utilitarianism a deontological system in which actions are categorized as either right or wrong (with the occasional addition of a "supererogatory" category). But utilitarianism sees rightness as a scale -- the more net happiness an action leads to, the better it is. This allows Singer to encourage people to move up the scale without condemning them for not reaching the top.

Utilitarianism's greatest weakness is its dependence on empirical data. You can't maximize happiness unless you know how your actions will affect others' happiness. Too often philosophers are like social scientists who don't care about that pesky "data," and Singer is no exception. He became infamous (as opposed to being simply an eccentric vegan) when he proposed euthanizing disabled babies. This claim was based on a valid application of his utilitarian principles to a fundamentally incorrect understanding of the empirical facts about what life as a disabled person is like. He could have saved himself much trouble (albeit losing much opportunity for self-righteousness about the pursuit of supposed truth) had he spent more time listening to disabled people and less time speculating about them.

But it's not as simple as just a lack of empirical data. Singer can do the research when he wants to. For example, in the interview he gives a nuanced assessment of the pros and cons of buying locally grown food, concluding that if you do it right, buying local is good, but if you focus narrowly on localness as the be-all and end-all of your purchasing, you may end up doing more harm. This is based on an actual investiagtion of the energy use and environmental impacts of various food supply systems.

Yet in the last paragraph of the interview, Singer veers back down the road toward his disability mistake. He declares that utilitarians should be concerned about obesity, and revive the moral opprobrium associated with the sin of gluttony. Here he buys into the prevailing social perspective on obesity without bothering to consider how much of it is actually true. Obesity is not, primarily, about eating too much. And even if it was, the prevalence of both fatness and fat-disparagement in our society should be enough to convince any utilitarian that more fat-disparagement is a futile strategy. The ecological damage done by what we eat, and how wastefully we get it to our mouths, dwarfs the damage done by how much we eventually put in our mouths. A real utilitarian would recognize the immense damage done to the happiness of people (including even skinny people) by the prevailing anti-fat ideology and work to combat it, rather than perpetuating the pernicious idea that we can measure people's moral worth by their waistline.

The contrast in Singer's use of empirical data in the cases of food supply chains and animal research, versus his surrender to prejudice when it comes to disability and obesity, is not terribly surprising. In our society people are far more willing to take a humble stance and look at the numbers (indeed, to trust too much in the availability of easy and objective numbers) on environmental and technical topics. Yet when it comes to social issues, hubris kicks in. This is privilege -- to realize you don't know much about the natural world, but assume that you understand, and hence can judge, other people.


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