Recently, I had the opportunity to eat, drink, and make moral calculations with philosopher Peter Singer. The average person might think hanging out with a philosopher—even a renowned and accomplished one—would be a non-event or cause a pain in the brain, as in the soreness that can develop after a college class of induction, deduction and cerebral gymnastics. But as a lifelong lover of philosophy, I was thrilled that Dr. Singer agreed to meet with me.
Singer has the distinction of being the epiphany-trigger in my life. My first experience with him was on paper. In the early 1980s, I read his books, Animal Liberation and In Defense of Animals, in which he talks about “speciesism,” a prejudice similar to racism and sexism in which humans believe they are superior to other species. Singer argues that nonhumans are of equal value to humans and worthy of equal consideration and that an animal’s ability to feel pain should give him protection under the moral umbrella that humans typically reserve for themselves. This idea was like a starter pistol, signaling me to begin my mission to help the truly voiceless and defenseless members of society. I stopped eating meat that day.
When I heard that the normally reclusive Singer—who lives in Australia and New Jersey and who is called the Father of the Animal Rights movement—would be speaking at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles about animals and art, I figured why not take him out for a bite? Controversial utilitarians have to eat, too.
Singer is controversial mostly because of his position on infanticide and euthanasia. For example, he holds it is morally proper in some circumstances to kill a severely incapacitated infant whose life would cause immense suffering for himself and his family. Singer comes to this conclusion in the same way he comes to every conclusion: by embarking upon a utilitarian calculation.
A utilitarian deems an action right or wrong based upon the consequences of that action. He tallies the positives (hedons) and negatives (dolors) of the situation in advance and selects the course of action that is likely to result in the most positives or hedons.
Deontological moral theory is, in effect, the opposite of utilitarianism. Deontologists are hedon and dolor haters, and argue that consequences are inconsequential in the moral realm. Deontological theory states that people have certain duties or moral obligations which are based upon some absolute authority; the authority might be religion, universal reason, natural rights, natural law, or some other entity altogether. A deontologist would most likely believe it is wrong to kill an infant, regardless of the child’s level of disability, a precept that might be supported by Scripture.
In order to impress Dr. Singer, I figured I had better be on top of the “utilitarian calculation” game. No slacking. I had to be on my guard every second, ready to shift my actions to the right “utilitarian” course of action. I did not want this great philosopher to construe his time spent with me as in any way immoral.
The first order of business was to choose a restaurant. Singer had only put forth one requirement: there had to be a vegan entrée on the menu. But as a good utilitarian, I knew I had to weigh a parade of other factors. His hotel was in Santa Monica, so I chose a place nearby so as to save fuel and not contribute to global warming. I selected a totally vegan place, as a gesture to encourage exemplary establishments to be fruitful and multiply. I ultimately decided it was ok for the restaurant to be situated in Santa Monica after grappling with whether the area is more or less moral than surrounding communities.
I picked up Singer from his hotel and flipped on the car’s air conditioning because I wanted my important guest to be comfortable. In a polite way, he explained how my action was destroying the environment and suggested we simply lower the windows. I couldn’t believe it; I had already screwed up! I quietly chastised myself for failing to make the necessary moral calculation.
My second test came when I was confronted with whether I should make a left turn, and in so doing, hold up a long line of vehicles behind me. The alternative was to drive all the way to a signal light, turn onto a less busy street, do a three-point turn into a driveway, go back to the original intersection and make a right turn, an undertaking that would take an extra five minutes. Most people in our “I’m entitled,” me-first society feel morally justified in holding up a long line of other drivers, some who may be rushing to an emergency or who may be late for a critical appointment. But would a utilitarian come to this conclusion? I decided not and opted to inconvenience only my erudite passenger and myself.
The vegan restaurant was like a beehive, bustling with customers and lean on seating. We were directed to an airless corner where we were expected to jam ourselves into a pint-sized table. Part of me wanted to put down my philosophical foot, refuse the cramped conditions and demand a roomy, nearby table. But I heeded to utilitarianism, resolved that a party of four deserved the extra space. As the heat intensified during the meal, I began to regret my decision because it was “dolor city” in that stuffy corner.
Singer sipped on his mixture of beet, apple, and carrot juice as he explained why he was leaning towards supporting Barack Obama for President. We discussed Congress’ proposed immigration legislation and how the issue is dealt with in Australia where his three kids live.
When we exhausted the media’s prized topics, we delved into the hypotheticals that make philosophy a cocktail party favorite; such as “if a trolley is rolling down a hill, should you let it kill your own child or a stranger’s child” and “is there a difference between killing someone and letting him die?” We even explored the always-popular free will debate. I asked Singer if he was choosing to have an enchilada or whether he was merely picking the entrée as a pawn of the universe. He thought he was choosing, but I argued that he was probably just a chess piece in a board game called “life.”
After spending two hours with Dr. Singer, what struck me most about the man was his humility, flexibility, and open-mindedness. He is able to examine an issue with a fresh pad of paper. He lacks the cumbersome, preconceived ideas that stalk most individuals, and he is willing, even eager, to alter his opinion when new data and better arguments come to the fore. I find many people to be the reverse: stubborn, immovable objects, bogged down by pages and pages of notes, unwilling to white them out under any circumstance.
Perhaps this illuminates the distinction between the utilitarian and deontological mind. Utilitarianism by its very nature welcomes, even mandates, ideological pliability while deontological ethics thrives on being a moral tank, oblivious to its environment.
Society reacts to the utilitarian / deontological dance. In The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger says that people invent ideas, but forget they are the architects of these ideas, later attributing them to an outside, religious source. Non-religious precepts seem to migrate down a similar path. They become rooted social norms like a brazen statue at the center of the town square. They may emanate from a deontological or utilitarian source, but they become more deontological, immutable, and transcendent as they stand erect at the center of people’s lives. The statue is virtually impervious to the elements, in part because the average townsperson leans toward resisting change. It is easy and comforting to reinforce the laws, moral rules, and codes of conduct.
Utilitarianism may receive low marks in some circles because it has been manipulated to justify actions. We have all heard excuses like, “I had to cheat on my taxes because I figured the government has enough money” or “I didn’t return the lost wallet because I figured I need the money more than the other person does.” This “figuring” or calculating is a misapplication of the utilitarian method; it does not reflect what an impartial observer would decide. It reflects only the outcome the thief seeks: to avoid taxes or keep the lost wallet.
Despite periodic misuse, utilitarianism has a critical role to play in society. It can chisel away at or altogether overturn deontological values, which philosopher Jeremy Benthem claims are merely camouflage for the popular morality of the day. Utilitarianism allows undiscovered evidence and improved arguments to emerge. It is our best hope for a improved future, and we should recognize it as such.
I thank Dr. Singer for being a living example of the flexibility of utilitarianism. And from now on, when someone asks me to guess who’s coming to dinner, I will hope it’s a utilitarian. Especially a controversial one.
Published in The Simon magazine June 20, 2007 and Philosophy Now in 2018.