Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Peter Singer's sham altruism

Philosopher Peter Singer has a long article about altruism: The Logic of Effective Altruism (h/t to 3 Quarks Daily). In the article, Singer argues that individuals should use a substantial portion of their resources to help other individuals. Singer also implies that although there's no obligation, it's at least better to accumulate enough resources as possible so as to have more to give.

Singer's paradigmatic case is of Matt Wage. As Singer recounts, Wage, a promising philosophy student, decided to forego a career as a professor; instead, Wage worked on Wall Street in finance, so he could give a substantial amount to charity: according to Singer, Wage donated "a six-figure sum—roughly half his annual earnings" after his first year working.

Now, I'm an altruistic guy. I have enough to live simply and comfortably, and I spend a lot of my time as an educator (tutor/TA) helping others. But there's something about Singer's article that goes thud instead of ding. I can't help but think that Singer is missing something important.

What bothers me most about Singer's article is its focus on the individual. Singer rarely mentions and never judges the larger institutions and structures of our society. Singer seems to take the international neoliberal capitalist structure as a force of nature. But capitalism is not a force of nature; it is a human invention. And capitalism is the cause of most of the suffering that Singer calls on people to altruistically ameliorate. Children are starving and dying from malaria in Africa because of colonialism, and the African people cannot lift themselves out of poverty because capitalism denies them not just capital but agency and autonomy.

Singer's altruism is also insufferably elitist. The vast majority of people in the world do not have the resources to engage in altruism at Wage's level. And what has Wage himself actually contributed to the world? Financiers, especially those on Wall Street, do not contribute anything at all to society: they are simply parasites. Wage has merely expropriated others' labor, kept half (at least thirty times the 2012 global per capita median income, probably more, and four or five times more than I live on), and "altruistically" given the other half away, given it away to those who are suffering because of the system that Wage supports and maintains. What Wage has done is acquire power over others, exercising

Furthermore, Singer's altruism is not reciprocal: it is the powerful and superior giving to the powerless and inferior, reinforcing the superiority of the powerful. Singer's altruism is, I suppose, a better way to establish and reinforce superiority than punishment and torture, but being less bad than Orwell's Inner Party is not a particularly high bar. Singer's altruism always has strings attached: it is given to those whom the powerful consider "deserving", the meek supplicants, not the revolutionary fighting to change the unjust system from which Wage handsomely profits.

It's notable too that Singer concentrates his exhortations to altruism on the safest and most removed of recipients. Singer ignores the minimum wage worker, living in grinding poverty in the midst of the wealthiest nation in the world, begging the bosses for a bathroom break. Singer does not mention the black people in our society, suffering daily from the most direct and brutal oppression, an oppression that breaks through our willful complacency only when young black men, women, and children are shot down like dogs. Singer closes his eyes to women, still in the 20th century living in a rape culture. Where is the altruism of the wealthy? Are they altruistic enough to attack the foundation of their own privilege and power? I think not.

Reciprocity is a more fundamental value than the amelioration of suffering. I would rather suffer as a free person than prosper as a slave, however "altruistic" my master. (Of course, I would much rather prosper as a free person; and the whole point of freedom is that in the aggregate, freedom creates more prosperity than slavery.)

There is another kind of altruism that is profoundly better than Singer's: the invisible reciprocal altruism we take for granted in human society, an invisible altruism against which capitalism has since its inception centuries ago exhibited absolute and implacable hostility.

As Singer recounts, Wage thought, "Suppose you see a burning building, and you run through the flames and kick a door open, and let one hundred people out. That would be the greatest moment in your life. And I could do as much good as that!" But Wage is just indulging in an adolescent power fantasy. To belabor the metaphor, the real heroes are the civil engineers who make buildings that don't catch fire in the first place, and the bureaucrats who ensure that the landlords build correctly despite their greed.

No, Singer's vision is not exciting. It is just a sop to the capitalist elite, that they can return a little of the labor they have expropriated and pat themselves on the back for their sham generosity.

Singer's altruism is nothing but the acquisition of power, and the exercise of power to shape the world as the powerful see fit, treating their recipients as infantile subjects.

I don't want Singer's altruism. I want justice.

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