Thanks to Tommi Uschanov I recently read Catherine Wilson's "On Some Alleged Limitations to Moral Endeavor." The title of this post comes from it, as Wilson imagines what Peter Singer would have said to critics who claimed that he ignores the importance of what we care about and is too demanding when he says we should forego many of our pleasures in order to give more to the needy. Roughly speaking (and I have sat on this post long enough that I'm starting to forget the article) Wilson wants to find some alternative to Singer's non-motivating altruism and Thomas Nagel's possibly-seeming complacency.
The single thing that has stuck with me the most from this paper is Nagel's reference to our wanting to spend money on, among other things, stemware. I own wineglasses, but this still tended to push me toward Singer's camp. It's one thing to resist changing your whole way of life in order to give to the poor, but what kind of way of life centrally involves not just using but shopping for stemware? And if we concede this point, if we accept that Nagel has strayed too far from Singer (even if we don't agree with Singer), what else might have to go?
Wilson recommends "letting the lives of people who do not shop, or travel, or enjoy professional entertainment, make their own impression on us" so that "the perception of a gulf between the private and the public sphere is altered and the superstition that one's own good fortune is either morally deserved, or a highly improbable but lucky accident, undermined." This seems like good advice, but it might be easier said than done. Rich people can't just go and make poor friends, after all. There is journalism, though, and fiction, if real-life contact is not an option.
If we do let the lives of the poor make an impression on us, then what? If we can do what Wilson suggests, presumably by informing ourselves about how the other half lives (or belonging to that half) and keeping these people in mind long enough and often enough to influence our thinking about the world (or at least politics) more generally, then we won't want these people to suffer. We probably don't want them to suffer anyway.
Which means that we might not have to change what we care about or stop caring about stemware or anything else in order to behave decently. What we need to do, or so I would like to think, is to bring our various concerns together and, roughly speaking, to rank them. To get them in order. We don't want other people to live miserable or restricted lives. We don't want to be callous. We don't want to be hypocritical. We do want nice stemware (perhaps). OK. Now let's think about (and find out about) how these and other facts relate to each other. Can we have all the things we want? If not, what must go?
This line of thinking is likely to push us in Singer's direction, I think, but it isn't pure Singer or pure utilitarianism. It might lead to nothing more in practice than support for a political party that promotes greater equality. But at least it isn't purely defeatist or positively celebratory of the lifestyle of the comfortable shopper. The danger of my view, or one danger at any rate, is that it is essentially the same as Nagel's. But I don't think it can be, since I agree with Wilson, who rejects Nagel's position. So perhaps the danger is that I'm just too far from Singer. But I am far from Singer, and it's hard for me to believe that this is a bad thing. I'm not just far from him in terms of where we end up but also in terms of where we start from and how we go on from there.
Well, this blog is in danger of withering on the vine if I let other things and a desire not to post rubbish get in the way, so I'm going to hit 'publish.' Next up, G. A. Cohen.