Friday, May 27, 2011

Singer and the principle of equality

note: i would love to hear your views on whether you think utilitarianism can undermine equality. comments are greatly appreciated. here's a picture that sum's up Mr Singer:

image taken from http://goo.gl/r1wMC

The principle of equality that Singer defends has radical consequences. Critically discuss the principle, explaining some of its consequences, and assess whether Singer is right that we  ought to adopt it.


Singer’s principle of equality can have radical consequences. The principle of equality has practical and intuitive appeal as it is able to eliminate many forms of discrimination based on characteristics such as race or sex. Singer’s ideas have also been described as useful for normative ethics as they are based on simple and widely accepted presuppositions (Schaler, 2009, p. 405.).  However, this paper shows how Singer’s principle of equality is inconsistent with his ‘utilitarian exemption’ that allows for the prioritisation of the equal interests of one person above the equal interests of another person based on the consequences of the prioritisation.

According to Singer (1993, p. 21.), the principle of equality can be briefly described as ‘the principle of equal consideration of equal interests’. Singer (1993, p. 21.) suggests that it is morally irrelevant who the interest is held by, asserting that ‘an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be’. For example, If Bob and myself were to both be affected by a possible act, and if Bob stands more to lose than I stand to gain, then it is better not to do the act. I should not favour myself above Bob because I hold the belief that my interests are of greater importance than Bob’s. This example shows how the principle of equality demands impartiality on the part of the one scrutinising the act. Singer (1993, pp. 22-23.) acknowledges that different people have different interests which may ‘vary according to their abilities or other characteristics’. This is a helpful practical consideration as we can draw a distinction between the following two examples: if I am a professional piano player, it can be argued according to this rule, that my interest in not having my index fingers chopped off is greater than another person’s interest in not having their index fingers chopped off. In contrast, if I have an interest in cheap clothing at the expense of atrocious working conditions for the producer of my clothes, I cannot claim that my interest is weightier. Singer would suggest that my interest in cheap clothing is of significantly less moral weighting than the producer’s interest in fair working conditions.

There are occasions where Singer permits exceptions to the principle of equality. The following example illustrates one of these circumstances. Two people may both be suffering a great deal of pain in the wake of a natural disaster. One of the two victims of the natural disaster happens to be a doctor. Singer suggests that it is permissible to prioritise the relief of the doctor’s pain over the relief of the non-doctor person’s pain. Singer (1993, pp. 21-22.) suggest this, because by relieving the suffering of the doctor, utility will be able to be maximised as the doctor will then be able to relieve the suffering of others. Political philosopher John Rawls uses a similar widely accepted justification for income inequality. Rawls suggests that any structural socio-economic inequalities attached to certain positions, like being a doctor, must be to the maximum benefit of the least advantaged. Positions such as being a doctor must also, according to Rawls, be open to all (Rawls, 2000, pp. 52-53.). For Singer, the case of the natural disaster illustrated above is simply a situation where there is an inequality is allowed (prioritising the doctors relief from suffering) in order to maximise utility. In the following example I will show how Singer’s principle of equality erroneously prioritises the interests of the doctor above the interests of the non-doctors and how this in fact breaches the principle of equality.

Utilitarianism and the principle of equality cannot always be reconciled with one another. An asymmetry can be drawn between the doctor who Singer chooses to save in the case of the natural disaster and the beam-fitter in Thomson’s Trolley case. I will briefly explain the Beam Fitter scenario: in this version of the trolley case, there are five people who are assigned each day to work on track A while there is one person who always works on track B as a ‘beam-fitter’. The workmen always work on the same track each day. Thomson suggests that if a trolley was to come towards the workmen on track A, Bloggs is not justified in changing the trolley’s direction to track B. Bloggs is not justified in ‘saving’ the five people on track A because the Beam Fitter always works on track B and therefore, unless the Beam Fitter was very altruistic, he never would have consented to the trolley being diverted towards himself (Thomson, 1990, pp. 131-136.).

Consider once again the case of the doctor and the natural disaster. Elaborating on the previous example, in this case one hundred people are all be in need of medical attention within three hours. Unfortunately there is only one ‘special lifesaving pill’ which can only save one person. Within three hours, without medical attention, the other ninety-nine people will die. Singer would argue that the pill should go to the one doctor, who then can within the three hours, treat two more people. These two patients will then be able to live for one more year each. This would end up satisfying the most preferences by satisfying one major preference; the doctor’s desire to live a full and complete life, and two relatively minor preferences; the non-doctor peoples’ desires to live one more year. However the parallel with Thomson’s beam-fitter case would suggest that such a view is not entirely fair. If you are the doctor in this case you are guaranteed survival, while if you are one of the ninety-nine other people you will only have a very small chance of surviving only one more year of life. It is likely that the ninety-nine non-doctors would prefer to have a small but equal chance of receiving the life-giving pill rather than having no chance of receiving the pill and a small chance of living for one more year. There is not an equal consideration of equal interests if the one-hundred people do not have equal chance of receiving the pill. Singer (1993, pp. 20-21.) writes that ‘there is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their interests’. Singer’s ‘utilitarian exemption’ to the principle of equality contradicts itself by not allowing the principle to give equal consideration to equal interests. In essence, this exemption means that higher value is placed on lives of doctors over other non-doctor people. Like racism or sexism, this is a bad thing firstly because the position of being a doctor is not open to all, and secondly, because arbitrary attributes such as one’s career choice should not determine one’s chances of survival. An alternate distribution of the pill by method of lottery can much better synthesise with the principle of equality, yet such a distribution would not be able to synthesise with utilitarianism.

Singer’s principle of equality contains significant prima facie appeal in that it is accessible, intuitive, and convincing. However, Singer’s poor attempt at reconciling utilitarianism with the principle of equality shows the principle’s weakness. The doctor case illustrated above reveals inconsistencies within the principle of equality as per how Singer describes it. I therefore conclude that, although the principle of equality may be useful if reconsidered separate from utilitarianism, due to its problematic nature we have no reason to accept or adopt it.


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