Monday, August 29, 2005

Peter Singer rears his utilitarian head yet again

In the new issue of Foreign Policy magazine there is a series of 16 short articles in which 16 different authors each chose something--an institution (political parties), a concept (anonymity), or even a currency (the Euro) and proclaimed its passing. The theme was something like "16 things we take for granted that actually will not be around much longer."

I was struck by the naivete, or, phrased a different way, the lack of any sense of history, of most of them, but especially of two: Peter Singer's farewell to "the sanctity of life," and Jacques something-or-other's dismissal of "monogamy." (I'm also struck by how many commas I used in that sentence: 6.)

Whether or not Peter Singer is correct about any of the things he thinks, to make the claim that "most people in the past held to some sort of belief in the sanctity of life, and in the future they will not" is either unprovable or false. For much of history, most people didn't have the luxury of having well-thought-out beliefs on hot-button issues that they would rigorously argue with each other over dinner. Another problem is that beliefs are not a good guide to actions: a poll of Germans in 1942 about belief in the sanctity of life yielding a high result is pretty much irrelevant, as would be one done among Romans exposing their children and then decrying the barbarian hordes. (One suggestion for comments: is my dilemma, bolded above in this paragraph, exhaustive, or are there other options?)

Most of the same criticisms apply to Jacques's treatment of monogamy. I would argue that since widespread monogamy for life is not something the human race has ever really had, it can't go away. We've had polygamy, serial monogamy, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, and Bill Clinton: it's pretty much been relationship chaos since the dawn of civilization. On the other hand, Jacques's related point that in the future, children will be raised by groups of adults in consenting sexual relationships, is 1) a bad idea and 2) up for debate.

Thoughts, good blogspeople?


At 8:19 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I'm not so sure what the barbarian reference to my blog is, but I like it. No such thing as bad publicity... but what is your dilemma? I don't see any bold on my screen...

At 11:45 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

"To make the claim that "most people in the past held to some sort of belief in the sanctity of life, and in the future they will not" is either unprovable or false."

That's it.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Decrying the downfall of monogamy is irresponsible and...well....passe. Hippies and communists and every group of "we don't want to live like the masses" intellectuals has been saying the exact same thing for over 100 years now, and monogamy is doing just fine. Like's like proclaiming the downfall of currency, the age of the proletariate, or the demise of western civilization. We've heard all that noise before, and it didn't mean anything, so why should we listen to you tout the same old horn?

At least Singer has the gall to shock. His mad-scientist-like proclimation seems to go along with his trend of being the epitome of everything the religious right hates and fears, and encouraging the very evils they decry. Do you think he's doing it on purpose? I'm sure he's got some twisted philosophical justification for it all, but I wonder if these ivory tower bums remember how un-enlightened and sophisticated we masses are, and how hard it is for someone who doesn't work at Harvard or Princeton to rationalize Singer's co-utterances to 1.) feel required to give more money to the poor 2.) not see life as sacred, specifically the life of the poor I'm supposed to feel required to give for.

At 4:46 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

Singer's a real weird guy--from some of his writings you'd think he's Jesus, and from others you'd think he's Mengele. That's why, for me, conservative tirades against him ring as hollow as his own words. He's not really influencing culture to the extent that the right believes he is, because the people that read him are (for the most part) wealthy white intellectuals. They're like an industry--where would Olasky be without Singer (and vice versa?)

At 7:29 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

yeah. It seems like he's either very cogniscent of the way his writings impact people, and is thus doing it on purpose for some reason I can't imagine, or else he's very strange, and I'd never want to meet him for lunch.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...


This is a really nice post with a really good question imbedded in it. I would like to respond by way of commenting on the nature of that question. Your conclusion that Singer’s contention is either unprovable or false is correct if Singer is making a sociological argument. (i.e. if Singer is arguing that in 1950, people really did observe the “sanctity of human life” in their practices in a social context and in 2040 they will not). If, however, Singer is making a cultural argument, then I think your question is insufficient to deal with the subtlety of the statement. Culture is a product of society that, in part, relies on reification (as the debate over “the sanctity of human life” demonstrates). As you have pointed out, understanding a society’s culture is not predictive of that society’s behavior, but it nonetheless tells us some very important things about that society. If there is a cultural consensus (more on that later) on a particular issue, it doesn’t necessarily tell us much about that society with regard to that issue, but it does tell us a great deal about other , not the least of which are the belief structures that have been erected as social aspirations. So, as I read Singer’s article, I am inclined to think that he is making a cultural, not sociological claim.


If I am right that this and other commentaries are more cultural than sociological, then I think you might be wrong. From a cultural perspective, monogamy is not “doing just fine,” even if, from a sociological perspective, it is. You seem to be making the argument that this is meaningless rhetoric that stems from discontent because its effects are not immediately observable facets of your lived experience in society. While that may be true, that is quite irrelevant to the matter at hand, because 1) Singer and those like him are not concerned with people like us in the least, and 2) as such, have no immediate effect on lived experience in society, only eventual and mediated effect. As I see it, Middle America is completely irrelevant in terms of cultural formation. I take a very top-down view of society and, thus, of its products, most notably culture. Since culture is not reflective of Middle America’s values, it seems somewhat irrelevant to their lived experiences, despite the fact that it pervades their lives, choices, etc. Eventually (and this is my second point), that cultural pervasion shapes Middle American identity and its own social product. That is a generational thing because it is, as I said, mediated through social institutions (family, schools, courts, media, etc.) that represent the interests of “the power elite,” as Mills would say and not the Middle American parents from whose loins they come. So, I think Singer is both relevant and influential, even if that is not immediately felt. Just remember Nietzsche was a deranged, fringe writer in his time that was thought completely irrelevant to the lived experiences of the average German.

PS – Richard John Neuhaus, a religiously conservative Roman Catholic, once wrote that his lunch with Peter Singer was one of the most pleasant professional encounters of his life.

At 1:33 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

j. morgan, I grant you the distinction between the possibility of sociological comments versus cultural comments. You correctly discerned that I was focusing on the predictive, indexing aspects of beliefs and not the cultural context that produces them. Even though person X's saying "I believe in the sanctity of life" does not tell us that in their day-to-day life, this person DOES A, B, and C, nevertheless, if you get a whole group of X's together who all "believe in the sanctity of life", it tells you some important things about their culture. If this is your point, then I agree; I do think my attack on Singer's overstatement is still relevant and valid in the sense that it should be pointed out (as I'm always doing) that we're not on a moral elevator to hell with Singer as the maniacal doorman.

I'm less sure about your second point in response to redhurt--I almost think it contradicts your subtle and insightful first point. I'll leave whether or not "monogamy is doing just fine" to you and redhurt. What I want to attack is the notion, implicit in your calling Nietzsche a deranged, fringe writer, that Nietzsche and Singer occupy similar positions relative to their societies. I'm open to discussion on this one, but I really think Nietzsche was and has been more "relevant and influential" than Singer has, so I reject your analogy. Even if you're correct in your top-down, power-elite, 1950s radical cultural analysis, Singer is still not widely influential in any circle I can think of. We haven't incorporated his bioethical ideas or his moral ideas into public policy or our private lives--doing so would require selling our stuff and giving away our money.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

So I guess by extension I'm also saying Jesus hasn't been influential...


At 1:46 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

"...doing so would require selling our stuff and giving away our money. "

And allowing people to kill children under the age of, what, 5? 12? I can't remember.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

j. morgan, you might be correct that this argument is cultural and holds more water than I've given it credit for. I didn't read the article - I was simply responding to the statement "monogamy will not be around much longer."

Yet I still take issue with your top down view of society. Intellectuals have been living lives filled with bizzare sexual agreements and strange marriage relationships since Pythagorus. The intellectuals of the enlightenment did the same thing, all uttering the same nonsense about marriage and single-spouse relationships being outdated, forseeing the downfall of the nuclear family in the inception of whatever utopian revolution they were praying for, marxist or otherwise. And yet, largely, middle culture, not even America, is largely un touched. None of the vast differences in family dynamics, the pervasion of same sex parents and single parents, change the fact that the vast majority of people in the world are still reared by a single male and a single female living in a committed legal and sexual relationship. Monogamy survived the greeks, survived the enlightenment, and has survived every intellectual who's arrogantly proclaimed it's pending demise, so I see absolutely no reason to believe some french guy who says it's going to die now.

I think this is a good illustration of how neither a strictly top-down or bottom-up view of society is correct. Intellectuals have a vast and far reaching influence on culture, often acheiving more after they've died, as the case of Nitzche shows. Yet at the same time, there are some institutions which the masses will not permit to change. Perhaps the difference is that these are not cultural? Marriage as a whole has many cultural aspects, but the concept of monogamy can hardly be said to be any more cultural than the concept of exchanging gifts, the concept of making friends, the concept of submitting to some understanding of authority. The details might change, but these elements are fixed in how humans interact, and while *enlightened* individuals might play with strange dellusions of ignoring them, society will never permit it to become the cultural norm.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

This is an unbelievably sweet piece, an exchange between Peter Singer and Richard Posner. (Note that the page that that link leads you to is the last entry.)

At 3:05 PM, Blogger J. Morgan Caler said...


“Singer is still not widely influential in any circle I can think of. We haven't incorporated his bioethical ideas or his moral ideas into public policy or our private lives--doing so would require selling our stuff and giving away our money.”

Well, I think he is definitely influential in terms of academic discourse about ethics. He has set the terms by which many serious discussions are debated. And, as Mr. Olasky is quick to point out just about any time he mentions Singer, he was heralded as “the most influential philosopher alive” in The New Yorker (even if you don’t think their claim is/was true, saying things in very influential publications, regardless of their truth, has a curious generative function). Regardless, I think that what you have said is just my point: he has not influenced policy or lived experience because culture takes time before it affects society. Setting cultural standards now doesn’t influence policy or society now, it does so in the future.

As for Nietzsche, he could have been a poor example, I don’t know. My sense is that he mostly fell on deaf Middle Class ears until the end of the early 20th Century. My point was just that culturally relevant and influential people usually only become socially relevant after their cultural influence has been assimilated through institutional mediation. And, as you point out with the case of Jesus, it doesn’t necessarily mean that society has to reflect the values of those that have influenced it the most in order for them to be truly influential.


I think you made an important point: marriage is a social institution, not a cultural norm. Additionally, marriage is a somewhat irregular institution because it is one that, at least in an immediate way, is defined by whomever enters into marriage, not just “power elites.” Yet, marriage and family are still not as central to Western society as they were 300 years ago (or even 100 years ago). That has to reflect some change and, as far as I can tell, that change doesn’t seem to have been at the urging of the Work and Middle Classes. I grant that monogamy is on much surer ground than “the sanctity of human life,” but I don’t think that it avoided the influence of generations of clashes with those who define culture.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Jackscolon said...

I think that a large portion of this conversation has passed me by, but I will mention this one thing on the topic of marriage.

Marriage as a social institution seems to be a large part defined by racial or ethnic cultural heritage. Depending on what type of demographic you sample, it could be doing exceptionally well or very poorly. An example would be Asian Americans vs. Caucasians vs. African Americans. Saying that marriage can survive assaults by the orcs from Saruman's Ivory Tower is well and good for a predominantly white, christian sample- but I don't think that it is indicative for culture as a whole, as marriage has been failing spectacularly for some groups.

At 10:39 AM, Blogger RedHurt said...

Jack, you make a good point. Marriage isn't nearly as predominant in other communities as it is with the WASPs.

Yet I think you're both reading too much into what I'm saying. I never said that Marriage isn't affected by culuture or that monogamy might not be as strong the standard in the future as it is today or even was 20 years ago. Marriage HAS changed, and our sexual-relational norms absolutely have as well. My point is only that it's ridiculous and irresponsible to say that monogamy is "going away" in the near future. That statement has little to offer beyond the same shock value it's ellicited for the past 7 centuries.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger CharlesPeirce said...

j. morgan:

"My point was just that culturally relevant and influential people usually only become socially relevant after their cultural influence has been assimilated through institutional mediation."

Fair. I think I pushed back too hard with my Nietzsche/Singer analysis, so I'll grant you that Singer IS influential and relevant, just not as much as Olasky or the New Yorker would have us believe.


"It's ridiculous to say that monogamy is "going away" in the near future."

True...what's funny, though, is that we've all been slipping in and out of discussing monogamy and marriage, which are two things that can overlap but don't always. You can be married and monogamous, married and non-monogamous, monogamous and non-married, and non-married and non-monogamous. We really haven't even discussed monogamy in this post much because of our focus on marriage (which is fine, because I've enjoyed the discussion.)

So, does anyone have any thoughts on changes in MONOGAMY throughout the ages, bracketing off marriage for now?

At 3:18 PM, Blogger RedHurt said...

right - that's partially been my point. The details surrounding the cultural projection of monogamy's implications - namely marriage - changes to some extent from culture to culture and time to time. But monogamy itself - two people of opposite sex living in committed legal and sexual relationship to each other - hasn't been seriously changed for the majority of people EVER. Small changes come and go, but for the most part, the nuclear relationship persists. And saying it's going away "soon" is pretentious and foolish.


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