Books What I Read In 2019 (Part 3)

Previously: Red Meat Republic, by Joshua Specht

Ethics in the Real World, Peter Singer

Before we get started: I received a copy of this book from a friend of mine as a thanks for helping them at work. The book included a personal annotation which meant, and continues to mean, a lot to me, and honestly made me tear up a little when I received it. If you’re reading this, I hope you’ll forgive me for putting this book through the wringer like I have. I think the world of you and I’m so touched and grateful.

I was in Perth city in early November, catching up with an old friend. While I was waiting for him to arrive, I noticed that there was a homeless man sleeping outside the Westpac bank branch there, just across from the train station entrance. Several people commented loudly that they needed to step around the man to get into the building, and that he was inconveniencing them with his presence.

I was struck at that moment by the depressing, shitty irony of this situation: here was a man with no home, sleeping outside of a bank which owns millions of them. Even though Westpac has the means and the resources to trivially give this man a home, they deliberately do not, and they are lauded for it. Meanwhile the homeless man and anyone else in his situation are considered a problem to be managed, barely above the level of a rat or a cockroach.

This, then, is the core of ethics: through action or inaction, inflicting suffering on others, or preventing that suffering from happening. If I came across someone who was about to die from a snake bite, and I had plentiful supplies of anti-venom on me but I decided not to use them and to walk away, I would be doing an evil act. Westpac could change this homeless man’s life forever, but they do not. So, then, who is the bigger villain here – the man who has no home and lives in a state of constant suffering, or the bank which has the power to end this suffering and instead chooses not to do so?

It is often said that “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” Along the same line of thinking, I reckon I don’t know much about Ethics with a capital E but I do feel like I have a pretty good handle on right from wrong. I learned a lot of things reading Ethics in the Real World, and a lot of those things were very interesting and thought-provoking, but by the end of the book I was increasingly convinced that Singer’s moral compass and my moral compass do not share the same magnetic north.

Ethics in the Real World is a collection of 82 essays on “things that matter”, cribbed from a variety of sources, but largely reprinted from newspaper columns. The intent of the book is to provide an accessible discussion on ethics that breaks out of the bubble of academia and is useful to everyday people – staying under 1,000 words, keeping to subjects that affect everyone, and using plain and simple English wherever possible. It’s a worthy goal for sure, and I had a great time reading Singer’s perspective on many issues.

Singer clearly has a passion for animal rights, and the section on the suffering we inflict on animals came at a useful time in our lives as Jess and I wrestled with the issue of reducing or removing meat from our diets (we’ve been vegetarians since the start of October and it’s been great. Thanks for asking). The highly detailed and frankly disgusting experience of preparing turkeys for Thanksgiving was unbelievably difficult to read, and the essay on the way we use different words to give more ‘personage’ to pet animals rather than meat animals was really interesting. Singer is clearly a very intelligent man, but as the book rolled on and he started to get into the weeds on the ethical aspects of the economic issues that underpin our way of life, I grew very frustrated.

One of Singer’s other biggest passions is what he calls “effective altruism”, or more succinctly, getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to charity work. He has written an entire book on the subject – which I fully admit to not having read – so this is obviously something to which he has devoted a great deal of attention, and I would hate to embarrass myself by wandering in like a hugely unqualified dipshit and suggesting that I know better.

Anyway, strap in, because that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

The importance of making sure that our charity is effective is self-evident. Obviously we want to make sure that when we do good, we do the most good possible, and you don’t have to look far to find examples of financial aid being mismanaged, of so-called “charities” being nothing but front operations for extremist groups, and so on. But the one question that Singer never stops to ask is: why is charity necessary in the first place?

It is a fundamental truth of our economy that certain people are made and kept poor, in order that other people may be made and kept rich. You won’t hear it on our TV stations or read it in our newspapers, because those things are controlled by people who have a vested interest in not questioning it, but it is true all the same. Let’s put this in Ethical Terms: to be rich is to have access to resources that reduce suffering, and to be poor is therefore to inevitably experience suffering. There is an obvious ethical merit in reducing poverty as much as possible, because it directly reduces suffering.

Charity does not reduce poverty. Charity is necessary because we use an economic system, capitalism, which both requires and creates poverty. Walking in once poverty has already been created and then saying “I need to make sure my charity is effective” is ethically equivalent to walking into a room where a murderer has just shot someone, is still holding the smoking gun, and making polite rumination on the best way to spend the remaining bullets. The clear and obvious ethical choice would be to stop the creation of poverty before it begins, otherwise you’re just offering a band-aid solution that will have no long-term effect.

To return to the example of the homeless man and the Westpac branch, which one is more evil? The answer surely is obvious: the bank. Capitalism, at its core, is to accrue the power to reduce suffering, deliberately not use it, and congratulate yourself on your “profit”. This is, naturally, an inherently unethical act.

So why do we allow this unethical – oh, you know, let’s use everyday language here, evil – situation to come about in the first place? Well, one answer might be because have convinced ourselves that this level of appalling inequality and concentrated power is not only inevitable, but actually Morally Good. Another might be that, through a vague series of words including “bootstraps” and “aspirational”, a small amount of rich people have convinced a lot of poor people that it’s Actually Really Good to live in a society where any of us could become homeless even though there are plenty of empty homes, because it will encourage the rest of us to work harder (while still ensuring we never, ever, become so wealthy that we are able to stop working).

This little lie has worked so well that almost everybody, Singer included, seems to believe there is no alternative to this arrangement and that there is no value in questioning it. Singer devotes many pages of Ethics in the Real World to discussions on how people like Bill Gates might best spend their wealth (and slips in a quick congratulations to himself on Gates having read his book) while never once suggesting that the fact Bill Gates has so much wealth in the first place is an unbelievable, bordering on monstrous, unethical act. He begins with “billionaires exist” as an ethical inevitability and goes from there.

The essay titled Why Pay More? examines the ethics of a Ukranian politician owning a very expensive watch, when a large percentage of their country lives in abject poverty. Singer concludes that any person who spends money on ostentatious luxuries rather than on improving the plight of their fellow man is spending their money unethically. He says, quite unequivocally, that to do so is “extraordinarily ignorant, or just plain selfish.”

This excoriating condemnation comes only a few chapters after praising billionaires for taking something called “the giving pledge”, where they make a (non-binding) commitment to give away some (not all) of their wealth. No nasty or derogatory language is allocated to these people despite the fact that they are only wealthy because they have created a phenomenal amount of suffering, while a politician who buys a fancy watch is the ethical equivalent of some kind of TurboHitler.

I learned a lot reading Ethics in the Real World, and it has a lot of interesting things to say about some of the most complex moral issues of our time – abortion, euthanasia, genetically modified crops, animal rights and much more. It’s easy to read, accessible, and I do genuinely want to praise Singer for the way he explains the ethical aspects of a situation clearly and easily for even the average dumb shithead like me (although there’s a little bit of ethically-disguised fat-shaming in there, which can fuck right off).

On certain issues however, especially as the world contracts and the accepted wisdom that “the free market will solve everything” so obviously begins to collapse, Singer’s answers clearly ring hollow, and become the very type of pontificating, impractical academia that he rails against in the introduction to the book.

The very first line of the Ethics in the Real World is “We all make ethical choices, often without being conscious of doing so.” Singer, then, has clearly made his ethical choices a long time ago and either decided that monstrous global inequality was Really Good, or that the causes of it simply were not worth interrogating. Neither answer is good enough for me.

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