Friday, July 22, 2016

Singer's Argument and Implications for Society

From guest blogger, Liam.

Singer wanted to reform moral code so that people would be more giving and less selfish. If everyone acted according to his principles the world would be a better place (there would be less suffering). In a utopian society his principles would thrive, but we live in a world where people benefit from exploitation of others. If everyone was willing to sacrifice at the level Singer expects then there would be an abundance of people prepared to sacrifice to others in need. If this became reality then some people would be incentivized to act lazily and expect others to provide for them.
This scenario is very similar to communism. It sounds great that everyone should share resources equally but in reality it does not work. People only act when their backs are up-against the wall. If the government/society provides too big of a safety net then people will have no incentive to provide for themselves by working hard. 

In America, our current moral code works because it creates competition. Individuals have a right to their property and are only required to give away a small part of it through taxation. Because of this, people are incentivized to accumulate as much wealth as possible. This encourages competition in the economy. Competition is important because people are striving to innovate their products and invent things that are valued by society.

So, if we abide by Singer's principles then innovation and invention would not be incentivized in our society. It is moral to help others in need, but forcing people to help others would create an economic standstill that would lead to more problems than it solves.

1 comment:

Tim Heinzel said...

One way Singer might respond is by saying that his argument is merely trying to explain what one should do, not what should be institutionalized and backed by government. I find that kind of argument uninteresting and fairly meaningless, so I will consider the argument that his principle should be made part of current American society.

The argument would go something like this. Everyone has a moral obligation to give up their property/resources to help those in need (including international persons) if they can do so without giving up something morally comparable to what the receiving individual receives. Therefore, the government will institute some sort of tax policy to ensure that this obligation is met and that people are helped.

It appears your main objection to instituting Singer's principle and forcing people to help others (presumably through some sort of taxation program) is that it wouldn't be effective because it would create an economic standstill characterized by a lack of incentives to innovate and compete.

Someone disagreeing with you could easily point out that current US society is absolutely founded on "forcing people to help others" yet is not at an economic standstill. Many redistributive programs exist, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, and poverty assistance. You must pay taxes or go to jail, and your money certainly supports these programs, so it appears you are definitely forced to help others. The economy is also doing fine.

Now, the proponent of Singer's argument can call you hypocritical. You're currently supporting a system that does exactly what you object to (forcing people to help others) without actually creating the consequence you predict (economic standstill). I think you would be right if we were debating a government model that distributed wealth completely equally amongst everyone, but the argument proponent can say that this isn't what we're talking about. We're merely talking about adding a few percentage points to the income tax and adding yet another program where we force US citizens to help others, except this time those people are in other countries.

So it now seems like you have a few choices. You can claim that increasing taxes a bit to support this international aid program will create economic standstill, which probably wouldn't be true. You could try to say that you're not actually hypocritical because a domestic tax program ought to only help US citizens. Or, you could take your principle that we shouldn't be forced to help others to its logical extreme and declare that redistributive taxation programs are wrong - only taxes that support something you receive (such as roads, if you use them) are morally justified.

The ramifications of picking either of the latter two choices are fairly significant. Saying that it would be wrong to force US citizens to help people internationally while maintaining that forcing them to help other citizens would be justified seems rather preferential, and you'd have to explain why some people are entitled to help but not others. Arguing that the current US tax system is largely unjustified is also rather unappealing to many.

I personally take the route that the US tax system is largely unjustified (completely unjustified if we bring in other moral principles). I don't see how I could argue that a current US redistributive tax program is moral while a program to help those internationally (who are probably even more needy) would not be.

Overall, we are faced with a difficult question: When is it morally justified to force someone (threaten them with fines, arrest, jail time, etc.) to help others?