In Hard Times, Charles Dickens gave us the most memorable, if not the most philosophically nuanced, picture of the moral and spiritual dead ends to which a thoroughgoing utilitarianism leads. "Thomas Gradgrind, sir," Dickens’s tragically deluded protagonist describes himself. "A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over....With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic."

Gradgrind’s rigidly logical efforts to impose his morality of "utility" and the "greatest good for the greatest number" on every aspect of the world, especially to inculcate his children with utilitarianism’s fierce denigration of ordinary human affections and moral intuitions, ends in predictable (if satisfying) disaster. In substituting mere rational calculation in the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain for any more complex notion of human nature and moral agency, Gradgrind dooms his own children to emotional vacancy and ethical cynicism.

Gradgrind’s plight comes to mind in the midst of the controversy surrounding the appointment of Australian philosopher Peter Singer to the chair of bioethics at Princeton University. Singer is, of course, a far more sophisticated utilitarian than the satirically drawn Gradgrind. Still, he shares much of Gradgrind’s intellectual certainty and evangelical zeal, and the disturbing conclusions Singer reaches by his utilitarian logic rival Gradgrind’s reduction of morality to arithmetic.

Singer is best known for his defense of animal rights-indeed for his insistence that, in some instances, human infants have no greater claim to life than do cats or even snails. He labels "specieism" the idea that any human life is intrinsically more valuable than that of other creatures. "Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person," Singer has written. "Very often it is not wrong at all." With his Princeton appointment, Singer’s advocacy of abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia will gain a broader audience, and the "culture of death" an especially nimble defender. Singer has already been profiled flatteringly in the New Yorker ("The Dangerous Professor," September 6), where he is quoted pronouncing on the demise of "a two-thousand-year-old system of values-one that had enshrined the sanctity of human life, no matter how compromised."

A pioneer in the field of practical or applied ethics, Singer has written extensively about the conundrums posed by modern medicine at the beginning and the end of life. As a utilitarian, he judges moral actions by their consequences, and specifically by whether suffering will be lessened and happiness increased. In that context, he thinks in some cases it is morally permissible, even necessary, to kill disabled, retarded, or hemophiliac infants. Since infants are not self-conscious or rational they are not "persons," and therefore do not enjoy any strict immunity in utilitarianism’s cost vs. benefit ethic. The same measure applies at the end of life. A comatose, terminally ill patient is no longer a "person" in any meaningful sense. If the patient’s suffering can be ended and if limited health-care resources can then be directed to greater benefit elsewhere, euthanasia is justified.

Paradoxically, the moral obligation to prevent suffering ties Singer’s assault on the idea that human life is sacred to his ambitious moralizing about the suffering of the poor. He argues that our obligations to family and friends are not more important than relieving the suffering of distant strangers. In an article in the New York Times Magazine (September 5), he contends that Americans have a moral obligation to contribute all their income not needed for "necessities," say, anything over $30,000 a year, to hunger relief. Indeed, he argues that not to do so is the moral equivalent of allowing a child to be killed by a runaway locomotive when you could easily save the child by diverting the train at the mere cost of destroying your car.

Singer’s idea may sound compassionate, but it is too simplistic. Beyond question the world’s haves can and should do much more for its have-nots. But it is an economic fallacy to think that hunger, which is more often the result of political conflict than lack of resources, could be eliminated by first-world largess. It is an intellectual trick to argue that other moral obligations, to provide for the education of one’s own children or to invest in third-world development for example, cannot be rationally defended as long as hunger persists.

Utilitarianism has many flaws, but perhaps its greatest weakness is using only one moral measure to evaluate every human situation and action. As its critics have long pointed out, the reduction of all morality to a mechanical calculus of pleasure or pain also reduces the person doing the calculating to little more than an instrument of the greater good. In other words, there is no logical point at which to stop giving when it comes to abolishing suffering everywhere. Singer’s allowance for middle-class "necessities" is just a cop out. If we were to follow the strict logic of his position, we could have no other moral projects, and no other life. All other goods-social, emotional, intellectual-must be placed aside.

What could possibly motivate anyone to live the moral life Singer proposes? In truth, we must have many different moral projects, each requiring different levels of obligation. The arid abstraction of utilitarianism, as shown in Hard Times, does not leave enough room to develop the close personal attachments and fellow-feeling that serve as the well-spring of moral sentiment in the first place. Nor can its "empirical" measure of human happiness account for the fact that there is more than suffering even in the lives of those who suffer most.

Moral complacency is the most likely response to extreme demands like Singer’s. Happily, Singer cannot live his life according to his philosophy anymore than Gradgrind could. In the New Yorker profile, it is revealed that Singer’s mother is afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. In blunt terms, she is no longer a "person" according to Singer’s criteria. Nevertheless, Singer pays for her care even though the money could at least theoretically be put to better use in famine and poverty relief. Asked how he could justify his decision, Singer answered, "Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother."

Yes, it is. And that is not an excuse for self-indulgence at the expense of the poor, but the beginning of wisdom about how a narrow moral premise and a cramped idea of human agency can have lethal consequences.

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Published in the 1999-09-24 issue: View Contents
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