Monday, March 30, 2009

Save the Children

Peter Singer was on the radio this morning, arguing we should all be giving a substantial part of our income to charities such as OXFAM.

His logical argument was that we would not hesitate to incur material loss (e.g. ruining our clothes) if we saw an unrelated child drowning in a pool -- we would just jump in. Logically, the fact that similar children are preventably-dying thousands of miles away, children who could be saved by our shelling out some of our income, ought to evoke the same reaction. Prof. Singer himself donates around a third of his salary, and states that he is still 'comfortably off' (so why not donate two-thirds then, Professor?).

Singer is a sophisticated thinker with a utilitarian calculus to fall back on, and personally brave - his talks are routinely, violently disrupted. So his views should be treated with care. However, the whole formalisation of morality* seems to me to be an edifice built on sand.

Let's suppose you have an incorrect theory of gravitation and mistakenly believe you are exempt from its effects. Your prediction of what happens when you step off a cliff will be rapidly disconfirmed. This is the essence of science: you are not free to believe what you like; nature will falsify incorrect beliefs.

Now, suppose you breach an ethical "law", what happens?

The worst outcome is that people get extremely upset (possibly including yourself). The reason is clearly that we evolved as social creatures with built-in emotional drivers to reward pro-social behaviour, and punish (shame, guilt, disgust, outrage, ...) behaviours deemed to be anti-social.

There is quite a gulf between generic, broad-brush, blunt-instrument emotions and delicate, complicated, shades-of-grey social dilemmas. Into this gap pour lawmakers, vigilante groups and Professors of Ethics. None of them are authoritative.

Most people do not emulate Professor Singer in this matter of donations to "save the children". How do we scientifically refute his position? We hardly need to, as it's based only on emotion.

If we understand our emotional drivers as evolved triggers for behaviours which promote our ability to become ancestors, then saving the children of adults to whom we bear no close genetic relationship is not a particularly smart thing to do. Recall that for most of evolutionary history, other human groups were correctly viewed as murderous competitors. Goodness, how times have changed!

I suspect that most people feel sympathy with the plight of those far-away and genetically-distant children but have no intention of spending significant effort, time and resources in an attempt to ameliorate the problem. You are allowed to disagree with me (and the universe will not care either way) but could I ask for your credentials first? Are you giving away a greater proportion of your money to Oxfam than Peter Singer?

The ethical "terms-of-trade" between tough-minded 'social-realists' and tender-minded 'social-inclusionists' tends to depend on how threatened a social group or society feels itself. In times of placidity, the inclusionists have the terrain mostly to themselves and the values of 'generalised-niceness' together with attendant hypocrisies reign supreme. No-one on the radio show this morning challenged Professor Singer's views at all.

* You can have a mathematics of morality or ethics: you can have a mathematics of anything if you write down useful axioms with interesting and relevant consequences. However, you can't have a science of morality or ethics, because morality and ethics are epiphenomena of their underlying social communities deriving from social boundary conditions.

The real science is sociobiology, which by making the boundary conditions explicit, derives optimal moralities for different social contexts. In the jargon, thinking that the correct analytical level is that of ethics/morality in the abstract is an act of reification.