Mike Kueber's Blog

May 17, 2015

Sunday Book Review #159 – The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:45 am
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Peter Singer is a world-famous philosopher professor who espouses a philosophy – utilitarianism – that seems most reasonable to me.  According to utilitarianism, the correct moral action is the one that maximizes utilities such as pleasure, economic well-being, or the absence of pain. This sounds a lot like my Jesuit-trained best friend, who espouses “the preponderance of satisfying consequences.

The Most Good You Can Do is Singer’s explanation of “efficient altruists” – i.e., individuals who apply evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world.

One of my favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand, has written extensively in opposition to altruism, and I have adopted one of her pithy anti-altruism sayings on the subject:

  • I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.

Phil Donohue once asked Rand why she had a problem with do-gooders who wanted to be charitable and help others.  Rand responded that helping others or doing good was fine if (a) you did it by your own choice, (b) it wasn’t your primary aim in life, and (c) you didn’t regard it as a moral virtue.  When Donohue pressed her on why doing good for others shouldn’t be considered a moral virtue, Rand said that characterizing it as a moral virtue would mean that you are preaching self-sacrifice, that you place the welfare of others above your own, and that you are living for others as justification for your life.  That, according to Rand, is immoral.  For historical evidence, she asserted that self-sacrifice or altruism was the basis for Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.

The philosophies of Rand and Singer seem irreconcilable, with Rand seeing altruism as immoral while Singer sees it as the ethical path.  But Singer in his book devotes an entire chapter, titled “Altruism and Happiness,” to describe how efficient altruists deny being selfless or making sacrifices of anything important to them.  Rather, they see their good deeds as essential to their happiness and self-esteem.  And, yes, Singer recognizes that this essentially modifies the definition of altruism.

Singer’s book is really a primer on becoming an efficient altruist.  The following are a few examples of the practical considerations discussed by Singer:

  • What sort of job will maximize your positive effect?
  • Do kids detract from your ability to be an altruist?
  • How important is empathy?
  • Should your help be local, national, or international?
  • Is it important to live modestly?
  • Should you donate part of your body (blood, bone marrow, kidney)?
  • Is animal suffering comparable to human suffering?
  • Is pet suffering comparable to livestock suffering?
  • What are the concerns regarding human extinction?

The first three dot points are especially interesting:

  1. What type of job is best?  Singer starts the book by describing a brilliant philosophy student of his at Harvard who decided he could be more effective, not by taking a do-gooder job, but rather by becoming an investment banker and donating a high percentage of his income (more than six figures) to highly effective causes.  I had a Hispanic friend in law school who once told me essentially the same thing – i.e., when we talked about the possibility of working for a low-paying legal aid clinic, he pointed out that he wouldn’t be advancing the cause of his people by declining to be economically successful.  If he didn’t take the job, Legal Aid could hire someone almost as effective as him, so his positive effect would be marginal.
  2. Will having children diminish your ability to do good?  Although this question might initially seem to concern only radical altruists, upon further reflection it is quite analogous to the Catholic Church rationale for celibacy for those who become priests and sisters/nuns.  Raising kids clearly draws from your energy and financial resources, but Singer points out that the kids don’t need to cost that much and provide much joy to you and are likely to be forces of good in the future.
  3. How important is empathy to altruism?  Singer describes two types of empathy – emotional empathy includes “empathetic concern” and “personal distress” while cognitive empathy includes “perspective taking” and “fantasy.” Effective altruists may not possess emotional empathy, but they invariably possess cognitive empathy.

Later in the book, Singer elaborated on the job-selection conundrum by describing an MIT grad who did essentially the same thing as the Harvard grad (joined a hedge fund instead of investment banking).  The choice of the MIT grad was subsequently formally challenged by my favorite columnist at the NY Times, David Brooks.  According to Brooks, a grad who takes a job based on maximizing his income runs three risks:

  1. Our daily activities change us, and by working as an investment banker or at a hedge fund, a person’s ideals could slip and be less committed to giving.
  2. Choosing a profession that does not arouse your passion might leave you loving humanity in general but not the particular humans around you.
  3. Most importantly, turning yourself into a machine to make money and redistribute money might be corrosive to your humanity.

Suffice to say, Singer refuted, or at least deflected all of these charges.  One of his most significant caveats was that “earning to give is not for everyone.”

Fascinating book.  I’m going to have to think some more about Rand’s fear of preaching self-sacrifice or selflessness.  While I think people helping people should be voluntary, I also think it would be unethical for me to live a life that consumes an inordinate amount of the world’s limited resources.  Despite how capitalism allocates rewards, “You didn’t built that!”

Incidentally, while reviewing my earlier blogposts about Ayn Rand and altruism, I noted the following discussion in a review of George Gilder’s book, Wealth and Poverty:

Because Gilder is a great fan of Ayn Rand, he felt it necessary in his Prologue to explain why Rand was incorrect in concluding that capitalism and altruism were inconsistent:

  • “I hugely admired Rand, who flung her moral defense of capitalism in the face of Soviet terror and socialist intellectual tyranny.  But toward Christian altruism she indulged an implacable hostility, stemming in part from her own simplistic atheism and in part from her disdain for the leveler babble of sanctimonious clerics.”

Gilder is a confirmed supply-sider and his protagonists are Arthur Laffer, along with Friedman, Hayek, Buckley, Kristol, Kemp, and Wanniski, while his antagonists are demand-siders Galbraith, Thurow, Zinn, Chait, Krugman, and of course Keynes.

In addition to Gilder’s moral defense of capitalism, I was most impressed by his two-pronged argument that effective capitalism requires (a) the accumulation of capital, and (b) a capitalistic spirit in its people.

I dare say that Singer’s effective altruists retain their entrepreneurial spirit, but they are not so good on accumulation of capital.  Indeed, one of my fundamental concerns about massively spreading the wealth is the significant damage that would be done to the economic engine of the modern world economy.

December 26, 2012

Evolutionary biology explains….

Filed under: Culture,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 10:16 pm
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A few days ago, there was an op-ed piece in the NY Times on one of my favorite subjects – evolutionary biology.   The piece, titled “The Moral Animal,” by British rabbi Jonathan Sacks begins with the premise that religiosity has been declining in Britain and America and then argues that this decline, if it continues, will not bode well for those countries.  What makes Rabbi Sacks’ argument unusual is that it relies on evolutionary biology.

Sacks’ starts his syllogism by stating that man often acts altruistically, even though evolution tends to favor selfish, ruthless behavior.  According to Sachs, this dichotomy results because, as scientists have determined, the human brain has two modes – “The first is immediate, instinctive and emotive. The second is reflective and rational….  The fast track helps us survive, but it can also lead us to acts that are impulsive and destructive.  The slow track leads us to more considered behavior, but it is often overridden in the heat of the moment. We are sinners and saints, egotists and altruists, exactly as the prophets and philosophers have long maintained.”

Rabbi Sacks supplements the science of the two-speed brain by suggesting that religion tends to amplify the role played by the slow brain – i.e., reflective and rational:

  • “[Religion] strengthens and speeds up the slow track. It reconfigures our neural pathways, turning altruism into instinct, through the rituals we perform, the texts we read and the prayers we pray. It remains the most powerful community builder the world has known. Religion binds individuals into groups through habits of altruism, creating relationships of trust strong enough to defeat destructive emotions. Far from refuting religion, the Neo-Darwinists have helped us understand why it matters.”

According to Sacks, the connection between religion and altruism is undeniable:

  • “[Research shows] that frequent church- or synagogue-goers were more likely to give money to charity, do volunteer work, help the homeless, donate blood, help a neighbor with housework, spend time with someone who was feeling depressed, offer a seat to a stranger or help someone find a job. Religiosity as measured by church or synagogue attendance is, he found, a better predictor of altruism than education, age, income, gender or race.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes logically that, because altruism is undeniably a good thing (unless you ask Ayn Rand), religion is an essential foundation to a good America:

  • Religion is the best antidote to the individualism of the consumer age. The idea that society can do without it flies in the face of history and, now, evolutionary biology. This may go to show that God has a sense of humor. It certainly shows that the free societies of the West must never lose their sense of God.”

My first thought in reading the Sacks op-ed piece was that his logic didn’t depend on the existence of God, but rather only on people’s belief in God.  That reminded me of the Karl Marx quote – i.e., religion is the opiate of the masses.    

On second thought, I was reminded of the old saying that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God.  And that, too, would be consistent with evolutionary biology.

Although Rabbi Sacks surprised me by making a non-theological argument, NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd made up for that omission in her column today titled, “Why, God?”  In the column, Dowd and her pastor struggle to understand why God would allow the Sandy Hook massacre to occur.

Good luck with that.

June 11, 2011

Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a former nun from Great Britain who gained fame in 1993 from her book titled A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  That book focused on the commonalities of those religions, and this book continues in that vein by describing the prominence that all religions give to compassion.

Armstrong won a TED award in 2007 and used the award to create and propagate a Charter for Compassion that began with, “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical, and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Her current book – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life – is a self-help guide to becoming more compassionate.  Armstrong quickly clarifies that her use of the term compassion is not the same as pity or an uncritical, sentimental benevolence.  Rather, she means “to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, to feel her pain as though it were our own, and to enter generously into his point of view.” [Did you notice that Armstrong decided to split the gender references in the previous sentence – one for the girls and another for the guys?  She has a reputation for being politically correct, and another example of this is her usage of BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) year-numbering system because it is more inclusive than the Christian BC and AD system.]

Armstrong further defined, “That is why compassion is aptly summed up in the Golden Rule, which asks us to look into our own hearts, discover what gives us pain, and then refuse, under any circumstances whatsoever, to inflict pain on anybody else.  Compassion can be defined,
therefore, as an attitude of principled, consistent altruism

I was attracted to this book because I have always known that, for whatever reason, I feel very little compassion.  Unlike Bill Clinton, I do not feel your pain.  And Armstrong’s reference to altruism is especially apt because I have done a lot of reading in past months on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s altruism.

Although I accept Ayn Rand’s admonition that a person should never live for the sake of another person, nor ask another person to live for theirs, I also agree with Mitt Romney that people’s lives are better if they believe in a purpose greater than themselves – such as our family, community, or country.

Armstrong explains the Rand/Romney dichotomy by declaring that Randian egotism “was bequeathed to us by reptiles that struggled out of the primal slime some 500 million years ago.  Wholly intent on personal survival, these creatures were motivated by mechanisms that neuroscientists have called the ‘Four Fs’: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and – for want of a more basic word – reproduction.”

Although these neurological impulses, which are located in the hypothalamus at the base of the “old brain,” are powerful, they can be overcome, according to Armstrong, by our “new brain” neocortex, which provides us with “the reasoning powers that enable us to reflect on the world and ourselves, and to stand back from these instinctive, primitive passions.”

What are Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life:

  1. Learn about compassion – “Instead of being a library of disparate texts composed over a millennium [like the Bible], the Qur’an was created in a mere twenty-three years and must be seen as a homogeneous whole.”
  2. Look at your own world – “As we seek to create a more compassionate world, we too must think outside the box, reconsider major categories of our time, and find new ways of dealing with today’s challenges.”
  3. Compassion for yourself – “It is essential to be aware of our misdeeds and take responsibility for them.  But we should also realize that the rage, fear, hatred, and greed that make us behave badly derive from the brain we inherited from our reptilian ancestors.”
  4. Empathy – “But when the old brain is co-opted by the new, the result can be disastrous.  Reason was an ambiguous tool, because, as we have seen throughout history, it can be used to find a logically sound rationale for actions that violate our humanity.”
  5. Mindfulness – “Yet we should also take careful note of how unhappy these primitive emotions make us.”
  6. Action – “Try to catch yourself before you make the brilliantly wounding remark, asking yourself how you would like to be on the receiving end of such sarcasm.”
  7. How little we know – “[Notwithstanding science and technology,] unknowing remains an essential part of the human condition.”
  8. How should we speak to one another – “when making an effort to understand something strange and alien to you, it is important to assume that the speaker share the same human nature as yourself and that, even though your belief systems may differ, you both have the same idea of what constitutes truth.”
  9. Concern for everybody – “[All religious traditions] have at least one strand that insists that we cannot confine our compassion to our own group: we must also reach out in some way to the stranger and the foreigner – even to the enemy.”
  10. Knowledge – “When we are about to criticize another nation or religious tradition, we should get into the habit of catching ourselves and asking whether our country may have been responsible for a similar abuse in the past.”
  11. Recognition – “Reaching out generously to embrace the pain of another yields an ekstasis, because in such a moment we are leaving our egotistic selves behind.”
  12. Love your enemies – “Try to wish for your enemy’s well-being and happiness; try to develop a sense of responsibility for your enemy’s pain.  This is the supreme test of compassion.”

Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from a variety of philosophers and religious leaders – Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, the Buddha, Confucius, Mother Teresa, Socrates, and Aristotle.  One of the most frequently quoted is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “We must ourselves become the change that we wish to see in the world.”  Sound familiar?  It reminds me of President Obama’s famous campaign slogan, “We are the change that we seek,” and I wonder why Obama is given credit for coining the phrase.  Just wondering.

Another interesting tidbit in the book – Armstrong noted that between 800 to 200 BC (called the Axial Age by German philosopher Karl Jaspers) a religious revolution occurred in four distinct regions of the world:

  1. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism on the Indian sub-continent;
  2. Confucianism and Daoism in China;
  3. Monotheism in the Middle East; and
  4. Philosophical rationalism in Greece.

Armstrong says that Rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are latter-day flowerings and concludes that “we have never surpassed the insights of the Axial Age.”  Furthermore, all of these traditions “agree that compassion is natural to human beings, that it is the fulfillment of human nature, and that in calling us to set ego aside in a consistently empathetic consideration of others, it can introduce us to a dimension of existence that transcends our normal self-bound state.

Whereas a cynic might suggest that the Axial Age supports the theory that if God hadn’t created man, man would have created God, Armstrong argues that “the fact that this ideal surfaced in all these faiths independently suggests that it reflects something essential to the structure of our humanity.

That makes sense to me.