Am I Not Moral?

Thursday, July 17, 2014 Dr. Vishaal Bhat 0 Comments

I found this article in my diary when I was going through my old stuff, I wrote it for an essay competition on some philosophy topic I guess. I find it quite relevant to the issues raised in Beyond Borders, which I watched couple days ago. Here is what I had to say regarding “how to be good” ten years ago:
How good a person am I?
I would like to think that I’m a pretty good person, not saintly, but as good as most and better than some. It would be nice if it turned out that however good I am is just about exactly how good a person ought to be. Contemporary moral philosophers like Peter Singer and Garrett Hardin have given a good deal of attention to these questions. What kind of a moral report card would the rest of us get from them? As it turns out, Singer views most of us as immoral, and as a result Hardin tries to argue against Singer.
Singer argues that we, in affluent societies, have a moral obligation to do more than we do to relieve the suffering of others, like the  victims of Bengal. The view many of us have, namely that doing more would be good or praiseworthy, but is not morally required, is wrong.
He thinks that we are mistaken if we believe that we are not morally obligated to do far more than we do to help relieve and prevent the pain and suffering of other human beings. Singer’s argument for his principle is an example of great philosophy work; it starts with intuitive insights, and leads us to a counter-intuitive conclusion. He argues that a child dying by drowning is bad; therefore if I’m walking past a shallow pond and I see a child drowning in it, then I am morally obligated to wade in and pull the child out.
With the same set of principles, since suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad; therefore “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought to do it.”
It then follows that if we have a moral obligation to do much more than we do to relieve suffering like that he describes in Bengal. The trouble that most of use have to face with Singer’s argument is that given how many very bad things are happening in the world, and how very bad they are, little else is of comparable moral significance, which means we may be called upon morally to give up a “lot". Singer gives a partial list: “color television, stylish clothes, expensive dinners, a sophisticated stereo system, overseas holidays, a (second?) car, a large house, private schools for our children…”
Despite Singer’s rock solid argument and conclusion, Hardin does not agree that we should donate money to UNICEF in order to help world hunger. He argues that the earth is like a limited spaceship, and that each time we help world starvation, it is comparable to helping drowning people on-board a lifeboat that’s already at its capacity. Ultimately, by saving those extra people, we are jeopardizing the lives of everyone who’s already on-board the lifeboat.
Similarly, Hardin thinks that well-intentioned food will lead to increase in population and therefore a corresponding escalation of misery. Since food programs will result in more suffering, we are morally wrong if we donate money to food programs.
In my opinion, Singer by far has a more sounding argument than Hardin. First of all, I don’t really think that our earth is like a lifeboat. Therefore, it is incorrect to use a lifeboat as an analogy. But even if the earth is like a lifeboat, it can hardly be a justification why we should keep on living our luxurious lives and meanwhile watch people on the other side of the globe die.
If the earth were like a lifeboat, wouldn’t it be a better proposal that we kill ourselves and give food resources to those third less affluent than us? If indeed, the plan is to optimize happiness, isn’t there more joy to billions of children able to live their lives than one person able to live his/her luxurious life?
Is it not true that by distributing a single individual’s wealth in our society, we can feed billions of children? I seriously doubt that the happiness of billions of simple lives can be less than the happiness of merely one individual’s glory seeking.
As far as I can tell, if all the assumptions Hardin made are correct, and Utilitarianism is correctly applied, we should end our own lives instead. Hardin’s assumptions not only cannot justify our selfishness, but leads to an even more counter-intuitive conclusion than that of Singer’s.
I have to confess that I am not exactly a model citizen as far as good will is concerned, I often spend money on things I don’t exactly need. Like the Rs.25,000 upgrade I spent on my computer. That money could have helped children suffering malnutrition and poverty.
But, I hasten to explain; computer is all I really spend my money on. “That’s” selfish, in a world where millions of people go to bed every night hungry. Sad but true, I cannot come up with a just reason other than “I am not a saint, and to donate is like extra credit for me". There is no justification for “most” of our everyday actions other than just pure selfishness, besides whining about to do more is to qualify for moral extra credit.
The fact that models of moral saints are unattractive does not necessarily mean that they are unsuitable ideals. Perhaps they are unattractive because they make us feel uncomfortable–they highlight our own weaknesses, vices, and flaws. If so, the fault lies not in the characters of the saints, but in those of our own unsaintly selves.
However, moral ideals do not, and need not, make the best personal ideals.
We needn’t be defensive about the fact that our lives are not as morally good as they might be, because we all tend to be selfish in some ways. We all feel selfish is bad, but then if we are totally unselfish, we will probably just lead ourselves to self-destruction, selfish is a natural trait that allows all living thing to survive in the natural world. After all, no one is going to look after your interests at all times other than yourself, and that’s how we survive.
Morality is demanding, but I think we can devote our lives at least in part to other pursuits than making ourselves maximally moral. This is not a rationalization of selfishness; instead, it’s a call for a broader and more diverse ideal of human excellence, other than just being maximally moral. I think optimally, we should just work more to prevent sufferings and deaths, yet not feel frustrated when we do not live up to that ideal.