The teachers in my freshman Intro to Philosophy class introduced Peter
Singer’s “Famine, Influence and Morality” essay to us by explaining it as the “Don’t Buy
an iPod” argument. It was 2006 at the time, and in many academic-ish circles, the Apple device was considered the ultimate pointless accessory of status. “Think about it,” they said, “You could buy an iPod or give that money to charity. This guy is saying give that money to charity instead.”
Now, I know that teachers often cutesy up/dumb down a complicated argument to be
swallowed by a bunch of stoned kids playing crossword puzzles on their laptops, so I
took this this summary with a grain of salt. I decided to read Singer’s own presentation
of logic before making up my mind too much. But I was already boggled. Was I to
diligently save up the money I was making at Starbucks (about $100/week) in hopes of
getting an iPod and then, at the last moment, donate it to charity instead, over and over
again? Why toil away?
It turned out the essay proposed a lot more than shutting down Steve Jobs. Basically,
Singer says that people suffering is bad. He also says that letting people suffer if it is
in your ability to help them is bad. Finally, he says that helping suffering people to the
point where you are suffering even worse than they are is bad.
He makes two premises:
A strong premise, which says that we should help until we are suffering to the point of
marginal utility, which flirts with entering poverty but doesn’t quite get there.
A weak premise, which says that we should help until we sacrifice something morally
Guess which one he picked. Yup, the strong one.
He addresses tons of possible objections – What about population control? What about
helping my neighbors rather than people across the world? But he doesn’t address the
basic question that I had before even reading the essay. Why would anyone want to
work hard if they are just going to give away their money?
I was pissed. Not only did this essay give my classmates the opportunity to say lots of
self important shit, but it didn’t take into account the technicalities of how money works as a symbolic entity.
Money is a collectively agreed upon concept that uses paper and coins to signify
wealth, which includes property, savings, spending money, etc. In itself it is worthless,
and its power relies on people collectively agreeing upon just how it will work. What
Peter Singer didn’t realize that he was proposing was an essential destruction of money
as we knew it.
The best way to explain this is to compare money to energy. There is kinetic energy,
which is energy in motion, and there is potential energy, which is stored energy. Money
works in exactly the same way. Money that is being handed from me to a bartender for
a two-for-one of whiskey coke is kinetic, being spent and used. Money that sits in my
bank account, presumably saving up for my sweet new iPod, is potential energy.
What Peter Singer is saying is that money can no longer exist in potential form. It must
be spent constantly, never accumulated, for having any savings is letting kids die in
But without that facet of just what money can mean, the whole system breaks down. If
money cannot be stored, it loses a lot of its power, especially its influence as a driver
of motivation. Just what would motivate people to earn anything beyond what they
absolutely need if they knew that they were just going to give it all away, other than an
impetus to give it away?
Singer never addresses this question, which is odd. He might have said something
like, “People will work hard to engage in a larger purpose, even if it doesn’t benefit their
own life.” I would then explain a little thing called the failure of communism.
That’s the problem with moral philosophy in the first place. People have intense,
personal and biological motivations that are hard to simply renounce, even with
something as powerful as an academic essay printed out for your Philosophy 101 class.
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