Michael Greenberg Writing I March 4, 2013 A World Without Singers or an End to Unger: On Whether One Person’s Capital Excess is Another’s Capital Punishment The Nazis killed 6,000,000 Jews, shooting helpless families into mass graves, performing heinous medical experiments, inducing starvation, and, most notoriously, forcing an unthinkable portion of humanity into gas chambers. Yet my high school—a small, progressive-minded Jewish house of learning tucked into a tree-lined neighborhood—is just as bad. Or so, at least, says Peter Singer, the radical Australian philosopher who describes himself as a “utilitarian.” In his 1999 essay “The Singer Solution to Poverty,” Singer argues that it is unethical to spend money on personal luxuries. Specifically, he holds that because money spent on, say, a ski trip, would increase the net amount of enjoyment in this world less that a donation to Oxfam would, a simple lifestyle is the only morally defensible one. To prove his point, Singer centers his argument around a hypothetical anecdote posed by Peter Unger, his intellectual predecessor: a man leaves his Bugatti (which makes up much of both his life savings and his happiness) on train tracks, and after walking away, realizes there is an approaching locomotive. However, there is a switch that he could flick that would take the train to another track…on which a young boy lies. Singer writes that nearly everyone agrees that flicking the switch would be immoral, and yet almost no one is willing to fork over to charity a significant percent of their own wealth, which, too, would save lives (and at that, for pennies on the dollar compared to the sacrifice we expect of that car owner.) Singer concludes that “you shouldn’t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house, or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children’s lives” (Singer uses the estimate that every $200 in humanitarian aid saves one life.) Thus for Singer, who believes an action should be judged purely on its outcome, the life choices of regular middle class people are no better than the decision to send the train barreling into the innocent child’s tender skull. Because of Singer’s logic, my high school—where a marquee aspect of the senior experience happens to be a trip to sites such as Auschwitz and the Warsaw ghetto—which charges $30,000 for tuition, is comparable to Nazi Germany: if you add together all the tuition ever paid, the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School will, by 2027, have spent as much money on private education as could be used to save 6,000,000 people.
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- Fall '12
- Writing, middle class people, R. M. Hare