On Singerian Ethics

I’ve been chewing over Dylan Matthews’ great piece in Wonkblog about one Jason Trigg, a man who works at a high-frequency trading firm with the goal of making as much money as possible to give away to charity.

Before I go further, it’s important to make clear that I believe that kind of life is worthy of high moral praise. Seriously. I envy Mr. Trigg his dedication and sacrifice. If only that were the dominant attitude on Wall Street, the world would surely be a much better place.

But what bothers me about this kind of lifestyle is the implicit condemnation of virtually the entire human race. Almost nobody plugs themselves into the utility machine like that.

Some of this is surely defensiveness. I don’t make much money, I don’t give to charity on a regular basis, and I regard the idea of high-paying work on Wall Street with the kind of grasping, existential horror one usually reserves for prolonged torture. I did the Peace Corps, but accomplished basically bupkis.

However, on reflection, I’m comfortable admitting that I picked this field because I find it intellectually stimulating and personally rewarding, not because I might make “make a difference.” The sad truth is that, especially for a backbencher like myself, there is vanishingly little chance that I’ll ever accomplish meaningful positive change either for good or bad. Probably if I went to medical school and became an anesthesiologist I could be saving lives by the score in a few years.

I’m not going to do that, and if that makes me a terrible person, then so be it.

But where I part ways with this kind of brute Singerian thinking (which, to be clear, isn’t advocated by Mr. Trigg or Dylan) is when it comes to everyone else. It implies that everyone who doesn’t cut their expenses to the bone and dedicate their surplus income to the most efficient charity is responsible for the death of hundreds, if not thousands. Get a beer with friends after work? That’s one less bed net for babies in Kenya, you monster.

I don’t have an ironclad ethical account as to why I don’t accept this. My moral intuition is crude and ad-hoc. Partly, it’s how it would rob people of most freedom and place a corresponding amount of power in the hands of whoever is figuring out the donation vectors. Partly it’s how it would forestall the possibility of positive change through other means. Think you’ve got a good investment for a new cell phone? Well, too bad. It would definitely save way more lives to give that money to starving children.

And many of humanity’s greatest achievements have come through greed, or curiosity, or by accident. Should Einstein have been an accountant? It would be a mistake, I think, to attempt to direct all of humanity’s potential through some sort of technocratically-mediated charitable superstructure.

Certainly I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to donate to charity, and again I think it’s great of people like Mr. Trigg to give away so much. I’m just saying if you don’t do that, especially if you don’t have much surplus income yourself, you shouldn’t feel that bad about it.

For more, see James Poulos.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at the Week. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the New Republic, and the Nation. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 2012 to 2014.