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Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, by Peter Unger

The Mises Review

Tags Philosophy and Methodology

04/01/1998David Gordon

With Charity Toward Too Many

Mises Review 4, No. 1 (Spring 1998)

Peter Unger
Oxford University Press, 1996, xii + 187 pgs.

Even when compared with other works of philosophy, this is an odd book. Readers who have been spared much acquaintance with contemporary moral philosophy will be inclined to toss the book away when they learn its central thesis.

But to do so would be a mistake. Unger is an influential analytic philosopher and his views echo or amplify the positions of other prominent philosophers, e.g. Peter Singer and James Rachels. We do not face a "lone nut" but rather a conspiracy. And the position advanced by Unger and his associates, if put into practice, threatens drastic political consequence.

Enough of preliminary abuse: what is Unger's thesis? In his view, people in the developed world (that's us) have an almost unlimited moral duty to aid the world's poor. In an Ungerian world, you might find yourself devoting all your earnings above your own subsistence to flood relief in Bangladesh or aiding famine victims in the Sahel. Never mind the "difference principle" of John Rawls: what Unger mandates is a World Welfare State.

In fairness to our author the political implications of his views do not for him take center stage. Rather, he is concerned to urge readers to donate large sums privately to charity. If the government does not make the choice for you, it is up to you to select your favorite victimized nation and transmit the bulk of your income forthwith. But Unger can have no objection to governmental coercion; the fate of millions in Asia and Africa is at stake.

How does our author arrive at his striking views? He begins by asking us to consider this case: "The Shallow Pond. The path . . . to the humanities lecture hall passes a shallow ornamental pond. On your way to give a lecture, you notice that a small child has fallen in and is in danger of drowning. If you wade in and pull the child out, it will mean getting your clothes muddy" (p. 9). Should someone pass by the little girl or boy lest he dirty his suit, we would think he had acted badly.

Contrast our reaction to the following case. "The Envelope. In your mail, there's something from UNICEF. After reading it through you correctly believe that, unless you soon send in a check for $100, then, instead of each living many more years, over thirty more children will die soon" (p. 9). People who sometimes ignore charitable appeals are not ill thought of: we do so all the time.

But, Unger inquires, wherein lies the difference? If it is wrong to allow the little girl to die, why is it all right to refuse to donate the money that will enable thirty children to live? (For conservatives to experience the force of Unger's query, one must of course substitute for UNICEF a charity not given to addlepated socialistic nonsense.)

Unger's strategy should now be apparent. He suggests that no relevant difference exists between the two cases. And one must give him credit. He considers, with great ingenuity a large number of reasons that might be alleged to set the two cases apart-e.g., in the pond case one can see the person in danger and in the charity case many people are likely to receive the appeal. With mixed success, he endeavors to show that none of the items on his list succeeds in distinguishing the cases.

What then follows? Unger, like Peter Singer before him, argues that we should recognize that we ought morally to answer the charitable appeal. If we allow him his first step, but demur at measures that will seriously inconvenience us, Unger's response is resourceful but bizarre.

Why must our personal convenience limit morality? He suggests, first of all, that we are justified in seriously harming some to relieve a much greater amount of suffering in others. To secure the greater good, we must, if necessary, lie, cheat, maim, or kill. "A few moments ago, we supposed that stealing always involves taking that's wrongful. But, actually, that's not so. Indeed, sometimes stealing's very good" (p. 67). I suggest that you watch your wallet if Professor Unger is around.

Once given this step, the rest is child's play. If you are willing to impose sacrifices on others for the sake of the general good, does not moral integrity require you to burden yourself? If, as one of Unger's cases has it, you may sever someone's leg to save another's life, must you not be willing to enslave yourself to help victims of sleeping sickness in Africa? What could be more obvious?

In arriving at his striking views, Unger distinguishes two methods of conducting a moral inquiry. One, preservationism, says that we should accept people's judgments about puzzle cases as they stand. If people think you ought to save the little girl but stand under no obligation to give money to the thirty children, so be it. This view Unger rejects.

He supports liberationism, according to which our judgments about cases must withstand further tests in order to be accepted. If our judgments appear to generate inconsistent results, as in the Shallow Pond and Envelope examples, then we must ask: what factors distort our judgment in at least one of the cases? Our judgments need to be regimented according to underlying principles. If necessary, some of our initial judgments should be cast out. This is of course the position our author accepts.

Those of us unwilling to enslave ourselves to the greater glory of UNICEF must endeavor to escape Unger's argument. How may we do so?

The key to a successful response to Unger lies in one fact. In his analysis of his cases, he has introduced more than the demand for consistency and an endeavor to eliminate so-called "distortive factors." In addition, he has imported a form of utilitarianism-people have a moral duty to minimize the sum total of human suffering.

The merits of that theory have long been a source of contention, and I do not propose to enter that debate here. My point rather is more limited. Utilitarianism is a disputed moral theory, whose truth cannot be taken for granted in argument. And this is just what our author does. He throws out our judgment that we can refuse to return a cash-stuffed envelope to UNICEF not for some logical failing. Rather, it is rejected because it comports ill with a theory that Unger has assumed out of thin air.

If one accepts Unger's liberationist belief in consistency, but combines with this a moral theory different from the one our author peddles, escape from having to surrender one's wealth is at hand. On a moral egoist theory, e.g., our duties to others are quite limited, if not done away with altogether. A divine command theory may restrict our obligations exclusively to fellow believers.

My point is not to defend one of these views, or some other option more in the mainstream. Rather, I wish merely to claim that giving up preservationism does not at once get you to the liberationism our author wants.

If you restrict yourself to consistency alone, you can decide to abandon our judgment on the Shallow Pond instead of the Envelope. Unger is aware of this possibility, which he finds repellent. "On a third view, our responses to both cases fail to reflect anything morally significant: Just as it's all right not to aid the Envelope, so, it's also perfectly all right in the Shallow Pond" (p. 13). Whatever its deficiencies, the position is as consistent as Unger's.

And what if we prefer not to abandon our initial judgments on either of the cases? Unger may then term us inconsistent, or accuse us of falling victim to distorting factors, but a firm preservationist need not despair. Precisely his point is that we must not abandon the "booming, buzzing confusion" of our judgments for theoretical imperatives. He may contend that Unger has begged the questions against him by his demand that our judgments be regimented.

However one chooses to escape Unger, of one thing one can be sure: If your theory arrives at nonsense it is time to reconsider. Somehow, I suspect that Unger will not do so.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Cite This Article

Gordon, David. "With Charity Toward Too Many," Review of Living High and Letting Die: Our Illusion of Innocence, by Peter Unger. The Mises Review 4, No. 1 (Spring 1998).

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