Friday, January 3, 2014

Spreadsheet 'Humanism' is Anything But…

Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (...
Jeremy Bentham, by Henry William Pickersgill (died 1875). See source website for additional information. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I disagree with Peter Singer on most ethical measures, and this is no exception…

Heartwarming causes are nice, but let’s give to charity with our heads - The Washington Post

The notion that we can measure what is "right" using a form of ethical calculus dates back to at least Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and the Principle of Utility. Bentham argued there are seven variables to consider when judging the "best" choice:
  1. Intensity of pleasure.
  2. Duration of pleasure.
  3. Certainty of consequences.
  4. Propinquity (proximity, nearness) of pleasure. 
  5. Fecundity (abundance) of pleasure.
  6. Purity of pleasure.
  7. Extent and scope of pleasure for others. 
Singer takes things in the direction of Marx, with the needs of the (desirable and productive) many outweighing individual choice of happiness. For Singer, like the Progressives of the Wilson era, the administrator class, the great minds, know exactly what we should do based on "economic" (efficiency) models. 

On one level, Singer's mathematical, "logical" approach to ethics seems reasonable and even preferable to the flaws of human evolutionary psychology. Singer admits the nature of this psychological connection to those in our community, a well-documented desire to protect and foster community bonds. But to suggest that our natures and the purpose of that same psychology is inferior to the great thinking of Singer's ethical spreadsheet is a mistake. 

How can I suggest that cold, analytical thought is wrong? How can anything other than a spreadsheet approach to ethics be "right" — especially for one teaching in a leading business school? Aren't numbers always the truth? 

No, numbers are not always the truth. Numbers lead to eugenics, euthanasia, denial of care, and a Brave New World ethical model. Algorithms without morality is a dangerous, horrible thing. It is dehumanizing, not humanist in the least. 

Let's consider an extreme reading of Singer's spreadsheet logic. 

I am a playwright and screenwriter. I write comedies, not high art. The money people pay for tickets to theater does not feed the starving. It does not cure diseases or end wars — at least not directly. Many of the artists are hedonists, and more than a few indulge in some self-injurious behaviors. Money is spent on pleasure, not benefiting anyone… or is that the whole story?
Far from great literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin opened eyes and hearts to the abolitionist movement. Plays (and movies) depicting various groups in positive ways also change hearts. Art, meaningless and unproductive, turns out to be extremely important. The "wasted money" reflects an investment in the most human of endeavors: improving ourselves. 
The people giving money to and supporting "Batkid" in San Francisco might not impress Singer, but he's assuming the personal investment in helping one five-year-old boy ends at that moment. Instead, when you connect with one person, maybe you'll connect to others. 

When a great expert like Singer tells people they are wrong to help Make-A-Wish or some other charity because other charities are more economical (efficient), that's insulting. It ignores how our connections build and grow, how one good act leads to others. 

If I give to a cat shelter (a personal cause), that does not mean I dislike humanity, or other species of animals. Connecting to cats humanizes me. It makes me aware of other creatures, not only cats. That is how the human experience is lived: connections lead to other connections and realizations.

Give to Batkid? Yes. And then you might think about other cancer patients. You might support the Cancer Society, increasing research funding, and take other actions. Giving to Batkid doesn't accomplish anything in Singer's spreadsheet humanism, because purely economic models overlook how psychology connects small, wasteful deeds, to bigger deeds and a better world. 

Singer's approach? It could not only be wrong, but dangerous. I don't want mathematical models to determine who is or isn't worth helping based on dollars and other metrics. That's the "scientific" logic that led us to the worst of the twentieth century: eugenics, apartheid, experiments on "lesser" humans, et cetera.

Help others because it makes you feel alive. Connect with people. That's humanism. Free will, acting on emotion, might be superior to any math. 

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