Friday, September 08, 2006

Singer, Scruton and the Limits of Utilitarianism

The Australian newspaper helpfully provides us with a list of the top ten Australian intellectuals - here . This being Australia, there are, of course, twenty of them. I have heard of two - the historian Geoffrey Blainey, whom I used to know, and the philosopher Peter Singer. I chaired an event at Foyles on Wednesday to publicise Singer's latest book - see here.
A friend, the philosopher Roger Scruton, used to have a pig named after Singer. Unfortunately, Peter tells me with some delight, he slaughtered it rather late and the meat was a touch stringy.
Anyway, Singer, a very sophisticated utilitarian, is the leading thinker in the animal liberation movement. He and Scruton are in complete agreement that factory farming is an outrage, as, indeed, are most of the methods through which we currently bring meat to the table. Scruton, however, thinks that eating meat is okay, Singer does not.
I have a possibly sub-rational aversion to utilitarianism, and, long ago, I lost much of my interest in the system of arguments about arguments that is philosophy. But, until Wednesday, I was not quite clear how I felt about Singer's position. In the course of the evening, he was honest enough to admit that there was no strict philosophical argument against eating animals that had been humanely cared for and slaughtered and that had only been so treated because they were being raised to be eaten. And yet he was still against eating them. This reminded me of a moment some years ago when I asked another utilitarian philosopher, John Harris, what he would NOT do irrespective of the utilitarian calculus and he would not answer. That's the real problem with utilitarianism - when it reaches the crucial point, it just stops.


  1. Oh, hang on, David Malouf. I've heard of him.

  2. While at Uni I lived in a six room share house with a utilitarian who wouldn't stop shoving Bentham and Mill down our bloody throats so in the end we ate him and traded his textbooks for some really shithot hash.

    Win-win-win-win-win-win, really.

    PS: Yeah, well, we've never heard of Richard Littlejohn or Jeremy Clarkson. So there.

  3. Ah, Jack, you are Australian. I hope I have not offended you too much. I tend to be rude on a global basis. Are you sure you haven't heard of Clarkson?

  4. OK, so we try not to have. No, that's a fib, too...I try not to have, say...there's my prig cover blown along with my nationality, I guess. Might as well go the whole nine yards and admit to loathing Dylan, too. And my wife even looks a bit like Paris...

    Am I banned then?

  5. Good grief no - though the Dylan thing did give me pause. But the utilitarian book burning is a big plus. Anyway, as far as I am concerned, any list of Australian intellectuals that does not include Shane Warne and Steve Waugh is not to be trusted. Read my article on the rugby world cup final, I'll put it in Selected Articles in a moment. That's how I feel about Australians.

  6. Jack, I'm surprised you don't like Clarkson. Here's a classic piece of Clarksonia:,,12529-1686285,00.html

    Note particularly the following extract:

    "It?s been around for a while now, the Monaro, and nobody seems to have paid it much attention. Small wonder, really, when you consider that it?s an Australian car, with an American engine. Sure, we?ll buy colonial wine and we?ll concede that they?re good at sport, but that?s chiefly because they plainly do very little else.

    In the past 200 years Australia has only invented the rotary washing line, and America?s sole contribution to global betterment is condensed milk. The notion of these two great nations coming together to make a car doesn?t fill anyone from the world?s fountain of ingenuity with much hope."

  7. Well Jack, you seem to have taken the utilitarian at this word and achieved the greatest possible benefit to the greatest number. Nice to see the benefits of philosophy at a localised level.

  8. Ah, but has Jack really achieved the greatest possible good for the greatest number? Those who ate this unfortunate antipodean utilitarian should note the fate of the Fore tribe in New Guinea, who died in great numbers from the cannibalistic transmission of a prion-based disease called Kuru.

    As the wikipedia entry on Kuru relates, "Upon the death of an individual, the maternal kin were responsible for the dismemberment of the corpse. The women would remove the arms and feet, strip the limbs of muscle, remove the brains and cut open the chest in order to remove internal organs. Shirley Lindenbaum, one of the early kuru researchers, states that kuru victims were highly regarded as sources of food, because the layer of fat on victims who died resembled pork. Women also were known to feed morsels, such as human brains and various parts of organs, to their children and the elderly."

  9. Jack, are you showing any symptoms? If not, then surely he is on the right side of the calculus. Though I wonder if the dope can really be that shithot if it was bought for nothing more than utilitarian textbooks.

  10. You have to remember, BA, that we were young and broke and vulnerable and, in that bleak 'just say no' coming-of-age epoch, not as...mmm, discerning and matters druggish as you Boomers, so just possibly we did get dudded. Although I do recall it was an undergrad of the Jackboot Libertarian school who took those dull slabs off our shorely the jane must have been good, since we chained gods-fearers all know how wild and crazy and free-thinking those 24-hour party animals, since they never bloody stop telling us...(didn't Churchill once say something about gentlemen and free agents who have to proclaim - constantly and anxiously and frantically - just how gentlemanly their bearing and free their agency...probably aren't, and it probably isn't, at all?)

    GM, I take it you are Boris Johnson's speech-writer then, sir? Good god, I'll have you heathen Englishers know that in all the time I have spent in PNG I have never once been eaten, nor even politely nibbled.

    I hope this ends the matter. if someone wise and well-schooled in these things would only advise me which locally-embraced philosophical framework is most likely to...make me a very large amount of filthy lolly in a very short period of time (and hell, why not go for broke - secure me Mischa Barton's phone number too)...then pray tell and I shall have at it with the zealotry of the late convert.

    PS: BA, the rugby piece was a beaut. (So was the old Amis profile which I stumbled across while searching). Like most of our Lonely Planet generation I spent a bit of time in London when younger, generally avoiding my fellow Australians and Earl's Court like the backpack plague (although in those days the Chelsea House Hotel was too cheap and convenient to eschew, esp. given the casual sex apparently included in the tariff, a la your t'riff Bed n' Breakfasts). I was long home for the World Cup; didn't manage a ticket for the final, but I was collecting for a Kids' Cancer charity in the stadium park during most of the lead-up games, and I have to say that I have never enjoyed a more delightful (and successful) round of what's usually a pretty grim chore. As much if not more so than the (pre-9/11) Olympics, it was a splendidly good-natured sporting event. And by the end of it, even a majority of Australians sensed the justice and rightness of an England win - especially the Wilko fairytale aspect. The papers here had been crammed with lead-up stories about his fanatical devotion to kicking practice at a cost of all other life, and there was a palpable sense of 'Will he choke at the crunch, if it comes?' in the air. So when the gods and galaxies aligned to hand him the chance like that, and he took it with glee and joy...well, no offence, all, but that kind of decent sporting majesty hasn't been a feature of English life since, as BA pointed out, the '66 knock-abouts triumphed without having to resort to McEnro-esque 'win at all costs' assholery. There was an overwhelming shared delight everywhere down here; God had deigned to poke his nose over a happy, noisy Australian back fence, and...well, be fondly pleased enough by what he saw playing out there - so you like to think, anyway - to give the deserving good guys, and one in particular, a wink and nod for once. It was the kind of harmonius cosmic juncture that has to make anyone with a soul, anywhere and of any philosophical ilk, happy to be alive.

    But do let me tell you about the dark vicious underbelly of Australian sporting crowds some time too, BA...muffle your ears a bit and that cheerful 'Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie' chant can sound vaguely, unsettlingly familiar in nastier sporting moments. Oops - and there goes Godwin's Law.

    Sorry about the post length, all. Rambled a bit.

  11. Jack,
    Happy to be alive. Quite. After that Earls Court pub I tipped the taxi driver £10. I was that delirious. No problem with the length Jack. Good to have a prose poem on the blog.

  12. I can't believe that Boris actually had to apologise for that jokey remark last week!

    In the Politically Correct stakes, the only thing I've come across recently which trumps that is on p28 of Richard Dawkins's book, 'The Ancestor's Tale'. Dawkins refers to 'primitive agricultural societies', and immediately felt such a pang of guilt, (I presume), that he adds the footnote:

    "Throughout this book I use 'primitive' in the technical sense, to mean 'more like the ancestral state'. No implication of inferiority is intended."

    In other words, we should not consider ourselves to be superior to our ancestors, merely different. Which seems to imply that there is no such thing as human progress. And I thought that human progress was the key concept of humanism...

  13. A brilliant swerve, Gordon. Nails Dawkins. Proud to have you on the blog.