Peter Singer

Top of mind is a podcast on NPR’s Hidden Brain. It was an interview with modern philosopher and bioethics professor, Peter Singer. Mr. Singer says that there are no moral absolutes and that logic is a better guide than feelings and intuition when it comes to moral decisions. This caught my attention because generally I believe emotions are useful. They send us messages about what is important. I listen to my emotions, but perhaps to my detriment?

Most happiness, least misery

Some family members fall more on the side of logic and evidence based decisions. We have debates where I find myself defending issues of the heart versus issues of finance. Over the years, my personal views have been influenced by significant others in my life with more calculated or utilitarian viewpoints.

Mr. Singer’s genre of philosophy is utilitarianism. Put simply (by him) the goal of utilitarianism is to make decisions that net a maximization of happiness and a minimization of misery.

Pandemic choices

This makes sense to me. He has been called a baby killer because he believes in euthanasia for severely disabled infants. That is an extremely difficult belief to get huge numbers of people to support because of the moral values/feelings involved. With regards to our current pandemic and the limited number of ventilators available during the surge of severe cases in Italy, Mr. Singer, who himself is in his 70s, says that the doctors were correct to take ventilators from elderly patients and give them to younger patients with a greater life expectancy and chance of survival. More lives could be saved in the long run by giving ventilators to younger, healthier (overall) patients. The numbers proved this.

Every life equal?

Still, many judged the physicians harshly for making such decisions. They wanted to stick with the first come, first served model. The FCFS model, relieves the doctors of making such controversial decisions, but in the long run, costs more lives. Some people’s morals say every life is equal, but are they?

Mr. Singer said he hoped if he was hospitalized and needed a ventilator and so did a healthy 30 year old, in the case of a ventilator shortage, he would want the doctor to give the ventilator to the 30 year old. He also said he would then most likely aim his anger at the shortage of ventilators, not the doctors.

One way to regulate emotions

I have become more practical as I age. I see the point of allowing for the most life expectancy. Utilitarianism might be my subconscious way of attempting to regulate my emotions. It definitely helps me relate to my family members, which reduces stress, conflict and emotional outbursts. Although, I see my efficiency and practical side causing conflict with my husband.

When in heated, potentially highly emotional, decision-making situations I will return to the net happiness and misery calculation. Which option grants the most happiness with the least amount of misery? It may sound cold to some, but I see it as a tool that helps me not make choices primarily based on my feelings in the moment. Utilitarianism seems more long term positive.

What are your thoughts on utilitarianism? Do you see it as more wise than following your heart or does your heart still prevail? 

Photo credit GQ Magazine Australia (Peter Singer) and Salt Wire (Italian hospital)