Her wings would scarcely carry her now, but in reply she alighted on his shoulder and gave his nose a loving bite. She whispered in his ear "You silly ass," and then, tottering to her chamber, lay down on the bed.
His head almost filled the fourth wall of her little room as he knelt near her in distress. Every moment her light was growing fainter; and he knew that if it went out she would be no more. She liked his tears so much that she put out her beautiful finger and let them run over it.
Her voice was so low that at first he could not make out what she said. Then he made it out. She was saying that she thought she could get well again if children believed in fairies.
Peter flung out his arms. There were no children there, and it was night time; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland, and who were therefore nearer to him than you think: boys and girls in their nighties, and naked papooses in their baskets hung from trees.
"Do you believe?" he cried.
Tink sat up in bed almost briskly to listen to her fate.
She fancied she heard answers in the affirmative, and then again she wasn't sure.
"What do you think?" she asked Peter.
"If you believe," he shouted to them, "clap your hands; don't let Tink die."
A few beasts hissed.
—J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, 1911
1. Peter Singer's Drowning Child
You walk past a shallow pond on your way to work, and notice a child drowning in the pond. You could easily rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but you'd get your clothes muddy. Do you have a moral duty to rescue the child?
Peter Singer reports that his students unanimously think there is such a duty - muddy clothes are no excuse to fail to rescue the child. Indeed, few argue that there is not such a duty. Perhaps more importantly, even those who argue that there is not such a duty (as I will, in part, do) would not hesitate for a second to rescue the child if faced with the situation in real life, and would harshly judge others who failed to do so. As Sharon Olds puts it, "Don't speak to me about/politics. I've got eyes, man."
"Having eyes," in Olds' words, is equivalent to being aware of, and moved by, the immediate, serious consequences of our actions. We are moved by pity for the child, for whom we presume continued existence would be a good thing and for whom drowning would be undoubtedly painful, and by pity for its family, which we presume exists. We are very moved by the near suffering of near others. We can't get around it.
The drowning child is an artificial situation in this way: one can take a single action and permanently improve the conditions for another. As I will argue, this is rarely the case in actual ethical dilemmas faced by people.
A consequentialist objection to saving a drowning child is that everyone will assume you're the lifeguard from now on, and adjust parenting accordingly.
2. Risk Compensation and Other Remote Causes
Do improved automobile safety features save lives? Not necessarily. Keeping all variables constant, a safety measure (such as anti-lock brakes) will reduce risk.
But the problem with reality is its tendency to respond to changes, rather than staying tractably constant. Risk compensation refers to the observed tendency of people to adjust their behavior toward more risk-taking when they perceive a reduction of risk - such as when a safety feature is salient. A number of studies have demonstrated that anti-lock brakes, for instance, do not decrease fatalities, because drivers adjust their driving styles toward more risk-taking behaviors.
Behavioral adaptation in the form of risk compensation is an example of an opponent process. The proximate effect of introducing a safety feature (or, really, doing anything to improve someone's life) is the near, tangible improvement; the more remote effect, entirely predictable, is that the effected folks will respond to the feature or improvement, often in perverse ways.
The risk compensation treadmill is a similar opponent process to the hedonic treadmill, otherwise known as adaptation level theory. Brickman et al. in 1978 found that lottery winners were no happier a year after winning the lottery than non-winners, and took less pleasure in "mundane events." As Baumeister et al. put it in the paper "Bad is Stronger than Good" (2000), "The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners' happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, perhaps, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures."
It feels nice to help people, but when we consider the long-term and not just immediate effects of our help, the seemingly innocent idea of help becomes much murkier.
This focus on remote, but foreseeable, consequences is not so far removed from common sense. Once I fed a kielbasa to a hungry coyote that was wandering around my neighborhood. This certainly pleased the coyote, but most moderns agree on a strict policy of non-interference when it comes to wild animals. When chiding me for this action (as I chided myself), you might point out that the kielbasa might encourage the coyote to come back for more, putting its life at greater risk; that the coyote would be less motivated to seek more species-appropriate food, like insects and opossums; that the gift of calories might translate into more baby coyotes, putting even more pressure on wild resources; etc. We take this policy so seriously that when camping in the Sierras, we not only avoid intentionally feeding bears, but hide our food away in bear hangs or bear vaults - not for our own direct safety, but to protect the bears from our food that they very much would like to sample. "A fed bear is a dead bear," we say - bears who get a taste for human food tend to pursue it vigorously, and hence to interact with humans in a way that makes humans feel entitled to shoot them.
The "fed bear is a dead bear" slogan's very existence is evidence that we need to be reminded of far consequences, which without such mnemonics are generally overwhelmed by near feelings. This is nowhere more true than with humans as both near and far victims of our decisions.
3. Treadmill World
The treadmill nature of the world has important consequences for morality. Generally, we want to help, and not hurt, others. If the hedonic treadmill means that our temporary help won't have much long-term effect on happiness and might even be damaging, doesn't that also mean that hurting people won't have much long-term effect, or might be helpful?
The "hedonic treadmill" is often misrepresented as being symmetric for good and bad events, but as demonstrated by the Brickman research on accident victims and lottery winners, it is not. We recover from bad events much more slowly and less completely than from good events. From the Baumeister 2000 paper:
In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate, Brickman et al. (1978) found. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the "nostalgia effect" (p. 921). [Emphasis mine.]
Singer presents a moving example of a victim of the hedonic treadmill in the body of the drowning child essay:
Consider the life of Ivan Boesky, the multimillionaire Wall Street dealer who in 1986 pleaded guilty to insider trading. Why did Boesky get involved in criminal activities when he already had more money than he could ever spend? Six years after the insider-trading scandal broke, Boesky’s estranged wife Seema spoke about her husband’s motives in an interview with Barbara Walters for the American ABC Network’s 20/20 program. Walters asked whether Boesky was a man who craved luxury. Seema Boesky thought not, pointing out that he worked around the clock, seven days a week, and never took a day off to enjoy his money. She then recalled that when in 1982 Forbes magazine first listed Boesky among the wealthiest people in the US, he was upset. She assumed he disliked the publicity and made some remark to that effect. Boesky replied: ‘That’s not what’s upsetting me. We’re no-one. We’re nowhere. We’re at the bottom of the list and I promise you I won’t shame you like that again. We will not remain at the bottom of that list.’
What Boesky discovers is yet another treadmill: the treadmill of social status. Rising in status means changing comparison groups; we are wired to care about our position within the group we interact with, not about our absolute position among humans on Earth.
Singer imagines we could stop caring so much about the competitive side of comparative welfare and care more about the welfare of others: "Not only does it fail to bring happiness even to those who, like Boesky, do extraordinarily well in the competitive struggle; it also sets a social standard that is a recipe for global injustice and environmental disaster," he says. "We cannot continue to see our goal as acquiring more and more wealth, or as consuming more and more goodies, and leaving behind us an even larger heap of waste."
The main problem with this (aside from the problem of altering basic human nature, which I'm sure will prove quite simple to do) is that it offloads one's own narrative, self-interested conception of the Meaning Of Life onto the meaning-sense of those we would help.
But if our own native meaning-sense is suspect, what about the meaning-sense of other human beings?
4. One Fewer Meaning
I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
—Stephen F. Roberts
What is consistent among institutions that have been passed down for many generations is that they all assign life-justifying meaning to specific stories, beliefs, or struggles. The Christian is certain that his God is the true God, and that he is on the right side of his religion's struggles, whether against atheists, Muslims, or fellow Christians of rival sects. It is to this worldview that he runs when he is reminded that he is mortal; his connection with eternal things is what makes him able to psychologically handle the knowledge that he will die.
Every tribe (however broadly defined) stands for a separate worldview, a separate story of eternal connection and meaning, and each member of a tribe imagines victory (perhaps posthumous) over his tribe's enemies. This is a very conservative, even provincial, worldview; it has the drawback of being false in each individual case. Each tribe member believes in his own tribe's story of meaning, to the exclusion of others.
Unfortunately, the pluralistic response to meaning (what I take Singer to be offering, and what I also take liberalism broadly to be offering) is no more true than each conservative, tribal worldview.
Liberalism imagines that all the meaning-stories can be true, at least for each believer; this is its own kind of meaning story. But the pluralistic idea that all meaning-stories can be true includes an implicit recognition that none of the stories have much truth value, at least in the objective sense.