In his comments yesterday, Kenny cited his essay on poverty as part of his response to Ayn Rand. I want to dig into the arguments of this essay, because I think it actually does shed light both on why Rand appeals, and also where she goes wrong. So go read it, and then come back to my comments.
I am very familiar with Kenny's basic argument. In fact, I had used essentially the same arguments in a couple SKS meetings and class his mother taught at Raleigh Charter High, based on a book review in The New Yorker. The essential argument is: if you would expend a tiny bit of effort to save the life of someone right in front of you, why won't you expend the same tiny amount of effort to save impoverished people overseas? If we think we are good people, why don't we give to Oxfam?
Let's look at Kenny's version of the thought experiment in detail, looking at each step in the reasoning:
You learn that a person in the movie line is dying, and that your fruit juice will save them.
You have a complex set of feelings about the situation. Even though you feel hot and thirsty, you feel like giving the person your fruit juice. If you contemplate NOT giving the person your fruit juice, you feel a sense of revulsion, a sense that you wouldn't like yourself. (Where did that feeling come from? Cultural conditioning? Some innate sense of timeless moral truths? A rational understanding of God's laws? We'll get back to that.)
Based primarily on the feeling, you give the person your fruit juice.
After the fact, you might observe your feelings and thoughts and try to formulate a rational explanation for why you felt the way you did, and why you acted the way you did. You are not in the habit of giving fruit juice to total strangers, so there must be some special reason you did in this instance. The roughest shape you could give your feeling is, "It's good to help other people." You might sense that this is not really a complete explanation; after all, most folks like fruit juice on a hot day, and if you had given your juice to someone else they might have appreciated it . . . but you don't normally go around handing out fruit juice to total strangers. If you're an ethicist, you might run lots of thought experiments, checking different situations against your moral feelings, and come up with a more refined rule: "Helping other people, when the benefit to them is exceedingly high, and the loss to you is relatively low, is a good thing." No matter how you formulate the rule, the important thing to notice is the order of operations: first you have the moral feeling or intuition, then you formulate a rule to codify or explain it.
Now equipped with an ethical rule, a seemingly rational principle to explain what you felt to be right, you apply that rule to another situation. "There's a kid in Africa who's going to die without help I could easily give him. According to my rule, I should help him."
Now, here's where things get interesting. The ethical principle we derived from our initial moral feeling or intuition tells us we should help those starving and diseased kids overseas. And yet . . . we just don't feel the same compulsion to do so. There's some feeling, but it's relatively tiny. There are a few possible ways we can resolve this contradiction:
The ethical principle is correct: you should help the kids overseas. If you don't feel like doing it, it's because your moral intuition is defective, or it's being overpowered by your selfish desires. (This is Kenny's conclusion.)
Your moral intuition is correct: you do not have an overwhelming obligation to help those people overseas. The ethical principle must somehow be incorrectly defined.
The whole operation is flawed. Moral principles are not rationally consistent, and any attempt to make them perfectly rational is doomed to failure.
Each of these approaches has potential. We all know of people who are ethically challenged (certain Wall Street investment bankers come to mind), who do the wrong thing and feel no remorse about it. So option A is certainly plausible, though we'd rather not contemplate the thought that we are the ones who are ethically challenged.
On the other hand, it does seem slightly fishy to me that Kenny's argument is deeply trusting of the moral intuition to help the person in the movie line, but then deeply distrusting of the disinclination of othewise good and upstanding people to help the starving kids overseas. If the strong moral feeling is the crux of the argument, why shouldn't the lack of a strong moral feeling about the kids overseas be sufficient argument to overturn Kenny's case? That line of reasoning carries its own frustrations, because it points toward a complete moral relativism: right is whatever I feel is right. That doesn't quite feel right either (see the previous paragraph about the ethically challenged), so ethicists try to re-jigger the statement of moral principle to somehow account for the fact that the average person doesn't give 50% of his earnings to Oxfam, and doesn't even feel like he should. One solution that Peter Singer proposed: instead of feeling crushed under the burden of the world's need, a good person is only obliged to do their fair share of the giving -- to give whatever would be sufficient to meet the need, if everyone in the country and the world did the same.
Confronted with all these contradictions, we come to the third option: maybe we're just thinking about this all wrong. The fruit-juice argument treats a moral intuition like it was identical to an axiom of geometry. It assumes the sense that "saving this woman with my fruit juice is good" is an intellectual intuition of a real truth, just like "two parallel lines will never intersect" is an intuition of a real truth. It assumes that the ethical principle we derive from our moral feelings can be infinitely extended by logic, and potentially lead us to non-intuitive truths by the power of reason. That's an assumption most ethicists seem willing to make, but it is an assumption, and it seems like it does not "save the appearances" of our moral intuitions. We are cheerfully irrational about our moral behavior.
To answer this question, we have to get to the bottom of where these moral intuitions come from, and what they mean, and what we can conclude from them. (to be continued…)