One part of the whole "helping the poor" thing that bothers me is that it seems to leave unanswered the whole question of why we are alive to begin with. I have dialogues with myself that run something like this:
Noble Me: "What is my purpose in life? I know – I'll be a saint. I will dedicate myself to alleviating the suffering of the poor."
Skeptical Me: "So . . . the purpose of your life is to help those poor people."
SM: "And the meaning of your life will be manifested in the sorts of lives they have, because of you."
SM: "And . . . what's the purpose of their lives?"
NM: "Well, um . . . to be happy, I guess."
SM: "Happy how, exactly?"
NM: "Well, that's for them to figure out, isn't it?"
SM: "Yes, but what do you imagine they will do with their lives?"
NM: "Well, they'll work. They'll make things. They'll do things. They'll have families, and love their children. They'll live."
SM: "So the purpose of living is . . . being alive?"
NM: (hesitating) ". . . Yessss"
SM: "Sounds kind of tautological, doesn't it?"
NM: "Well, being alive beats the alternative, doesn't it?"
SM: "Well, yeah . . . probably. But if being alive is the point, why worry about having a purpose at all? Why don't you just live?"
NM: "Well, that would just be selfish, wouldn't it? There's much more to life than just enjoying yourself. What's the point of just living for yourself?"
SM: "So, what about the people you help? What if they're selfish? Does that mean their lives have no purpose? And, since you said the meaning of your life is tied up in their lives, does that mean by extension your life would be meaningless?"
NM: "Well, no . . . they'll find their own ways to have a meaningful life."
SM: "How? By helping someone else? Does that mean you have to have someone less fortunately than yourself to give to, to make your life meaningful? Do we need the poor in order to make life meaningful?"
NM: "No, not necessarily helping other people. They'll find other ways."
SM: "So helping others is just a way to pass the buck – to make someone else figure out what a meaningful life is supposed to be?"
NM: "No . . . they'll find other ways to make people happy."
SM: "So happiness is the purpose of life?"
SM: "Sounds kind of selfish."
I could go on with this sort of thing, but it tends to bite its own tail, repeat itself, and generally gets boring long before any kind of conclusion is reached. I come away with the same conclusion: I must be missing something, because none of this fits together quite right. If happiness is the point, then why bother with helping other people? Why bother helping other people, if happiness is not the point?
OK, borrowing from Harry, this one doesn't have to be that hard.
Either life is utterly pointless, or it isn't. If life is utterly pointless, then the discussion ends there: any life is no better or worse than any other.
If life is not utterly pointless, then it seems reasonable at least to assume (in the absence of any contrary information) that living a full and productive life (whatever all that means) is more important than going to a movie. And--this is the key thing--*someone else* living a full and productive life is also more important than me going to a movie.
I'm not trying to dismiss the question of whether life is meaningful, and if so, how. It is the ultimate question and worth spending your life pursuing. But until and unless we know what that ultimate purpose is, we still have to act on the best information we have available.
And (here is where it gets subtle again) one possibility is that that is the point--that being the sort of person who is willing to sacrifice the movie in order to save the starving child is, itself, the point of the game. That feels right to me on a certain level, but I wouldn't want to bet too much on it.
I'm not particularly responding to this point in the conversation so much as I am responding to the whole thing up to this point. This just happens to be when I'm jumping in. I also don't have a coherent narrative to contribute at the moment, but just a collection of some general thoughts.
First, I think it is worth reading Peter Singer on these issues. I recently commented that he is more willing than almost anyone else I've encountered to attempt to take his philosophical convictions to their logical conclusions.
Among other things this means that he does not actually endorse the fairness doctrine as a moral principle. I sent Kenny a link to a newspaper editorial he wrote about this (I don't have the link handy right now but I could dig it up again). If memory serves I think he said that from a moral point of view we should all be doing as much as we can. He gives an example similar to the one you gave. If a hundred children are drowning in a fountain and a hundred other people are milling around, do you save one child and then walk away? However, he endorses the fairness doctrine as a practical matter. If you go around telling people they should give away all of their disposable income they will most likely tune you out or rationalize why your whole argument must be wrong. If you tell them they should give more than they do then you might accomplish something.
Singer also grapples directly with the other problem you raised. Unfortunately I'm afraid that if I use the back arrow to look up the name you gave it I'll lose this whole post, but in earlier writings of his I've seen him refer to it as the "replaceability problem." If the goal of morality is the total sum or average of happiness you end up at conclusions that nobody would endorse. (Have as many babies as possible or kill off unhappy people.) In a very old article of his I know Singer said he didn't know how to address this problem. I don't know if he still feels this way, but I do know that he has at times advocated killing severely disabled babies at birth. As I said, I feel I have to respect his sincere attempts to follow his moral convictions to their conclusions.
Hmm, I didn't mean to write an entry just about Singer, but this is long enough that I don't want to start on a totally different topic here. I will just submit this and try to write something separate about the more basic issues you're raising.
It seems like the fundamental question is how you decide what your moral goals should be. I would start by putting aside the really fundamental aspects of that, like whether morality can be objective and whether it derives from God or from an innate sense within us or whatever else. As Kenny said, these are ultimately important questions but in the absence of knowing the answers we have to make the best of what we have.
From a more practical standpoint, then, I think most people agree on most of the basic tenets of morality. It's a good thing to help other people. It's a bad thing to hurt other people. It is, in particular, morally good to help other people at some cost to yourself. Thus I think almost everyone would agree that Mother Theresa and Peter Singer are "good." In fact I think nearly everyone would agree that such people are better than most of the rest of us.
Where I think people do not always agree is on the line between a moral good and a moral obligation. Sure, it's wonderful to give all of your money to the poor if you want, and that might even make you a better person than me, but I don't have to be that good a person. And then you have to deal with the question of how much is enough. At what point does the failure to do good actually make you "bad"? Anything less than 100%? Enough to cover your fair share? At least as much as the societal norm around you? Or do you never have an obligation to help others as long as you don't actively harm them? I think most people in our society oscillate between the last two answers in a very unconscious way.
And this gets at the question of utilitarianism. Maybe I don't know how philosophers really use the term, but I don't think of utilitarianism as being necessarily connected to happiness per se. Rather I think of it as erasing the distinction between obligatory moral acts and ones that, while morally good, go above and beyond the call of duty. (In fancy lingo these are called "superogatory.") As I understand it the defining hallmark of the utilitarian is the statement that in any situation you should try to do whatever produces the best outcome, however you may have defined the measure of that outcome. Put another way, you should count total benefits and costs equally, rather than prioritizing your own.
By that definition utilitarianism is exactly what Kenny is defending, and I agree with him. If we all agree that, all other things being equal, happiness is better than suffering, then we should endure a little reduction in our happiness to accomplish a lot of increase in someone else's. To do anything else is an arbitrary distinction based on laziness. Like Kenny (and essentially everyone else in the world), I do not live by that philosophy.
A couple other thoughts:
Does this mean you should always spend as much time and energy on helping other people as you would on helping your own children? No. The actions you take have a much greater influence on yourself and those immediately around you then they do on others. It is therefore more important for me to make time every day to read to my kids than it is for me to make time every day to read to my neighbor's kids, even if they might like it. My money, on the other hand, will almost always benefit someone desperately poor more than it would benefit me or my family.
If virtually nobody can or does live by this ideal, is this whole exercise pointless? Should we either just forget about it or wallow in continual guilt? Personally I tend to go back and forth between those two reactions a lot, but I think a more practical approach is to hold this as a philosophical ideal in your head but take an incremental approach in practice. Even if I'm not living an ideal life, it's still true that each time I refrain from a $30 purchase and put that money aside for charity instead somebody is going to get to eat.
I think about this sometimes in relation to Christianity. In my entire life I have met one Christian who seemed to me to be making a serious attempt to live by the teachings of Jesus. Does that mean that the teachings are pointless? I don't think so. Rather I think true Christians could acknowledge that they are always going to fall short of that ideal, but that the closer they can come to it the better. It's arrogant of me to say this as a non-Christian, but I think that's the real point of Jesus' message. Here is what you should aspire to as best you can, and you are never free to stop making the effort. For what it's worth, I'm one of the only people I know who actually admires and respects the whole "What Would Jesus Do?" movement. It seems to me like the right question for a Christian to ask.