05 June 2013

The 'natural order of affections:' why utilitarian philanthropy bugs David Brooks

The Washington Post last week profiled Jason Trigg, a hedge fund programmer who's resolved to live what David Brooks, commenting in The New York Times, calls "the life of a graduate student." Inspired by the utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer, Trigg decided to take a job that would maximize his income so he'd have more money to donate to charity. The cause of his choice is the global fight against malaria. Told that $2,500 can save the life of a malaria patient, he wants to save as many as possible by making as much money as possible. Brooks, one of the Times's house conservatives, finds Trigg's scheme admirable yet troubling.

For Brooks, Trigg's approach presents several pitfalls. The first is that, whatever his selfless intentions, he's bound to be shaped by his work environment. "You will become more hedge fund, less malaria," Brooks warns. Another objection, perhaps most consistent with Brooks's (tame by Republican standards) conservatism, is that Trigg may make himself "a machine for the redistribution of wealth" or "a fiscal policy." Since Trigg would be redistributing his own wealth voluntarily, what the problem is isn't clear, even after Brooks explains what he means about a person turning himself into "a means rather than an end." It seems to come down to choosing a career because you value the work itself, not as a means to a distant end. "Taking a job just to make money," no matter what you mean to do with the money, "is probably going to be corrosive," leaving you "a specialist without spirit." If Trigg is really concerned with fighting malaria in Africa, Brooks suggests, he should go to Africa and do hands-on work. "I'd think you would be more likely to cultivate a deep soul if you put yourself in the middle of the things that engaged you most seriously," he writes.

Brooks claims to be most concerned about Trigg's "deep soul," but his most interesting (or revealing) criticism of Trigg's philanthropy is that it might invert "the natural order of affections." Trigg's apparent devotion to Peter Singer may have rung an alarm bell in Brooks's mind. The columnist seems to have an issue with utilitarianism. To Brooks, it views the world "on a strictly intellectual level," treating "a child in Pakistan or Zambia [as] just as valuable as your own child." Where might that lead?

If you choose a profession that doesn’t arouse your everyday passion for the sake of serving instead some abstract faraway good, you might end up as a person who values the far over the near. You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around. You might end up enlarging the faculties we use to perceive the far — rationality — and eclipsing the faculties we use to interact with those closest around — affection, the capacity for vulnerability and dependence. Instead of seeing yourself as one person deeply embedded in a particular community, you may end up coolly looking across humanity as a detached god. 

These criticisms and suspicions are not new. In Victorian times Charles Dickens -- not exactly an uncompassionate soul -- used the character of Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House to chide people grown obsessed with helping the needy in distant lands at the expense of the needy at home. Utilitarian detachment from the particular or individual often disturbs people who worry that utilitarians value people as interchangeable units rather than as irreplaceable individuals. Why Trigg's modest aspiration should inspire such anxiety is unclear. What usually bugs people about utilitarians is the fear that "the greatest good for the greatest number" might authorize the sacrifice of individuals for an abstract common good. Perhaps Brooks worries that people who practice philanthropy at a distance, as Trigg does, grow distant from people near and far alike. He doesn't object to Trigg helping Africans, but thinks everyone will be better off if he does it in Africa. I'm not sure if that follows, but in the end it's Brooks's anxiety, not Trigg's philanthropy, that intrigues me -- and requires more of an explanation.


Anonymous said...

"the greatest good for the greatest number" might authorize the sacrifice of individuals for an abstract common good.

What does he think of the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Are those soldiers (and civilians) not being sacrificed for what we are told is the greater good? In fact, isn't that what we're told in every war? That we (the average working class schlub) must make sacrifices - including our lives or the lives of our children - for the good of the country?

So I have to ask if this guy defends our crusade against radical Islamists through terror tactics. (After all, what is "shock and awe" but a euphemism for "terrorize those dumb, barbaric arabs"?

Anonymous said...

1) It seems to me an idiosyncrasy of conservatism that they want to insist they are the majority (greater number), but they have a problem with the utilitarian philosophy of "greatest good for greatest number".

2)," treating "a child in Pakistan or Zambia [as] just as valuable as your own child."
So to Mr. Brooks feels that children have a "value" and that some children are more "valuable" than others? Sounds like materialism rearing it's ugly head.

3)Finally; ... utilitarians value people as interchangeable units rather than as irreplaceable individuals.
Isn't that the EXACT attitude corporatists and their apologists show towards the working class in general? So basically, as a conservative, I have to assume Mr. Brooks has absolutely no problem with corporations "helping" the third worlders out by outsourcing jobs once held by Americans, but he DOES have a problem with individuals who want to use their personal wealth to aid the sick and dying in the third world. That tells me all I need to know about Mr. Brooks. May he die soon and in great agony.

Samuel Wilson said...

To be fair, Brooks didn't say people couldn't or shouldn't help the Third World poor. He just had an odd reaction to one person's way of doing it. As for his relative valuation of the world's children, he's just assuming that any normal person would cherish his or her "own" more than strangers far away. The problem with that assumption is his implicit assumption that you can't cherish all humanity equally without cherishing "your own" less than you otherwise would. Many communists and Christians might challenge that point.

Anonymous said...

What concerns me is that, among other terms that might have been used, he chose the term "valuable" which generally confers a sense of monetary worth.

It also occurs to me that, considering the importance most conservatives seem to put on "privacy" and "individuality" of what business of his what anyone chooses to devote their lives or fortunes to? Sure everyone is entitled to an opinion, but it seems to me that in this case there is absolutely no reason for him to even have an opinion.