Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Five best introductions to Philosophy

Nigel Warburton has taught philosophy at the Open University since 1994. He was previously a lecturer at Nottingham University. His latest book is A Little History of Philosophy.

With David Wolf at The Browser, Warburton discussed five of the best introductions to philosophy, including:
The Life You Can Save
by Peter Singer

The next book is The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer, who is perhaps the most famous living philosopher.

I was thinking, “How would you introduce philosophy to someone who didn't know anything about it?” I think the central question in philosophy is, “How should we live?” And that's a question about which Peter Singer has a lot to say.

What is the central message of the book?

The book focuses on the terrible poverty and disease found around the world, and how we in the West are living in a luxury that we could adjust just a little bit in order to alleviate that misery. He suggests that we give maybe 5% of our wages to charity. He's not saying you have to live in a sackcloth and give away all your possessions. Even a small gift of 5% would make a tremendous difference to other people's lives. It's not just him preaching, he gives arguments for his positions. And even if you disagree with him, the process of reading his work makes you think, “Why do I disagree?” He is in the tradition of Socrates – somebody who challenges your preconceptions and asks you to respond.

How does the book begin?

Singer starts with a compelling thought experiment. Imagine you're passing a pond. There's a young child drowning in the pond and his head's just about to go underwater. You're on your way to work, you're nicely dressed. But you'd surely jump in the pond and try to save the child, wouldn't you? Almost anyone would do that unthinkingly, even though it would ruin their expensive clothes and make them late for work. Yet in our everyday lives, we know that through inaction we are allowing children to die of poverty who could otherwise be saved by a minimal contribution – less than the price of an expensive pair of shoes.

What's the difference between the situation described in the thought experiment and our inaction in everyday life? Singer thinks that there isn't an important moral difference. He says there are ways in which we could act that would be the equivalent of saving the drowning child's life – giving to charities that tackle poverty, disease and so on. He believes most of us could be much more generous at very little cost to our own lives, and that the result of this would be of huge measurable benefit to mankind.

That sounds like a persuasive argument in theory. What are the objections?

Singer is brilliant because you don't have to agree with him, but he goes through all the standard objections to his view and presents counterarguments. Someone might say, “The difference is that if I save the child myself I know the child is going to be saved, but if I give my money to a charity it might be wasted.” Well, there's a website that has been set up which analyses the comparative effects of money sent to different charities. It comes up with charities where the effect your donation is most likely to save lives. So Singer has second-guessed you, and come up with a counterargument and a practical way of implementing the conclusion he'd like you to embrace.

What do you think of Singer's work more generally?

Singer is incredibly consistent in his positions. He used to be a chess player, but he believes that the point of philosophy is not to solve chess-like problems but actually to make a difference. If you really believe, as he does, in a form of utilitarianism – the view that the consequences of our actions determine their rightness or wrongness – then that's not just an intellectual position, it should affect how you live. Singer is a counter-example to the stereotype of the philosopher in an ivory tower, whose life makes no difference, who leaves everything as it is.
Read about the other books on Warburton's list.

The Page 99 Test: The Life You Can Save.

--Marshal Zeringue