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I. Introduction

Several months ago, Bryan Caplan and Peter Singer held a debate. The topic: “Do the Rich Pay Their Fair Share?”. Sadly, this debate was not recorded, so I wasn’t able to watch it. But I read Caplan’s followup, and I disagreed with some of his takeaways.

Caplan’s basic position in this debate is that rich philanthropists should be hailed as heroes for going above and beyond to help others, rather than merely acknowledged for doing their duty, and certainly not shamed for failing to do as much they could do in principle.

Caplan was apparently surprised to find that Singer was very sympathetic to this outlook. Caplan says, “Singer seems to have completely abandoned the extreme view that we are morally obliged to give away all our surplus resources to the poor. Instead, he just pushed for a rough charity target of 10% of total income.” He goes on to wonder, “Singer reaffirmed his devotion to utilitarianism, but never explained why he drastically changed his mind about the morally obligatory level of donation.”

Caplan is asking: what changed? How can Singer justify this lax moral attitude given his true underlying utilitarian principles? How can he call rich philanthropists virtuous if they are merely doing their duty (in fact, far less than their duty)? In search of an explanation, Caplan accuses Singer of a “Noble Lie”, purposely “misstating the implications of utilitarianism” in order to not turn people off from the idea of giving.

He goes on to cite one of Singer’s papers Secrecy in Consequentialism as support for this claim. The paper lays out the following tenets of “esoteric morality”:

  • There are acts which are right only if no one – or virtually no one – will get to know about them. The rightness of an act, in other words, may depend on its secrecy. This can have implications for how often, and in what circumstances, such an act may be done.
  • Some people know better, or can learn better, than others what it is right to do in certain circumstances.
  • There are at least two different sets of instruction, or moral codes, suitable for the different categories of people. This raises the question whether there are also different standards by which we should judge what people do.
  • Though the consequentialist believes that acts are right only if they have consequences at least as good as anything else the agent could have done, the consequentialist may need to discourage others from embracing consequentialism.
  • Paradoxically, it may be the case that philosophers who support esoteric morality should not do so openly, because as Sidgwick said: ‘it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric’.

Singer and his co-authors use various examples to explain these points, including the exact issue at hand. If openly advocating for consequentialism could turn people off by being too demanding, then perhaps we should not do so? And if it really is the case that we need to keep some people in the dark about the true moral code, then perhaps we shouldn’t talk too openly about esoteric morality, since this risks giving away the game.

Their thesis is, “Esoteric morality is a necessary part of a consequentialist theory, and all of the points above can be defended.” From this, Caplan infers that “the conclusion that Singer is feigning moderation for the greater good isn’t merely probable. It is all but certain.” Singer’s paper also gives the fairly clear example that we must provide simple moral rules to children, which may oversimplify our true moral beliefs. Caplan follows this up by saying, “From this perspective, the same obviously goes for morally immature adults. Which, for a strict utilitarian, probably sum to 99%+ of humanity.”

I think all this is a pretty significant misunderstanding of utilitarianism. I can’t necessarily speak for Singer, but in my view, the entire notion of “obligation” as something distinct from “virtue” simply does not appear natively within the utilitarian framework. These concepts are not part of its moral ontology, nor of mine. I’d like to unpack this a bit.

Additionally, in spite of saying I can’t speak for Singer, I’ll show some evidence that his view really does align with the one I lay out here. I’ll also argue Caplan is misconstruing his view in a few places. If you’d like to read that part first because you care more about what Singer thinks than I do (eminently fair), you can jump down to section IV before (hopefully?) coming back to II.


II. There is just the utility function

My basic view is this: under utilitarianism, there is just the utility function. There’s the action that achieves the best outcome, and there’s a measure for how good various actions are in comparison to eachother, and there is no leftover question. Trying to additionally ask if some action is “obligatory” or “merely virtuous” is like trying to ask if an object is really a blegg or a rube. It’s just a non-question.

However, we should avoid making a false reduction. Are we attempting to explain the distinction between virtue and duty, or explain it away? If the latter, we must do more than just say that utilitarianism dissolves this distinction; we must demonstrate how, and hopefully manage to feel it on a gut level. And if the former, we still have more work to do, since we must show how our intuitive notions of virtue and duty can be reduced to questions of utility.

I think there are clearly some notions of virtue and duty that utilitarianism does away with, while others are preserved. What are these different notions? The view that many people probably hold somewhat instinctively is that if most people perform some good action, then it is morally obligatory, while if few do, then it’s just virtuous. For example, most people don’t steal, and we generally consider it morally obligatory not to. If you were out with a friend and they started shoplifting, you’d probably look askance at them. On the other hand, few people are vegans. Many people see going vegan as a noble endeavor, but not as an obligation upon us all.

(You might worry this argument is backwards. Might it not be the case that it’s precisely because we believe something is morally obligatory, that we all do it? There’s obviously some truth to that, but I think it’s still the case that when deciding if you must take some good action, you’re liable to look around and see what others are doing. If everyone around you is going vegan, you might start to feel some pressure. And conversely, if you grew up around friends shoplifting, you might not view it as such a big deal today. In any case…)

This view, on its own, seems hard to justify on utilitarian grounds. If my action would do just as much good regardless of what others are doing, then how can their behavior have any effect on how right it is for me to do it? If others thought, say, freeing slaves was perhaps virtuous, but not obligatory, this should not change how right it would in fact be to end slavery.

A slightly more reflective view might say that we are obligated to not cause harm, but preventing harm or promoting the good are merely virtuous. This captures the idea that not stealing is obligatory and, say, giving to charity is virtuous. But it also seems to indicate that going vegan is obligatory, since we are otherwise actively inflicting harm on animals (which doesn’t make this view wrong, of course).

This, too, is hard to justify on utilitarian grounds. There’s no inherent asymmetry in utilitarianism between causing harming and allowing harm, or between harms and benefits. Indeed, it’s hard to even find a logical basis for the difference between “allowing” and “causing”; inaction is also an action, which has causal effects like any other. It can likewise be hard to draw a line between causing harm and failing to provide benefits. If I refuse to feed my child, am I causing harm, or just allowing it? Am I inflicting harm, or simply not going out of my way to provide them with the benefit of food?

Justified or not, I think these are the two primary factors behind what cause us to deem some act “virtuous” rather than “obligatory"[1]. Playing at a bit of evolutionary psychology, I think we can see some reasons why this might be so.

First, in the ancestral environment, overt acts of harm would be easier to verify than someone simply failing to do all they could, which would make their punishment easier to justify. Imagine condemning somebody as a murderer for failing to save another’s life. For this to make sense, you’d have to really know that they were in a position to easily save the other person’s life and chose not to. This is hard to verify, and ostracizing someone from your tribe is a costly act, not to be undertaken lightly. But you do want to incentivize your tribespeople to save eachother if they can, so it would make more sense to reward them for saving lives, rather than punishing them for failing to do so.

Similarly, it would be hard to justify punishing one person for violating a moral rule that most others also do not follow. And if each individual does not want to go out of their way to help others without getting something in return, this probably will not become a morally obligatory rule. Instead, a bare-bones set of rules that we’d all prefer everyone follow is what will become universal. For example, a rule such as “nobody kill eachother” is easier to get near-universal support for than “the strong should feed the weak”.

These evolutionary reasons don’t justify our moral intuitions, but importantly, they may affect which acts of praise and blame will be effective. This informs what I think is the actual proper view of duty and virtue: there is no inherent fact of the matter about which acts are praiseworthy and which are blameworthy; instead, praise and blame are acts in themselves and should be applied in a manner that yields the best consequences.

I happen to believe there are something like moral facts, and that right and wrong aren’t just some social construct. But I don’t think duty and virtue are basic building blocks of the true moral ontology. They really are social constructs. But this doesn’t make them useless concepts, of course. Let’s look at some examples of how to apply this reasoning.


III. Case studies

Compare the “abortion is murder” crowd in the pro-life movement to how effective altruists discuss the shallow pond thought experiment. Both groups essentially believe that ordinary people engage in an act morally equivalent to causing the death of a child. Yet EAs typically do not go around brandishing signs emblazoned with a “Money is Murder” slogan, or aggressively harassing those who fail to give to charity.

I think this is because EAs realize, whether or not spending your own money on luxuries is morally equivalent to murder, they are not psychologically equivalent. The sort of person who would actually walk by a child and let them drown to death is just plainly not the same kind of person as one who simply fails to give to charity. As such, they require different responses.

EAs have typically taken the tact of using thought experiments such as the shallow pond to convey the intuition of the moral equivalence. We hope that people absorb this intuition and take different actions as a result. This is still a shame-based framing, but it’s very different from aggressive anti-abortion tactics.

My mother-in-law is pro-life and used to very much be in the “abortion is murder” crowd. According to my wife, this changed when she realized that ordinary people get abortions. Apparently, she did not know this before, or had not internalized it. In her mind, only overt monsters would ever get an abortion. And if this were so, perhaps hatred and shunning would be an appropriate response. But since in fact ordinary people get abortions, she could no longer hold to this position.

On my view, aggressive pro-lifers are making a pretty explicit strategic error. The task before them, I think, is to 1) establish the moral equivalence of abortion and murder, since many people do not believe this, and 2) convey this equivalence intuitively, since even if it is true, they won’t feel the same to many people.

This is the cash value of viewing praise and blame as acts in themselves. You can ask yourself how effective you expect an act of blame to be, or even go out and test it in practice. You can moderate it if it seems to be too aggressive. All this can help you get more of what you want and save more children’s lives, which is the whole point of what we’re doing here.

Going further, we don’t necessarily have to use a shame-based framing at all, even a mild one. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill paints an alternative picture:

Imagine saving a single person’s life: you pass a burning building, kick the door down, rush through the smoke and flames, and drag a young child to safety. If you did that, it would stay with you for the rest of your life. If you saved several people’s lives—running into a burning building one week, rescuing someone from drowning the next week, and diving in front of a bullet the week after—you’d think your life was really special. You’d be in the news. You’d be a hero. But we can do far more than that.

This is a different framing for the exact same underlying moral fact: you can use your resources to save lives. It’s not that one of these framings is true and the other false; they are different angles on the same problem. I find both stories about equally compelling, but in subtly different ways, and I try to internalize the pair. For some people, one might be more effective than the other. That’s all well and good! It’s worth having both of them out there.

The overall point is, given the state of human psychology, if we threaten to chastise every person as a monster unless they give everything they have to charity, this is liable to cause us nothing but headaches. For whatever reason, this is true in a way that it’s not true for chastising murderers. And there’s nothing inherent in morality that compels us to punish people in this way if it won’t do any good.

It’s possible that if human psychology were different, we could feel the equivalence between all our actions on a gut level, and blame and praise could be applied exactly in proportion to the utility of each action. This could very well be a better world than our own, a higher point on the moral landscape, as Sam Harris might put it. But as Harris would also say, that does not mean we can get from here to there without a huge valley in between.


IV. What does Singer think?

Famine, Affluence, and Morality

Caplan claims that Singer once held that we’re all obligated to give away the entirety of our surplus but has since abandoned this position in favor of just giving 10%. Is this really true?

Singer’s foundational essay on this topic is, of course, his 1972 paper Famine, Affluence, and Morality. I concede that Singer seems to have mellowed in his recommendations; the 10% number appears nowhere in this essay. But I don’t think his beliefs (or even his stated beliefs) about our underlying obligations have changed much, if at all. Indeed, a good deal of what he says lines up with my own argument, that utilitarianism simply dissolves the distinction between virtue and duty.

First, Singer states his thesis: “if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” He applies this in particular to argue that we ought to spend our money to save the lives of others, rather than on luxuries for ourselves.

But you might well wonder: are we obligated to do what we ought to do, or would we instead be virtuous for doing so? What does it mean to be “obligated” to do something, anyhow? Singer addresses this with the following footnote:

In view of the special sense philosophers often give to the term, I should say that I use "obligation" simply as the abstract noun derived from "ought," so that "I have an obligation to" means no more, and no less, than "I ought to."

To me, this reads as Singer stating that, when he claims we are obligated to do something, he just means that it’s better to do so than not. Hence, even though Singer is saying we are obligated to give away our surplus, he is not expressing an opinion of how blameworthy someone is for not doing so. I think this is just different from how Caplan is using the word “obligation”; to him, this word seems to mean “something someone deserves to be chastised for failing to do”.

Singer goes on to make some statements very clearly in line with my argument:

The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it… It may be possible to redraw the distinction between duty and charity in some other place… It is beyond the scope of my argument to consider whether the distinction should be redrawn or abolished altogether.

Thus, on the question of spending our money either on saving lives or on luxuries for ourselves, Singer does not seem to be saying that donating is our duty, as opposed to being laudable. Instead, he is saying that such a distinction cannot even be made on this issue, and he leaves open the possibility that such a distinction should be “abolished altogether”.

Singer goes on to endorse the idea that we should view praise and blame as acts in themselves (emphasis my own):

It has been argued by some writers… that we need to have a basic moral code which is not too far beyond the capacities of the ordinary man, for otherwise there will be a general breakdown of compliance with the moral code… The issue here is: Where should we drawn [sic] the line between conduct that is required and conduct that is good although not required, so as to get the best possible result? … What it is possible for a man to do and what he is likely to do are both, I think, very greatly influenced by what people around him are doing and expecting him to do.

On the other hand, the strongest piece of counterevidence is the following line from the paper:

It follows from what I have said earlier that we ought to give money away, rather than spend it on clothes which we do not need to keep us warm. To do so is not charitable, or generous.

Frankly, I think Signer is catching himself in a contradiction, here. He can’t say on the one hand that, when it comes to donating, there is no distinction between duty and charity, while also on the other hand saying donating is one’s duty, rather than being charitable. This is the only line I detect in the paper that indicates we should not congratulate people for their giving, and it seems to oppose the rest of his argument, so I think it’s a bit of an anomaly.

On the whole, I think the difference between Singer’s old position and his new one is that, before, he was more open to the idea that a social obligation in favor of maximum giving would be productive, whereas now he thinks a target of 10% would be better. This does not look to me like a change in belief on what our underlying obligations are, nor even a change in what he is claiming are our obligations in public.

The Life You Can Save

Indeed, Singer lays this all out quite clearly in his 2009 book The Life You Can Save. A few quotes from the last two chapters:

In the first part of this book I argued that in order to be good people, we must give until if we gave more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the bad things our donation can prevent. Now… it’s time to return and probe more deeply the sense that there must be something amiss with this moral argument because its implications go too far.

Asking people to give more than almost anyone else gives risks turning them off... To avoid that danger, we should advocate a level of giving that will lead to a positive response… I think we should advocate the level of giving that will raise the largest possible total, and so have the best consequences.

We use praise and blame to influ­ence behavior, and the appropriate standard must be relative to what we can reasonably expect most people to do. Hence praise and blame, at least when they are given publicly, should follow the standard that we publicly advocate, not the higher standard that we might apply to our own conduct. We should praise people for doing significantly better than most people in their circumstances would do, and blame them for doing signifi­cantly worse. If you have done more than your fair share, that must at least lessen the blame. If you have complied with the public moral code, we should praise you for doing that, rather than blame you for not doing more.

Thus, Singer says quite clearly that at the deepest level, we ought to hold ourselves to as high a standard as possible, but that we should publicly advocate for the level of giving that does the most good. These are his most up-to-date views on global poverty. This book and its surrounding discussion is presumably where Caplan heard of Singer in the first place, so unless he was reading Singer back in 1972, I don’t think he can justifiably call this a change in position, let alone a “drastic” one.

He also cannot call this dishonest. Singer has put it all in print for us! He is very clear about what he’s doing and why. I feel quite confident that if you were to just ask him, he would tell you, “Of course giving as much as you can would do the most good. But we need a standard that is realistic and sustainable. So I will praise you as a good person for doing more than others.” This is not a lie of any sort, noble or otherwise. I think there’s some assumption from Caplan that Singer can’t mean it when he says people are good for donating; this assumption just seems unfounded to me, and I want to know where he’s getting it from.

Singer even has a section at the end of his book entitled Judging the Rich and Famous, the exact topic of the debate at hand! There he says:

[Bill] Gates deserves to be commended for his generosity and for the farsighted way in which he has chosen the goals and methodology of his foundation… On the other hand, for those among the superrich who live with particular extravagance and give relatively little, some blame would not be out of order.

So since at least 2009, Singer has agreed that we should commend superrich philanthropists as heroes, so long as they give a relatively large amount to effective causes.

Secrecy in Consequentialism

Finally, I don’t think Caplan’s representation of Secrecy in Consequentialism is fair. First off, Caplan writes that Singer and his co-authors “approvingly remark”:

The idea that it is better if some moral views are not widely known was not invented by Sidgwick. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates proposes that ordinary people be brought up to believe that everyone is born ‘from the earth’ into one of three classes, gold, silver or bronze, and living justly consists in doing what is in their nature. Only the philosopher-rulers will know that this is really a myth, a ‘noble lie’.

I think he is putting words in their mouths by calling this remark “approving”. If you read the paper, it seems clear that they are simply referencing prior work in the area. They follow up the reference to Plato with a little-known piece of Catholic doctrine:

Catholic moral theology has also found that it cannot avoid the need for a doctrine that is plainly not intended to be widely known. This applies, for example, to the doctrine of ‘mental reservation,’ which holds that it is permissible to say something that misleads, and yet avoid the sin of lying by mentally adding information that would, if spoken, make the response truthful. For example, in Charles McFadden’s Medical Ethics, a text written from a Roman Catholic perspective, doctors and nurses are advised that if a feverish patient asks what his temperature is, and the truth would alarm him and make his condition worse, it is justifiable to reply ‘Your temperature is normal today’ while making the mental reservation that it is normal for someone in the patient’s precise physical condition.

It is not at all clear that Singer supports this form of dishonesty, nor that he approves of Plato’s philosopher kings. In fact, the authors distance themselves significantly from such everyday uses of secrecy. After justifying why consequentialist ethics must in principle possess some form of esoteric morality, they work hard to qualify their position, saying:

Nevertheless there are good reasons why consequentialists should share in the broad support for transparency in ethics, and hence should avoid esoteric morality in most circumstances.

In particular, they discuss five important considerations: the benefits of a shared code, the benefits of open discussion, the dangers of elitism, the public nature of education, and respecting preferences. They go on about these at some length.

They also state near the very end:

[W]e have to agree that we have different standards of judgment for those who can think critically about the nature of morality, and those who can’t, or perhaps shouldn’t. And that could even include all of us, in some circumstances.

Recall that Caplan says, for a strict utilitarian, morally immature adults “probably sum to 99%+ of humanity”. It seems he is implying that utilitarians see themselves as being in the 1%, justified in manipulating the masses on a regular basis for the greater good. This is very misleading and is certainly not the stated position of the authors. They have said clearly that esoteric morality should be avoided in most circumstances, and that they themselves fall in the 99% in some circumstances, not occupying some privileged 1%.


V. Conclusion

For the record, I totally love Bryan Caplan and all his work. But the claim that Peter Singer is taking part in some big Noble Lie seems like a pretty serious accusation to me. I think Caplan misunderstands the utilitarian framework and misrepresents the conclusions of Secrecy in Consequentialism. And overall, I think he just hasn’t demonstrated any concrete false statement that Singer has made; choices of framing are not dishonest, especially if you are open about what you are doing, which Singer is.

Furthermore, as some commenters on Caplan’s post have said, as well the authors of Secrecy in Consequentialism themselves, a really deep commitment to esoteric morality would imply not writing Secrecy in Consequentialism! It is comforting that they were willing to write this paper at all, since it in fact shows a pretty significant amount of transparency.


  1. ^

    A third big one would be when we’ve entered into some kind of contractual agreement. This also has interesting evolutionary justifications, such as when we’ve established a pattern of reciprocal altruism with someone and must be on the lookout for cheaters. I think this serves as an additional example for my main point, but I’d like to keep the core argument simple(r).





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Yes, I strongly agree that 'obligation'-talk is slippery for utilitarians, and not really a natural fit for the view. I made a similar point in my response to Caplan's Conscience Objection, but alas haven't had any luck in getting uptake from Caplan on this.

In summary, utilitarians should be "scalar utilitarians", right? Or is that too specific?

Pretty much! I actually think we can supplement the scalar stuff, e.g. with a satisficing account of obligation/blameworthiness. But scalar at core, at any rate.

Thanks for writing this interesting piece!

[Singer]: In view of the special sense philosophers often give to the term, I should say that I use "obligation" simply as the abstract noun derived from "ought," so that "I have an obligation to" means no more, and no less, than "I ought to."

To me, this reads as Singer stating that, when he claims we are obligated to do something, he just means that it’s better to do so than not.


I'm not convinced by your interpretation here. I think in ordinary language, something being 'better to do than not' doesn't imply we ought to do it; it might only be very slightly better, not enough to matter, or it might be supererogatory. 

[Singer]: The outcome of this argument is that our traditional moral categories are upset. The traditional distinction between duty and charity cannot be drawn, or at least, not in the place we normally draw it… It may be possible to redraw the distinction between duty and charity in some other place… It is beyond the scope of my argument to consider whether the distinction should be redrawn or abolished altogether.

Thus, on the question of spending our money either on saving lives or on luxuries for ourselves, Singer does not seem to be saying that donating is our duty, as opposed to being laudable. Instead, he is saying that such a distinction cannot even be made on this issue, and he leaves open the possibility that such a distinction should be “abolished altogether”.

Similarly, this paragraph seems pretty consistent with Caplan's argument to me. If there is no distinction between charity and duty, maybe that means there is no such thing as duty... or maybe it means that everything is duty!

(Apologies for awkward formatting, I don't know how to do nested quotations natively)

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