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Monday 15 Jul 2024

A Zinger from Singer
David Simmonds

My favourite ethicist, Peter Albert David Singer (above), is at it again. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. Singer is among a handful of the most intelligent humans, ever.

Singer is a frequent burr under the saddle of conventional thinking. He is most renowned for his views on our ethical obligation to respect animal life; animals feel pain, he says. He modestly refers to press coverage of him as the “world’s most influential living philosopher.”

• What’s unthinkable?

Singer recently published an essay, as one of fifteen contributors to a challenge question, posed by Vox Media. To wit: “What do we do now that will be considered unthinkable in 50 years?” Other contributors dealt with issues such as the self-driving car, how it won’t be around; bosses, how they’ll be obsolete, and eating meat, which we won’t.

Singer contributed an essay on conspicuous consumption, a term first used by sociologist and economist, Thorstein Veblen, in his book, Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen was referring spending for items that aren’t essential, just because you can and it provides a kick, of some sort. Who needs a solid gold toilet? Singer argues conspicuous consumption will be passé and finished in fifty years.

He uses, as his example, the $60,000 Patek Philippe watch. Why would anyone want to own one, when an equally reliable timepiece at one thousandth of the cost, except as an ostentatious display of wealth? He argues that such expenditures will become socially unacceptable in a world faced with hunger, poverty and climate change.

The prediction, by Singer, rests on his belief we are slowly making moral progress. Over the long term, he says our “circle of concern” has expanded from the tribe to the nation. Why shouldn’t it extend further?

On top of that, he believes the altruistic lifestyle is more rewarding than the selfish mode. Thus, rich people, although perhaps shamed into altruism, will stick with it because it is spiritually rewarding.

Singer is not just going after the rich for choosing to spend their money on environmentally immodest items such as “oceangoing yachts, which cost hundreds of millions of dollars and use more fuel in an hour than a small car would use in ten years.” He’s picking on the luxury Swiss watch, which has a relatively small carbon footprint. He believes, that in fifty years, you’ll spend your first $60 on a purely functional timepiece, perhaps a Timex, and the remaining $59,400 on the well-being of your fellow planeteers.

• Jenner gets half a million.

The optimist views of Dr Singer face a challenge. To show that conspicuous consumption is thriving, a writer for the Sydney Morning Herald offered an example. Specifically, the reporter wrote of the recent grand opening of a Tiffany jewellery store, in Sydney; for the opening, a diamond, worth $40 million, from the main store in New York City, went on display. Social media phenome, Kendall Jenner, was paid $500,000, reportedly, anyway, to attend and gush over the scene. She tweeted that it had been an “honour” to be in the presence of the diamond.

It’s easy to dismiss the viewpoint, taken by Singer, as naive. I think he has a point: you don’t have to stretch that far to envision some event, such as Kendall Jenner receiving half a million dollars for showing up at a high end jewellery store, sparking widespread revulsion and precipitating more cautious consumption by the rich. Change can build up slowly and then come about fast.

The Singer essay raises some interesting questions. Can action truly be altruistic if one engages in it by virtue of social pressure? Haven’t poverty and hunger always been with us? Why hasn’t altruistic behaviour stepped up to the plate already?

Are we really making moral progress and expanding our circle of concern? Who decides who is rich, and how much the rich should contribute to the common good? Don’t taxes delineate the extent of the moral obligations of the rich? Is the desire, to spend ostentatiously, a deep human characteristic that no amount of social pressure can extinguish?

I would be willing to run an experiment to test that last question. I would offer to sell rich people $60 watches, but charge them $60,000. That way, they could have the satisfaction of having spent a lot of money just because they could and the knowledge that they have not shown their wealth ostentatiously.

• Shifting the burden.

Of course, that would merely put the burden onto my shoulders. Do I spend my earnings on a $60.000 watch or redistribute them? Am I a conspicuous consumer or an altruist? Too bad these moral dilemmas come home to roost so quickly.

Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose, not infrequently laced with savage humour. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Pete Hamill and Mike Barnacle; the late Jimmy Breslin and Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington, Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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