African Immigrants and the Peter Singer Problem

Those who advocate open borders, or at least a huge liberalization of EU immigration policy, have an ally in the influential Australian philosopher Peter Singer, who has argued that all people in the West must make painful financial sacrifices of most of their disposable income to help the world's poor:

Peter Singer has argued in Practical Ethics (1993) that you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity. (Singer himself doesn’t go that far, giving away only 20% of his income. Nobody’s perfect.)

...Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally. (Because of Singer’s particular interests, the bit about minimizing suffering plays a larger role than the bit about maximizing pleasure.) You can question how to apply these principles in particular situations, but for Singer there are no principles more fundamental.

One immediate consequence of Singer’s principles is that animal suffering should weigh as heavily in your decisions as human suffering: that’s part of what he means by ‘all suffering counts equally.’ Animals may not suffer as much as humans, but whatever their suffering, it’s as significant as an equal amount of human suffering.

Another consequence of treating everyone’s – sorry, every organism’s – suffering the same, is that your suffering doesn’t count more than anyone else’s. Since there are so many people in the world who suffer more than you, it follows that you should give a substantial part of your wealth to alleviate that suffering...

To convince you that you should give more of your wealth to alleviate suffering, Singer uses a persuasive analogy. Suppose you see a child drowning in a pool. You can rescue the child at no danger to yourself, but at the cost of ruining your new suit (PE, p.229). Clearly, you are morally obliged to wade in, suit be damned. But, says Singer, if you are a moderately well-off citizen of a first world nation, donating 10% of your income to CARE or Oxfam will similarly relieve much suffering, with only a modest impingement on your lifestyle (p.222). As with the drowning child, you can’t just walk by. You have to grab your chequebook and wade on in.

Using similar principles, Singer concludes that you must be a vegetarian, 'that you shouldn’t give your own children extraordinary advantages' and that we should encourage very old people to kill themselves -- perhaps even kill them ourselves -- so that we can spend the €200,000 it costs to prolong Grandma's life for 4 months to immunize 1000 poor children. Some of these things Peter Singer believes, others are thought experiments designed to foster discussion (and boy, do they ever). He cheerfully admits people will never do most of these things, but they should.

I don't know whether Peter Singer has endorsed open borders between Europe and Africa, but I can imagine he would. And therein lies the problem: almost no Westerners have ever lived up to Peter Singer's idea of completely moral conduct, and they never will. And most of them are OK with that, don't like being scolded as immoral, and think that they are nevertheless decent people. The counter-arguments to Singer are manifold, starting with Hume, who declares it to be perfectly normal and understandable that we care more about those closest to us than those far distant. (The linked article sets out all the critiques). Catholic social teaching holds the same view. And virtually every human alive does too, especially if we judge them by their actions, not their words. Plus, you can't develop a workable ethical system without context-based compromises:

In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time. We harmonize them, to the extent we can, by adjusting the contexts in which we see them as applicable.

If ethical rules arise out of the rough and tumble of harmonizing our own interests, including our social impulses, with the interests of others, and with the contingencies thrown up by an infinitely-various natural world, then the rules we come up with are likely to be partial rules for the here and now, not universal rules which will work in all situations, especially those far from our experience; and there are likely to be a large number of rules, each applicable in a small if ill-defined context. For even the most basic ethical rule, there will be contexts where it clearly applies, contexts where it clearly doesn’t apply, and a large grey area in which there can be indecision and controversy. ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for example, is an unimpeachable moral principle, but we can still argue about its range of legitimate application. Self-defense? Just wars? Abortion? Euthanasia? Animals? Vegetables? Around the sizeable edges, there is plenty of room for dispute. It’s not a criticism of a rule to admit that it’s not always clear where it applies.

Letter Published in London Review of Books

In the July 17th London Review of Books, Judith Butler reviewed Jacques Derrida's On the Death Penalty, Vol. 1. She noted Derrida's reliance on a key passage in Freud's Civilization and its Discontents:

A brief passage in [Freud's] book proves quite important for Derrida’s argument. Freud is writing about the death penalty: ‘One is irresistibly reminded of an incident in the French Chamber when capital punishment was being debated.’ (I take it that this is the 1790s.) ‘A member had been passionately supporting its abolition and his speech was being received with tumultuous applause, when a voice from the hall called out: “Que messieurs les assassins commencent!”’ It is as if the call to let the assassins begin their work is of a part with the passions aroused by abolitionist discourse itself. Are abolitionists like anti-pornography campaigners who end up exciting their supporters with their graphic descriptions of the porn they would get rid of? Abolitionism has a different problem, since here it isn’t so much desire but the death drive that cloaks itself in moral opposition to its own expressions. Does Derrida’s reading suggest that opposition to the death penalty can quickly be converted into its opposite, unleashing a celebratory affirmation of its destructiveness?

I hadn't read Freud's book in quite a while, and had forgotten that he had discussed the death penalty in it. In any case, I was quite sure Freud's interpretation of this quotation was seriously wrong, since I had encountered the phrase several times in research for my death penalty book. I did a bit of research, and located the quotation. The London Review of Books just published my letter correcting Butler, Derrida, and most importantly Freud, who started the whole journey into erroneousness. Here it is, along with another letter which might be of interest to German readers: 

The Death Penalty

Judith Butler repeats a mistake first made by Freud about the origin and meaning of the phrase ‘Que messieurs les assassins commencent’ (LRB, 17 July). It was not ‘called out’ during a debate in the ‘French Chamber’ in the 1790s in response to arguments against capital punishment. In fact, the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phrase in an 1849 issue of his serial Les Guêpes. Further, the phrase was hardly intended as a cry of encouragement to murderers. The full passage (my translation) reads: ‘The law of the land kills those who have killed. If one wishes to abolish the death penalty in such cases, let the murderers begin – if they do not kill, we will not kill them.’ In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud reproduces only the five-word exhortation. He seems to interpret it as a frenzied expression of bloodlust, and follows it with meditations on the violence inherent in human nature. In context, of course, it’s just a snappy retort to death-penalty abolitionists – and sometimes a retort is just a retort.

Andrew Hammel
Heinrich-Heine University, Düsseldorf

Both in Nietzsche Zur Genealogie der Moral and in the translation of Derrida quoted by Judith Butler, the text reads ‘der kategorische Imperativ riecht nach Grausamkeit,’ not ‘reicht von’. ‘Riecht nach’ means ‘reeks of’; ‘reicht von’ means ‘ranges from’. Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale, as well as the 1994 Cambridge translation by Carol Diethe, give ‘smells of cruelty’, but (as Peggy Kamuf, the translator of The Death Penalty, notes) in the French original Derrida actually uses the English word ‘stinks’ – neither ‘reeks’ nor ‘smells’ – to translate the German.

Michael Robertson


Kant's Heteronormative Othering Microaggressions Exposed


Open Culture mocks this disclaimer here. Splintered Mind points to some of Kant's microagressions unfashionable views on homosexuality (the vice so horrible it must not be named), masturbation, marriage, killing bastards, and other topics here. Interestingly, Kant had this to say on organ donation: "To deprive oneself of an integral part or organ (to maim oneself) -- for example, to give away or sell a tooth to be transplanted into another's mouth... are ways of partially murdering oneself... cutting one's hair in order to sell it is not altogether free from blame."

Co-Opting Nietzsche for National Socialism

David B. Dennis has a long, fine essay on how National Socialist propagandists spun Nietzsche in the Völkischer Beobachter:

In addressing the “Germanness” of Nietzsche, however, the cultural politicians of the party faced some difficulties. The newspaper did not try to verify Nietzsche’s racial origins—as it did for many other Western creators, including and especially Wagner and Beethoven—despite the fact that he occasionally claimed to be of Polish heritage. But it did have to confront indications that the philosopher rejected nineteenth-century trends of nationalistic identification.

As one contributor to the Völkischer Beobachter wrote, there is “one important point in Nietzsche’s mental attitude on which even his friends have remained silent, from which they tried to distance themselves as much as possible: this is the matter of Nietzsche’s attitude toward Germanness and the state.” The philosopher, according to the paper, had seen with “sharp eyes” that while the Second Reich had been formed, it still “remained a shell without content” under Otto von Bismarck’s Realpolitik. To him, nationalism was the “illness of the century” because it “attempted to hide its emptiness.” In his words, “Nationalism as it is understood today is a dogma that requires limitation.”

But the point to keep in mind, according to the Völkischer Beobachter, was the qualifying phrase: “as it is understood today.” Nietzsche’s opinions about the German state could be understood only with reference to this phrase—that is, as critiques of his own specific time, not as categorical rejections of German nationalism.

This opened the way for the newspaper to present Nietzsche as a fervent patriot and strong representative of “Germanness.” In fact, the paper reminded, Nietzsche actually said of himself that “I am perhaps more German than the Germans of today.” And he valued the “earnest, manly, stern, and daring German spirit.” He knew that “there was still bravery, particularly German bravery,” that is, “inwardly something different than the élan of our deplorable neighbors.” Compared with the French essence, in particular, he was “consistently, strongly, and happily conscious of the virtues” of the German character. Above all, Nietzsche held that “it is German unity in the highest sense which we are striving for more passionately than for political reunification—the unity of the German spirit and life.”

Very few others “saw things so clearly” in those days, said the Völkischer Beobachter. As if on a mission to confirm the philosopher’s Germanness, another contributor traveled to Sils-Maria, wandered the region, and ruminated on passages Nietzsche had written there. The landscape, Ernst Nickell reflected, is “consecrated by German fate and German tragedy.” Nietzsche “needed this landscape; he had to stand near the highest things and the firmament”—because he was “German despite everything.”

You Always Kill Yourself too Late

Via this isn't happiness: "It is not worth the bother of killing yourself, since you always kill yourself too late.” — Emil Cioran

The first part of this aphorism seems iffy, but the second is incontrovertible. Another of my favorite quotes from this questionable Romanian comes from an essay about de Maistre: "De Maistre suffered the worst fate that can befall an author: he was understood."

Review of 'To My Great Chagrin: The Unbelievable Story of Brother Theodore'

Domestic bliss chez les Gottliebs

Theodore Gottlieb, the subject of 'To My Great Chagrin', was born in 1906 in Düsseldorf, to parents who each came from wealthy families. The family industry was fashion publishing, and they circulated among the highest circles of inter-war society. Albert Einstein was a frequent guest of the family, and a favorite chess opponent of the precocious young Theodore. Theodore completed Gymnasium, visited the University of Cologne, and became something of a man-about-town. Judaism seems to have meant little to the Gottlieb family until the mid-1930s, when it suddenly became overwhelmingly important. The family moved to Vienna in 1938, hoping to escape the Nazis, but as Gottlieb puts it, Hitler 'followed him to Austria.'

Gottlieb was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp, and forced to sign over his inheritance rights to his family's wealth in return for being allowed to leave the camp. Gottlieb had been promised that the paperwork he had signed would permit his family to live unmolested, but instead they were all deported  and murdered by the Nazis. After Gottlieb's release, he lived in Switzerland for a while, before Einstein helped arrange the complex paperwork that permitted him to emigration to the United States. He eventually settled in California, penniless and with a much younger bride (Else Gabriel). To make ends meet, he worked as a janitor at Stanford University and hustled chess.


During the late 1940s, he tried to establish a career in Hollywood, acting in a few obscure B-films and Orson Welles' 'The Stranger.' Yet it was as a monologist that be really began to make his mark. Theodore's act was a combination of mad scientist and nihilist metaphysician. In his German accent, he would launch himself into paragraph-long, spittle-flecked tirades ending in a crescendo of shrieking, arm-waving, desk-clearing  mayhem. Or he would begin fingering his face as if it were a strange rock, or stare intently at one audience member, and deliver the monologue directly to him (or, more frequently, her). His topics ranged from 'non-existence, advisability of' to 'death, welcome relief provided by' (his gravestone reads: 'As long as there is death, there is hope') via 'teeth, unhealthy obsession with' and 'God, probable non-existence of; if existing, depraved nature of.'


Californians didn't know what to make of this literate Mitteleuropäer with his peculiar brand of Weltschmerz-cabaret (he called it 'stand-up tragedy'), so Theodore moved to New York City, where the bohemian life beckoned. His only marriage dissolved in the late 1940s, and Theodore set about enjoying the company of young female admirers, which his old-world charm won him in droves. He was fondly adopted by the Beats, and seems never to have had much problem getting invitations to perform, even appearing on early television shows with the likes of Steve Allen and Jerry Lewis. Woody Allen hired him to play the Commissar in his early play 'Don't Drink the Water', but he proved too erratic for regular stage work. Nevertheless, Allen seems to have kept up a life-long friendship with Theodore. Despite attempts, Theodore never broke into the mainstream, although his legendary appearances on David Letterman ensured him a cult following that lasted until his death in 2001, at the age of 94.


'To My Great Chagrin' is a documentary every bit as distinctive and disorienting as its subject. Director Jeff Sumerel eschews the trappings of ordinary documentaries, such as on-screen talking-heads interviews and timelines of dates and facts. All of the voices from Theodore's friends and colleagues (including Dick Cavett, Eric Bogosian, and Woody Allen) come from offscreen, and are not introduced or identified in any way. The focus is relentlessly on Brother Theodore (as he began calling himself in the 1950s): he dominates almost every frame of this hour-long documentary. When he himself is not onscreen, a puppet -- inhabiting an odd, sepia-toned brothers-Quayish dressing room -- 'narrates' interviews conducted with Gottlieb. It's a bit disconcerting at first, hearing a mournful-looking puppet answer questions in Gottlieb's voice , but it doesn't take long before you understand the dream-logic of it all. The movie itself a litmus test: If you're the sort of person who 'got' Brother Theodore, you will instinctively understand why it would be too safe and too predictable to describe him in a conventional, fact-driven, linear documentary. If not, not


'To my Great Chagrin' is as funny as the man himself (one commentator compares his wit to Dorothy Parker's) and unexpectedly touching. Gottlieb seems to have spent his life  between two stools, as the German saying goes. In fact, many more than two stools. He understood the comic potential of his German accent and peculiar habits in America, but had too much dignity to fully exploit the Mitteleuropäisch mad-scientist, crazy-philosopher shtick. He was capable of saying spectacularly funny things, but never wanted to be seen as truckling to his audience. He craved mainstream success in Hollywood horror films, but was either unwilling or unable to work in a team. Finally, Theodore had the deep aversion to confessional self-revelation typical of the European educated elite -- Lenny Bruce once advised him to talk about the Holocaust during his act, whereupon Gottlieb told Bruce to stop using profanities -- yet his entire act consisted of sublimated references to his experience of alienation, rootlessness, and senseless death. The overall impression is of a man whose profound sense of identification with the values and the Weltanschauung of Europe frustrated his intermittent twinges of longing to adapt to life in America. He died alone, but not friendless.


'To My Great Chagrin' is available for a 'donation' of $20, which you can make here. The DVD is rather bare-bones (it contains only the film), but the producers have promised more features and bonuses as resources allow. So keep the Paypal donations coming!

The Adorno Industrial Zone and Mysterious Canal Technology

Over the weekend I  mounted Heinrich, my trusty vsf fahrradmanufaktur (g) bicycle, fired up my legs, and rode to the Altenberger Dom (g), a Gothic cathedral located in the Bergisches Land area just east of Cologne.

My route took me through beautiful downtown Leverkusen, where I had the pleasure not only of riding on Karl Marx Street,

Public Transportation = Socialism

but also of turning from the Heinrich-Lübke Street (almost) directly into the Theodor Adorno Strasse.* The Adorno Strasse, it turns out, is home to an industrial park:

Did he show up to cut the ribbon?

I hope the Aldi has a large section of discount Frankfurt School publications, right next to the bodice-rippers.

Leverkusen, like a lot of places in Germany that are supposed to be rather grim, turns out to be cross-hatched with pleasant and well-designed green spaces that help to soften the impact of the ugly subsidized-housing high-rises:

Apartment High-Rise Above Field

Nevertheless, there were still some regrettable sights near the soccer stadium (where regrettable sights tend to congregate):

Fear Centor, Overlord of Gamma Quadrant!

But let's concentrate on the nice, leafy parts of Leverkusen, like the Green Path. It's as green as it claims, although like most nature spots near urban areas, you'll see evidence of urban infrastructure -- sewage manholes, groundwater measurement devices, discreet exhaust vents, etc. -- if you look closely enough. (All that lush greenery requires behind-the-scenes attention from the Deputy Assistant for Maintenance to the Southeast Leverkusen Regional Superintendent for Green Spaces.) It's sort of like being in a convincing life-size diorama of nature.

Usually, it's not hard to figure out what these discreet chunks of metal and concrete are for. Sometimes, they even have discreet plaques (g) explaining exactly what they're for. But this piece of ditch technology puzzled me:

Touch the wires and you'

What is it for? It looks like it does something -- perhaps something noisy -- but what? Any help would be appreciated.

Below the fold you'll find pretty pictures of the old church, if you're interested.

Continue reading "The Adorno Industrial Zone and Mysterious Canal Technology" »