In which I argue with Peter Singer

A dangerous thing to do, for he\’s much brighter than I am. However, he\’s got the wrong end of the stick here.

But that would not be the right answer, because £5,000 will buy much more in Afghanistan than it would buy in Britain – according to international price comparisons, perhaps four or five times as much. Let\’s say five times. Even with that adjustment, it is going to take 32 Afghan lives to be worth the same as one British life.

There is nothing unique about Britain in this respect. The Guardian has reported that the US generally pays no more than $2,500 in compensation for the loss of an Afghan life. In contrast, after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the US government set up a Victim Compensation Fund. The average payment it made to families of victims was $1.8m. Adjusting for purchasing power at a 5:1 ratio suggest that the US regards the life of an American as equivalent to the lives of 144 Afghans.

He then goes on to suggest that compensation to the familes of Afghans killed by coalition forces should be compensated at the same rate as the levels we do here at home.

One small problem would be that, well, let\’s not beat about the bush here, what do you think would be the effect of offering $360,000 for each Afghan purportedly killed by coalition troops? I think we\’d find a number of idiot cousins and the like being snuffed out and troops set up for it, don\’t you?

But leave that aside for a moment.

The point is that compensation should indeed be paid for wrongful death. But not at the value that we put on wrongful death here in the UK: but at the level that Afghans put on wrongful death in Afghanistan. Look at it the other way around. If an Afghan kills someone in the UK, do we think that Afghan levels of compensation would be appropriate?

No, quite.

And we do know what the price of a life is in Afghanistan. They\’ve actually got a system which provides such a value, \”diyya\”, a part of Sharia law. Blood money if you like. Not a million miles away from our former Anglo Saxon system in fact.

The real point is that no, all lives are not equal in value. Their value is the value that is put on them in the society where they live. Not us deciding what is the value of an Afghan life, but Afghans deciding upon the value of an Afghan life.

10 thoughts on “In which I argue with Peter Singer”

  1. I don’t see how you can value a human life, since there is (a) no market in lives and (b) no two lives will have the same value to the compensatee. It is also difficult to see why anyone gets compensated for the loss of a life, since the person who has actually lost it is, er, dead. I hope not to die any time soon, but I’m not entirely clear who, if I should, has lost any meaningfully measurable value other than myself, and I will be in a state where I don’t need it.

    Do husbands have a higher value than wives, and do marrieds have a higher value than spinsters? Should troops concentrate on topping old maids? What if you kill a dependent? Isn’t that a net gain for the family (if they are the compensatees)? If a baby is killed, do we go on its current value (negative) or potential future value (which will probably be positive, but of unknown magnitude)?

    I’m not sure about this, really I’m not.

  2. Another issue seems to be that he is comparing what the US government is paying in compensation to the families of its own citizens killed by foreign terrorists with what the US government is paying in compensation for foreign citizens killed by its soldiers…

    The real comparison should be between what the foreign terrorists have paid for their victims in the US (or any other place) with what the US government is paying. That comparison would show that the US government is being generous.

    Or you could just, more rationally, conclude that the the above events are not comparable wherefor his argument is meaningless.

  3. Whenever I’ve heard Peter Singer speak he has never struck me as being overly bright. He very much comes across to me as someone pushing an agenda rather than the philosopher he is claimed to be.

    Judging by recent events, the Afghans value human life much less than a book.

  4. Western levels of compensation for wrongful killings in Afghanistan would at least provide a considerable disincentive to the commission (negligent or intentional) of wrongful killings. And that would surely be a good thing.

  5. I think it was Mark Steyn who summed up “the intellectual” Peter Singer :

    “Peter Singer thinks it’s wrong to kill animals and eat them but it’s OK to have sex with them”.

  6. So Much For Subtlety

    An American general has already got in trouble for implying that Afghans are passing off burns to their children as injuries by American ordinance in order to get compensation.

    Let’s hope they are not inflicting them specially.

    But Singer is wrong. The solution is not for us to value them as much as we value our own, but for them to value us as much as they value their own. Which is not saying much I admit, but it would be a start.

  7. Peter Singer is not cleverer than you, so don’t worry. He is actually quite stupid, a professional philosophical charlatan – I’ve seen him “perform” and he’s a joke.

    Goes around being controversial and making money. Sort of like a chattering class Jeremy Clarkson. Best ignored.

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