Writings on an Ethical Life

Singer, Peter
Ecco Press/HarperCollins 2000
ISBN 0-06-019838-9
361pp
Date finished: 2004-06-14

Singer's 1999 appointment to a professorship at Princeton sparked a small storm of controversy because his pro-euthanasia views don't sit well with religious groups in the US, and headlines such as "Bioethics professor advocates euthanasia of 'disabled' infants" spurred strong reactions from people who hadn't actually read Singer's work. This book, published the year after the controversy, collects excerpts from Singer's most notable works and is a good overview of his thought. As you'd expect, the arguments are longer and more nuanced than the headlines can express. (Wikipedia's entry on Singer is pretty even-handed.)

Start with his views on animal rights. Animals feel pain and pleasure, and have an emotional life; some of them, such as the great apes, are comparable to humans of limited intellect in their language and tool-building skills. But it's perfectly OK to kill these animals for food, for leather, for medical experimentation, or even for amusement. Singer argues that this is speciesism, analogous to sexism or racism: "I'll value this creature's life less just because it's not human." Developing this idea takes many pages because Singer rebuts common arguments against a special status for humans, often using a Socratic approach of demonstrating contradictions in the commonly-held view.

I found these arguments impossible to shake, and reading this book might just be the thing that pushes me into full vegetarianism; whether or not meat is tasty, it seems clear that killing animals to consume them is ethically indefensible.

Singer doesn't mind if logic leads to uncomfortable conclusions. For example, he quotes an estimate that US$200 purchases enough food and medical care for a child in a Third World country to grant them an extra four years of life (from age 2 up to age 6). Most First World inhabitants have much more money than that. Logically we should be giving away 20% or 30% or 50% of our income to famine relief, because the money would only buy us trinkets and toys while it would purchase life itself for the needy. Putting money into these terms is very uncomfortable. Is having that $100 DVD player as important as two years of a child's life? My car payment is $400 a month; is it worth two lives per month so I can avoid taking the bus?

Infanticide is the source of Singer's most controversial views, but while his conclusions are radical they're not as brutal as claimed. The starting premise is that it's worse to kill a "person" than a non-person. A person is an entity that can foresee its own death, make plans for the future, and do various other things. Animals (apes included) are not persons. Humans may be persons if they're conscious and haven't suffered brain damage, but they're not persons if they're a fetus, have no brain, etc. The crux of Singer's point is that newborn babies aren't really persons, either; their mental equipment hasn't fully formed yet. Therefore it's more unethical to kill an adult or an older child than a newborn.

The conclusion he draws from this is fairly limited; he thinks that it should be permitted to euthanize a severely disabled newborn, and that laws might be enacted to this effect. He does not think that parents should be able to euthanize a healthy newborn -- adoption is always possible for a healthy infant -- or that we should just go around killing random newborn children of other people (that would cause severe pain to the parents). This view seems harsh, but most people agree with the weaker statement that it's OK for mothers to abort fetuses shown to have Downs Syndrome; Singer simply extends the period of acceptability farther. I'm somewhat uncomfortable with the argument, but the basic point isn't that far from more general discussions of euthanasia.

In the excerpts here, Singer's writing is precise and careful but still quite readable, staying close to real-world ethical issues and not drifting off into theory. I didn't expect to enjoy reading a book on ethics, but to my surprise this book was a joy to read.

Tagged: philosophy

Permalink: http://books.amk.ca/2004/06/Writings_Ethical_Life.html

%T Writings on an Ethical Life
%A Singer, Peter
%G ISBN 0-06-019838-9
%@ 2004-06-14
%P 361pp
%D 2000
%I Ecco Press/HarperCollins
%K philosophy

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