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Review of Practical Ethics by Peter Singer

September 20th 2006 01:21
Practical ethics by Peter Singer


Peter Singer
Peter Singer is possibly the best-known ethicist on the planet. He's famous in the English-speaking world as one of the instigators of the modern animal rights movement (Animal liberation being one of the blockbusters of Anglo-American philosophy). And he's notorious in Germany for his views on euthanasia.

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer
The first edition of Practical ethics was published in 1979, and it's now common, in extract form anyway, in university courses. The 1993 second edition has new chapters on refugees and the environment, and new sections on equality and disability, embryo experimentation, and the treatment of academics in Germany.

Ethics edited by Peter Singer
The book is something of a companion work to Singer's Oxford reader on ethics, which is a collection of ethical writings from throughout history. The reader aims at inclusiveness; whereas Practical ethics aims at a persuasive presentation of Singer's own preference-utilitarian views.

You have to respect the brave manner in which Singer dares to follows his reasoning even into unconventional places (eg he believes infanticide should be permitted until one month after birth).

Not every major ethical issue is dealt with (no mention, for instance, of just wars, death penalty, cloning, pornography), but there is nevertheless a large range.

You'll get from the book a sense of how interconnected many issues are.


Why is it worth reading?

Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham
Firstly, it's very clearly written, in style and in structure.

John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
Secondly, utilitarianism itself is coherent, complete, clear, and Peter Singer is the best introduction to it. Coherent -- utilitarianism is by and large uncontradictory. Complete -- there is a utilitarian side, and a utilitarian solution, to most of the problems people are troubled by. Clear -- how to apply utilitarianism is reasonably straightforward, at least on first glance; it's not like endless Jesuitical or rabbinical argument.

Henry Sidgwick
Henry Sidgwick
Practical ethics is therefore a sort of touchstone. You might well disagree with a lot of it. But, having read it, you can say, "Peter Singer thinks x." It's a shortcut for expressing the utilitarian side to a discussion, and a way of showing what a reasonable person, using a consistent rule, can believe.

Thirdly, a trite but appropriate adjective is "provocative" -- Practical ethics unsettles complacent beliefs -- it makes you question, and defend or reject, what you took for granted.


An outline of the twelve chapters

-- Chapter 1. The foundation of ethics is equal consideration for "interests", wherever they lie.

-- Chapter 2. Even if there are genetic differences between cultures or genders, these are morally irrelevant (if you treat them as relevant, you're not showing equal consideration for interests wherever they lie). However, equal consideration for interests can lead to unequal results (eg financial aid to the person born poor).

-- Chapter 3. Differences between species are morally irrelevant (speciesism is not showing equal consideration for interests wherever they lie). Our interests in tasting meat don't outweigh animals' interests in avoiding suffering.

-- Chapter 4. There's nothing sacred about life in itself, nor human life in itself. What's importantly wrong with killing is that it violates future-directed interests. Also, it's arguable that it decreases, or will decrease, the total amount of happiness in the world.

-- Chapter 5. You need self-consciousness to have future-directed interests, so it's arguable that there's nothing wrong with killing things that don't have self-consciousness and are "replaceable". Some animals are rational and self-conscious, and some aren't. Killing an adult chimp is worse than killing a human infant.

-- Chapter 6. Until a fetus has the capacity for pain and pleasure (18 weeks), it's morally neutral whether to kill it. Until it has self-awareness (one month after birth), it should have the same rights as any other non-self-aware animal. In cases of extreme disability it's natural and humane to kill the infant, in order to avoid suffering to both child and parents.

-- Chapter 7. Non-voluntary euthanasia (eg the person is in a permanent coma) is neither good nor bad in itself. Voluntary euthanasia is morally acceptable, since the patient wants to die now, and has no interest in a future. Legalizing euthanasia might cause a small number of unnecessary deaths, but these are far outweighed by the large amount of pain and suffering that not legalizing euthanasia will cause.

-- Chapter 8. There's no moral difference between act and omission, between killing someone and letting them die. It's only consequences that matter. Therefore, rich countries allowing poor countries to die is murder.

-- Chapter 9. There's no moral difference between political refugees and economic refugees. Immigration policy should be based on the interests of all affected, us as well as them. Until the point when a society is unsustainable for reasons of racial tension or ecological damage, you're under an obligation to admit refugees. Our interests in luxury don't outweigh refugees' interests in a decent standard of life.

-- Chapter 10. There are some things that, once lost, no amount of money can regain. We should protect the environment for the sake of its value to us. It does not in itself have any interests, because it's not sentient.

-- Chapter 11. The rightness or wrongness of civil disobedience depends on consequences.

-- Chapter 12. You can't rationally persuade a psychopath to act morally, unless he/she happens to be the sort of person for whom living ethically is an important part of living a meaningful life.

Peter Singer


This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License

It incorporates material from Peter Singer's website, from, and from the Wikipedia articles on Peter Singer, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick.
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