Ethics in the Real World
by Peter Singer, Princeton, £19.95
According to Princeton’s blurb-writer, Singer “is often described as the world’s most influential philosopher”. Philosophically what is important, of course, is whether his influence is for the good or the bad, and to test that, it is helpful to look at these 82 rather journalistic essays on “things that matter” – topics indeed much-debated in the contemporary Western world and beyond. One must grant to Singer that although in these essays he writes in a breezy, non-technical style, he appears at times to pack considerable logical punch. That impression may on reflection turn out to be superficial.
Singer’s themes are wide-ranging: from a denial of the sanctity of life to the rights of animals and (perhaps in future) of robots. He asks how one can choose which to support from a variety of apparently worthy charitable causes, questions the grotesque prices paid for un-artistic modern art and ranges from the ethics of cheating in football and cycling to whether smoking should be banned by law to whether homosexuality is immoral to a plea that sex between siblings be made legal.
Singer is hostile to all religion – Catholicism in particular – largely because of “backward” teachings on sexuality. Nevertheless, he accepts that there are objective moral truths and parades a strong moral sense, being especially concerned about poverty and sickness in the developing world and our comparative lack of concern with them. He asks questions about unethical practices by big corporations, about animal welfare and climate change (on which subject he assumes that changes in our industrial and agricultural practices will achieve notable global improvement – as distinct from mainly local benefits such as reductions of air pollution in cities.)
Religion being largely immoral (at best to be regarded as a private hobby), Singer purports to preach ethics without it. Thus he knows – somehow – what is of objective value (a word he uses regularly) and what is less or minimally so.
This presents us with the problem: why should we believe him? Other, that is, than because what he advocates is in the main part and parcel of a “progressive” world view which he shares with other contemporary gurus such as John Rawls and the late Richard Rorty. These tell us that, for example, democracy is good always and for everyone, and that we should try to reduce suffering for ourselves and others.
But we are entitled to ask: why do – or should – we so think and so act? What are the first principles of such claims? Singer certainly displays a strong feeling that some things are simply wrong, such as denying people the option of an abortion or a self-inflicted death. That can be seen to depend on mere assertion and personal preference. Thus he can write that “if a form of sexual activity [Singer is referring to homosexual acts] brings satisfaction to those who take part in it, and harms no one, what can be immoral about it”? The implausible claim that homosexual acts harm no one suffices to explain that it cannot be immoral and Singer is able to rationalise his wishes, feelings and desires well enough to satisfy his “philosophical” instincts.
But why should he do even that – unless for propaganda purposes? Jeremy Bentham is one of his heroes, and there is no doubt that Bentham was effective as a philanthropist. Yet when asked why he helped people, his logically correct answer (as, and despite his denials, must be Singer’s too) was that he liked doing so. It should hardly be necessary to point out that Hitler and Stalin preferred rather different behaviours, satisfying different kinds of desires – and acclaimed philosophers were able to rationalise things for them too.
Singer comes over in some ways as nice, warm-hearted, Australian-blokey, and perhaps is so; yet it has been observed that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. His advocacy of infanticide – for now restricted to hard cases – and euthanasia combine with his explicit rejection of the sanctity of human life to suggest a more sinister face. It is that more sinister aspect which has won him much of his fashionable acclaim – promoting in turn his more threatening ambitions. Singer’s hero Bentham knew that rights must, for an atheist, be “nonsense upon stilts” yet Singer drags them in almost as regularly as does Hillary Clinton.
He must know he has no entitlement to them unless he accepts that human law is somehow divine. In this at least some future Hillary might learn from him.
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