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Love him or hate him, you certainly can't ignore him. For the past twenty years, Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics Peter Singer has pushed the hot buttons of our collective conscience. In addition to writing the book that sparked the modern animal rights movement, Singer has challenged our most closely held beliefs on the sanctity of human life, the moral obligation's of citizens of affluent nations toward those living in the poorest countries of the world, and much more, with arguments that ...
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Love him or hate him, you certainly can't ignore him. For the past twenty years, Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics Peter Singer has pushed the hot buttons of our collective conscience. In addition to writing the book that sparked the modern animal rights movement, Singer has challenged our most closely held beliefs on the sanctity of human life, the moral obligation's of citizens of affluent nations toward those living in the poorest countries of the world, and much more, with arguments that intrigue as often and as powerfully as they incite.
Writings On An Ethical Life offers a comprehensive collection of Singer's best and most provocative writing, as chosen by Singer himself. Among the controversial subjects addressed are the moral status of animals, environmental account-ablility, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and the ultimate choice of living an ethical life. This book provides an unsurpassed one-volume view of both the underpinnings and the applications of Singer's governing philosophy.
The following position has been influential in recent moral philosophy: there is no such thing as moral expertise; in particular, moral philosophers are not moral experts. Leading philosophers have tended to say things like this:
It is silly, as well as presumptuous, for any one type of philosopher to pose as the champion of virtue. And it is also one reason why many people find moral philosophy an unsatisfactory subject. For they mistakenly look to the moral philosopher for guidance.
or like this:
It is no part of the professional business of moral philosophers to tell people what they ought or ought not to do.... Moral philosophers, as such, have no special information not available to the general public, about what is right and what is wrong; nor have they any call to undertake those hortatory functions which are so adequately performed by clergymen, politicians, leader-writers . . .
Assertions like these are common; arguments in support of them less so. The role of the moral philosopher is not the role of the preacher, we are told. But why not? The reason surely cannot be, as C. D. Broad seems to suggest, that the preacher is doing the job "so adequately." It is because those people who are regarded by the public as "moral leaders of the community" have done so badly that "morality," in the public mind, has come to mean a system of prohibitions against certain forms of sexual enjoyment.
Another possible reason for insisting that moral philosophers are not moral experts is the ideathat moral judgments are purely emotive, and that reason has no part to play in their formation. Historically, this theory may have been important in shaping the conception of moral philosophy that we have today. Obviously, if anyone's moral views are as good as anyone else's, there can be no moral experts. Such a crude version of emotivism, however, is held by few philosophers now, if indeed it was ever widely held. Even the views of C. L. Stevenson do not imply that anyone's moral views are as good as anyone else's.
A more plausible argument against the possibility of moral expertise is to be found in Ryle's essay "On Forgetting the Difference between Right and Wrong," which appeared in Essays in Moral Philosophy, edited by A. Melden. Ryle's point is that knowing the difference between right and wrong involves caring about it, so that it is not, in fact, really a case of knowing. One cannot, for instance, forget the difference between right and wrong. One can only cease to care about it. Therefore, according to Ryle, the honest man is not"even a bit of an expert at anything" (P. 157).
It is significant that Ryle says that "the honest man" is not an expert, and later he says the same of "the charitable man." His conclusion would have had less initial plausibility if he had said "the morally good man." Being honest and being charitable are often--though perhaps not as often as Ryle seems to think--comparatively simple matters, which we all can do, if we care about them. It is when, say, honesty clashes with charity (If a wealthy man overpays me, should I tell him, or give the money to famine relief?) that there is need for thought and argument. The morally good man must know how to resolve these conflicts of values. Caring about doing what is right is, of course, essential, but it is not enough, as the numerous historical examples of well-meaning but misguided men indicate.
Only if the moral code of one's society were perfect and undisputed, both in general principles and in their application to particular cases, would there be no need for the morally good man to be a thinking man. Then he could just live by the code, unreflectively. If, however, there is reason to believe that one's society does not have perfect norms, or if there are no agreed norms on a whole range of issues, the morally good man must try to think out for himself the question of what he ought to do. This "thinking out" is a difficult task. It requires, first, information. I may, for instance, be wondering whether it is right to eat meat. I would have a better chance of reaching the right decision, or at least a soundly based decision, if I knew a number of facts about the capacity of animals for suffering, and about the methods of rearing and slaughtering animals now being used. I might also want to know about the effect of a vegetarian diet on human health, and, considering the world food shortage, whether more or less food would be produced by giving up meat production. Once I have got evidence on these questions, I must assess it and bring it together with whatever moral views I hold. Depending on what method of moral reasoning I use, this may involve a calculation of which course of action produces greater happiness and less suffering; or it may mean an attempt to place myself in the positions of those affected by my decision; or it may lead me to attempt to "weigh up" conflicting duties and interests. Whatever method I employ, I must be aware of the possibility that my own desire to eat meat may lead to bias in my deliberations.
None of this procedure is easy -- neither the gathering of information, nor the selection of what information is relevant, nor its combination with a basic moral position, nor the elimination of bias. Someone familiar with moral concepts and with moral arguments, who has ample time to gather information and think about it, may reasonably be expected to reach a soundly based conclusion more often than someone who is unfamiliar with moral concepts and moral arguments and has little time. So moral expertise would seem to be possible. The problem is not so much to know...Writings on an Ethical Life. Copyright © by Peter Singer. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted September 19, 2007
Unfortunately when it comes to the essays from Animal Liberation a taste will prove to be utterly insufficient. I use this book when I want to read Singer's essays on topics not concerned with animals. When I want to blow my mind I resort to the hard stuff: Animal Liberation.
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