Peter Singer is often described as the world's most influential philosopher. He is also one of its most controversial. The author of important books such as Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, he helped launch the animal rights and effective altruism movements and contributed to the development of bioethics. Now, in Ethics in the Real World, Singer shows that he is also a master at dissecting important current events in a few hundred words.
In this book of brief essays, he applies his controversial ways of thinking to issues like climate change, extreme poverty, animals, abortion, euthanasia, human genetic selection, sports doping, the sale of kidneys, the ethics of high-priced art, and ways of increasing happiness. Singer asks whether chimpanzees are people, smoking should be outlawed, or consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized, and he reiterates his case against the idea that all human life is sacred, applying his arguments to some recent cases in the news. In addition, he explores, in an easily accessible form, some of the deepest philosophical questions, such as whether anything really matters and what is the value of the pale blue dot that is our planet. The collection also includes some more personal reflections, like Singer’s thoughts on one of his favorite activities, surfing, and an unusual suggestion for starting a family conversation over a holiday feast.
Now with a new afterword by the author, this provocative and original book will challengeand possibly changeyour beliefs about many real-world ethical questions.
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THE VALUE OF A PALE BLUE DOT
The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote: "Two things fill the heart with ever renewed and increasing awe and reverence, the more often and more steadily we meditate upon them: the starry firmament above and the moral law within."
This year, the 400 anniversary of Galileo's first use of a telescope, has been declared the International Year of Astronomy, so this seems a good time to ponder Kant's first source of "awe and reverence." Indeed, the goal of the commemoration — to help the world's citizens "rediscover their place in the universe" — now has the incidental benefit of distracting us from nasty things nearer to home, like swine flu and the global financial crisis.
What does astronomy tell us about "the starry firmament above"?
By expanding our grasp of the vastness of the universe, science has, if anything, increased the awe and reverence we feel when we look up on a starry night (assuming, that is, that we have got far enough away from air pollution and excessive street lighting to see the stars properly). But, at the same time, our greater knowledge surely forces us to acknowledge that our place in the universe is not particularly significant.
In his essay "Dreams and Facts," the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote that our entire Milky Way galaxy is a tiny fragment of the universe, and within this fragment our solar system is "an infinitesimal speck," and within this speck "our planet is a microscopic dot."
Today, we don't need to rely on such verbal descriptions of our planet's insignificance against the background of our galaxy. The astronomer Carl Sagan suggested that the Voyager space probe capture an image of Earth as it reached the outer reaches of our solar system. It did so, in 1990, and Earth shows up in a grainy image as a pale blue dot. If you go to YouTube and search for "Carl Sagan — Pale Blue Dot," you can see it, and hear Sagan himself telling us that we must cherish our world because everything humans have ever valued exists only on that pale blue dot.
That is a moving experience, but what should we learn from it?
Russell sometimes wrote as if the fact that we are a mere speck in a vast universe showed that we don't really matter all that much: "On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded."
But no such nihilistic view of our existence follows from the size of our planetary home, and Russell himself was no nihilist. He thought that it was important to confront the fact of our insignificant place in the universe, because he did not want us to live under the illusory comfort of a belief that somehow the world had been created for our sake, and that we are under the benevolent care of an all-powerful creator. "Dreams and Facts" concludes with these stirring words: "No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness."
After World War II, when the world was divided into nuclear-armed camps threatening each other with mutual destruction, Russell did not take the view that our insignificance, when considered against the vastness of the universe, meant that the end of life on Earth did not matter. On the contrary, he made nuclear disarmament the chief focus of his political activity for the remainder of his life.
Sagan took a similar view. While seeing the Earth as a whole diminishes the importance of things like national boundaries that divide us, he said, it also "underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Al Gore used the "pale blue dot" image at the end of his film, An Inconvenient Truth, suggesting that if we wreck this planet, we have nowhere else to go.
That's probably true, even though scientists are now discovering other planets outside our solar system. Perhaps one day we will find that we are not the only intelligent beings in the universe, and perhaps we will be able to discuss issues of interspecies ethics with such beings.
This brings us back to Kant's other object of reverence and awe, the moral law within. What would beings with a completely different evolutionary origin from us — perhaps not even carbon-based life forms — think of our moral law?
from Project Syndicate, May 14, 2009
DOES ANYTHING MATTER?
Can moral judgments be true or false? Or is ethics, at bottom, a purely subjective matter, for individuals to choose, or perhaps relative to the culture of the society in which one lives? We might have just found out the answer.
Among philosophers, the view that moral judgments state objective truths has been out of fashion since the 1930s, when logical positivists asserted that, because there seems to be no way of verifying the truth of moral judgments, they cannot be anything other than expressions of our feelings or attitudes. So, for example, when we say, "You ought not to hit that child," all we are really doing is expressing our disapproval of your hitting the child, or encouraging you to stop hitting the child. There is no truth to the matter of whether or not it is wrong for you to hit the child.
Although this view of ethics has often been challenged, many of the objections have come from religious thinkers who appealed to God's commands. Such arguments have limited appeal in the largely secular world of Western philosophy. Other defenses of objective truth in ethics made no appeal to religion, but could make little headway against the prevailing philosophical mood.
Last month, however, saw a major philosophical event: the publication of Derek Parfit's long-awaited book On What Matters. Until now, Parfit, who is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had written only one book, Reasons and Persons, which appeared in 1984, to great acclaim. Parfit's entirely secular arguments, and the comprehensive way in which he tackles alternative positions, have, for the first time in decades, put those who reject objectivism in ethics on the defensive.
On What Matters is a book of daunting length: two large volumes, totaling more than 1,400 pages, of densely argued text. But the core of the argument comes in the first 400 pages, which is not an insurmountable challenge for the intellectually curious — particularly given that Parfit, in the best tradition of English-language philosophy, always strives for lucidity, never using obscure words where simple ones will do. Each sentence is straightforward, the argument is clear, and Parfit often uses vivid examples to make his points. Thus, the book is an intellectual treat for anyone who wants to understand not so much "what matters" as whether anything really can matter, in an objective sense.
Many people assume that rationality is always instrumental: reason can tell us only how to get what we want, but our basic wants and desires are beyond the scope of reasoning. Not so, Parfit argues. Just as we can grasp the truth that 1 + 1 = 2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time. We can also have reasons (though not always conclusive reasons) to prevent others from suffering agony. Such self-evident normative truths provide the basis for Parfit's defense of objectivity in ethics.
One major argument against objectivism in ethics is that people disagree deeply about right and wrong, and this disagreement extends to philosophers who cannot be accused of being ignorant or confused. If great thinkers like Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham disagree about what we ought to do, can there really be an objectively true answer to that question?
Parfit's response to this line of argument leads him to make a claim that is perhaps even bolder than his defense of objectivism in ethics. He considers three leading theories about what we ought to do — one deriving from Kant, one from the social-contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and the contemporary philosophers John Rawls and T. M. Scanlon, and one from Bentham's utilitarianism — and argues that the Kantian and social-contract theories must be revised in order to be defensible.
Then he argues that these revised theories coincide with a particular form of consequentialism, which is a theory in the same broad family as utilitarianism. If Parfit is right, there is much less disagreement between apparently conflicting moral theories than we all thought. The defenders of each of these theories are, in Parfit's vivid phrase, "climbing the same mountain on different sides."
Readers who go to On What Matters seeking an answer to the question posed by its title might be disappointed. Parfit's real interest is in combating subjectivism and nihilism. Unless he can show that objectivism is true, he believes, nothing matters.
When Parfit does come to the question of "what matters," his answer might seem surprisingly obvious. He tells us, for example, that what matters most now is that "we rich people give up some of our luxuries, ceasing to overheat the Earth's atmosphere, and taking care of this planet in other ways, so that it continues to support intelligent life."
Many of us had already reached that conclusion. What we gain from Parfit's work is the possibility of defending these and other moral claims as objective truths.
from Project Syndicate, June 13, 2011
IS THERE MORAL PROGRESS?
After a century that saw two world wars, the Nazi Holocaust, Stalin's Gulag, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the atrocities in Rwanda and Darfur, the belief that we are progressing morally has become difficult to defend. Yet there is more to the question than extreme cases of moral breakdown.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations General Assembly's adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to the crimes committed during World War II, the Declaration sought to establish the principle that everyone is entitled to the same basic rights, irrespective of race, color, sex, language, religion, or other status. So, perhaps we can judge moral progress by asking how well we have done in combating racism and sexism.
Assessing the extent to which racism and sexism have actually been reduced is a daunting task. Nevertheless, recent polls by WorldPublicOpinion.org shed some indirect light on this question.
The polls, involving nearly 15,000 respondents, were conducted in 16 countries, representing 58% of the world's population: Azerbaijan, China, Egypt, France, Great Britain, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, the Palestinian Territories, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United States. In 11 of these countries, most people believe that, over their lifetimes, people of different races and ethnicities have come to be treated more equally.
On average, 59% say this, with only 19% thinking that people are treated less equally, and 20% saying that there has been no change. People in the United States, Indonesia, China, Iran, and Great Britain are particularly likely to perceive greater equality. Palestinians are the only people of whom a majority sees less equality for people of different racial or ethnic groups, while opinion is relatively evenly divided in Nigeria, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
An even stronger overall majority, 71%, regards women as having made progress toward equality, although once again, the Palestinian territories are an exception, this time joined by Nigeria. Russia, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan again have significant minorities saying that women are now treated less equally than they once were. In India, although only 53% say that women have gained greater equality, an additional 14% say that women now have more rights than men! (Presumably, they were thinking only of those females who are not aborted because prenatal testing has shown them not to be male.)
Overall, it seems likely that these opinions reflect real changes, and thus are signs of moral progress toward a world in which people are not denied rights on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex. That view is backed up by the polls' most striking results: very widespread rejection of inequality based on race, ethnicity, or sex. On average, 90% of those asked said that equal treatment for people of different races or ethnic origins is important, and in no country were more than 13% of respondents prepared to say that equal treatment is not important.
When asked about equal rights for women, support was almost as strong, with an average of 86% rating it important. Significantly, these majorities also existed in Muslim countries. In Egypt, for example, 97% said that racial and ethnic equality is important, and 90% said that equality for women is important. In Iran, the figures were 82% and 78%, respectively.
Compared to just a decade before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this represents a significant change in people's views. Equal rights for women — not simply suffrage, but also working outside the home or living independently — was still a radical idea in many countries. Openly racist ideas prevailed in Germany and the American South, and much of the world's population lived in colonies ruled by European powers. Today, despite what happened in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia — and appeared to be on the verge of happening after the recent disputed election in Kenya — no country openly accepts racist doctrines.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about equal rights for women. In Saudi Arabia, women are not even permitted to drive a car, let alone vote. In many other countries, too, whatever people may say about gender equality, the reality is that women are far from having equal rights.
This may mean that the surveys I have quoted indicate not widespread equality, but widespread hypocrisy. Nevertheless, hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, and the fact that racists and sexists must pay this tribute is an indication of some moral progress.
Words do have consequences, and what one generation says but does not really believe, the next generation may believe, and even act upon. Public acceptance of ideas is itself progress of a kind, but what really matters is that it provides leverage that can be used to bring about more concrete progress. For that reason, we should greet the poll results positively, and resolve to close the gaps that still exist between rhetoric and reality.
from Project Syndicate, April 14, 2008
GOD AND SUFFERING, AGAIN
The conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza is on a mission to debate atheists on the topic of the existence of god. He has been challenging all the prominent ones he can find, and has debated Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, and Michael Schermer. I accepted his invitation, and the debate took place at Biola University. The name "Biola" comes from "Bible Institute of Los Angeles," which tells you what the predominant religious orientation of the audience was.
Given that I was debating an experienced and evidently intelligent opponent, I wanted to stake my position on firm ground. So I argued that while I cannot disprove the existence of every possible kind of deity, we can be sure that we do not live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good. Christians, of course, think we do live in such a world. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering. If god is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much suffering. If he is all-good, he surely would have created a world without so much suffering.
Christians usually respond that god bestowed on us the gift of free will, and so is not responsible for the evil we do. This response fails to deal with the suffering of those who drown in floods, are burned alive in forest fires caused by lightning, or die of hunger or thirst during a drought.
Sometimes Christians attempt to explain this suffering by saying that all humans are sinners, and so deserve their fate, even if it is a horrible one. But infants and small children are just as likely to suffer and die in natural disasters as adults, and it seems impossible that they could deserve to suffer and die. Yet, according to traditional Christian doctrine, since they have descended from Eve, they inherit the original sin of their mother, who defied god's decree against eating from the tree of knowledge. This is a triply repellant idea, for it implies, firstly, that knowledge is a bad thing, secondly, that disobeying god's will is the greatest sin of all, and thirdly, that children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may justly be punished for them.
Excerpted from "Ethics in the Real World"
Copyright © 2016 Peter Singer.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Value of a Pale Blue Dot 3
Does Anything Matter? 6
Is There Moral Progress? 9
God and Suffering, Again 12
Godless Morality (with Marc Hauser) 15
Are We Ready for a “Morality Pill”? (with Agata Sagan) 19
The Quality of Mercy 23
Thinking about the Dead 27
Should This Be the Last Generation? 31
Philosophy on Top 35
Europe’s Ethical Eggs 41
If Fish Could Scream 44
Cultural Bias against Whaling? 47
A Case for Veganism 50
Consider the Turkey: Thoughts for Thanksgiving 55
In Vitro Meat 60
Chimpanzees Are People, Too 63
The Cow Who . . . 66
Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life
The Real Abortion Tragedy 73
Treating (or Not) the Tiniest Babies 77
Pulling Back the Curtain on the Mercy Killing of Newborns 81
No Diseases for Old Men 85
When Doctors Kill 89
Choosing Death 93
Dying in Court 97
Bioethics and Public Health
The Human Genome and the Genetic Supermarket 103
The Year of the Clone? 106
Kidneys for Sale? 110
The Many Crises of Health Care 114
Public Health versus Private Freedom? 118
Weigh More, Pay More 122
Should We Live to 1,000? 125
Population and the Pope 129
Sex and Gender
Should Adult Sibling Incest Be a Crime? 135
Homosexuality Is Not Immoral 139
Virtual Vices 142
A Private Affair? 146
How Much Should Sex Matter? (with Agata Sagan) 150
God and Woman in Iran 154
Holding Charities Accountable 163
Blatant Benevolence 167
Good Charity, Bad Charity 171
Heartwarming Causes Are Nice, But Let’s Give to Charity with Our Heads 175
The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art 179
Preventing Human Extinction (with Nick Beckstead and Matt Wage) 182
Happiness, Money, and Giving It Away 191
Can We Increase Gross National Happiness? 195
The High Cost of Feeling Low 199
No Smile Limit 202
Happy, Nevertheless 205
Bentham’s Fallacies, Then and Now 211
The Founding Fathers’ Fiscal Crisis 215
Why Vote? 219
Free Speech, Muhammad, and the Holocaust 222
The Use and Abuse of Religious Freedom 225
An Honest Man? 229
Is Citizenship a Right? 232
The Spying Game 236
A Statue for Stalin? 239
Should We Honor Racists? 243
Escaping the Refugee Crisis 249
Is Open Diplomacy Possible? 253
The Ethics of Big Food 257
Fairness and Climate Change (with Teng Fei) 260
Will the Polluters Pay for Climate Change? 264
Why Are They Serving Meat at a Climate Change Conference? (with Frances Kissling) 268
Dethroning King Coal 273
Paris and the Fate of the Earth 277
Science and Technology A Clear Case for Golden Rice 283
Life Made to Order 287
Rights for Robots? (with Agata Sagan) 291
A Dream for the Digital Age 295
A Universal Library 298
The Tragic Cost of Being Unscientific 302
Living, Playing, Working How to Keep a New Year’s Resolution 307
Why Pay More? 310
Tiger Mothers or Elephant Mothers? 313
Volkswagen and the Future of Honesty 317
Is Doping Wrong? 321
Is It OK to Cheat at Football? 324
A Surfing Reflection 328
Afterword to the Paperback Edition 331
What People are Saying About This
"Peter Singer is among the most vital moral voices of our time. He urges us to confront not only the question of what we should not do, but also the harder and larger questions of what we should do, and how much we owe to others."—Larissa MacFarquhar, author of Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help"Read this book. Every chapter will make you think. Some hopefully will make you think differently."—Dean Karlan, coauthor of More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World's Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy"Peter Singer might well be the most important philosopher alive. He is certainly one of the most enjoyable to read, and it's a joy to browse through this collection of his smart short essays. This is public philosophy at its best—clear, controversial, and deeply rational."—Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil"Peter Singer has done more good for the world than any other living philosopher, with ideas that have helped fight poverty, transform medical ethics, and protect animals. In this collection of popular essays, his intellect, courage, humanity, good sense, and good humor shine through. This is practical philosophy at its very best, stripped of all pretense and wisely applied to the most important questions of our time."—Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them"Peter Singer, one of the world's best-known and most significant philosophers, addresses some profoundly important issues in this book. He presents the issues and arguments with a lucidity, accessibility, and sharpness reminiscent of Bertrand Russell, another philosopher who sought to have a serious social impact. Ethics in the Real World will undoubtedly be a force for the good."—Bart Schultz, University of Chicago"Perhaps more than any modern philosopher, Peter Singer has focused on the question of how to live a better life. If you want a philosophy that can directly alleviate human and animal suffering, read this wonderful book."—Sam Harris, author of the New York Times bestsellers The End of Faith, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up