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How are we to Live? by Peter Singer

Michael Williams describes Peter Singer’s attempt to take the point of view of the universe.

When I studied philosophy as an undergraduate in the 1960s it was at an English university which had completely espoused the empirical/analytic approach. Whilst I enjoyed my studies greatly, I always felt that there was one question which no one was answering; the question was, “What is the meaning of Life?” When we asked our teachers to give us their answer to this question they either fell off their chairs laughing or looked at us as if we were mad. They told us that such questions were metaphysical and, because the metaphysical had been shown to be meaningless, it was therefore a non-question. Philosophy, they said, existed precisely to disinfect language of such questions altogether.

This response never satisfied me and I warm to Peter Singer’s book because he wants to resurrect that question and put it back at the heart of philosophy. The way we phrase the question will, of course, be very important. Singer puts it like this, “Is there anything worth living for beyond the world of my own self-interest?” Or to put it another way, “When ethics and self interest seem to conflict, how do we make our ultimate choices?”

What is impressive about the book is that he searches for an answer to these questions not by abandoning the philosophical tradition of the English-speaking world but by examining that tradition to uncover answers within it. What is less impressive is that his omission of the continental traditions in ethics leaves his argument weaker than it would otherwise have been (we will return to this point later).

Although Singer draws on a wide range of sources, ancient philosophy, neareastern and far eastern myths, modern biology and so on, his philosophical argument is really the journey from Hobbes to Hare. Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century English philosopher, gives us the classical statement of the selfinterest principle. For Hobbes all that human beings ever do boils down to selfinterest. I say ‘boils down to self-interest’ because Hobbes’ theory is a very sophisticated one. He acknowledges that on the surface human beings are capable of acts of wonderful altruism even to the extent of laying down one’s life for someone. But, in Leviathan (1651) he argues that such acts, when analysed correctly, are entirely governed by the self-interest principle. I only lay down my life for my friend because I fear the more painful outcome of having to live with the guilt of having let her down. It is out of this tradition, which has its roots in ancient philosophy, that the modern doctrine of self-interest comes.

Singer sees this doctrine as the one which underlies the whole of our modern consumerist/capitalist way of life. He is particularly critical of the Thatcher, Reagan/Bush, Hawke era which he characterises as a time of greed par excellence. He shows how the ancient suspicion of usury, which prevented greed getting out of hand, gave way to modern a voracious capitalism. He explains how enlightened self-interest was elevated to an unquestionable truth by people like Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776). Singer maintains that, far from bringing a general improvement in human wealth, this principle of self-interest is a time-bomb waiting to destroy us all and the planet with us. He appeals to all human beings to discard this principle and to look instead to the good of others, to the good of the environment, the third world, and of all those in need before it is too late. He exposes what he sees as the reductionism and circularity in Hobbes’ arguments, reasoning that, because Hobbes’ theory is unfalsifiable, it is therefore meaningless. It might be of value as a way of accounting for certain biological facts but, as an explanation of human ethical action, it is severely wanting.

Having exposed the fallacy of selfinterest he goes on to argue for a version of R.M. Hare’s universalisability argument. We should live, not simply by reference to ourselves, but by reference to the needs of others, indeed by reference to the whole universe. Ethics is a matter of putting ourselves in the position of others before making any moral judgement of our own. What is this alternative? It is something like following the Golden Rule, “Love your neighbour as yourself,” (Jesus) “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour,” (Rabbi Hillel) “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others,” (Confucius) “Let no man do to another that which would be repugnant to himself,” (the Mahabharata).

Singer insists that we must take the universalisability principle further than this. We must not only look upon the world from the perspective of our neighbour, we must look at it from the perspective of our enemy too. We must also look upon it from the perspective of animal life, plant life and the environment. This is why his answer to the question, “How are we to live?” is answered only when we reply, “Live by taking the point of view of the universe!”

Philosophically there are certain weakness in his argument. Many of the standard criticisms of Hare’s universalisability motif would need to be attended to before we could accept it as water-tight. This is why it is a pity, as I mentioned earlier, that he does not draw on the powerful continental philosophers. For example, his discussion of the subjectivity and narcissism which infects so much of our modern life, would have been much better if he had used Kierkegaard’s distinction between the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. His discussion of the Golden Rule would also have been enhanced if he had drawn on Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of the vulnerable Other. His espousal of ‘the point of view of the universe’ would also have been enriched by a discussion of Jürgen Habermas’ Discourse Ethics.

These criticisms apart, this book is a jolly good read. It does not require any previous background in philosophy, and the human stories with which it abounds hold the interest and are very engaging. Though some of his arguments are not water-tight, he is surely right to say that those who gave their lives when they befriended and rescued Jews in Nazi Germany did so, not from enlightened selfinterest, but from genuine altruism. Such testimonies as these mean that we too can hope to move beyond our own self-interest into a genuinely ethical way of life.

© Revd Canon M. Williams 1999

Michael Williams is Vicar of Bolton, St Peter.

How are we to live? Ethics in an age of self-interest, by Peter Singer, Oxford University Press, 1997, £8.99

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