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Ten Reasons Why I Love/Hate Peter Singer

Mark Coffey puts forward five reasons to love and five reasons to loathe the man who has been called “the most influential living philosopher”.

Born in Australia in 1946, Peter Singer studied at the universities of Melborne and Oxford. He has lectured at Oxford, New York University, La Trobe, and Monash. In 1999 he moved to Princeton to become Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the Centre for Human Values. Singer’s works have been published in 15 languages and he is author or editor of 30 books, including Animal Liberation, (known as ‘the Bible of the Animal Liberation Movement’) which has sold over 500,000 copies. His book Practical Ethics has become the textbook of choice for many university ethics courses,and is Cambridge University Press’s most profitable philosophy text to date.

Five Reasons To Love Singer

1) Because his main aim is to reduce the suffering of sentient beings in the world, human or non-human. “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – insofar as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being.” (Animal Liberation) As a negative utilitarian, for whom reducing pain takes priority over the pursuit of pleasure, he writes, “My position on infanticide is motivated by the same thing that motivates my views about obligations to the poor: that is, a desire to avoid unnecessary suffering.” (Third Way Magazine, Vol 15, no 6.) On animal welfare, abortion, euthanasia, the ecology, global trade and Bush’s war against terror, this impetus runs throughout Singer’s work. In pursuing a consequentialist ethic with universal moral principles such as maximizing the ability of all sentient beings to satisfy their preferences, Singer assures his readers that “to live an ethical life is not self-sacrifice, but self-fulfilment.” (How Are We To Live?) His writings have persuaded many to give up meat-eating, or to give a percentage of their income to the world’s poorest, so he has undoubtedly done much personally and professionally to reduce pain and suffering in the world and promote the living of an ethical life.

2) He’s a practical as well as a theoretical philosopher. Singer is fond of Marx’s remark that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.” (Theses on Feuerbach) Singer confesses that whilst at Oxford he was more concerned with the practical issues of Vietnam and the atomic bomb than with R.M.Hare’s lectures on the ‘Is-Ought’ distinction. His first book, Democracy and Disobedience, about the ethical issue of disobedience to unjust laws, was in part a response to the issues raised by the Vietnam War, which Singer had protested against whilst an undergrad in Melbourne. In a landmark 1973 essay for The New York Times entitled ‘Philosophers are Back on the Job’, Singer signalled his intention to bring the “clarification and rigor” that philosophy can provide to issues considered the domain of “clergymen, politicians, and leader-writers.” Bertrand Russell said that he wrote to a popular audience as an ordinary citizen, but Singer unashamedly writes and acts as a Practical Philosopher. He gives 20% of his income to charity and doesn’t eat or wear any animal products. He has sat in a cage to draw attention to the plight of battery hens, and has been physically assaulted and vehemently condemned by disabled rights protesters angered by his comparisons between the capacities of intellectually disabled humans and nonhuman animals, and by his advocacy of voluntary euthanasia and infanticide. He has been arrested for attempting to photograph confined sows on a pig farm partly owned by Australia’s Prime Minister, and stood as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. When he arrived in Princeton (where he’s inspired students to start a chapter of UNICEF), proctors [university police] had to escort him around campus out of fear he’d be attacked.

3) He shakes Christians up with bracing criticisms of their historical track record in animal welfare, care of the environment, and the needs of the poorest of the poor. In an interview with Third Way Magazine he commented that, “In terms of ethical foundations, Christians are all over the place... you can’t find anything about genetic engineering in Scripture… and things that you do find in Scripture, like the idea that it’s extremely difficult for a rich person to go to heaven, Christians ignore.” He chastises the myopia of right-wing Christianity in America and Bush’s Christian rhetoric that doesn’t square with his environmental policies or miserly 0.15% commitment to the UN Aid programme. Having enjoyed privilege in the Christianized world for generations, he urges Christians to put their religious beliefs to one side and instead discuss on the basis of ‘public reason’, as befits their place in a modern secular democracy. To this extent he’s willing to listen to religious thinkers (up to a point), because although ethics is logically prior to religion (as Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma establishes), nonetheless, “Religious traditions often have long histories of dealing with ethical dilemmas, and the accumulation of wisdom and experience that they represent can give us valuable insight into particular problems.” (Bioethics, An Anthology) On a personal level, with openness and goodwill towards others Singer engages in a constructive spirit of co-operation. He shows a willingness to understand the positions of those with whom he disagrees, including those from religious traditions who are willing to set aside the confessional premises of their arguments and speak in terms of public reason – increasingly so since moving to America.

4) He is a fascinating writer – engaging, thoroughly researched, provocative and impassioned. He is also a populariser who is frequently found in the media, from The New York Times to TV talk shows. He generally keeps his references unobtrusive at the back of his books, and offers case studies and illuminating scenarios to consider (try Bob and his Bugatti in ‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty’ and see if you feel obligated to give more to Oxfam). In short, he would not be the textbook writer of choice for many university ethics courses, the best-selling philosophy writer for C.U.P. to date, or the single most significant thinker in persuading people to become vegetarian, if he was not a gifted and persuasive communicator. The clarity and rational focus he brings to the issues of globalization and Bush’s ethics in his most recent books make them hard to put down. One introduction to Singer describes its task as “selling water by the river,” such is the accessible style and clarity of thought which Singer offers his readers.

5) He shows us where we’re heading as a society. In the tradition of Nietzsche he challenges the practically secular but nominally religious to think their position through to its logical conclusion, thus dispensing with the sanctity of human life and maximizing the satisfaction of sentient preferences. Consistent, and unafraid to drive logic off a cliff and say what other philosophers are thinking but daren’t put down on paper, I think it’s fair to say that the radical current of his ideas has flowed from marginal tributaries to the mainstream of academic life. In an era where a commitment to individual freedom of choice is one of the few values people share in common, Singer’s ‘thin’ account of ethics which sets aside ‘thicker’ accounts rooted in distinctive traditions, shows us how a pluralist society of radically differing moral beliefs will be likely to do business, particularly in public policy making and the allocation of limited resources. He is evidently eager to accelerate a Copernican revolution in the ethical deliberations of the world’s legislative and judicial bodies: one can’t help agreeing with The Times’ assessment that Singer has a “penchant for provocation” through certain statements, as for example when he claims that experiments should be carried out on brain dead humans prior to on higher primates, or that killing a fish is worse than killing a foetus prior to three months. Yet as the concept of ‘Quality Adjusted Life Years’ attempts to find a practical solution to the allocation of scarce medical resources and begins to be employed in health budgeting, and as caps are put on treatment of certain conditions in the (British)National Health Service, the logic of Singer’s position will seem all the more persuasive and reasonable.

Five Reasons To Hate Singer

1) Because by ‘public reason’ Singer means ‘utilitarian exchanges in logic.’ Unless you trade in his currency, he won’t do business with you. He sees all goods (life, knowledge, beauty, justice, etc) as exchangeable in the common currency of pleasure and pain or personal preferences to this effect. However articulately the incommensurate nature of goods is argued (is morality really so simple as to weigh up justice against compassion, or promise keeping with truth telling?), these different goods are tossed onto Singer’s scales of utility and weighed. But the polymorphous nature of pleasure and pain has proven to be a perennial problem for utilitarians, and one which John Stuart Mill’s famous distinction between higher and lower pleasures does not satisfactorily resolve. Happiness, it turns out, is too subjective and indeterminate a basis on which to completely assess morality. Singer admits as much when he acknowledges that “if happiness is regarded not as the sole ultimate good, but only as one among ultimate goods, then we need, in practice, to compare and balance these goods with each other, and how we are to go about doing this is a problem to which no-one had produced a coherent answer.” (Unsanctifying Human Life p45.)

No-one doubts that utilitarianism offers an effective if somewhat pragmatic exchange-rate-mechanism in a world of conflicting preferences, but Singer mistakes this for the basis of a substantive ethic to live by. Thus for Germain Grisez, utilitarianism confuses practical judgements with moral ones, employing bureaucratic techniques to settle claims among rival goods (it is little wonder that the values of our commercial and industrial culture should become a paradigm for ethical thinking). Grisez comments in his book Choice and Consequentialism that “humankind today is not making progress, but rather is abandoning humanity, subjugating human persons and communities to a mode of judgement whose proper role belongs to the technical sphere.” Charles Taylor sees a “breathtaking systematisation” about utilitarian logic such as Singer’s, arguing that “There is no guarantee that [different] universally valid goods should be perfectly combinable…” (Sources of the Self) It may indeed be argued that utilitarianism has some responsibility for the inconclusiveness of modern moral debates, in leading us to believe that we share more values than we do. As it turns out, much of the language of moral traditions has no equivalent in the impoverished vocabulary of utilitarian moral Esperanto. As the late Bernard Williams put it, this new ‘thin’ language of ethics has “too few feelings and thoughts to match the world as it really is.” (Utilitarianism: For and Against) For another prominent modern ethicist, Alasdair MacIntyre, whilst the utilitarian pseudo-concept of the greatest happiness of the greatest number may have been instrumental in implementing public health measures and universal suffrage, “the use of a conceptual fiction in a good cause does not make it any less of a fiction.” (After Virtue)

2) Singer has taught a generation to think of ethics as rooted in dilemmas, in calculations of felicity, and in the consequences of their actions, as opposed to being concerned with the development of virtuous character and moral sentiment. For example, he still bangs on about criteria for personhood and whether or not the foetus is a person or has potentiality as being the central questions of the abortion debate, when statistics show that the key determinant in whether a foetus is carried through to term or not is the quality of the parental relationship. And ‘practical ethics’ should be about shaping good dispositions of character rather than ratiocinative cleverness. As Robert Solomon writes in his essay entitled ‘Peter Singer’s Expanding circle’, “My argument, in a sentence, is that Singer, in his emphasis on reason… underestimates the power of compassion… Reason, according to Singer, adds universal principles to the promptings of our biologically inherited feelings. The danger however, is that reason will also leave those feelings behind, as evidenced by any number of philosophers who simply ‘talk a good game’. [Morality requires] not reason (in the technical sense of the calculation on the basis of abstract principles), but rather… what many moral theorists call ‘empathy’ or ‘feeling with’… and it requires care and concern, the emotional sense that what happens to others matters.” (Singer and his Critics). Solomon argues that moral theorizing can warp and restrict intuitive moral sentiments, recalling that American soldiers in Cambodia in the 60s who were not college educated “typically remained sensitive to and repulsed by the war crimes” they saw, whereas college recruits “were able to rationalize these handily, using familiar utilitarian arguments, cutting themselves off quite effectively not only from guilt and shame but from the human tragedies they caused and witnessed.”

Harriet McBryde Johnson, a wheelchair-bound lawyer and disability rights activist who is herself severely paralyzed, comments that “Even as I’m horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can’t help being dazzled by his verbal facility… He is so… focused on the argument.” (The Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 06.04.03.) A member of the pressure group Not Dead Yet, who protested at Singer’s professorial appointment at Princeton (where 14 arrests were made), she says, “As a shield from the terrible purity of Singer’s vision… To justify my hopes that Singer’s theoretical world – and its entirely logical extensions – won’t become real, I’ll invoke the muck and the mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived.” In the end, such lives call into question the old assumption that abortions can be justified by the projected pain and purposelessness of future lives. Such projections tell us less about the prognosis of medical science and more about the values and judgments we make over lives ‘not worth living’ and the age-old faith of consequentialists in being able to predict the future. Whether this shift from Aristotle’s agent-based ethic to the action-based ethics of utilitarians like Singer serves society well or not, time alone will tell; but many think it will lead to a colder, less cohesive society where interdependence gives way to a more atomized existence.

3) Life is not lived in abstract case studies, but in personal ties and attachments. Yet in his emphasis on impartiality Singer has uprooted people from the privileged relationships that are the very nursery of ethical character and virtue. In an interview with Marianne Macdonald, Singer admits that he would save his children from a fire rather than a bunch of strangers who maximised the interests at stake, confessing “but I don’t know that I would have done the right thing.” (Herald Sun, 29.07.01) In reply to questions about the tens of thousands of dollars spent by Singer in providing private health care for his mother, Singer acknowledges that his own criteria – by which she is no longer a person and would suffer no wrong, indeed may be treated more compassionately, were she killed – determine that the money could probably be put to better use, yet he comments, “it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother.” But filial obligation, the sanctity of life, the intrinsic dignity of human beings and other principles such as natural rights cannot be invoked according to Singer. (He is fond of quoting Jeremy Bentham’s remark about natural rights being “nonsense on stilts.”) Such personal dilemmas highlight the complexity of negotiating life consistently with only utilitarian instrumental goods as one’s guide. Peter Berkowitz extends this critique of Singer with the observation that by his own standards, Singer has failed. In Practical Ethics Singer says, “an ethical judgement that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgement is to guide practice.” This violation of his own moral theory may represent the triumph of filial love over utility, but as Berkowitz concludes, “it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the well-heeled and well-ensconced academic discipline of practical ethics than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline, after an Oxford education, after twenty five years as a university professor, and after the publication of thousands of pages laying down clear cut rules on life-and-death issues, should reveal, only as the result of a reporter’s prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mother’s suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex.” (in ‘Other Peoples’ Mothers’, The New Republic online.) As Stephen Mulhall comments, “It is not as if we develop a concept of a person … and then relate to those we identify as persons in ways we judge appropriate to their metaphysical genus... Personhood is not the metaphysical foundation of an interpersonal ethics; it is itself an ethical notion. The attempt to analyse it while remaining morally neutral is bound to produce… mad conceptual science… We do not strive (when we do strive) to treat human infants and children, the senile and the severely disabled as fully human because we mistakenly attribute capacities to them that they lack, or because we are blind to the merely biological significance of a species boundary. We do it (when we do) because they are fellow human beings... because there but for the grace of God go I.” (‘Morality by Numbers’ in London Review of Books, August 2002.)

Despite his remarks about his family circumstances, Singer has the intuition that intuitions don’t make sense, and that very soon we need to reason at a deeper ‘critical’ level, rather than relying on the training of our inclinations by habit of character. Yet as Mill learned through the hard-earned experience of his mental breakdown, “the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings… when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives… Analytic habits [are] a perpetual worm at the root of the passions and the virtues.” (From Mill’s Autobiography.) Mill recognizes that “the pleasure of sympathy with human beings, and the feelings which made the good of others, and especially the good of mankind on a large scale, the object of existence” were those that his education “had failed to create…in sufficient strength to resist the dissolving influence of analysis.” The same can be said of the education Singer has given to the current generation of ethicists, for whom case studies and the computations of utility take precedence. Yet as Paul Tournier wrote, “Medicine is not practiced in a world of things, but of persons, fellowship, and sympathy.” (Quoted in David Ford, The Prenatal Person, Ethics from Conception to Birth.)

‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty’ is a wonderful article whose rationally persuasive argument works on me. But I never cease to find that it falls on deaf ears with sixth formers. The fact is that the best ethics courses are taught relationally in the home, or where roles and responsibilities allow us to exercise the virtues. For this reason, sixth formers will be far more likely to do something about extreme poverty as a result of doing community action in a local nursing home or caring for a disabled sibling or parent at home, than if they read a hundred guilt-eliciting articles by utilitarian philosophers. More often than not, our actions and will are motivated by underlying intuitions and dispositions of character rather than by dispassionate reason.

4) Singer is parasitic upon conventional morality whilst at the same time accelerating its decline. The dependency of Singer’s practical ethics upon the very tradition it purports to supersede may be seen from his borrowing R.M. Hare’s distinction between ‘intuitive’ and ‘critical’ levels of thinking. Unsound as rules and principles may be at the critical level of thought, Singer argues that in applying them “people will do better on the whole if they stick to… principles than if they do not.” The contradiction of such a position is that only by being parasitic upon conventional morality, with its traditional moral goods and virtues, can society maximize utility. Yet in admitting this, society loses its moral naivety and comes clean that conventional morality is only a tool of utility – an instrumental means to the end of satisfying preferences. Thus utilitarian morality reduces itself to absurdity. Singer acknowledges that a more rigid principle-based system of ethics has a certain practical rationality of its own, since we could “be calculating in less than ideal circumstances. We could be hurried or flustered. We might feel angry or hurt, or competitive... Or we might just not be good at thinking about such complicated issues as the likely consequences of a significant choice.” (Practical Ethics) Yet within the limits of his own system he is unable to provide the resources to develop dispositions of character and will. Thus moral character traits are borrowed and berated, used and eroded simultaneously.

A further example of his tacit dependency on conventional values is evident in respect of Singer’s idea that infanticide up to 28 days after birth is morally justifiable in the case of severely disabled newborns, as their sentience and self-awareness don’t reach the watermark of ‘personhood’. Yet as Peter Berkowitz points out, there is “no good utilitarian reason to confine the killing to severely disabled newborns... [Singer] dodges the logical implications of his newfangled utilitarian calculus, and seeks to build a fence around the sweeping license to take newborn human life so obviously authorised by his ethical outlook. Yet Singer cannot articulate the actual justifications for the restrictions that he would impose... He would be forced to acknowledge the dependence of his own ethical conclusions on the doctrine of the dignity of man that his ethical theory is designed rigorously to replace.” (In ‘Other Peoples’ Mothers’.)

5) Singer’s style of argument often owes more to the tactics of a debating chamber than the dispassionate logic of a philosophy class. As Roger Scruton points out, amidst Singer’s crystal-clear logic, in “statements such as ‘Mere differences of species is surely not a morally significant difference,’ the ‘mere’ and the ‘surely’ smooth away the very thing at issue – namely, the relevant distinctions between me and my dog – and so shift the burden of proof unnoticeably from the one who attacks common morality to the one who lives by it.” (The New Statesman, 22.01.01.) In the same vein Berkowitz claims that “Singer frequently attempts to discredit the views of opponents by taking their arguments to a logical extreme, while ignoring the extreme implications that inhere in the logic of his own doctrine.” He loves attacking straw men and “treating as settled matters issues over which reasonable people disagree,” or “proceeding as if atheism – which may be true, but certainly requires argument – were a self-evident truth, an unrebuttable assumption...” (‘Other People’s Mothers’) In the tradition of logical positivists, Singer takes his atheism to be self-evident, quoting with approval Frank Ramsey’s statement that “Theology and absolute Ethics are two famous subjects which we have realized to have no real objects.” (in How Are We To Live?) Thus Singer is content to assume his atheism, offering only minimal premises to back it up: “There is unnecessary and indefensible evil in the world. Therefore the God of traditional Christian belief does not exist.” (in The Age 14.02.1994) If he confined himself to the ethical implications of belief, Singer’s assumed atheism would be acceptable; but at times he lets slip just how illiberal his secularism is: “There is a cost to be paid for inculcating religious belief. It could diminish the inquiring spirit that is the basis of scientific investigation and technological progress. It leads to forms of belief that are potentially divisive and dangerous, because they are beyond argument and outside public reason.” (The President of Good and Evil)

Furthermore, Singer’s treatment of Biblical texts regularly reveals a willfully wooden literalism (e.g. taking the flood of Genesis 11, and Jesus’ sending of the Gadarene Swine into the sea as licensing the flooding of river valleys and exploitation of animals to mans own ends). His deliberate use of quotations from the Authorised Version of the Bible reinforces his desire to paint them as archaic relics from a remote past. He makes no serious attempt to explain the weaknesses of the Judeo-Christian tradition on anything but his own terms. However, to his credit, Singer is aware that some Christians have emphasised the stewardship rather than the dominion dimensions of Genesis, and he does appear to have encountered articulate religious thinkers in both Christian and Buddhist traditions worth listening to (even more so since moving to Princeton), although he generally confines them to the reference section of his books.

Conclusion

It was Wittgenstein who said that philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our reason by language [see ‘Bewitched’ in this very issue - Ed]. Just such a bewitchment can be seen in the fact that Singer’s logic should appear so reasonable. Once our moral judgement used to be embedded in traditions which provided richer accounts of virtue, of how rival goods should be assessed, and of the ends for which individuals and society should strive. Now the logic of utilitarianism seems the only discourse of exchange in a world where so little in the way of principles and values is shared in common. You can have your dearly-held personal beliefs, so long as you set them aside when you come to trade at the counter of ‘public reason’. Yet as Nietzsche pointed out, if you begin by bracketing your beliefs out, you will soon dispense with them altogether. So it is that ‘preference utilitarianism’ starts as a peculiar moral Esperanto, which we become accustomed to speaking, and very soon we’re thinking in terms of its instrumental logic and impersonal idioms. Yet it turns out that the moral life is more complex than Singer’s streamlined language allows us to express. How would Aristotle have responded to the suggestion that the ethical life could be reduced to a simple formula such as ‘the pursuit of pleasure or preferences and the avoidance of pain’ or ‘the greatest good of the greatest number’? My guess is that he’d have stressed that one’s intuitions arise out of rigorous training with role models of an ethical tradition who ingrain dispositions of character in their followers. To subsume such intuitions into critical thinking is to presume the moral self to be purely rational. Perhaps this is an error to which academic philosophers are peculiarly prone.

When good consequences result from the optimising techniques of the bureaucratic manager, we should not confuse this with a substantive morality, or an ethic to stir our will and dispose our character to act altruistically. My assessment is that the good that results from Singer’s moral reasoning (reduction of poverty or of animal suffering, for example) in practice catches a free ride on the conventional morality which spawned and motivated it. Singer’s Copernican revolution in medical ethics appeals because it aligns well with our consumerist world of individual choice. Yet just as we satisfy our ‘choice’ in selecting from Coke, Sprite, or Lilt whilst in reality paying the same company for a variant on their formula, so we select our moral ‘preferences’ in a ‘consumer utilitarian’ society that shapes the terms in which we may think about them. 180,000 abortions a year would have seemed inconceivable when David Steel put forward his abortion act in Britain in 1967 – especially terminations for the most trivial of disabilities. Yet the ‘tyranny of normality’ has rendered the parent a quality control manager for their offspring. Similarly, the handful of hospices in Holland, together with the Dutch figures for euthanasia, set the framework in which these citizens select their preferences for death, establishing ‘default’ options. In Singer’s utilitarian Legoland there are no unscrupulous relatives or vulnerable old people who feel they are a burden to society. But as it moves out of the academy into legislation and policy-making, Singer’s logic cannot but lead to a colder, less cohesive society. The irony is that it may be those who stand to lose most who are first to usher in his Copernican shift, such is the bewitchment of Singer’s persuasive logic. It was Einstein who said that things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. In my assessment, this is precisely what Singer is guilty of.

© Mark Coffey, 2007

Mark Coffey teaches Religion and Philosophy at the Manchester Grammar School. He did a research Master’s degree at Leeds University on Peter Singer in 2001-3.

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