Intended for healthcare professionals

Book Book

Writings on an Ethical Life

BMJ 2001; 323 doi: (Published 20 October 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;323:940
  1. D John Doyle, associate professor of anaesthesia
  1. University of Toronto

    Peter Singer

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    Fourth Estate, £15, pp 381 ISBN 1 84115 550 0

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    The New Yorker has called Singer “the most influential living philosopher,” while his critics sometimes call him the most dangerous man in the world. Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, has challenged our most closely held beliefs on infanticide, euthanasia, and the moral status of animals. This volume presents a comprehensive collection of his best and most provocative writings on animal rights, environmental accountability, abortion, euthanasia, and the ethics of our responsibility for the world's poor.

    Two fundamental ethical precepts are at the heart of his work. Firstly, one should not inflict unnecessary pain on any living thing; and secondly, the defining characteristic of a “person” is self awareness.

    Singer would see it as ethically correct to allow the killing of unwanted neonates born with severe disabilities. He would argue that they are not self aware and therefore not persons. Since neonates can feel pain, Singer's first ethical precept dictates that this killing be done as painlessly as possible—for example, by lethal injection. He would see this as more humane than allowing death through withdrawal of care.

    In the realm of animal rights Singer would argue passionately that human beings do not have primacy over other species merely because they are human. He regards such notions as the last bastions of pre-Darwinian (or pre-Copernican) thought that once permitted slavery. Singer argues that increasing moral awareness and ethical sensitivity mean that future generations will see our current treatment of animals with the moral outrage we now reserve for slavery.

    Singer is a rationalist, atheist, and utilitarian. Within the latter category he is known as an advocate of “preference utilitarianism.” This form is different from the classic definition of providing happiness to the greatest number of people. Because of the difficulty of measuring happiness his approach prefers to satisfy the “preference” of those affected. A moral decision amounts to determining the strongest preferences of all those affected by the decision.

    Singer's goal with this book is to provide a single volume summary dealing with the “practical ethics” issues he has been developing over the past three decades. The selections Singer offers in this book are predominantly from Animal Liberation (revised 1991), Practical Ethics (second edition, 1993), How Are We to Live? (1995), and Rethinking Life and Death (1995). A chapter entitled “On being silenced in Germany” deals with Singer's difficulties in being allowed to speak at academic forums and how academic freedom remains fragile in some parts of the world.

    Singer's 1999 appointment at Princeton provoked protest by groups such as Not Dead Yet, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. Singer's influence is a consequence of his willingness to apply analysis, logic, and intellectual rigor where no one has previously dared. Many of the critics who object to Singer simply misunderstand him. Indeed, while some of his ideas may be disturbingly soulless and utilitarian, the majority of his ideas, and his philosophy as a whole, are deeply benevolent and humane. To understand this, you must read Singer.