Ethics in the Real World

by Peter Singer, Princeton, £19.95

According to Princeton’s blurb-writer, Singer “is often described as the world’s most influential philosopher”. Philosophically what is important, of course, is whether his influence is for the good or the bad, and to test that, it is helpful to look at these 82 rather journalistic essays on “things that matter” – topics indeed much-debated in the contemporary Western world and beyond. One must grant to Singer that although in these essays he writes in a breezy, non-technical style, he appears at times to pack considerable logical punch. That impression may on reflection turn out to be superficial.

Singer’s themes are wide-ranging: from a denial of the sanctity of life to the rights of animals and (perhaps in future) of robots. He asks how one can choose which to support from a variety of apparently worthy charitable causes, questions the grotesque prices paid for un-artistic modern art and ranges from the ethics of cheating in football and cycling to whether smoking should be banned by law to whether homosexuality is immoral to a plea that sex between siblings be made legal.

Singer is hostile to all religion – Catholicism in particular – largely because of “backward” teachings on sexuality. Nevertheless, he accepts that there are objective moral truths and parades a strong moral sense, being especially concerned about poverty and sickness in the developing world and our comparative lack of concern with them. He asks questions about unethical practices by big corporations, about animal welfare and climate change (on which subject he assumes that changes in our industrial and agricultural practices will achieve notable global improvement – as distinct from mainly local benefits such as reductions of air pollution in cities.)

Religion being largely immoral (at best to be regarded as a private hobby), Singer purports to preach ethics without it. Thus he knows – somehow – what is of objective value (a word he uses regularly) and what is less or minimally so.

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