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by Peter Singer
Blackwell, 2002
Review by Adriano Palma on Aug 7th 2002

Unsanctifying Human Life: Essays on Ethics

It is very likely that among living philosophers Peter Singer is the most read; it is a virtual certainty that he is the most controversial. He is, barring historical figures such as Marx, one of the few academic types who had an impact on social movements by means of his own work. Noam A. Chomsky, probably the most prominent of socially active academics denies any linkage between his scientific work and his political views and commitments. Singer on the other hand claims explicitly that philosopher ought to understand up to a point, and that point reached they should act to change beliefs and behaviors that are shown wrong by their arguments.

The two main points here made are simple to state: “We have to bring nonhumans within the sphere of our moral concern and cease to treat them purely as means to our ends. At the same time, once we realize that the fact that severely and irreparably retarded infants are members of the species Homo sapiens is not in itself relevant to how we should treat them, we should be ready to reconsider current practices which cause suffering to all concerned and benefit nobody.” (p. 225)

The conclusions made Singer famous (infamous to many). He is one of the creators of the animal liberation movement. He is also the very despised supporter of euthanasia for very many cases, including the sick, the aged, the imbeciles. All of those with proper qualifications, about which anon.

His conclusions do follow, in the opinion of this reader anyway, from his premise. The main premise is the utilitarian one: the main moral imperative is to maximize happiness for the highest possible numbers. I do not want to enter a debate over first principles. There may be reasons not to be utilitarian, but they are of interest mostly to moral philosophers. Minimally everyone is able to see there are reasons, perhaps not wholly conclusive, to accept utilitarian principles. Any time one takes into account the consequences of a possible course of action and makes choices that maximizes some perceived utility, one gets at least a dose of utilitarianism in her system. So I won’t dwell on the philosophical premises.

Let us get to the heart of Singer’s views. Animals share well beyond my species the capacity to suffer, hence we should not inflict pain on animals. This is very often the case. Most notably for the purposes of testing cosmetics, horrific experiments are carried out. They discover virtually nothing other than some commonplace truth of the form “animal eyes injected seven times daily with shampoo hurt.” It may be retorted that there are cases like medical experiments where the needs are far more stringent than those dictates by the consumers and producers of cosmetics. Singer has much of interest to say. His own view (see in particular “The great ape project”) is that some animals have already the status of persons, and should on that ground alone excluded from being used in medical experiments. Once one makes the step of granting primates the status of persons, one ought to recognize that the healthy, say, gorilla is far more worthy of personhood than damaged members of the Homo sapiens groups. So brain damaged children, spina bifida cases, Alzheimer victims, etc. do not count as persons in Singer’s moral theory. Euthanasia follows logically. Given that medical resources are limited, it is moral to maximize their allocation. A delicate and sophisticated argument (see pp. 225 and ff.) to the effect that even considerations of quality of life militate for the termination of certain kind of elderly patients, given a notion of quality of life that relies also on expected or forecasted length of life. Singer is extremely good in rebutting a very popular slippery slope objection (“once demean life soon we’ll make laws to kill people who..... are gay, who do not play the stockmarket, wear weird wigs, who do not agree with the privy council, etc.”) In fact we have no evidence that this is the case (see pp. 230-231.)

The book is excellent, with certain minor provisos. One is that is probably best to avoid rhetorical devices  such as “look how intelligent gorillas are: they can talk!” Such claims are hotly disputed and though they may serve a purpose in swinging current opinion, they may turn out to be false. In fact nothing more than the claim that a healthy primate can and does in fact suffers more than a brain damaged human animal is required to reach the conclusion that we have no reason whatsoever to be cruel to animals. Whether this entails vegetarianism is debatable, but a case can be made on grounds on economy and better use of resources. The jury on vegetarianism is still out, in the opinion of this writer.

The second qualification is more difficult to state, but it cuts deeper. In order to agree with Singer one has to accept a very important stance. He calls it, following William Godwin, impartiality. There is nothing special in the word “my” that makes my mother more morally relevant than anybody else. There is no special anything, morally, that singles out the members of my group, community, political party, family, or what have you, as more important than anybody else. Moral considerations are objective in the sense of being impartial, they carry no “pro” bias in direction of anything that I call “mine”. It seems to many, myself included, that impartiality is part and parcel of morality. In a slogan like fashion one can say that it is an essential property of a moral perspective on anything.

Singer is acutely aware that humans are animals shaped by evolution, much as bugs or E. coli bacteria (see in particular the excellent essay “Darwin for the left”, p 358 and ff.) Now the evidence seems to me preponderant in the direction of something seriously built in human nature that structures our concerns on an extremely local scale. We are more shocked by the nine miners trapped in the mine near home, or in the few thousands who die in Palestine than by the millions who die in Rwanda. The issue is complicated and I do not think there is a simple metric to decide how local our concerns are. The fact is that we do care more for a spouse here (indexical) than for an orphan there (indexical), no matter how much technology and communication does to bring the “there” closer to home. The Palestine case is interesting: for whatever reason people, millions of people are more outraged one way or another by a relatively minor conflict, than by an entire war in the Congo. This is not a political point: there are excellent reasons to care for the possibility of a peaceful solutions of conflicts in places we are interested in, for religious, familiar, traditional, and other reasons. The difficulty, and I want to posit this purely as a question to consider, is that if we are really local in a serious way, we are bound to be partial. If that is true, and I take it to be an empirical psychological fact, morality in the Singerian, impartial mood, may be a step too long for us to contemplate. It may be a very long shot utopian hope. Singer is, to his credit, aware of this: “ For the first time since life emerged from the primeval soup, there are beings who understand how they have come to be what they are. In a more distant future we can still barely glimpse, it may turn out to be the prerequisite for a new kind of freedom: the freedom to shape our genes so that instead of living in societies constrained by our evolutionary origins, we can build the kind of society we judge best.” (p. 366)

I am less of a sanguine optimist.

I have not done justice to all aspects of a book, which is a must read for those who care about ethics, beyond the academic debates. In particular I skipped over for lack of space over Singer’s position about the morally correct amount of charity one should give. I advise all readers to look at it. If nothing else, barring dishonesty, it gives one pause.



© 2002 Adriano Palma


A. P. Palma, Univ. Paris-X and Inst. J Nicod, Paris