Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Writings on an Ethical Life

Writings on an Ethical Life
Peter Singer, © 2000
329 pages, plus an index

Almost every Friday, I listen to an online show called "Point of Inquiry", which features 20-minute (or so) interviews with various personalities. While the show is produced by a skeptical think-tank, its guests are not necessarily involved in the skeptical movement -- the host, D.J. Groethe, often interviews religious philosophies and personalities. Last week, he interviewed Peter Singer -- and I was interested enough in what he said to find one of his books.

Writings on an Ethical Life is a collection of selected chapters from various books of his, taken from books like Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics. He writes on a variety of topics: environmentalism, vegetarianism, abortion, euthanasia, living ethically, and so on. He attempts to arrive at ethics through strict rationalism. According to the New York Times Book Review, "Singer's documentation is unrhetorical and unemotional, his arguments tight and formidable, for he bases his case on neither personal nor religious nor highly abstract philosophical principles but on moral pisitions most of already accept".

I almost think that some of Singer's arguments are too rational. We can't seperate ethics from emotion, for we are emotional creatures and those needs must be considered. Singers' rationalizations are typically built on utilitarianism, or at least a form. Utiliarianism is a ethical philosophy that advocates that we should base our decisions on whatever provides the greatest good for the greatest number of people. My own ethical philosophy tends toward this, butI'm leery about going too far.

The chapters on abortion, infantacide, and euthenasia constitute a good bit of the book. Singer attacks the idea that human life is necessarily sacrosanct: he attacks both conservative and liberal issues, including my own that "humaness" starts with the development of the brain. I find it particularly difficult to summarize or comment on his views on any of these (with the exception of euthenasia, which I view as a right) It's safe to say, though, that whatever your views are, Singer challenges them. His arguments are all based on a kind of utiliarianism: he suggests that in some cases it's best to kill a deformed fetus or even an infant, in the interests of the quality of life. I agree with this, but what unsettles me is the emotions surroundin the death of a baby. I have been raised in a culture that views the death of a baby as more tragic than the death of an adult, and even I can't go against that without feeling uncomfortable.

His last chapters deal with the good life -- with the value of treating people well and responding to their needs. In "Darwin for the Left", he writes that the political left ought to adopt Darwinian thinking: to realize that human beings are naturally inlcined to look only after their own self-interests and that we should push for a system that takes this into account and doesn't ignore it the way current governments do -- ones that expect people to behave themselves and live by ideals.

It was an interesting, if slow and difficult, read.

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