Peter Singer

ISBN 978-0-691-23786-2  Princeton  £14.99.

reviewed by Alan Dent

 A collection of ninety readable short pieces treating ethical issues as they relate to contemporary issues, at once well-informed and, at times, stimulating yet occasionally glib and superficial. Singer is well known for his advocacy of animal rights. Here he goes further and asks if robots and aliens should have rights. It seems he has never asked if animals have responsibilities. It isn’t possible not to if they enjoy rights. Can we ask rats to behave responsibly and not infest houses where they might cause illness? Can we request of black widow spiders not to bite children and grandmothers? Singer is right that we have a responsibility not to be cruel to animals and to protect their environments; but that our status is distinct is obvious. No other creatures have language nor abstract thought in the way we do. There is no reason to believe other animals make moral choices. The experiments with capuchin monkeys which suggest a proto-morality, are far from revealing anything like our moral capacity. In addition, one of the reasons we should look after other animals is that’s it’s in our interests. Yet no one suggests we shouldn’t do something to prevent mosquitoes spreading malaria. If it’s a choice between your child and all the mosquitoes on the planet, would you choose the insects? Would Singer?  

Singer begins by asking if moral judgements can be objective, a view rejected by the logical positivists. He gives the example of “You ought not to hit that child.” This, he claims, is purely subjective. There is no objective position from which we can say that hitting a child is wrong. What about killing a child? If we can claim there is some objective, that is universal, objection to killing children, why not hitting them? What do we mean by objective? Everything in any human mind is subjective in the sense of being experienced by that mind, ie personally, which is what subjective means. Objectivity applies to whatever can be confirmed by all subjectivities. One add one is two is objective because no subjectivity can deny it (except maybe Donald Trump’s). That Mr X likes beetroot is subjective. No one can gainsay him, though he may be lying. However, if Mr Y says beetroot is bad for your health, that’s a matter of evidence. Whether you like borsch or don’t makes no difference to the question of the effects of beetroot on human physiology. There is, therefore, an objective position from which we can say hitting a child is wrong; evidence that it will give the child pain, damage her emotionally, teach her that violence is acceptable. These things can be assessed. People use all sorts of excuses to justify bad behaviour (in essence, behaviour which damages others) but an excuse doesn’t nullify evidence. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was the slogan of Victorian hypocrites who sent children up chimneys and under looms. It was based on no evidence but served a tendentious position. A personal advantage from hitting children is no argument in its favour, in fact, the opposite.  

In discussing the issue of moral progress, which he’s right to assert is real, he claims no country today openly accepts racist doctrines. Is that true of Israel, Myanmar, China? Is it even true of the USA? Perhaps what he means is that States which want to appear liberal pretend to have ditched racism, but the breadth and depth of hatred on the ground of skin colour, of what should properly be called white supremacism, tells another story. His argument in favour of moral progress is sound, but he undermines by such a cavalier assertion, as he does by the naïve use of data about IQ tests: apparently if today’s young sat the test from early last century, they would have readings of 130. The explanation is advanced that scientific thinking has been transformational: the truth is IQ tests are nonsense. IQ as defined by Eysenck, Burt (a fraud) and co, doesn’t exist. Burt falsified his evidence in favour of his vile hypothesis that the rich are clever and the poor stupid. I suppose that’s why Donald Trump was in the White House.  

“The moral intuitions which evolved during  many millennia of living in small, face-to-face societies are no longer adequate”, he writes in asking if we have a moral plan. Suppose we changed “moral intuitions” for “language faculty”. If we don’t have an instinct for justice, what’s to stand in the way of people being moulded in any fashion the powerful choose?  Of course, our moral faculty has to work in changing circumstances, like our language faculty, but the idea what we evolved with is inadequate is very dubious. Only we have language and a capacity for moral choice, and the language faculty came into being at the same time as abstract thought, which makes moral choice possible, about 50,000 years ago. The problem isn’t that our moral faculty is out of date, it’s that the powerful behave in morally despicable ways. Singer’s suggestion that thousands of years ago people weren’t concerned for future generations is just wrong. People always have been, and when our ancestors lived in very small groups, a disaster which might wipe them out was never far away. We now have the capacity to wipe out the entire species and seem to be heading straight for disaster. Our evolved moral faculty can deal with that perfectly well, if only the rich and powerful would stop being so greedy and purblind. 

The meaning of a life doesn’t end with that life. This is true of everyone. Think of your family, no doubt someone who died twenty, thirty, fifty a hundred years ago, or more, still influences your life, and it turn that will influence the lives of those who come after you, offspring or otherwise. Singer explores the idea of a happy life and produces a rather foolish check list. What matters is what Diderot was getting at when an interlocutor wondered why he permitted his books to be burnt and himself  thrown in prison when, as a highly intelligent man, he could have ensured riches, fame, all the women he wanted by complying with authority, and the philosopher replied he wasn’t interested in being a time-server but in pursuing truth and was confident there would always be people like him who would read his works in centuries to come. His interlocutor protested  this would be of no use to him as he’d be long dead, at which Diderot responded he was making a terrible mistake because to know you will be well judged by posterity is a present pleasure (something Donald Trump should reflect on).  

Should we reproduce? David Benatar believes doing so benefits no one because while bringing a child into the world who will suffer is dubious, doing so for a child who will have a good life is not a benefit. That depends on whether you believe that having been alive is a benefit, which depends on whether you think life is worth living. It’s odd that Singer can raise such a question about us while at the same time arguing vigorously for animal rights. If bringing a human child into the world brings no benefit, how much less does the birth of a rat? Why not wipe out all the rats? Some of us worry about climate change and try to reduce our carbon footprint, but its future generations who will be worst affected. If we refuse to breed, we can avoid the suffering. It’s a bizarre solution to the problem’s life throws up to want to put an end to life. If we have responsibility towards animals, don’t we have the same towards life as such? The physicist, Eddington, remarked: “We are bits of stellar matter that got cold by accident, bits of a star gone wrong.” Yes, but life is full of wonder and delight as well as suffering and Singer likes it so much he holds a professorship and publishes books. Why deny that to future generations?  

Singer thinks veganism a good idea. There’s good evidence for health and planetary benefits but it’s also well-known that B12 is easy to get from meat, as is heme iron and certain other substances, creatine, carnosine. Vegans need to take supplements, which raises an ethical question about who profits from providing them. Cows, and other animals we breed for food, emit methane; but if we don’t raise them for food any more, why will there be cows? Should we let them disappear? Wouldn’t that be a form of cruelty? If we keep them, they’ll still produce methane. How much methane is too much? It hangs around in the atmosphere for a short time compared to CO2. There are perfectly good arguments for going vegan, but if your doctor diagnosed serious anaemia and told you the quick way to remedy it would be to eat plenty of meat, what would you do?  

Pets don’t exist for your pleasure. They have, Singer says, lives of their own to lead; but if they weren’t pets, would they have a life at all? He’s right that we shouldn’t treat them cruelly and should respect their natures and some people have ludicrously sentimental notions about their pets, but pets bring psychological and emotional comfort to millions. They may contribute to the avoidance of a collapse in mental health. He recommends rats as “loveable” and “clean”. Just which rats he means he doesn’t specify but the people who died of bubonic plague in the Middle Ages might doubt his confidence. Rats like sewers. They carry several serious diseases. Maybe he means rats bred as domestic pets, but encouraging people to bring rats into their homes without specifying the difference is surely somewhat irresponsible. 

Wrasse fish, Singer argues, have self-awareness because they pass the mirror test, but its originator Gordon Gallup questions the 2019 experiment which is the basis of the claim. He thinks the fish may have taken the mirror image for another of their species and the mark placed on it as some form of parasite. The evidence for self-awareness isn’t conclusive. Just what it might be is a tortured matter: consciousness is our greatest puzzle and we are a long way from understanding. It may prove to be beyond our cognitive capacities, as David Hume suggested. Singer is concerned about factory fishing, which is laudable. Over-fishing and inflicting unnecessary pain on fish should be avoided, but once again, if you had to choose between starvation and fishing, what would you do? Singer pushes a little too far and begins to be tendentious. If fishing were banned, it would give rise to a black market in sardines and the rise of piscine gangsterism. There’s something to be said for the golden mean. 

Kangaroos are killed annually by the millions. Singer doesn’t explore what proportion of the culling is necessary but his arguments in favour of treating the animals thoughtfully are excellent. He ends his little essay, however, with the idea that appropriating land from animals is akin to invading another country. Take that seriously, and how could we have survived? Even other animals compete for living space. There is no animal international law, no UN, nor animal armies, States, simply, no animal history. No other creature has evolved with our capacity to create and re-create our social conditions. We are historical by nature, as we are linguistic and moral. Whatever signs there may be of something vaguely akin to these capacities among animals, they are nowhere near ours. Take language: animal communication is very various, but communication isn’t language: only we have an internal language faculty, a rule-dependent system, the capacity to generate an infinite array of sentences from a finite set of rules. These are not petty differences. Nor is that fact that only we have an evolved moral faculty. This is what makes Singer’s use of “invading” somewhat slippery. When the US invaded Vietnam it did so deliberately in order to continue its pursuit of global dominance, in defiance of international law (as it has many times) and it dropped napalm on peasants who were no credible threat to its own security. How is that comparable to anything we have done to animals? It’s true we have behaved recklessly towards other creatures and the planet, but no other animals suffer moral offence, however great their physical suffering.  

Insects, Singer argues, may be conscious. Without question they are, but in a very limited way. He uses a curious argument: “If a being is capable of having subjective experiences, then there is something that it is like to be that being.” Just what this means is difficult to work out. He writes that human subjective experience arises from the mid-brain not the cortex; but without a cortex our “subjective” ie personal experience would be unrecognisably different. It seems this notion of there being “something that it is like to be that being” is presumed to establish some boundary. Just how this works isn’t explained and is somewhat baffling, but there is a suggestion of Singer trying to deny the fundamental differences between ourselves and other creatures. That we are moral by nature is significant. It makes us capable of evil ie doing what we know to be wrong. No other creature does that. If a scorpion stings you it is doing what nature dictates; there can be no question of moral choice.  

Singer defends abortion, in certain circumstances and within legal limits. His position is rational but he cites the “scientifically accurate claim that the fetus is a living individual of the species Homo Sapiens”. This does not confer the right to life because it is mere potential for “rational self-awareness”. What does he mean by an “individual”? A foetus is not viable as an independent organism, at least before a certain level of development. Singer dismisses the woman’s right to choose as means of evading the issue of the moral status of the foetus. What he doesn’t discuss is abortion as form of the maternal instinct. The moral status of the foetus can’t be considered apart from the moral status of the child it will be if it goes to term and is born; when a woman knows she doesn’t want or can’t care for the child, there is a clash of moral claims.  The foetus may be self-aware, but is, as yet, unable to express its wishes, to make a choice, to weigh advantages and disadvantages. Doesn’t that tip the balance to the woman? Who has the right to tell a woman she must bear a child? Is the foetus an individual in a social and moral sense? Singer’s is a sensible position, in contrast to the over-zealous views of the pro-lifers, but just what is meant by an individual is moot and the question of what the pregnant woman wants a moral knot.  

Whether people pay to fulfil their sexual fantasies or fulfil them at no cost, doesn’t tell us whether they are good people, fit for high office. First of all, who ever said high office goes to good people? A cursory review of history would point to the opposite: good people tend to get it in the neck and sociopaths often do very well. Secondly, the matter of people paying prostitutes illuminates a naivety present in Singer’s thinking: employing a prostitute is like employing anyone, a moral outrage. Paying someone to clean your house or dig your garden, or even more pertinently, tend to the needs of an old person with dementia, isn’t morally too problematic if you treat them with care, and pay them well; but that’s not how employment as a social fact works. It’s a system in which most people are required to work for others in order to live and the others they work for profit greatly. How is employment morally superior to slavery? Most prostitutes are run by pimps. The system floats on money. The motivation is enrichment. Paying for sex in such a system is highly morally questionable. There is the added matter of hypocrisy: Singer is examining the matter of Randall Tobias resigning after admitting using an escort service. Was he trying to hide it? By and large men in high office who do such things tend not to admit them. That is evidence  they are not “good” people. Singer is right to point up the irrationality of prostitution being illegal in most US States. The Swedish position is more rational: make the men who use prostitutes pay; but no one can pay for sexual services if money doesn’t exist. The real moral issue is the money system and this is where Singer tends to fear to tread. He takes the existing economic and social system for granted.  

In that regard, he claims the idea of all children being educated in public (not in the UK sense) schools, has been lost in most advanced societies. Perhaps for the time being. He doesn’t discuss why: we have lived through a long period of reaction, driven by the failure of the left to elaborate a feasible alternative. No small part of that is the mistaken idea that we are merely products of our social circumstances, that we have no given nature; a view which has played a crucial role in both left totalitarianism and the more or less automatic notion of State provision as the sole alternative to the capitalism. An understanding of our given nature provides a better possibility: as it’s characteristic for us to choose how to act, people should have real autonomy; workers should control production and its product; communities should be self-governing. Neither capital nor the State should rule people’s lives. This is an obvious moral question, yet untouched by Singer.  

There is, he claims, a flaw in our emotional make-up which inclines us to make charitable donations when we see pictures of a suffering child, but to be less willing when we’re told of millions in trouble. Why is that a flaw? From which perspective can it be seen as such? In the circumstances in which our biological ancestors evolved, an intense response to the suffering of those close to you, might have been the difference between survival and disappearance. It’s only a flaw when we’re trying to compensate for injustice by prising money. The real flaw is not in our nature, but in our economic system which grants inordinate wealth to some individuals and societies and leaves others in destitution. People in Burkina Faso aren’t asked to contribute when a tornado hits Florida.  

In discussing whether money makes us happy, Singer mentions the Beatles who, he says, remind us money can’t buy us love. That’s what they sang, but they didn’t believe it. They sang it to make as much money as possible, deliberately tailoring their songs to the largest market. Insincerity is the hallmark of popular culture, because it’s part of the propaganda system of thought-control and what might be called emotional control. Singer also mentions Adam Smith who called the pursuit of personal wealth a “delusion”. Smith is a contradictory thinker whose major book rests on its predecessor, the first sentence of which is: “Howsoever selfish man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature which interest him in the fortune of others, and make their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it but the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith was able to countenance capitalism because he believed its greed was bound to be tempered by our moral nature; the world was ruled by a beneficent deity and total evil was, therefore, impossible. “Partial evil” must contribute to the  general good. Had he lived a little longer he might have changed his mind. Singer is right, accumulating money doesn’t increase our happiness. Poverty is miserable, but optimum wealth is what makes us content. Yet he ends his piece by suggesting Warren Buffet can enjoy his wealth contributing to Bill Gates’s Foundation. Surely this is to miss the point: if wealth wasn’t concentrated in a few hands, we wouldn’t need the Gates Foundation. Letting people become rich beyond the dreams of avarice so they can fund charities is a mad way of providing for people’s needs. Once again, this is an example of how Singer’s ethical thought holds back from criticism of how the world is organised.  

In his discussion of Marx, Singer remarks: “Most humans… continue to seek power, privilege and luxury for themselves…”. It’s interesting that he says “humans” rather than people, as if he’s outside the species, but it’s a remarkably wrong assertion. Capitalism functions because most people aren’t capitalists. If everyone got up in the morning asking how much money they could make for themselves in the next twenty-four hours, we’d be in real trouble. It’s because most people put making a contribution, doing a good job, helping others or simply enjoying their day above power, privilege and luxury that the system limps along. The minority who behave as Singer suggests are often unhelpful: Donald Trump for example.  

The discussion of Marx makes some obvious points and one good one: Marx’s mistake in denying a given human nature. It’s worth wondering if Marx genuinely believed this, but it has been an enormously damaging idea. The essay is too brief to give any idea of Singer’s understanding. He recognises that much done in Marx’s name he may well have objected to, but he has nothing to say about the moral power of the workers’ movement; the movement, that is, not for State control, but for worker autonomy, a movement made use of by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and many more political manipulators who kicked the workers in the face as they claimed only they had the capacity to make important decisions. There is perhaps no more important moral issue in the modern world. 

Singer makes the extraordinary and dangerous claim that “most of the opposition to freedom of thought and discussion comes from the left”.His example is the opposition to Rebecca’s Tuvel’s “In Defense of Transracialism”. 800 people called for her article to be withdrawn and there were also demands for her to be sacked. He’s right that this is foolish, but in what way does it represent the “left”? There may have been many signatories who aren’t socialists. “Left” should be reserved for what it really means: a belief in worker autonomy. Many on the left by that definition would not support the calls for Tuvel’s article to be suppressed, including the author of this review. Transgender rights are a highly contentious matter and  quite distinct from views about economic justice. No doubt there are some, or will be some, very rich transgender people who will be in favour of economic conservatism. As the world makes haste to authoritarianism, it’s irresponsible of Singer to characterise the left as the enemy of free speech and thought. Who would you trust to defend them, Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders? It’s also pertinent that Tuvel’s article is essentially frivolous in conflating gender and race. The latter doesn’t exist. The former has a physiological and a psychological form and they don’t necessarily match.

 Singer is easy to read and stimulating, but his thinking is, here and there, superficial and often takes place within conventional assumptions. His mistakes are serious, but then so are those of many thinkers. He’s useful as a starting point for thought and discussion but needs to be subjected to serious criticism, which no doubt he would accept.