Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Book Review: On the Ethical Life by Peter Singer.

1. Brief Summary of Material

The main thesis or premise of Peter Singer’s On the Ethical Life is that ethics should derive not from religious or theological underpinnings (or be dictated by them), but rather from and by certain (his) guiding principles or claims. In turn, Singer distills his proffered principles or claims to four: (a) that pain is bad and should be minimized; (b) that human animals are not the only beings that experience pain; (c) that characteristics should be considered in taking lives, not the group to which they belong; and (d) responsibility extends to preventing harm not merely the nonpractice of it; what one does should be considered as well as what one does not do. (Singer, pp. xv-xvi.) The balance of Singer’s text (mostly exploring practical examples) essentially flows from these core concepts.

2. Critical Interaction with Material

While Singer’s wide-ranging and engaging work explores issues of animal rights; life and death; ethics, self-interest and politics, this response will focus on core issues presented by the text.

A. Singer’s Outcome-Determinative Methodology

It becomes readily apparent that Singer rejects any normative value to biblical or theological authority; and hence, he seeks to untether ethics from these sources. Singer poignantly writes: “Christianity has for two thousand years been a powerful influence on the moral intuitions of people in Western societies…. Yet, without the religious beliefs—for example, that God created the world, that he gave dominion over the other animals, that we alone of all of his creation have an immortal soul—the moral teachings just hang in the air, without foundations. If no better foundations can be provided for these teachings, we need to consider alternative views.” (p. xviii; emphases supplied.)

This short statement is remarkably telling and truthful--with much to unpack. First, we plainly see that Singer rejects any biblical authority for ethical practice, which he dismissively characterizes as mere “religious belief”. Singer’s rejection is also evidenced in his similar contention: “I see no evidence for belief in an immortal soul.” (p. xvii.) By devaluing biblical evidence to the contrary, he then is free to opine that there is no evidence inconsistent with his view.

Second, Singer admits, once ethics are unfastened from the foundations of God or His proscriptions (religion or theology), that they are essentially malleable propositions. To use his words “moral teachings just hang in the air.” (p. xviii.) Singer is exactly correct. With a foundationless moral framework, one can substitute ethical preferences by simply changing the language or rules of the debate. In this regard, Singer has posited four “claims” (his choices of what should control or govern), and not surprisingly, they lead to the conclusions he seeks.

Third, Singer indirectly concedes that his “alternate views” are alternative to traditional moral teaching as flowing from scriptural and religious tradition. Singer tries to diffuse the objection that “ethics according to Singer” is no more authoritative (in the vacuum-like moral economy without fixed foundation he earlier observed) than the gentleman dispensing slurpees from 7-11. He contends that he has skills as a trained philosopher to make these pronouncements or judgments. (p. 5.) But, this is a thinly-veiled tautology; Singer’s outcome-determinative “claims” or principles simply reflect his own preferences for results and the process for getting there, or similarly they, reflect like-minded philosophers with the same agenda. In the grand scheme of a foundationless rubric, they have no more authority than anyone else’s—they are just more eloquently stated.

B. Making Humans and Animals Parallel

As a prime example of this thinking, Singer sets up a system whereby animals should be treated like humans, such as in the fields of scientific testing and eating (vegetarianism), in his multi-chapter section entitled, “Across the Species Barrier.” He attempts to diffuse the differences between humans and (other) animals—again, ignoring Christ’s words about the hierarchy between them. “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matt. 6:26; NASB [emphasis supplied].) This text does not hang in isolation, as the Old Testament employs similar hierarchical language. God commanded: “[F]ill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:28; NASB.) Singer does not concern himself with these texts because he gives them no authority in his world of ethics. As such, he can simply reason that humans and animals should be treated similarly because they share certain biological functions. Again, if humans are also soulless, then what is the difference between the species?

C. Saving and Taking Life According to Singer

In these chapters, Singer simply extends his views set forth in the earlier chapters; they are ineluctable variations on the same premise. In Singer’s ethical world, humans enjoy no special status over (other) animals and hence, should be viewed in the context of “characteristics” and not position or imagery of God. This certainly provides a liberating framework to make judgments about “saving and taking life.” Unconstrained about biblical mandates or deity-directed behavior, one enters an emancipating ethical system governed by Singer’s utilitarian view about increasing pleasure and eradicating pain. It is difficult to argue with Singer--if there are no fixed moral boundaries and the ethical horizon is unfettered by any such concerns. However, since the boundaries do exist, Singer’s extreme prescriptions must be rejected as untenable.

D. Singer’s Polarities of Self-Interest and Ethics

In the final section (before the autobiographical notes), Singer speaks about self-interest, ethics and politics. As there is much here, I wanted to focus on his view that self-interest and ethics are polar opposites. “[W]e are choosing between different possible ways of living: the way of living in which self-interest is paramount, or that in which ethics is paramount, or perhaps some trade-off between the two.” (p. 242.) While no adherent of Ayn Rand, sometimes ethics and self-interest coalesce, and they become co-terminus. For example, a businessperson can seek to maximize profit for the company in the context of ethical behavior, but at the same time benefit others who receive the service/good and also those employed in the enterprise. Singer does not seem to allow for that dualism—instead, he posits a zero-sum analysis or spectrum whereby the more self-interested one is the less ethical he or she will be.

In sum, this book provides a stimulating exploration of ethical practice when God, theology and scriptural constraints are removed. In this near “free-for-all”, one can see how his principles would work themselves out, and for this contribution, Singer should be commended.