Peter Singer is a contemporary Australian philosopher who has concentrated on ethics. He focuses mostly on practical moral issues such as abortion, euthanasia, and—especially—the treatment of animals. Of course, it is important to have a solid and correct understanding of theoretical ethics before one can hope to discuss practical matters of morality in a completely correct way. Unfortunately, Singer—in common with the pragmatic impulses of much of recent English-language philosophy—is quite weak when it comes to such theoretical underpinnings. Basically he has just adopted a version of UTILITARIANISM in the corrupted hedonistic form that JEREMY BENTHAM and JOHN STUART MILL gave to it.
Singer's most famous book is Animal Liberation (1975). While his efforts to move the world toward a much more humane treatment of animals are certainly commendable, his theoretical arguments and specific conclusions are often quite erroneous. For instance he argues that "If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering—insofar as rough comparisons can be made—of any other being." [Animal Liberation, p. 8.] First of all, the avoidance of suffering is only one among a great many interests that humans and other creatures have. (It is a Benthamite sin to focus entirely on suffering and "happiness".) Second of all, the suffering of a human being does (and should!) count for more than the suffering of other creatures. The suffering of a rat in a rat trap is in no way morally comparable to the suffering of a human being being tortured in the some secret CIA prison, for example. And, thirdly, even the suffering of different human beings in similar situations is not always "morally equal". To take an extreme example (which often makes general principles clearer), no doubt Hitler suffered terribly in his final days in his Berlin bunker as his dreams of world conquest by the "Aryans" shattered all around him with the ever closer approach of the Soviet Red Army. But the proper attitude toward Hitler's "suffering" in that situation is "the hell with him!" On the other hand we should very much empathize with the suffering of Hitler's victims in his concentration and extermination camps. All suffering is not equal, and neither are all sufferers equal!
A philosophy student in Europe contributed the following limerick about Singer which was penned during "an especially boring seminar":
||One evening, Professor Pete Singer
While cooking, cut off a whole finger
"Great: meat for my diet,
Without causing disquiet."
What a morally flawless left-winger!
See also: UTILITARIANISM
Return to Main Index