What is wrong with Peter Singer’s ethical views?

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by Neil Godfrey

Peter Singer lecturing at Washington Universit...
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I can understand people being shocked by some of Peter Singer‘s conclusions, but I am a little surprised that certain academics (professional thinkers) have reacted so strongly against his views. Many critics strike me as falling into the logical fallacy of arguing from adverse consequences. (The argument is false because I don’t like its conclusion.)

Singer does not argue, from what I recall of my reading of any of his books, that abortion, euthenasia or infanticide “the morally right” or “the morally justifiable” thing for people “to practise”. It strikes me as a gross misunderstanding of his arguments to claim that he argues that a cockroach is of more value than some human lives. I don’t have my Singer books with me now, but none of those ideas are what I took away from reading any of them. Did I miss something?

Where I understand his analysis takes us is to realizing that the value of another person’s life is multidimensional. There is the innate value of a person’s own life-quality and potential. But there is also the value and meaning that each person has for others, especially family. The love a parent bears for a child, the supreme value a parent places in a child, makes infanticide unthinkable for most, for example.

And we are above all by nature social animals. Everyone loves and values the cuteness of infants. So even in those tragic circumstances where parents do not want their children, a child is not unwanted or unloved.

The value of Peter Singer’s work is, to my thinking, in helping us see ourselves for what we are — one of many species inhabiting this planet, and that there is a lot more in common among a range of social animals than we have often cared to admit. Other scientists of consciousness have likewise shown that consciousness is not something that is an either-or phenomenon, but something we see in varying degrees throughout different species.

I think some of the more extreme criticisms of Peter Singer’s conclusions actually demonstrate the strength of our social nature. Humans as societies, not just as parents, do care for infants.

At the same time, advances in biology must necessarily challenge our understanding of ourselves, and not only the values we impute into each other, but the value we place on ourselves within the context of all sentient species.

My reading of Singer’s discussions on ethics is not so black-and-white, nor even contrary to normal human compassions, than some critics seem to suggest.

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Neil Godfrey

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8 thoughts on “What is wrong with Peter Singer’s ethical views?”

  1. Well I don’t know about Singer in detail never having read any of his work but I am currently engaged in another forum in a argument/discussion with a person and our relative arguments would, I think, be relevant to what I understand Singer is raising as an issue.

    We are both irrigators on the River Murray in Australia.
    A river that has been subjected to remorselessly greedy and selfish exploitation of its water in that about 70% of its total water inflow, drought or flood, goes into irrigating crops in near semi-desert landscape where temperatures in summer, the main irrigation time, can exceed 40 degrees C.

    As a result the river is virtually empty.

    Wetlands that abut the main channel have disappeared. All such.
    They went years ago and will probably never return.
    The Lower Lakes and Coorong area, a World Heritage area, has virtually no water and that which is there is toxic in its brine levels. More salty than the sea. In fact there is a scheme to cover the loss of fresh water by pumoing sea water in augment it.
    This area used to be, please note the past tense, a major global bird breeding centre.

    At my place the plant/bird/fish/eptile/mammal biodiversity has shrunk to pitifully low levels.
    A species of fishing bat, classified vulnerable, that takes fingerlings from the wetland was found to be present here for the first time about 6 years ago and the bat lovers were delighted.
    The wetlands are now gone.
    What remains is weed infested with toxic soils from decades of overload from chemical agriculture.
    My adversary is arguing that he needs to make money from irrigation, he has a ‘right’ to the water, it is ‘his’, he has a licence from the government that says so and unless he has access to 100s of millions of litres of river water he cannot grow grapes for wine or rice or citrus fruits and Australians would have to import such if he and his ilk cannot have unlimited access to the water.

    We are not communicating he and I.
    He does not understand or relate at all to my concerns for the disappearing Murray Oysters or water rats or the bat species and is indifferent to the absence of pelicans and swans etc and dying River Red Gums.

    I on the other hand think/believe that his need/want for a scarce resource to be prioritised so he, and his mates, can make dollars is a minor factor when placed alongside the health of the environment.

    He is winning the argument because the irrigators continue to use most of the water and I am losing because the river ecology in front of me is visibly dying.

    I suspect its essentially the same clash of world views that is involved in Singer’s case.
    You can delete if I’m way off track.

    1. Not quite the same 🙂

      Singer is more into analyzing the bases on which we value lives and the moral decisions we make in relation to preserving or terminating life. He initially became renowned over his arguments for the ethical treatment of animals (non-human persons), and my understanding is that he was the inspiration of the animal rights movements we see today. (Not that he is personally particularly fond of animals — his arguments are grounded in current biological research and understanding as well as a rational basis for ethics.)

      He has become controversial for daring to suggest things like, for example (my own illustration here), that a healthy and socially and physically secure chimp experiences a richer and more meaningful life than a human in a coma for years and with no hope of recovery. Similarly, if research shows that a personality, and hence self-consciousness, is not developed until some months after birth, then how does one justify making decisions about that infant that can otherwise only be justified on the understanding that the infant is a fully developed person. He does not argue that a newborn infant is of less value or importance than some other animal with an apparent self-consciousness, but you can see why he has gotten himself into some controversy.

      He does force us to think about our ethical stances towards both ourselves and other species.

      Perhaps the sort of ethical question I imagine Singer might put to your situation is one that centres around the demands of one individual to make a comfortable living for himself and his family, and to presumably benefit many clients by a dollar or few each, against the lives of many other sentient individuals of varying degrees of self-awareness etc.

      The fact that the water guzzling farmer is in his position of power over the elements in the first place would surely be the result of some level of society’s endorsement — expressed through government regulations etc — wouldn’t it? Short of a renewed social consciousness what alternative is there apart from government or some other strong social pressure, including removing or neutralizing his current social supports for what he is doing? It sounds like a tough battle you have.

      I can just see such a landowner going all teary over being told a few pelicans have had to go elsewhere for a drink and some rats have died! (Sarcasm here, for the benefit of the uninitiated.) I’m sure that’s how he’d see it. :-/

      Maleny in Queensland, not far from where I lived, lost a battle against having a giant Woolworths store dump its presence in their main street and thus change the whole character of the place and for which it had become widely known. Those situations can only be handled at the social/legislative level. Sounds like Labor is letting you guys down as much as the Libs did.

  2. From what I’ve read of him, (Wikipedia), he shares a lot with the racial-medical hygiene philosophy of 1930’s Nazi Germany.
    Pretty ironic considering he’s the son of holocaust survivors.

  3. Having read a few of Peter Singer’s more controversial arguments, I have little time for those who liken his ethics to anything associated with Nazism.

    That was the reason for my post, in large part. There is some pretty extremist opposition to him personally. Some of his extremist accusers refuse to even allow him to speak at meetings. So I’m not sure if they are really even aware of his arguments.

    I suspect those who compare his values to racial-medical hygiene 1930s policies either have not read him, or have read him with prejudice.

    I have also listened to a couple (I think) interviews with him on Philip Adams’ Late Night Live radio program where he is asked about some of these charges, too.

    ETA: The fact that he is son of survivors of the nazi experience ought to raise one’s bs antennae that maybe the nazi-like accusations are not with unquestionable merit.

    ETA2: Might do a more detailed post on Singer’s stuff when I get back to Australia and my library.

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