Thinkers of the Nineties / A moral life in this godless world

Today, Bryan Appleyard presents the first in his six-part series about the thinkers who are helping to shape our ideas in the Nineties. He starts with Peter Singer, the philosopher of animal liberation and prophet of the global conscience, whose writings have helped to persuade people around the world to become vegetarians

Bryan Appleyard
Monday 13 November 1995 00:02

1: Peter Singer

`After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly 2,000 years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed'

LIFE: Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946. He is Professor of Philosophy and deputy director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University, Melbourne. He was the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics, and is now president of the Australia and New Zealand Federation of Animal Societies. He is to stand for the Australian Greens in Victoria in the next federal elections.

WORK: His 1975 book, Animal Liberation, effectively created the worldwide animal rights movement. He has since published a huge range of books including The Expanding Circle, which is said to have created thousands of vegetarians around the world, Practical Ethics and How Are We to Live?

LIFE: He is married with three daughters. He lists his recreations as reading, writing, walking, bodysurfing, cross-country skiing and growing fruit and vegetables.

CRITICS: His thinking has inspired demonstrations, abuse and the banning of his lectures in Germany and Austria. Protestors say his beliefs about infanticide and euthanasia are similar to those of the Nazis. Academic critics say his thinking is unoriginal, a resurrection of a philosophy they regard as discredited.

Peter Singer is the most effective philosopher alive. His book, Animal Liberation, published in 1975, created a worldwide movement to stop the exploitation of animals. His writings have turned thousands of readers into vegetarians. His ethics provide the intellectual underpinning for popular convictions about contemporary issues ranging from abortion to the environment.

He is the prophet of the global conscience. He provides a hard philosophical case for concerns - for animals or the environment - that are often dismissed as sentimental. He believes he has found a tough, logical basis for a virtuous, moral life in a godless world.

His books are lucid, gripping and persuasive. And even his critics admire the consistency and determination of his thought. Unlike some thinkers, Singer pursues his ideas to their logical and frequently shocking conclusions. So, for example, he concludes that a newborn baby or an old man may be less valuable entities than an adult gorilla, or that it may be desirable to kill handicapped babies.

We have come, he says, to the end of a 2,000-year history of religious domination of morality. He has a precise date for that end: 4 February 1993, when British law lords ruled that Anthony Bland, in a coma since the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, could be killed by his doctors. Under Christianity, human life from conception to death is sacred and unique. Unlike the life of any animal, it is God-given and beyond interference by mere humans. The decision to let Bland die marked the end of that belief.

But once God and the sanctity of human life are gone, the question then becomes: why should we choose to behave well? Why not kill, rape and murder as the fancy takes us? Just because we might get caught does not amount to an ethical programme.

The most potent answer to this in previous philosophy came from the 18th-century German Immanuel Kant. He said we could derive no guide for our actions from the world. All we had was "the moral law within". The only possible moral act was one that sprang from a pure, disinterested sense of duty to this law.

Singer dismisses Kant. The doctrine of duty is rigid and pointless. Why should an act have to be so utterly disinterested to be good? If I give blood because it makes me feel good, how is that worse than giving blood because I feel I must? Either way the blood is given.

Singer also dismisses much of philosophy after Kant. He has no interest in the kind of inward-looking thought that argues about the meaning of words or the existence or otherwise of a table. And he has little regard for most moral philosophy. To some extent, moral philosophy after Kant ceased to be about practical morality and instead became about whether morality was possible at all after the certainties of Christianity had crumbled. Singer wants a practical ethical system that works in the real world.

He finds one in the philosophy of utilitarianism. This appears in the writings of the English philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. They offered a clear, practical way to define a moral act. They said it was any act that produced the greatest good for the greatest number.

In Classical Utilitarianism, this good was defined as happiness. It was thought that some simple means of measurement of happiness could be devised. With this measurement, firm decisions could be made about what was moral and what was not.

Singer is not satisfied with the word "happiness". Instead, he embraces the philosophy known as Preference Utilitarianism. In this, the idea of happiness is replaced by the idea of individual preference - what is moral is that which satisfies the most interests and preferences. Singer brings Preference Utilitarianism to the modern world. This means he is not an original thinker. What he has done is apply, with supreme determination, an existing ethical system to contemporary issues. In the case of animals, for example, his philosophy allows them to be included as beings to whom we can extend ethical concern precisely because they are obviously beings with interests and preferences.

His utilitarianism convinces him that ethics can be rationally established and it is possible for modern man to live a fully ethical life. He began with animals because they represented a huge number of beings whose ethical status had scarcely been considered. He argued that higher animals clearly had many of the attributes we use to define a person - intention, sense of a future and a past, even, sometimes, language. Lower animals might be less fully considered but their primary interest - to go on living - should still be incorporated into the ethical realm. We should not, therefore, fish - even fish can be defined as beings with an interest in their continued existence.

The idea of a being with interests is thus extended beyond the merely human and, once that bridge is crossed, the rest follows. Abortion and euthanasia are permissible because the quality of being of a foetus or a terminally-ill old person is too low and not protected by any view that human life is sacred. Even after birth, handicapped babies might be killed if parents and doctors agree, and so on.

In his later work, Singer extends the application of his ethics. He attacks the individualism of America - damning the futility of its obsession with self-help and psychoanalysis while its own cities are falling apart and Africans are starving. He feels that Western man has turned his ethical concerns inwards upon himself, and the private development of the personality has taken over from more urgent concerns. Always his insistence is that the purposelessness often felt by modern man is futile; there is so much to do and, now, on the basis of his ethics, so much reason to do it.

Singer lives his philosophy, giving substantial portions of his income to foreign aid agencies, and he embraces environmentalism to the point where he is soon to stand as a Green Party candidate for the Senate of the state of Victoria. He is also a co-founder of the Great Ape Project which aims to obtain basic rights for chimpanzees, gorillas and orang- utans.

The attractions of his thought, especially to the young, are obvious. You no longer have to sit at the feet of some guru, preacher or therapist to find a meaning for life. You simply obey the dictates of reason. The success of the animal liberation and environmental movements indicates more than just a convincing argument; it indicates the extent to which people discover personal fulfilment in attaching themselves to a big, external project.

However, Singer's message is not universally welcomed, even by young, left-inclined people. In Germany and Austria, student demonstrations have prevented discussion of his ideas. Many young Germans identify his position - notably on euthanasia and infanticide - with that of the Nazis.

This is, at one level, merely ironic. Singer is of German-Jewish descent and three of his family died in concentration camps. But, at a deeper level, it indicates crucial problems with his thought. For the German students have a point. In Preference Utilitarianism, why might it not be right to observe the preferences of a majority who wished to kill some minority - Jews, for example - in their midst? If the only moral authority is the sum total of interests and preferences, then there is nothing to stop those interests when they become brutalised; there is no court of appeal.

For many, this argument indicates a decisive failing in the philosophy. All forms of utilitarianism fail as autonomous moral systems because you invariably have to step outside the system to make it acceptable. You have to say, at some point, there are some things that are absolutely forbidden and that means utilitarianism alone is not enough. Majorities must not kill minorities because it is wrong according to some higher principle, rather than a mere calculus of interest or happiness.

That principle is said by some philosophers to be the accumulations of wisdom and experience. But Singer has no time for such arguments. He is a hard rationalist and a revolutionary. History, in his view, is being overthrown simply by the consistency of his reasoning.

Yet, for all his weaknesses, he is the most characteristic prophet of the Nineties. He offers a rational programme of concern and explanation to a global culture confused about what is right and wrong. He offers a project to those unsure of how to react to the deluge of information and demands that pour out of the electronically united world. His assaults on what he sees as the greed culture of the Eighties, as well as his justification of popular anxieties about animals and the environment, place him at the centre of the biggest, most global issues of the day. He may not survive in intellectual history, but in political, social and cultural history his place is assured.

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