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What’s Left Hanging?

In response to:

How & How Not to Be Good from the May 21, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

John Gray writes, in his review of The Most Good You Can Do [NYR, May 21], that I never tell the reader why value should be maximized, and as a result, my claim that living ethically involves doing the most good is, he thinks, “left hanging in midair.”

The Most Good You Can Do is aimed at a general audience, and its discussion of the rational basis of effective altruism, in chapters 7 and 8, is quite brief. How to give a rational foundation for any ethical view is a major issue in ethics—perhaps the major issue in ethics—and I am not surprised that a philosopher should find what I have to say insufficient. But I do, in footnotes to these chapters, indicate that a fuller account is available in two other works that I have coauthored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek: The Point of View of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 2014) and “The Objectivity of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason” (Ethics, Vol. 123, No. 1, October 2012).

Gray does refer to The Point of View of the Universe, but only to say that although the book discusses Sidgwick’s “dualism of practical reason,” the book barely mentions Sidgwick’s interest in psychical research. Psychical research is of no relevance to the aims that Dr. Lazari-Radek and I had in writing our book, which, as we say in the preface, is not a study in the history of ideas, so it should not surprise Gray that we pay it scant attention. What is more surprising, however, given Gray’s apparent familiarity with the book, is that he does not tell the reader that it addresses, at length, the very deficiency he finds in The Most Good You Can Do, namely the rational foundation of utilitarianism. In particular, it seeks to show how Sidgwick could have resolved his “dualism of practical reason” in favor of utilitarianism.

Peter Singer
Professor University of Melbourne
Melbourne, Australia
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey