Death and Utility

Practical Ethics

by Peter Singer
Cambridge University Press, 237 pp., $6.95 (paper)

In Practical Ethics Peter Singer describes his moral position as “broadly Utilitarian.” Though he mentions, with some skepticism, a theory of rights and Kantian principles of autonomy as providing support for some of his practical conclusions, the main theoretical interest of this book, and also some of its difficulties, lie in the striking combination of two different forms of utilitarianism on which he principally relies. In addition to the merits of many of its arguments his book has the virtues of the best utilitarian manner in moral philosophy. For Singer, as for Bentham and Mill, moral philosophy is primarily a confrontation of problems of current concern and controversy, and a critique of current assumptions and conventional prejudices.

Though the book is short, its range is wide and it includes discussions of the moral basis and the scope of principles of equality, of the human use and misuse of other animals, of euthanasia and abortion, of the obligations of the world’s rich to the world’s poor, and of violence and obedience to law. These topics are not brought in merely as examples to illustrate abstract principles, but are discussed in vivid and disturbing detail as the main business of moral philosophy, and of this book. Throughout the tone is temperate and fair to opposed views, but Singer is plainly inspired by a passionate wish to extend the range of our moral concern for the sufferings of all sentient beings beyond the limits which much conventional morality assigns to it.

There is some repetition in this book of some points made in Singer’s earlier well-known Animal Liberation, but the two books differ not only in scope but in the form of the underlying utilitarian principles. The earlier book, mainly concerned to argue the case for vegetarianism, assembled in convincing and horrifying detail the evidence of the hideous suffering annually inflicted on millions of animals, both in factory farming for the production of food for human consumption and also in laboratory experiments, some of which are pointless or carried out for no more important end than the testing of cosmetics, shampoos, food coloring, or floor polish.

Singer showed how “speciesism” is a self-interested human prejudice which treats mere membership of the species Homo sapiens as the cut-off point for moral concern for suffering. This ancient prejudice, buttressed by religious and philosophical myths such as that animals were appointed by God or Nature for the unrestrained dominion of Man, or that they were incapable of feeling pain, has had a profound effect on modern society. Hence modern liberals, though devoted to the causes of racial and sexual equality, could feel no inconsistency in remaining indifferent to the infliction on animals of suffering which they would think monstrous to inflict on the most retarded or defective human beings, human only in the sense that they are members of the species Homo sapiens.

It was enough for the purposes of the earlier book to oppose to the speciesism that permitted these cruelties a …

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Right to Life? August 14, 1980