Peter Singer. Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016, 355 pages.

[1] Utilitarianism, the pragmatic philosophy developed by Jeremy Bentham (d. 1832) and John Stuart Mill (d. 1873) views actions as good or moral that conduce to human happiness and as bad or immoral those that do not.  Its critics sometimes argue that justice is more important than individual freedom to pursue one’s bliss.  Peter Singer is having none of it.  The quest for justice, especially on behalf of the poor, sick and voiceless for him is an integral part of a life that is consequential, meaningful and fulfilling and, yes, happy and this book is a testament to that conviction.

[2] Singer, a philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton and Melbourne, is what these days is called a public intellectual.  He wants to do for philosophy what Bill Nye does for science.  As such he represents practitioners of his discipline who, happy that it has escaped from its thrall to linguistic analysis and logical positivism, are prepared to take their cue from Socrates and ask after the true and the good.  Nor are they content to restrict their inquiries to the guild.  Like Nye, they intend to extend the conversation to as wide an audience as possible.

[3] Singer’s ally and inspiration is Derek Parfit of Oxford, who argues in On What Matters against those who claim that no objective ethical standards can be arrived at.  Although Singer believes that neuroscience has definitively solved the question of the evolutionary origin of a moral sense, he refuses to join those who argue against any truth available to us; all we have are impressions.  Indeed, some regard mind and brain as fictions.  Singer and his colleagues, answering Qohelleth’s melancholy nihilism, think the search for sure moral guidance is not quixotic.  As philosophers they take seriously the motto of Phi Beta Kappa: Philosophy the Guide of Life [Philosophia Biou Kubernetes].

[4] The author is an atheist and a strictly secular moralist, though he respects those who derive their positions from religious sources.  In any case he cannot avoid jumping onto Tillich’s hermeneutical circle at some point.  No one can occupy the Archimedean one.  Each of us, before we go any further, needs to have a base hunch or fundamental assumption about “the way things are” that does not arise ineluctably from the “facts” or our experience of the universe.  For Singer that starting point is utilitarianism, which allows him to divide good from evil, conduct cost/benefit analyses and move from is to ought.

[5] Singer deploys his philosophy on a dizzying array of topics in short essays marked by crystalline prose and that are brought up to date with postscripts.  The essays are grouped into eleven categories: Big Questions, Animals (Singer originally gained fame, or notoriety, for animal rights activism), Beyond the Ethic of the Sanctity of Life,  Bioethics and Public Health, Sex and Gender, Doing Good, Happiness, Politics, Global Governance, Science and Technology, Living, Playing, Working.  The topics draw the readers in: Should This Be the Last Generation?  If Fish Could Scream.  Should We Live to 1000?  The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art.  Should We Honor  Racists?  Rights for Robots?  Is Doping Wrong?  A central theme across all of them is the proper balance between individual freedom and choice, on the one hand, and the public good and costs on the other.

[6] I will offer just one piece to give a sense of Singer’s style of ethical reasoning in the real world.   Why Pay More? is from the catch-all section Living, Playing, Working.  It seems the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs attended a 2013 conference with his Ukrainian counterparts where he was laughed at for wearing a Japanese quartz watch that cost only $165.  By contrast his confreres sported $30,000 horological showpieces.  This, Singer notes, is an example of Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption.

[7] Singer lets Andrew Carnegie deliver the moral evaluation of such gaudy display.  “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”  Echoing his reasoning in The Life You Can Save, Singer says that anyone’s surplus wealth should not be flaunted but given to the poor (his favorite vehicle is Oxfam) to spread the good around.  When people are suffering and generosity is effective in alleviating it, there is no excuse for indulgence.  People of faith might think here of Christ’s command to love the neighbor and hear him say “Whenever you saw me hungry…”  The postscript points to protests that led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.  A key issue was corruption symbolized by the glitzy wrist candy.  The Pole had the last laugh.

[8] Ethics in the Real World would be a challenging and enriching resource for parish discussion groups, read parallel with the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and with the question in mind, Is Peter Singer a modern prophet?

Rev. Bruce Wollenberg, PhD. is a retired pastor living in Santa Barbara.


© May 2017
​Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 17, Issue 3