Philosopher Peter Singer’s Ethical Theory

Peter Singer (b. 1946) is an Australian ethicist and philosopher who is most well-known for his writing on ethics. The work for which he is most known is Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals published (1975).

Several of Singer’s ethical ideas have been influential as well as controversial; for example, he has argued that it is not moral or logically correct to think that human beings have certain rights that are denied to other animals. This includes the right to the life. Singer’s work has been particularly influential for animal rights activists and groups. In addition to this work, Singer has written on the topics of poverty, euthanasia, and abortion. Singer’s moral philosophy is utilitarian, which is the ethical system espoused by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham that seeks to promote happiness over pain. According to this ethical view, the moral value of an action is based on its consequences. Singer has also argued that if an action which causes oneself mild discomfort can alleviate the suffering of others then it becomes the morally right action to do.

The right to life in Singer’s view is predicated on seeing human beings as agents who have self-awareness. He then argues that because some animals are also self-conscious agents they should be afforded the same rights; in fact, to treat human beings as special in comparison to other self-aware animals is to commit speciesism, which is no different from committing acts of racism or sexism. It is here that Singer’s views have been thought by some to become controversial. He argues, for example, that it is worse to kill an adult chimpanzee than it is to kill a human fetus. In Singer’s view, until the fetus has developed to the point of feeling pain, killing it is a morally neutral act. Singer further extends this argument to euthanasia and killing infants. Singer views human infants below the age of a month to lack self-awareness which makes the killing of the infant no less or more moral than the killing of an animal that lacks self-awareness. In cases where severe disability is involved, Singer argues that it is morally acceptable to kill a child at this age. Singer’s goal is to elevate the rights of animals. Indeed he did. His Animal Liberation has called attention to the animals living on factory farms and their abuse in scientific research. In particular, Singer’s ideas seem to undermine the view that there is a significant difference between human beings and other animals in terms of ethics.

Singer’s ideas, a number of which appear to undermine the sanctity of human life, have also been criticized. Opponents of abortion and euthanasia have taken exception to his work. Singer’s appointment to Princeton University in 1999 came under protest from activists championing the cause of the disabled. Singer’s reflects,

“My views are perceived to be threatening by a segment of this society, and it’s a segment that comes largely from the Christian viewpoint. And that segment feels in some sense of crisis because it has lost some important battles, notably the abortion battle. I state my opposition to that viewpoint more bluntly than most people do. This is a society that does need to hear some of the things I’ve got to say” (1).

Critics allege some of Singer’s ideas to be dangerous; for example, the idea that we should regard some human beings as persons and some as non-persons seems to raise concerns over the possibility of scientists and politicians pronouncing who may live or die. We know from recent history where such ideology can lead us.

Singer has further engaged the issue of poverty. He argues that failing to donate to charity can make one morally culpable in intentionally allowing a child in a poor country to die of starvation or illness. If one is aware that money he or she can donate to a charity will help a child in the third world, it becomes immoral not to donate that money. It does not matter whether those needing help are our neighbour’s next door or persons living overseas in some country that has been devastated by a natural disaster. Singer indeed lives out his convictions; not only is he a vegan but he also donates 20% of his own income to charity and to environmental and animal rights causes.

Singer presents interesting ideas about immigration. He argues that wealthy nations have a moral responsibility to accept as many refugees as possible up until the point that accepting more will start to cause greater harm than good. The utilitarian principles are clear in these convictions: to donate more money to charity and to accept more immigrants will increase happiness in the world and reduce pain.

Some have criticized Singer’s view of immigration; for instance, it could be argued that allowing a large influx of refugees into a country could lower the standards of living in wealthy countries and thus reduce happiness. It could also allow poor countries to continue expanding their populations. Putting too much emphasis on donating to charities could produce a culture of reliance and dependency in poorer nations.

References

  1. Toolis, Kevin. 1999. The most dangerous man in the world. Available.

Russell, James. 2007. A Brief Guide to Philosophical Classics. p. 192-197

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