A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 6 February 2017

How to be Practically Perfect in Every Way

Practical Ethics (3rd Edition)
Peter Singer

There is a great danger when reviewing a book on a contentious subject that one ends up concluding "the bits I agreed with were good, the bits I disagreed with were bad". This review won't quite say that, but comes closer to this sentiment than I am really comfortable with.

I came to Practical Ethics with mixed expectations. On the one hand, it came highly recommended by people whose opinions I take very seriously, and after all there's a reason why Peter Singer is widely considered one of the greatest philosophers of our time. That said, I've been disappointed by some of his writings in the past, and had kind of got the impression that while he has great and original ideas his attention to detail was not always the greatest.

Well, that's a highly unfair characterisation of him. The first half of Practical Ethics, at least, is a masterpiece of clarity. He discusses the possibility of racial differences in cognitive abilities dispassionately, demonstrating that belief in it is utterly consistent with a liberal worldview. I didn't really learn much from that discussion, having thought about it plenty beforehand, but it was remarkable to see it discussed with such courage by an important, politically-left-of-centre public intellectual.

Similarly, his discussion of abortion demonstrates the problems with the main arguments advanced by both sides of the debate. Ultimately I disagree with Singer - he really ought to give moral weight to benefits enjoyed by individuals whose existence is dependent upon the decision we make - but he demolishes thinkers regardless of which side they are, and while the position he arrives at (support for post-natal abortions) ought to be a reductio of his premises we are left in no doubt either of his sincerity in advocating it, nor of his understanding the issue on a very deep level. (Personally, I'm in favour of something slightly stricter than the UK system - abortions being available on demand up to about 20 weeks of pregnancy, and after that in cases of medical emergency only).

One passage I found particularly illuminating of his discussion of what is particularly wrong with murder. Prior to reading Practical Ethics I had a vague sense that we ought to take the interests of non-human beings into account (i.e. concern for animal welfare) but that actually holding rights was something to do with being human and a full agent. I'm now much more persuaded by Singer's view, which is similar but attributes the possession of rights to those beings which conceive of themselves as existing through time. I can't say I'm 100% convinced, but Singer acknowledges the weak points of his view - e.g. the implication that murder is not so much a wrong to the person murdered but rather to the other people around - and, unlike many philosophers who paper over the holes in their arguments and hope we won't notice, draws attention to this problem.

With all that said in defence of the book, it's worth noting some issues I had. The first is in his discussion of equality: Singer defends his utilitarianism as "equal consideration of interests". That's one form of equality, to be sure, and it sounds a lot nobler than "equal marginal utility of consumption" (as Amartya Sen amusingly describes utilitarianism). But does it really come close to our ordinary notions of a worthwhile conception of equality? Utility monsters are one problem for this view - Singer ends up committed to the view that we really ought to give them all of our resources and debase ourselves before them - but more fundamentally, equality talk is at least somewhat about grabbing. It's about preventing one member or group within society from coming to dominate the rest of us. The union gangmen may not represent an admirable form of "equality", with their happiness (for example) to beat up anyone who dares vote against the party line, but ultimately that's what our equality instinct developed to achieve. Singer should either accept this, or he should find a genuinely noble ideal (like pure happiness! It's not difficult) upon which to base his utilitarianism.

Second, his discussion of the social discount rate - while drawing attention to a severely neglected issue, and not so far from the truth on the issue - failed to mention the absolutely crucial difference between what Tyler Cowen calls the "pure preference rate" and differences in the marginal utility of consumption across time. One cannot simply compare £50 now to £1000 in 100 years, observe that the one is a much greater number, and conclude from this that it is to be preferred. If we replace pounds with utils, then of course such a comparison is appropriate - but this is not what Singer did, and his chapter on the environment suffers in clarity for it. (My discussion here is much less exact than I would like, relying upon vague memories of a Cass Sunstein paper that my google-fu skills have failed to turn up).

Overall, though, the book is very much worth reading - both as an introduction to the subject of applied ethics, and as a contribution to the ongoing debate. I note also that there are several sections which are very much of use to my thoughts, but which (unlike e.g. his argument for post-natal abortions) I would not have picked up just from reading reviews. So this is at least one data point in favour of reading whole books rather than just review of them, even on relatively-easily-summarised subjects such as philosophy.

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