ETHICS IN THE REAL WORLD: 90 ESSAYS ON THINGS THAT MATTER
Peter Singer (with some essays co-authored) (Princeton University Press, 2023, 488 pp., $18.95)
Reviewed by Wesley Smith
The Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is one of the most villainous thinkers of our age. Alas, he is also one of the most influential. Singer has been particularly successful at smashing the sanctity of life ethic and replacing it with a faux compassion that bases judgments of “right” or “wrong” on increasing happiness or reducing suffering. Toward that end, Singer grounds what he considers moral judgments on valuing “personhood”—a subjective category he applies to some animals but not to all humans.
I have closely observed Singer’s career and sharply criticized his advocacy for nearly three decades. To little effect, I am afraid: His cultural influence is undeniable, and, if anything, it has grown as time goes on. This unfortunate circumstance derives from a combination of factors that effectively masks the danger of his thinking. Perhaps most important, he does not appear threatening. He is soft-spoken with a charming Australian accent that makes even his most shocking lecture or interview assertions seem amiable. He is also a brilliant writer of passive prose that effectively obscures the crass cruelty of his utilitarian views. There is no question that he is highly intelligent. But perhaps the ultimate reason Singer has been so successful is that his thinking has reflected the zeitgeist of Western civilization as it has slouched into decadence and decline.
Singer is, if nothing else, prolific. Consider his current offering: a book collection of 90 essays (some of which were co-authored) encompassing more than 400 pages in which he opines in bite-size chunks on the “ethics” of “things that matter.” (The book is a revised and updated edition of a previous book consisting of 87 essays, with 37 not in the original version and with all essays updated.) This much I will give Singer. Many of the topics he opines about do “matter.” But the essays he has included in this collection are remarkably banal for a person of his international stature; this edition even downplays by omission some of his most controversial views.
Singer broke into the public’s awareness by promoting “animal liberation,” and he devotes ten of his included essays to animal issues. Please note that Singer is not an animal rights advocate. Animal liberation is not synonymous with animal rights, as Singer does not promote “rights” for people or animals. Rather, he focuses closely on suffering caused to animals, particularly those that we eat. Thus, in “The Case for Going Vegan,” he writes, “Many studies show we can live as healthily or more healthily without it,” meaning meat. “We can also live well on a vegan diet, meaning no meat products at all,” which would require us to eschew nutritious foods such as milk, cheese, and eggs. He also blames meat eating for the Covid pandemic, neglecting to mention it may well have been caused by the virus escaping from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. And, completing his anti-carnivorous jeremiad, one of his essays argues that we should cease eating meat as a means to stop global warming.
Animal welfare is an important ethical issue—particularly the issue of factory farming—but any such discussion should also include the tremendous benefit we receive from food animals. Given that Singer is a strict utilitarian who believes in promoting happiness as well as reducing suffering, it is odd that he does not explore the inexpensive nutrition meat provides, which is unquestionably a significant human good. And, while he argues that foods such as eggs could conceivably be obtained by what he considers ethical means—in other words, using only free-range laying hens—he fails to mention that the difference in price between a dozen eggs obtained via industrial methods and those that he would consider ethically produced is substantial. That may not matter much to someone of his (or my) financial means, but it makes a huge difference to the health and nutrition of poor families.
Animal welfare also comes up in “Who Is a Person,” where Singer supports lawsuits filed by the NonHuman Rights Project seeking writs of habeas corpus for chimpanzees and an elephant. These (failed) lawsuits were pursued to further an animal rights/animal liberation policy goal known as “animal standing.” This would open our courtrooms to animals bringing court cases to be freed from being owned (which would really entail opening the courts to animal ideologues pursuing their own obsessions).
Singer premises his support for animal standing by claiming that many animals are “persons,” a concept that he denies is limited to humans and our associations. After all, he writes, Christians believe that God is “three persons in one” and that “only one of those ‘persons’ was ever a human being.” Singer—who it is worth noting is a proud atheist—has never claimed to be a theologian. If he were, he would know that the Christian philosophical concept of “hypostasis” in the Trinity is not synonymous with the concept of human beings as persons. But then, one of Singer’s great strengths as a polemicist is his mastery of sophistry as a technique of argumentation, making false comparisons seem logical.
Singer also uses personhood theory (my term) to defend an unlimited license for abortion, based on his conclusion that the unborn do not qualify as “persons” and therefore matter less than those who do—in this case meaning their mothers. However, in “The Real Abortion Tragedy,” he admits that human fetuses are indeed human beings, but that this fact is irrelevant morally. “Membership in the species Homo sapiens is not enough to confer a right to life on a being,” he asserts. “Nor can something like self-awareness or rationality warrant greater protection for the fetus than for, say, a cow, because mental capacities of the fetus are inferior to those of cows. Yet, ‘prolife’ groups that picket abortion clinics are rarely seen picketing slaughterhouses.” Hence, in a Peter Singer world, so-called human non-persons like fetuses can be killed, whereas animal “persons” cannot.
Of course, prolifers reject that thinking out of hand, because the concept of universal human rights as a principle requires that each of us be considered of equal moral worth as an objective concept simply and merely because we are human. Indeed, without that core understanding, the weak and vulnerable would be left defenseless; after all, if our worth is subjective and must be earned by possessing relevant capacities, no one is ultimately safe. Though we may qualify as “persons” today, we could lose those capabilities tomorrow, in which case our lives could be forfeit.
Most of Singer’s essays express unremarkable leftist opinions on other topics for which he is less well known than animal issues and abortion. He believes that any sex acts in which consenting adults engage are perfectly fine. This includes adult incest that does not produce children and legalizing prostitution (which he calls “sex work”). As he rhetorically asks (one of his favorite advocacy strategies), “If a form of sexual activity brings satisfaction to those who take part in it, and harms no one, what can be immoral about it?” Apparently the tremendous harm caused to individuals, families, and society by rampant promiscuity (to take one example)—such as sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, depression, abortion, and suicide—are beneath his notice.
Reading the whole collection of essays made me think Singer’s purpose in compiling the collection was to hide his more radical ideas. He’s for altruism and charitable giving, but then, who isn’t? He’s against racism (although his idea of personhood instead of humanhood as the predicate for equality is just as bigoted as was Jim Crow, just with different victims). He opposes Putin’s invasion of Ukraine (but again, who doesn’t?).
More ominously, he applauds the Black Lives Matter riots with faint damnation, writing, “The way to reduce the damage caused by further riots is to show that we have heard.” He favors civil disobedience—such as “Extinction Rebellion’s” tactics of shutting down roads and impeding public transportation in the cause of fighting climate change. He favors limits on free speech during elections, rejecting the famous principle enunciated by Judge Louis Brandeis that the “remedy to be applied” to published “falsehoods and fallacies” is “more speech, not enforced silence.” Still, that’s pretty much standard leftist fare.
What I find most interesting about this generally uninteresting book are the previous essays that Singer omits, transgressive ideas that made his career as a writer, professor, and international public speaker. For example, he does not include his many defenses of infanticide, which he based on personhood theory that (along with his book Animal Liberation) led to his rising from relative obscurity in Australia to a high-visibility professorship at Princeton University. He also does not include the influential essays in which he equates “speciesism,” i.e., discrimination against animals, with racism. Nor does he mention a notorious book review that he penned some years ago in which he supported the moral propriety of bestiality, essentially arguing that proscribing such sex is merely a “taboo” of something that is not “an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” And he makes no mention of his support for using cognitively disabled human beings in place of chimpanzees or other primates in medical experiments. Those are abhorrent concepts all, but at least they are not boring.
Peter Singer’s influence is undeniable, and prolifers are well advised to be familiar with his work, if only to enable them to rebut it. But Ethics in the Real World is not the source for obtaining such knowledge. Better to read Singer’s book-length treatises such as Practical Ethics and Rethinking Life and Death to get a true understanding of why Peter Singer’s world view is so subversive to the sanctity of life and how implementing his ideas would victimize the weak and corrode the true meaning of human freedom.
—Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism and a consultant to the Patients Rights Council. In May 2004, Smith was named one of the nation’s premier thinkers in bioengineering by the National Journal because of his work in bioethics. In 2008, the Human Life Foundation named him a Great Defender of Life.