Thursday, February 13, 2003

Singer ends his book on ethics by telling us why we needn't read his book

You may remember that I have been reading Practical Ethics, a book by the famous philosopher Peter Singer. I've given some criticism of his method and conclusions here. But he ends his book with a chapter where he asks "Why act morally?" His conclusion is quite interesting, because it undercuts his whole project. (Note, the page numbers I give are to the 1979 version.)

He asks, does life has meaning? Absent religion, is there any meaning at all? Singer rejects God and thinks that the universe just happened. “Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others, however, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful. In this sense atheists can find meaning in life.” (217) So for an atheist, the highest meaning is the satisfaction of desires. He admits that in a world without God, there can be no meaning aside from the shallow meaning of satisfying one’s interests. He also admits that there is nothing irrational in itself about self-centeredness. His reluctance to admit any common human nature will not allow him to take Plato’s route of asserting that there is greater happiness in being just. So what does he do?

There is a reflection on the emptiness of following our interests: “When everything in our interests has been achieved, do we just sit back and be happy? Could we be happy in this way? . . . People who slaved to establish small businesses, telling themselves they would do it only until they had made enough to live comfortably, keep working long after they have passed their original target. Their material ‘needs’ expand just fast enough to keep ahead of their income. Retirement is a problem for many because they cannot enjoy themselves without a purpose in life.” (218) So we have some need to go beyond the satisfaction of our interests–there is always some interest further along that we must find.

This is where Singer thinks that he can put the ethical viewpoint. “If we are looking for a purpose broader than our own interests, something which will allow us to see our lives as possessing significance beyond the narrow confines of our own conscious states, one obvious solution is to take up the ethical point of view.” (219) Note how weakly this is stated: there is a possible solution. There is no reason why this solution need be better than any other position. There is no particular value in choosing this viewpoint, except that it may serve to distract our interests for a longer period of time than the mere search for money. Note that Singer has proposed that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia should be allowed, and that animal rights must be respected, and further that violence is acceptable to achieve these ends, if necessary. But he only has this very weak justification of any sort of ethical action at all: “. . . I am now suggesting that rationality, in the broad sense which includes self-awareness and reflection on the nature and point of our own existence, may push us towards concerns broader than the quality of our own existence; but the process is not a necessary one and those who do not take part in it–or, in taking part, do not follow it all the way to the ethical point of view–are not irrational or in error.” (219) At the conclusion of his ethics book, a book that strives to argue for radical change in how we treat humans and animals, he admits that without God, there is no particular reason to implement any of the changes he proposes!

Perhaps Singer could find a better reason to act morally. May I suggest "Our heart is restless, unless it rests in thee."

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