Practical Ethics
Singer (Peter)
Source: Singer - Practical Ethics
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Preface (Full Text)

  1. Practical ethics covers a wide area. We can find ethical ramifications in most of our choices, if we look hard enough. This book does not attempt to cover this whole area. The problems it deals with have been selected on two grounds: their relevance, and the extent to which philosophical reasoning can contribute to a discussion of them.
  2. I regard an ethical issue as relevant if it is one that any thinking person must face. Some of the issues discussed in this book confront us daily: what are our personal responsibilities towards the poor? Are we justified in treating animals as nothing more than machines producing flesh for us to eat? Should we be using paper that is not recycled? And why should we bother about acting in accordance with moral principles anyway? Other problems, like abortion1 and euthanasia, fortunately are not everyday decisions for most of us; but they are issues that can arise at some time in our lives. They are also issues of current concern about which any active participant in our society's decision-making process needs to reflect.
  3. The extent to which an issue can usefully be discussed philosophically depends on the kind of issue it is. Some issues are controversial largely because there are facts in dispute. For example, whether the release of new organisms created by the use of recombinant DNA ought to be permitted seems to hang largely on whether the organisms pose a serious risk to the environment. Although philosophers may lack the expertise to tackle this question, they may still be able to say something useful about whether it is acceptable to run a given risk of environmental damage. In other cases, however, the facts are clear and accepted by both sides; it is conflicting ethical views that give rise to disagreement over what to do. Then the kind of reasoning and analysis that philosophers practise really can make a difference. The issues discussed in this book are ones in which ethical, rather than factual, disagreement determines the positions people take. The potential contribution of philosophers to discussions of these issues is therefore considerable.
  4. This book has played a central role in events that must give pause to anyone who thinks that freedom of thought and expression can be taken for granted in liberal democracies today. Since its first publication in 1979, it has been widely read and used in many courses at universities and colleges. It has been translated into German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish. The response has generally been positive. There are, of course, many who disagree with the arguments presented in the book, but the disagreement has almost always been at the level of reasoned debate. The only exception has been the reaction in German-speaking countries. In Germany, Austria, and Switzerland opposition to the views contained in this book reached such a peak that conferences or lectures at which I was invited to speak have been cancelled, and courses at German universities in which the book was to be used have been subjected to such repeated disruption that they could not continue. For readers interested in further details of this sorry story a fuller account is reprinted as an appendix.
  5. Naturally, the German opposition to this book has made me reflect on whether the views I have expressed really are, as at least some Germans appear to believe, so erroneous or so dangerous that they must not be uttered. Although much of the German opposition is simply misinformed about what I am saying, there is an underlying truth to the claim that the book breaks a taboo — or perhaps more than one taboo. In Germany since the defeat of Hitler it has not been possible openly to discuss the question of euthanasia, nor the issue of whether a human life may be so full of misery as not to be worth living. More fundamental still, and not limited to Germany, is the taboo on comparing the value of human and nonhuman lives. In the commotion that followed the cancellation of a conference in Germany at which I had been invited to speak, the German sponsoring organisation, to disassociate itself from my views, passed a series of motions, one of which read: 'The uniqueness of human life forbids any comparison — or more specifically, equation — of human existence with other living beings, with their forms of life or interests.' Comparing, and in some cases equating, the lives of humans and animals is exactly what this book is about; in fact it could be said that if there is any single aspect of this book that distinguishes it from other approaches to such issues as human equality, abortion2, euthanasia, and the environment, it is the fact that these topics are approached with a conscious disavowal of any assumption that all members of our own species have, merely because they are members of our species, any distinctive worth or inherent value that puts them above members of other species. The belief in human superiority is a very fundamental one, and it underlies our thinking in many sensitive areas. To challenge it is no trivial matter, and that such a challenge should provoke a strong reaction ought not to surprise us. Nevertheless, once we have understood that the breaching of this taboo on comparing humans and animals is partly responsible for the protests, it becomes clear that there is no going back. For reasons that are developed in subsequent chapters, to prohibit any cross-species comparisons would be philosophically indefensible. It would also make it impossible to overcome the wrongs we are now doing to nonhuman animals, and would reinforce attitudes that have done immense irreparable damage to the environment of this planet that we share with members of other species.
  6. So I have not backed away from the views that have caused so much controversy in German-speaking lands. If these views have their dangers, the dangers of attempting to continue to maintain the present crumbling taboos are greater still. Needless to say, many will disagree with what I have to say. Objections and counter-arguments are welcome. Since the days of Plato, philosophy has advanced dialectically as philosophers have offered reasons for disagreeing with the views of other philosophers. Disagreement is good, because it is the way to a more defensible position; the suggestion that the views I have advanced should not even be discussed is, however, a totally different matter, and one that I am quite content to leave to readers, after they have read and reflected upon the chapters that follow.
  7. Though I have not changed my views on the issues that have aroused the most fanatical opposition, this revised edition contains many other changes. I have added two new chapters on important ethical questions that were not covered in the previous edition: Chapter 9 on the refugee question and chapter 10 on the environment. Chapter 2 has a new section on equality and disability. The sections of Chapter 6 on embryo3 experimentation and fetal tissue use are also new. Every chapter has been reworked, factual material has been updated, and where my position has been misunderstood by my critics, I have tried to make it clearer.
  8. As far as my underlying ethical views are concerned, some of my friends and colleagues will no doubt be distressed to find that countless hours spent discussing these matters with me have served only to reinforce my conviction that the consequentialist approach to ethics taken in the first edition is fundamentally sound. There have been two significant changes to the form of consequentialism espoused. The first is that I make use of the distinction drawn by R. M. Hare, in his book4 Moral Thinking, between two distinct levels of moral reasoning — the everyday intuitive level and the more reflective, critical level. The second is that I have dropped the suggestion — which I advanced rather tentatively in the fifth chapter of the first edition — that one might try to combine both the 'total' and 'prior existence' versions of utilitarianism, applying the former to sentient beings who are not self-conscious and the latter to those who are. I now think that preference utilitarianism draws a sufficiently sharp distinction between these two categories of being to enable us to apply one version of utilitarianism to all sentient beings. Nevertheless, I am still not entirely satisfied with my treatment of this whole question of how we should deal with ethical choices that involve bringing a being or beings into existence. As Chapters 4-7 make clear, the way in which we answer this perplexing question has implications for the issues of abortion5, the treatment of severely disabled newborn infants, and for the killing of animals. The period between editions of this book has seen the publication of by far the most intricate and far-sighted analysis to date of this problem: Derek Parfit's6 Reasons and Persons. Unfortunately, Parfit7 himself remains baffled by the questions he has raised, and his conclusion is that the search for 'Theory X' — a satisfactory way of answering the question — must continue. So perhaps it is hardly to be expected that a satisfactory solution can emerge in this, both slimmer and more wide-ranging, volume.
  9. In writing this book I have made extensive use of my own previously published articles and books. Thus
    • Chapter 3 is based on Animal Liberation (New York Review/Random House, 2nd edition, 19908), although it takes into account objections made since the book first appeared in 1975.
    • The sections of Chapter 6 on such topics as in vitro fertilisation, the argument from potential, embryo9 experimentation, and the use of fetal tissue, all draw on work I wrote jointly with Karen Dawson, which was published as 'IVF and the Argument From Potential' in Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 17 (1988), and in Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, and others, Embryo10 Experimentation (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
    • In this revised edition, Chapter 7 includes points reached together with Helga Kuhse in working on our much fuller treatment of the issue of euthanasia for severely disabled infants, Should the Baby Live? (Oxford University Press, 198511).
    • Chapter 8 restates arguments from 'Famine, Affluence and Morality', Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1 (1972) and from 'Reconsidering the Famine Relief Argument' in Peter Brown and Henry Shue (eds.) Food Policy: The Responsibility of the United States in the Life and Death Choices (New York, The Free Press, 1977).
    • Chapter 9 again draws on a co-authored piece, this time written with my wife, Renata Singer, and first published as 'The Ethics of Refugee Policy' in M. Gibney (ed.), Open Borders? Closed Societies? (Greenwood Press, New York, 1988).
    • Chapter 10 is based on 'Environmental Values', a chapter that I contributed to Ian Marsh (ed.), The Environmental Challenge (Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991).
    • Parts of Chapter 11 draw on my first book, Democracy and Disobedience (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1973).
  10. H. J. McCloskey, Derek Parfit12, and Robert Young provided useful comments on a draft version of the first edition of this book. Robert Young's ideas also entered into my thinking at an earlier stage, when we jointly taught a course on these topics at La Trobe University. The chapter on euthanasia, in particular, owes much to his ideas, though he may not agree with everything in it. Going back further still, my interest in ethics was stimulated by H. J. McCloskey, whom I was fortunate to have as a teacher during my undergraduate years; while the mark left by R. M. Hare, who taught me at Oxford, is apparent in the ethical foundations underlying the positions taken in this book. Jeremy Mynott, of Cambridge University Press, encouraged me to write the book and helped to shape and improve it as it went along.
  11. For assistance with the revised edition, I must thank those with whom I have worked jointly on material that has been included in this book: Karen Dawson, Helga Kuhse, and Renata Singer. Helga Kuhse, in particular, has been a close colleague for the past ten years, and during that period I have learned much by discussing most of the topics in this book with her. She also read and commented on several chapters of this revised edition. Paola Cavaliers gave me detailed comments and criticism on the entire draft, and I thank her for suggesting several improvements. There are, of course, many others who have challenged what I wrote in the first edition and forced me to think about these issues again, but to thank them all is impossible, and to thank a few would be unjust. This time it was Terence Moore, at Cambridge University Press, whose enthusiasm for the book provided the stimulus for me to carry out the revisions.
  12. To give an uncluttered text, the notes, references, and suggested further reading are grouped together at the end of the book.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 4: See "Hare (R.M.) - Moral Thinking - Its Levels, Method and Point".

Footnote 6: See "Parfit (Derek) - Reasons and Persons".

Footnote 8: See "Singer (Peter) - Animal Liberation".

Footnote 11: See "Singer (Peter) & Khuse (Helga) - Should the Baby Live?".

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
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