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Practical Ethics

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Peter Singer's remarkably clear and comprehensive Practical Ethics has become a classic introduction to applied ethics since its publication in 1979 and has been translated into many languages. For this second edition the author has revised all the existing chapters, added two new ones, and updated the bibliography. He has also added an appendix describing some of the deep misunderstanding of and consequent violent reaction to the book in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland where the book has tested the limits of freedom of speech. The focus of the book is the application of ethics to difficult and controversial social questions.

411 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1979

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About the author

Peter Singer

161 books6,160 followers
Peter Singer is sometimes called "the world’s most influential living philosopher" although he thinks that if that is true, it doesn't say much for all the other living philosophers around today. He has also been called the father (or grandfather?) of the modern animal rights movement, even though he doesn't base his philosophical views on rights, either for humans or for animals.

In 2005 Time magazine named Singer one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute ranked him 3rd among Global Thought Leaders for 2013. (He has since slipped to 36th.) He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty. 

Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. In 2011 Time included Animal Liberation on its “All-TIME” list of the 100 best nonfiction books published in English since the magazine began, in 1923. Singer has written, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 50 books, including Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), The Point of View of the Universe (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), The Most Good You Can Do, Ethics in the Real World and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction. His works have appeared in more than 30 languages.

Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, first published in 2009, led him to found a non-profit organization of the same name. In 2019, Singer got back the rights to the book and granted them to the organization, enabling it to make the eBook and audiobook versions available free from its website, www.thelifeyoucansave.org.

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946, and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. After teaching in England, the United States and Australia, he has, since 1999, been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He is married, with three daughters and four grandchildren. His recreations include hiking and surfing. In 2012 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation’s highest civic honour.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 175 reviews
Profile Image for Emma Sea.
2,184 reviews1,064 followers
February 6, 2013
Practical Ethics is one of those books that authors cite all the time, but which I had never actually read**. In terms of discussing personal ethics in a humanist framework, there's nothing better than this book. Singer goes through the issues so clearly and yet conversationally, and also thoroughly addresses criticisms of and weaknesses in his arguments.

However I was unprepared for Singer appearing to be in favour of euthanizing babies with Down syndrome and Myelomeningocele (spina bifida) (pp. 127-138). Singer refers to children with these conditions as "defective". WHAT. THE. EVERLOVING. FUCK?! When people cite Singer they always seem to skip this bit. Singer's reasoning here is the lack of mobility, lack of bladder control, and "mental retardation" makes a life with spina bifida not worth living, and that people with Down Syndrome are not capable of rational reasoning, rather, leading lives primarily driven by emotions, and are therefore not persons ("although their lives may be pleasant enough, as the lives of children are"). (You'll be happy to know Singer excludes haemophilia: haemophiliacs "find life worth living". Also, "it could be that a childless couple would be prepared to adopt a haemophiliac" (p. 138) if the parent doesn't want them.)

Singer states, "killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all" (p. 138).

I acknowledge this is an incredibly complex situation, and one I have never been in (and likely will never be). People in this situation may make different decisions.

I support abortion: I believe a human's right to determine what happens to their body overrides the rights of the potential human. This couple would have aborted their fetus had they known she would be disabled. This is the mother's decision: her right to decide, not mine. But the implication here is that they would have preferred the right to kill the infant once born. Ethically is there a difference? This is the basis of Singer's argument.

Dr Henk Prins did just this: he euthanized newborn Rianne Quirine Kunst at the parents' request, because she had "hydrocephaly, spina bifida and leg deformities". This British ethicist argues that a post-birth abortion is no different to a pre-birth abortion.

But where do we draw the line? Who gets to judge if a life is worth living? The voices of those affected by euthanasia are often the least likely to be heard. It's so complex, but I do know there is absolutely no way I could ever support the right of a parent to euthanise a infant with Down syndrome. No way. Nope. It would mean we have the right to determine which kind of conscious, self-aware life can have meaning. A determination that difference = disposable.

So I think to myself, at the extreme end, what about an infant with no brain at all, would I be OK with euthanizing this hypothetical infant? Then I find out that's not unheard of. Nicholas Coke lived three years with no brain, but with a brain stem. As Nicholas was from the US I cringe to think what medical costs the family was shouldering, as he needed 12 daily medications. But this Kiwi kid needs to raise NZ$500,000 a year for his medical costs, and I couldn't possibly consider for a second that we have a right to euthanize him. And Nicholas's family describe him laughing and finding things funny. That doesn't sound like a life with no meaning.

What I do know is I personally could never make the determination to euthanise anyone but myself (and I do hope NZ has legalised euthanasia when I get to the end of my life, whenever that may be).

Anyway, I'm rating the book a five. Although I don't agree with Singer on everything, it's incredibly thought-provoking. And I'm going to read some of his more recent work, as I assume he has modified his stance on infant euthanasia in the last 30 years (or maybe not, who knows).

** Clearly I'm not the only one. While I was reading this on lunch breaks three different people said to me, "Ohhh, you're reading Singer!". When I asked if they had read him, they all said no, but they'd read of and on him frequently.
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews125 followers
January 14, 2018
Of course this book is far from impartial. But it offer good and scrupulous arguments for his choices.
The book is written in a very dry and unhelpfully, boring manner. Yet the content of the book is far from boring.
I'm not going to write more on this review, my dog is barking at me to take him for a walk.
Profile Image for Conrad Zero.
Author 3 books135 followers
February 6, 2017
Practical Ethics was recommended to me by my ethics professor. She claimed that the book was the reason she became a vegetarian.

Reading this book will be an eye-opening experience for many. The discussions tackle the biggest questions facing ethics. At what point should we consider a fetus a human being? What is the value of one human life compared to another? Why worry about saving the environment?

A highlight of the text is that Singer starts with a simple question or example which you will intuitively answer. He then follows the line of logic to a conclusion that may surprise or even shock you. This will make you go back and analyze your own values and presumptions. In that respect, Practical Ethics is an amazing and thought-provoking work.

Because of this structure, Practical Ethics needs to be read in order. Chapters build on arguments made (and supposedly resolved, or at least presumed to be resolved) in previous chapters. So you can't just jump to the clickbait 'euthanasia' section and come away with a clear understanding. The conclusions can run counter to conventional wisdom, but he's not afraid to follow the logic.

It will be no surprise that Singer gets plenty of flak on his conclusions, some of which comes from people who didn't get the whole picture. (See the appendix of the 2nd edition to learn how he was unfairly treated in Germany for exactly this reason...)

All that said, I did find the final chapter discussion of 'why we should act morally' would have fit better at the beginning of the book. Although the results of that discussion are probably the most eye-opening of all, and I can understand why the author would hold that big reveal off till the end.

Regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with Singer's conclusions, Practical Ethics helped me to clarify my own position on complicated and emotionally loaded issues like abortion, euthanasia, animal rights and environmental ethics. It made me more aware of critical aspects of what it means to be human in the first place.

And No, reading Practical Ethics did not turn me into a vegetarian. Your mileage may vary...

Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book714 followers
May 26, 2009
Read down in Savannah back in 2002; I picked up an archival copy back in 2004. Lots of good thinking here, but Singer's *way* too quick to consider something "conclusively demonstrated." I found his animal rights doctrine a particularly grotesque pill to swallow, and his arguments regarding abortion rather slipshod reasoning (although not so much as the roe v wade decision itself) -- I'm staunchly pro-choice, but certainly not due to Singer-style arguments. For that matter, the 700,000 Americans arrested each year for marijuana possession -- the major ethical failure of our times, and a barbarism that future generations will look upon with shudders -- are never mentioned. Sorry Pete, but while billions of dollars are being spent to restrict basic pharmaceutical freedoms, the cows can wait.

For a non-scientist, though, his reasoning's not too bad and cut well above the typical jib surrounding such passionate topics. Until my comrades in the neurological arts get off their duffers and solve this problem, armchair ethicists like Singer will lead the way.

(Singer, featured on the cover, is far too thin and needs badly to eat some delicious animals. It'd probably leave him much less worried and flighty.)
Profile Image for Paulla Ferreira Pinto.
225 reviews29 followers
April 27, 2019
Deliciei-me a ler, quase compulsivamente, esta ética prática relatada com recurso a uma linguagem totalmente acessível a leigos e na qual são suscitadas perspectivas de temas actualíssimos que se espera que façam o leitor questionar as suas prévias concepções,assim as tivesse, ou a pensar em matérias da maior importância com as quais, por qualquer motivo, não se tivesse cruzado ou nas quais não houvesse reflectido.
Independentemente de se concordar ou não com as posições do autor - e, na verdade, no que me respeita, não vejo muito por onde discordar, pese embora a “novidade” de algumas das soluções-, o que mais me surpreendeu em toda a obra foi o capítulo complementar em que é relatado o extremismo radical- expressão pleonástica propositadamente utilizada- dos que discordam das posições de Singer, que na Alemanha das décadas de 80 e 90 chegou a atingir foros de censura que nem o passado de má memória deste país justifica.
Renovo os meus agradecimentos a quem, por interposta e bem intencionada pessoa, me recomendou a obra, sendo que à dita interposta e bem intencionada pessoa já fui manifestando o meu agrado e reconhecimento pela generosa mediação.

Profile Image for Sahil Vaidya.
Author 1 book7 followers
June 12, 2021
Practical Ethics is a great book to start your journey in the complicated field of ethics, especially for a philosophy neophyte (such as I am). It has been written in a very accessible manner so you don't have to worry about your brain getting blown to smithereens by the complexity of the concepts or the dire nature of the commentary- characteristics that many who attempt to read philosophy have come to detest.

For someone who hasn't read much on this subject, this book can shake many assumptions that they have taken for granted and offers an excellent approach on how to think about them.

It covers diverse topics- from animal rights and abortion to civil disobedience and charity and argues effectively to upend many of the ideas that we may hold, thanks to societal/theological conditioning or just because we've never taken the effort to reflect upon and question them. Some conclusions may certainly shock the reader, which is why I found this to be a very thought-provoking (yet well-balanced and non-aggressive) read.

On the whole, it might massively benefit you (and the society) by nudging you to walk the ethical path. The title contains the word 'Practical' for a reason.
Profile Image for Worthless Bum.
43 reviews29 followers
July 13, 2010
*I am presently homeless and can only use the public library's computers for a limited amount of time each day, so this review is probably going to be done piecemeally.

One thing I had been wondering about Peter Singer for some time now is what his position is on meta-ethics. It is well know that he is a preference utilitarian, and he spends the bulk of his books discussing the application of that normative system. What I hadn't remembered from my previous reading of this book is that Singer lays out his stance on meta-ethics in chapter 1. What is clear from that reading is that Singer does not hold to any particular meta-ethical view, but maintains that several meta-ethical positions are plausible. Among these are the prescriptivism of his former instructor R.M. Hare, J.L. Mackie's error theory, and some form of ideal observer theory.

Singer goes on to discuss different conceptions of equality, ultimately arriving at the one that forms the basis of applicability for his system of ethics. Basing ethical equality on a descriptive property shared by the bearers of ethical considerablility does not work because only some subset of said bearers may have that property, and not to the same degree. For instance, using self awareness as the basis for equality would likely include only subsets of a handful of species, including humans. If such a criterion were consistently applied, infants and some severely mentally handicapped persons would be excluded. Such people would be but objects for us to use at our disposal.

Singer goes through a number of possible criteria of this kind, each time showing some critical flaw in what its logical consequences would have us do. The system of equality that Singer ends up with is one that owes a great deal to R.M. Hare, who in turn derives a major component of his ethics from Kant's categorical imperitive, which states: "act only according to that maxim that whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law". Thus, for Hare as well as Singer, universalizabiltiy in ethics is a fundamental concept, to be applied across the board in all like cases. For Singer, this means that the interests of all beings are to be weighted equally. My interests don't count for more simply because they're MY interests, for example.

From there Singer applies preference utilitarianism with the above mentioned conception of equality to what he considers to some of the biggest ethical problems of our time. These include world hunger, euthanasia, abortion, speciesism, environmentalism, and refugee issues. With that it is time for us to turn our attention to these issues.

Speciesism: In terms of the scale of the suffering involved, and the damage done to the environment thereby, speciesism and the manner in which humans treat non-human animals is most probably the biggest ethical problem facing the world today. Billions of animals are raised and killed for food per year in the United States alone, under horrendous conditions for the well being of the animals, and which contributes more to global warming than automobiles. What makes this possible is both a lack of transparency in agribuisness and a moral attitude called "speciesism", which holds that species membership is a valid ethical distinction to make for purposes of the ethical considerability of the beings involved. There is in fact a sharp distinction drawn in many societies between the moral worth of humans versus all other creatures.

The religious history of the world, for Western religions in particular, does not fair well in this regard. For instance, Christian history is full of speciesism justified on the grounds that non-human animals do not have souls. Decartes' monstrous proclamation that non-human animals were like clocks (meaning that they made noises but didn't have minds) paved the way for much cruelty against those creatures.

More to come...
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
May 16, 2020
I picked up Peter Singer's book upon many describing it as a comprehensive introduction to applied ethics, and although I didn't agree with all of Peter Singer's moral judgments he has given me so many valuable tools to think about moral issues. The book has 12 chapters, that touch into topics of equality, equality for animals, killing animals, abortion, Euthanasia, income inequality, climate change, the environment, civil disobedience, and violence.

I don't understand why Singer chose preferential utilitarianism ( which values the fulfillment of the greatest amount of personal interests) over hedonistic utilitarianism ( which values the fulfillment of the greatest amount of personal pleasure) to argue for all the topics he addressed. If we can agree that the role of morality is to advance the well being of humans than it makes sense that we take into account people's pleasure rather than their personal interests. Besides that how do we calculate the value of opposing interests? His choice was obviously a way to escape the problems with classical utilitarianism, which wasn't so convincing to me

This, of course, leads him to some counter-intuitive conclusions, he, for example, doesn't see infants as persons, and therefore doesn't consider their killing any worst than killing an animal, of course, he takes into account the fact that human infants have human parents that would have their interests being violated if the infant gets killed, making it worst than killing an animal, but if the parents agree then it isn't any worst.
Now he doesn't use that to justify killing infants but to argue for euthanasia for infants with severe disabilities, something that I am a little unsettled with

At the end of the book Singer tried to make a case for Altruism and for acting morally, by urging us to seek a meaning to life that comes from being a part of an environment that cares for us, and we care for it. But how can we be persuaded by such a plea, if we were asked several times to cast our moral instincts aside, and focus on the reasoning through? wouldn't reason just lead us to egoism? which he acknowledges being the rational thing to do

That being said, I absolutely enjoyed it when Singer was being the devil's advocate, and showing the full scope of arguments that exist for and against a certain practice. I find his arguments for abortion and euthanasia to be really well developed. I also liked his arguments on the obligation of the rich countries to aid the poor ones.

The climate change chapter was the most challenging to read, because of population ethics that I don't seem to be able to wrap my head around it. I, however, enjoyed the practical suggestion that was mentioned in this chapter like an international carbon trading scheme, and carbon taxation.

Overall I think it is pretty obvious that Peter Singer is an empathetic person, trying to do the best he can to convince people to help each other, animals, and the planet effectively.

Profile Image for Billie Pritchett.
1,088 reviews87 followers
January 7, 2016
Peter Singer's Practical Ethics is a very considerate book. Singer's writings about equality, the ethical treatment of animals, and ending world poverty are best, it seems to me. I will reframe Singer's positions regarding these, not exactly as Singer put them, but being as charitable as possible as to what he was arguing for. Singer argues that among the varieties of conceptions of equality, we should choose equality of interests of persons (self-conscious rational creatures) and anything capable of experiencing pain or suffering. When we take into account these interests, it becomes abundantly clear that among those who suffer are animals, and by not killing animals for food we could prevent their suffering. Regarding ending world poverty, if we think it is always better, all things being equal, to help someone who is suffering so long as we don't sacrifice anything of comparable moral significance, we should. Therefore, we should help those suffering and subsequently dying of poverty. The ethical treatment of animals and the attempt to end world poverty read as two of the most powerful and convincing arguments I have ever read.
Profile Image for Hind.
60 reviews10 followers
August 19, 2018
A little tip; when reading Singer, surrender your mind (and your whole self) to Singer. A lot of what he says will sit uncomfortably with your basic instinct and gut feeling (no matter how broad minded you thought yourself to be), yet his arguments are compelling. I’ve spent tremendous time try to rebut his arguments in my head. Unfortunately I was unsuccessful in coming with any, let alone good ones.
Not many books leave you with this conflicted feeling; I feel what you are saying is mistaken, yet it makes perfect sense.

You are definitely left wanting to explore more. And that’s always good.

This book is exactly as titled; practical ethics. I don’t think I’ve read a book that tackles such intricate topics with considerable clarity and simplicity. Literally anyone can pick this book and have no doubt at any given page as to what Singer actually meant. After all, Singer has no time for the theoretical.

Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,009 followers
May 28, 2009
Interesting, not that I agree with all of it. Pretty easy to read, thankfully, and clear.

Edit on reread: I can understand why this book gets some pretty extreme reactions, now I've read it straight through like this. His view of ethics builds up throughout the book, too, so if you don't read all of it, if you read some of it out of context, then he sounds pretty awful.

It also should, if you're properly thinking about it, make you wonder why our society -- globally -- is the way it is, if we claim to be so concerned with morality. Even Christian ethics points the same way as Singer's ethics, despite his intent to make a new, practical system. Why do we let things go on the way we do?

I do agree with a lot of his conclusions, but not because I've necessarily gone through the same thought process. He points out some discomforting truths.
Profile Image for Kelly.
20 reviews10 followers
July 13, 2021
[Utilitarian BS] drenched in pseudo-compassion. Absolutely revolting. I highly recommend reading his conversations with Harriet Mcbryde Johnson at the NYT. Singer is (arguably) one of the most *intellectually dangerous* living philosophers. His "ethics" are infectious and insidious in their saccharine self-righteousness. And to top it all off-he's a shit thinker! Where is the rigor?! To every edgelord giving this a 5---GAGF.
Profile Image for Humphrey J.
31 reviews4 followers
October 20, 2020
Haven't read in full- still confident in saying the text is painfully underwhelming: makes Mill seem well-spirited & subtle.
Comments on Marxism make me despair that this guy wrote the OUP intro to it.
Profile Image for Rui Coelho.
220 reviews
September 28, 2015
This is the kind of "humanist" BS that you are likely to find everyday on Facebook.
Profile Image for the kenosha kid.
75 reviews55 followers
May 23, 2018
I disagree with Singer's implicit premise that ethics can be systematized or rigorously examined with logic, but taken for what it is this book must be as good as it gets. His arguments are clear and consistent, although he does get a little ad hoc every now and then. Overall it could be useful as heuristics for when you're undecided about the morality of a certain action; but I don't think you can say any of this stuff is right or use it to argue against competing conceptions of ethics.

update 2018-05-23:

i would today like to intensify the opinion expressed above and declare singer to be wholly full of shit
Profile Image for Soleil.
30 reviews1 follower
June 8, 2019
Offers lots of insight into issues in applied ethics, from euthanasia to climate change. Singer builds his positions using preference-based utilitarianism, which seeks to maximize individuals’ abilities to satisfy their preferences. I loved his discussion around harming potential persons and the ethics of killing animals! At times though, I felt like there was room for more engagement with real-world data and evidence (e.g., Kahneman’s studies on psychological preferences for minimizing suffering versus maximizing happiness, studies on foreign aid sustainability) but learned a lot overall
55 reviews1 follower
March 14, 2021
notes to condense later:

Chapter 1: About ethics

-Argues that our moral intuitions are a product of natural selection. pg. 5 "We have inherited a set of moral intuitions from our ancestors. Now we need to work out which of them should be changed.

-This latter bit seems a bit problematic to me. On what basis can we reason about/revise these intuitions without an appeal to a natural law? How do we go from an "is" to an "ought"?

-Singer agrees that moral intuitions are subjective in the sense that they are not natural kinds that exist independently of human observers. But he still believes that we can reason about these intuitions. P.g. 8 "the denial of objective ethical facts does not imply the rejection of ethical reasoning".

-After a brief analysis, Singer concludes that our intuitions about ethics are tied up with notions of justifiability and universalism. Someone is living according to an ethical standard if they can justify their actions to others (Scanlon), and if the reasons they give are not selfish but take others into account. On the basis of justifiability and universalism we will use reason to modify our ethical intuitions.

-Singer notes that most major ethical theories take this universal stance, although they sometimes conflict with each other because they are maximizing different things across people (happiness, preferences, rights, etc.). As a simple starting point, Singer adopts "preference utilitarianism" - satisfying the preferences of the most people.

-The lacuna in Singer's argument in this chapter, I think, is the basis of putting justifiability and universalism on a pedestal above all our other moral intuitions. An answer might be that we intuitively feel that these are our most important and fundamental intuitions (+ this feeling itself is a product of our biology). This rescues us from appealing to something "outside" or "above" our inherited oughts. We inherent a constellation of moral intuitions, and intuitively recognize some as more important than others. These become the axioms that guide our moral reasoning.

Chapter 2: Equality and its implications

-On what basis can we claim that all humans are equal? We obviously differ in physical, intellectual, + moral competence.

-Singer argues that equality fall out of our intuition that our moral judgements should be universal, not selfish (i.e., considering the preferences of others).

-Thus, agents are equal (in terms of the moral consideration that they should be given), so long as they have preferences. Pg. 21 "The principle of equal consideration of interests prohibits making our readiness to consider the interests of others depend on their abilities or other characteristics, apart from having interests."

-Equal consideration of interests provides a natural counter to discrimination based on supposed differences among racial groups or genders. Even if we suppose that there are differences in ability - and this is a big if - this is immaterial because we should be considering preferences, not ability (especially because achieving genetic and environmental equality is a pipe dream).

-This naturally leads to a principle "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Singer acknowledges that perfect realization of this principle is impractical, as those blessed with natural gifts and favorable conditions will strive to maintain their advantage, but suggests "we should try to create a climate of opinion" that will lead to a reduction in excessive disparities in resources (i.e., create a culture openly hostile to inequality - this may have started to emerge in the past few years)

-Interesting side note: argues that affirmative action is not in conflict with equal consideration of interests. Choosing based on race is no less arbitrary than choosing based on intelligence. The institution in each case is just trying to further certain goals, and so long as the institution is not rejecting applicants for reasons unrelated to these goals, then all applicants have been given due consideration, and we are just angry about changing goals.

Chapter 3: Equality for animals?

-Following the consequences of preference utilitarianism further, we see that it natural extends moral consideration to animals as well.

-If the chief point of consideration is whether an agent has interests, it seems that the number of legs and the presence of fur is just as immaterial as intelligence or strength.

-On one hand this is intuitively appealing: most of us have a natural empathy and affinity for animals. But at the same time this raises some troubling comparisons of moral worth, e.g., an infant newborn human vs a fully grown dog, the latter of which likely has a more fully developed and acute sense of preferences.

Chapter 4: What's wrong with killing?

-Singer next considers the morality of killing people. "People" are self aware beings with a capacity to imagine and desire particular futures. Most humans and a few animals are people. Consistent with his emphasis on preferences, Singer doesn't consider mere membership in homo sapiens a meaningful moral consideration.

-Both major flavors of utilitarianism conclude that killing people is particularly bad. For the preference utilitarian, it is a straightforward case of thwarting another's preferences (at least typically). For the hedonistic utilitarian, even though the effect on the person could be argued to be curiously morally neutral (because there is no pleasure or pain in non-existence), a culture in which wanton killing is permitted would be stressful for the extant future-loving persons. (Strangely, it seems this second argument could be recast in terms of preferences and apply equally to the preference utilitarian, which Singer does not address. Throughout the book, the distinction between preference and hedonistic utilitarianism often seems tenuous).

-What about killing sentient non-persons (e.g., a merely conscious animal)? For preferences utilitarians, killing here is not a moral violation. If a being cannot imagine its future, it can't have preferences about that future. A fish on the hook struggles out of a desire to escape confinement + avoid pain. It is not despairing over unfulfilled dreams. An instantaneous, painless death would not violate any of its preferences. Singer suggests that hedonistic utilitarianism runs into all kinds of hell here. One could argue that you are denying the animal its future pleasure (again, why not say future preferences???). However, this implies that our goal should be to increase the sum total happiness in the universe, which has the curious consequence of suggesting, for example, that all other things being equal, if we expect our children to have happy lives then we are morally impelled to have more. Alternatively, the view that we should only consider extant (not future) life suggests that it is fine to bring a severely disabled child (a sentient non-person) to term and then euthanize it.

-I think this rather academic digression, while interesting, falls out of a mistake in objective function. Why not argue for maximizing present and future average, not summed, happiness? This normalizes our metric to focus on the average person. We intuitively care about the happiness at the level of single persons, not a collective sum.

Chapter 5: Taking life: animals

-Singer explores the killing of non-person animals in more detail. For him, this is tied closely to questions of replaceability - to what extent are extant and potential beings all replaceable with each other - because many domestic animals only come into existence in the first place as replacements for their consumed ancestors.

-Hedonistic utilitarianism supports replaceability, because if you replace one happy animal with another, the sum total pleasure in the universe is conserved. However, valuing summed pleasure in this way has odd consequences, as we saw in the previous chapter.

-As we saw, preference utilitarianism is neutral on the painless killing of non-persons because no preferences are violated (by definition).

-A potential counter to Singer's thought is that preference utilitarianism runs into the same issue as hedonistic utilitarianism. If our goal is to maximize summed satisfied preferences, then we are under a moral obligation to replace the animal, and this has the odd consequence that we should maximize the number of lives (assuming preference satisfaction). Singer gets around this by proposing a normalization procedure of his own. Preference satisfaction should not be counted as a positive, but as a satisfaction of a negative debt. This raises all sorts of thorny questions about the value of existence (if we are all a little unsatisfied, is an empty universe preferable?) which Singer (self-admittedly) squirms his way out of by appending a generic value for life to preference utilitarianism.

-Anyway, the (unstated) consequence seems to be that killing a satisfied non-person leaves you with a neutral moral ledger, with an incentive for replacement due to our intrinsic appreciation of life.

Chapter 6: Taking life: the embryo and the fetus

-The conservative argument against abortion: (1) killing an innocent human being is wrong (2) a fetus is an innocent human being (3) therefore it is wrong to kill a fetus

-Most liberal positions do not tackle this argument head on, because if we deny that a fetus is a human being, it is difficult to identify a clear point at which it is one. Most liberal responses are practical arguments about abortions laws that are agnostic to the moral status of abortion itself (e.g., abortion laws just create unsafe illegal abortions, abortion is not of the government's business, etc.).

-Singer insists that we should focus not on the second premise, but on the first. As we have seen, membership in homo sapiens is not a relevant moral factor - the key moral considerations are consciousness, the capacity to feel pain (the most rudimentary preference), and personhood, which grants additional moral weight. Singer argues that once the fetus is sufficiently developed to feel pain, we should render unto it the same moral consideration as other conscious non-persons.

-Arguments based on the premise that it is wrong to kill potential persons are weak - theoretically, you have to justify why bringing persons into the world is intrinsically valuable (although note that Singer just argued this in the previous chapter), and practically, we act against this all the time (e.g., via artificial or natural birth control).

-Finally, Singer admits a rather uncomfortable consequence of his conclusions. Birth does not mark a meaningful landmark in the moral status of a human (the are conscious non-persons before and after birth). Singer suggests that, as a result, we may have to rethink our cultural taboo on infanticide.

-I'm not sure Singer's though puts us in as uncomfortable a spot as he suggests. Under utilitarianism, killing a person is especially morally weighty, but killing conscious non-persons is still not taken lightly, both due to the difficulty of painless, instant death and the effect that such acts have on others.

-The ethical conclusion offered by utilitarianism thus seems to be very permissive abortion laws for the 18 weeks before the fetus is likely conscious and judicious permission of abortion and infanticide after this point.

Chapter 12: Why act morally?

I.e, why should we base our decisions on moral considerations rather self-interested, cultural, or aesthetic ones?

There's an old line of thought in philosophy that argues that we should be ethical because to be ethical is to be rational. This is based on the observation that both rationality and ethics are rooted in universalizability. Proper logical reasoning is universally valid - a mathematical proof is not true for one person and false for another. Ethics involves universalizing our preferences, taking others into consideration and so basing our actions on principles that are acceptable to others. The problem is, obviously, that ethical universalizability is stricter than rational universalizability, so the two can't be so easily equated. A person acting out of conspicuous self-interest is not necessarily acting irrationally (e.g., in highly competitive environments where such behavior is the norm. Even if we had a better argument for why morality is rational, this just to seems to be a form of can-kicking - then we have to ask 'why be rational?' - an even trickier question.

A more intuitive answer is that behaving ethically is in our self-interest. Moral feelings seem to have evolved to help humans live cooperatively together, promoting the good of all and preventing exile. Critics argue that such thinking takes us out of the realm of ethics entirely, but Singer takes a dim view of this purist view. In practice, we seem to understand rationally (and feel deeply intuitively) that moral behavior is in our interest. But this doesn't mean that we go around weighing the personal benefit of moral behavior in every interaction. Rather, understanding that morality is important, we conceive ourselves as moral people (or at least as people trying to be moral), and then let that self conception guide our behavior on an intuitive level. This stance feels less Machiavellian.

Finally, Singer suggests that for many, striving for an ethical life can offer some existential satisfaction. People who we label as 'psychopaths' are unconcerned with anything past the immediate present and live their life accordingly, and apparently quite pleasantly. Most people aren't satisfied with a purpose as limited as the constant pursuit of immediate pleasure, and may find meaning in hobbies, sports, careerism, or the accumulation of wealth. Sounding a little like Rudolf Bultmann, Singer suggests that the pursuit of an ethical life is a particular useful source of meaning, since it allows us to transcend ourselves and shields us from the vicissitudes of our lives as imperfect, mortal creatures. There is calm in the universal perspective offered by ethics. He summarizes this prettily:

"I am now suggesting that rationality, in the broad sense that 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 are not irrational or in error. Some people find collecting stamps an entirely adequate way of giving purpose to their lives. There is nothing irrational about that; but others again seek something more significant as they become more aware of their situation in the world and more reflective about their purposes. To this third group, the ethical point of view offers a meaning and purpose in life that one does not grow out of."
Profile Image for Argyros Singh.
Author 6 books10 followers
March 15, 2021
Singer si occupa in questo saggio della messa in opera delle teorie sull'etica, in un contesto in cui i sistemi di pensiero sembrano contraddirsi senza soluzioni ragionevoli. L'Autore tratta diversi temi etici, dal concetto di specie all'eutanasia, dai diritti degli animali alla sperimentazione sulle cellule staminali.
Singer introduce il discorso descrivendo prima ciò che l'etica non è, per poi attribuirle il compito precipuo di guidare la vita nella pratica. Sostenendo una posizione di ispirazione utilitarista, egli mira a circoscrivere un sistema coerente, capace di dialogare anche con altri studi inerenti la teoria dei diritti, l'idea della sacralità della vita, etc.
I capitoli sono ricchi di spunti di riflessione, ma anche di soluzioni (talvolta decisamente convinte, altre in forma di proposta): in particolare, il capitolo incentrato sul rapporto tra fini e mezzi porta ad una ridefinizione del concetto di disobbedienza civile e dell'azione illegale, pur nella piena coscienza del valore positivo del sistema legislativo democratico, al di là delle singole leggi.
Nel finale, Singer si domanda perché valga la pena agire moralmente. Le risposte date sono diverse e tutte oggetto di opinioni contrastanti, tuttavia egli ritiene che nel guardare alle cose eticamente vi sia un modo di trascendere le preoccupazioni personali immediate, per potersi così identificare con un punto di vista che sia il più oggettivo possibile.
L'etica pratica, in poche parole, si configura come una scelta che aspira alla ragionevolezza, alla coerenza e alla presa di coscienza dell'individuo in quanto tale e in quanto membro di un vero e proprio ecosistema.
Profile Image for Albert.
17 reviews
October 27, 2021
Five stars for those interested in ethics.

Practical Ethics covers a range of controversial ethical topics from a preference-utilitarian perspective. Personally I think he does a great job covering most of the topics while providing reason-based objective and impartial arguments on the topic.

Chapter 5 "To take lives: Animals" is perhaps the one that I felt less satisfied with. Singer exposes both existentially-focused and totally-focused view on the interests of beings that are and will be. The investigation becomes rather muddy as soon as he insists that bringing a will-be unlucky child needs, in and by itself, be an unethical choice, regardless of the effects on the parents and society. My feeling is that he unnecessarily complicates his argument. Nonetheless, on the flip side, it effectively presents some other controversial and very interesting points of view such as the one of David Benatar (always wrong to bring a child into existence).

If anything, I would be very keen to hear how other controversial topics would be dealt with from his point of view. Questions such as the risk of (social) media on democracy, societal issues at large, AI and other miscellaneous topics.

His critical analysis in these topics is not helpful in so far as they reach a conclusive answer, but rather in order to present a methodological and rigorous manner in which to objectively and reasonably develop an opinion on heatedly debated topics.
Profile Image for Amber Rush.
137 reviews8 followers
May 8, 2020
In this book, Singer, best known for his work on speciesm and Utilitarianism, explains how we can incorporate these values into our society. Singer sets out how each species and race is entirely equal and everything and everyone is entitled to the same amount of respect. Singer explains how equality has changed over time standing that 'Racist assumptions shared by most at the turn of the century are now totally unacceptable', The whole time saying that despite our biological differences our natural differences are almost impossible to find. Sanctity of life will only exist if the population can live harmoniously and unite with both fellow homo-sapiens and creatures in our likeness. He shows his interpretation of dominion as a directive to look after our fellows almost as a rule to stewardship. Singer states that animals were created similar to us in Genesis, therefore, deserve our respect and thus shall be included in Utilitarianism. Consistently referring to the 'father' of Utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham) original statement of 'the greatest good for the greatest number' and how we can adapt this to modern times, while also including other organisms and giving them the respect they deserve. Controversially, Singer also rebuts his critics and gives other evidence to suggest his the theory is the most believable. Most notably he contradicts the criticism from a Marx perspective which suggests 'Morality is set to the relativism of the dominating socio-economic class' Singer proposes we can change the ethics of the bourgeois by changing our habits, also protesting that we should not conform to constraints when caring for others unless it follows Bentham's principle. 4/5
Profile Image for Jordan.
76 reviews7 followers
January 7, 2021
I've given Singer a pretty rough time but I admit now that I was mistaken. I had underestimated Singer as a thoughtful philosopher. This was book was very insightful, and much of it is compatible with other ethical traditions. This has made me want to read his other works, particularly the point of view of the universe dedicated to defending utilitarianism rather than simply applying it.
Profile Image for Todd Martin.
Author 4 books74 followers
March 27, 2015
In Practical Ethics Peter Singer (a moral philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University) puts forth the idea of a utilitarian system of ethics based on an “equal considerations of interests”. To quote Singer:
The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. This means that if only X and Y would be affected by a possible act, and if X stands to lose more than Y stands to gain, it is better not to do the act.

In other words, an interest is an interest, whoever's interest it may be. Thus, to determine whether an act is ethical you would place the interests on a virtual scale and choose the side where the interest is stronger or where several interests combine to outweigh a smaller number of similar interests. Singer then applies this principle to such ethical quandaries as: affirmative action, the treatment of people with disabilities, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, poverty, xenophobia, and the environment.

Singer’s applies compelling and clever logic in support of his arguments. The standard rhetorical technique he uses goes like this:
Rabbits are used to test cosmetics by spraying chemicals into their eyes. Some intellectually disabled humans have an intellect on par with that of a rabbit. Given the principle of equal consideration, there’s really no difference between testing cosmetics on rabbits and testing them on intellectually disabled humans. Therefore, since we wouldn’t spray chemicals into the eyes of intellectually disabled humans, we shouldn’t spray rabbits with them either.
You could argue that a human should be given special consideration because they are of our own species (while a rabbit is obviously not), but really, if you accept the principle of equal consideration you’re objections are beside the point.

Though I believe the above and some other conclusions Singer arrives at through his principle are sound, there are situations where an “equal consideration of interests” leads to moral conclusions most would find absurd or abhorrent. Here are a few logical applications of Singer’s consequentialist system:
1) A cheetah survives only by killing and eating other creatures. Applying Singer’s principle leads to the ethical conclusion that humans should hunt cheetahs to extinction (or somehow force them to eat vegetables instead) to prevent the suffering of their prey. Similarly, all large carnivorous sharks should absolutely be exterminated under Singer’s system because they eat seals and sea lions, sentient mammals which are more conscious of suffering than the toothy fish that consume them. But we really shouldn’t stop there, since the same holds for every other obligate carnivore on the planet as well.
2) If six people were dying from organ failure it would be ethical under Singer’s system to kidnap a healthy person off the street, kill them and harvest their organs if the action would cure the six invalids.
3) If rats were overrunning your home, eating your food, biting your children, pooping on the furniture and making your life miserable it would be “species-ist” (Singer’s word for valuing human interests over those of animals) to kill the rats if that were the only way to rid yourself of the problem (since killing the rats is against the rat’s interest, and while the rat’s interests don’t count quite as much as our own, if there were many rats then the total sum of their interests would exceed that of ours).
4) Singer concludes that the life of a full grown pig and the life of an intellectually disabled new-born human are largely equivalent since these infants have only a low level of consciousness and lack developed interests. If it were therefore shown that an adult pig had interests that were more developed than those of a disabled infant then we’d have to conclude under Singer’s system of ethics that it would be more ethical to eat babies than pork chops. Of course, Singer is completely opposed to eating any animals whatsoever, but he’d have to agree that, for those who do eat meat, baby-chops would ethically be what’s for dinner.

I’ve somewhat distorted Singer’s views in this last point for the sake of humor. Singer’s actual conclusion is that parents should have the right, in consultation with their doctors, to euthanize severely disabled infants. I really don’t have a problem with this approach in circumstances where the infant has no consciousness or their quality of life is severely compromised. But Singer’s views on this issue have caused the book to be met with considerable criticism (not just from the religious right-to-lifers, but from the left as well).

In the end I’m left with the conclusion that Singer is pretty much an ivory tower ethicist and that, while his arguments make for an interesting intellectual/rhetorical exercise, they are only of limited ‘practical‘ value despite the book’s title.
Profile Image for Mollie Pettit.
3 reviews
March 29, 2021
Loved. It. Singer is so thorough with his points, not only explaining the conclusions he's come to, but also discussing possible objections to those views. Highly recommend. <3
Profile Image for Vladyslav Sitalo.
30 reviews30 followers
September 30, 2016
I wanted to Practical Ethics for some time now. It's not exactly the light read, but if you decide to take it in your hands you will find yourself in a possession of a small treasure.
The sharp reasoning and clear language of the author will lead you on an intellectual journey where you will think through the variety of topics (e.g. abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, animal suffering, poverty, global warming, environment and ethics itself) and quite possibly will change your position on some of them at the end.

You probably won't agree with every conclusion in this book, but it will give you a solid framework for ethical reasoning in the variety of situations.

The author builds upon his previous arguments in the book, so you should not skip parts at the beginning. There he outlines his approach to ethics, starting from the basics of moral reasoning and proceeding to discuss the mentioned issues using postulated principles. He considers the problems at hand not only from his preferred view of ethics (i.e. Preference Utilitarianism) but also from the perspective of other ethical theories out there (e.g. Hedonistic Utilitarianism, Deontology, Theory of rights, etc.). Though I, personally, find the perspective of Preference Utilitarianism the most consistent and compelling one.

On the negative side:
I did not find the last chapters (12: Why Act Morally) arguments compelling. And I think this part is considerably weaker than other parts of the book. (Though, I must admit that author mentions that some things in this chapter are rather speculative).
21 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2023
Interesting and accessible ethics book. Good to open your perspective on certain topics.

Perhaps I disagree with his notion of ethics derived from scratch using rationale; as opposed to intuitive morality.
Profile Image for beggs.
20 reviews7 followers
May 13, 2010
Practical Ethics is the one book I know that can, without fail start a heated argument in any company. You just open to any page read a paragraph out loud. Instant debate.

Peter Singer makes a habit of bait-and-switching the reader. Starting with what (usually) sound like simple, easy to agree with axioms he builds up easy to follow example. Then proceeds to explain why, if you agree with the example, which most people do, you have agreed to something that most people would find unacceptable.

Using this process Singer explores the consequences of applying a Utilitarian ethical system to many of the toughest questions; abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, the environment. Even if you have a utilitarian ethic when you start reading Practical Ethics, you may find yourself, apparently, agreeing to statements you would reject normally.

The one issue with this book is that Singer moves quickly. Maybe to avoid overly verbose and academic discussions, trying to be more "layman", but the book does sometimes jump to a conclusion that leaves you feeling that you need more to really swallow the pill.

I'm a naturally liberal and logical person and Practical Ethics is probably the single most influential book I have read. I think having, and understanding, a ethical system is a good thing. Too many people never think about their ethics and why they make the decisions they do. They just repeat decisions they don't really understand.

I was a utilitarian before I read Practical Ethics, but it forced me to examine what that means in the extreme. Taking all the basic utilitarian axioms and pushing them to their logical limits.
Profile Image for Leonardo.
Author 1 book61 followers
Shelved as 'to-keep-reference'
September 7, 2018
During my first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered the weakness of moral reasoning in myself. I read a wonderful book—Practical Ethics—by the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer. Singer, a humane consequentialist, shows how we can apply a consistent concern for the welfare of others to resolve many ethical problems of daily life. Singers approach to the ethics of killing animals changed forever my thinking about my food choices. Singer proposes and justifies a few guiding principles: First, it is wrong to cause pain and suffering to any sentient creature, therefore current factory farming methods are unethical. Second, it is wrong to take the life of a sentient being that has some sense of identity and attachments, therefore killing animals with large brains and highly developed social lives (such as other primates and most other mammals) is wrong, even if they could be raised in an environment they enjoyed and were then killed painlessly. Singers clear and compelling arguments convinced me on the spot, and since that day I have been morally opposed to all forms of factory farmings Morally opposed, but not behaviorally opposed. I love the taste of meat, and the only thing that changed in the first six months after reading Singer is that I thought about my hypocrisy each time I ordered a hamburger.

The Happiness Hypothesis Pág.165
Profile Image for Kenneth.
19 reviews2 followers
August 17, 2012
Since I am not Utilitarian, I disagreed with Singer far more than I agreed. This is not a problem though because it was a good introduction to some views that otherwise would have been alien to my understanding. His more extreme views should not be discounted out of hand, but must be taken seriously and answered appropriately. Among these are his views on animal rights and the treatment of the mentally deficient and infants. He speaks a great deal against Speciesism, but seems to practice his own form of it when he expects treatment of animals to be at a certain level simply because they are animals with feelings and because they meet his unique definition of personhood. With our inability to communicate with them, we are to extend to them an equal moral footing as our own species, by assuming what we cannot know about them. However, he denies the same standard for humans, basing one's treatment of them, not on their humanity, but on what level of human development they have attained or have failed to attain.
83 reviews3 followers
April 30, 2015
I liked this book more than most books that I give three stars and I admire Peter Singer for his reasoning and his conviction. However, I found his arguments unconvincing, mainly because I disagree with his premise that we have some moral compulsion to act ethically in the first place. While it certainly seems rational to attempt to preserve the environment for selfish reasons (as well as other, virtuous, reasons), I see no moral compulsion to do so. Similarly for not killing animals. We may individually decide that the suffering of animals upsets us, and that we do not want our desire to eat them cause their suffering, but if to you the tradeoff in the animal's suffering is worth the benefit you get from eating it, then I see no reason for you not to eat it. I felt similarly about the other arguments Singer made, while they are reasonable if you accept his premises, I see no reason to do so, and so the arguments are unconvincing for me.
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