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Ideas of Peter Singer, by Text

[Australian, b.1946, Born in Australia. At Oxford University, and Monash University, and now a Professor in the United States.]

1979 Practical Ethics
01 p.3 Conflict of rules might be avoided by greater complexity, or by a hierarchy of rules
     Full Idea: Those who think ethics is a system of rules can rescue their position by finding more complicated and more specific rules which do not conflict, or by ranking the rules in some hierarchical structure to resolve conflicts.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 01)
     A reaction: The problem is that clear-cut rules seem to produce conflicts. I would have thought that more specific rules would increase that problem. Safety is in generality.
02 p.21 Equality of interests is a minimal principle, not implying equal treatment
     Full Idea: Equal consideration of interests is a minimal principle of equality in the sense that it does not dictate equal treatment.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 02)
     A reaction: Do those convicted of serious crime retain equal interests? Should a huge group of people sacrifice all of their interests, because of the powerful interests of one person?
02 p.22 'Marginal utility' says something is more useful if it is in short supply
     Full Idea: The economic principle of marginal utility states that for a given individual a set amount of something is more useful when the individual has little of it than when he has a lot.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 02)
     A reaction: But individuals may very a lot on this one. 'He can't get enough of X'. I may be desperate to buy 10,000 books, but you may consider such a need ridiculous, so who decides?
02 p.35 Equality of opportunity unfairly rewards those lucky enough to have great ability
     Full Idea: Equality of opportunity is not an attractive ideal. It rewards the lucky, who inherit those abilities that allow them to pursue interesting and lucrative careers.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 02)
     A reaction: He makes it sound like cheating. Singer has a highly individualistic view, but society as a whole needs the development of talent, wherever it can be found.
03 p.70 Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?
     Full Idea: Most striking is the impact of the contract model on our attitude to future generations. 'Why should I do anything for posterity? What has posterity ever done for me?' would be the view we ought to take.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 03)
     A reaction: I should bury my mobile phone for future archaeologists, because it will be more valuable then than it is now. Singer cites the disposal of nuclear waste as an instance.
04 p.78 The sanctity of a human life depends either on being of our species, or on being a person
     Full Idea: The doctrine of the sanctity of human life has two separate claims, one that there is a special value in the life of a member of our species, and the other that there is a special value in the life of a person.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 04)
05 p.97 Killing a chimp is worse than killing a human too defective to be a person
     Full Idea: It seems that killing a chimpanzee is worse than the killing of a gravely defective human who is not a person. ...[p.103] the effects on relatives of the defective human will sometimes constitute additional indirect reasons against killing the human.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 05)
     A reaction: Singer's most notorious idea. Perhaps we should all carry cards (perhaps combined with donor cards) saying how many people will care if we die.
06 p.120 Why should a potential person have the rights of an actual person?
     Full Idea: A prince may be a potential king, but he does not have the rights of a king. Why should a potential person have the rights of a person?
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 06)
     A reaction: But the prince is probably accorded special rights, merely on the grounds that he is the potential king. An unborn potential king is always considered as special.
07 p.141 If a right entails having the relevant desire, many creatures might have no right to life
     Full Idea: If to have a right one must have the ability to desire that to which one has a right, then to have a right to life one must be able to desire one's own continued existence.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 07)
     A reaction: The unborn, small infants, and persons in comas may well lack the relevant desire (at least consciously - arguably even a plant has a non-conscious 'desire' or drive for life). The idea that a right entails a conscious desire seems daft.
09 p.185 Following an inner voice for morality is irresponsible in a rational agent
     Full Idea: When following conscience means doing as one's 'internal voice' prompts one to do, to follow one's conscience it so abdicate one's responsibility as a rational agent.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 09)
     A reaction: Seems dead right. An inner voice is far more likely to be your culture and upbringing than to be an absolute moral truth. It may not be entirely wrong, though, to behave as your culture requires.
09 p.190 If 49% of the population can be wrong, so can 51%
     Full Idea: The case for majority rule should not be overstated. No sensible democrat would claim that the majority is always right. If 49% of the population can be wrong, so can 51%.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 09)
     A reaction: Well said! We can't possibly put a figure on when the majority become right. In the recent Brexit referendum hardly anyone seemed to understand the issues very well, so none of us have a clue about who was right.
09 p.197 You can't condemn violent revolution without assessing the evils it prevents
     Full Idea: It would be one-sided to say that violent revolution is always absolutely wrong, without taking account of the evils that the revolutionaries are trying to stop.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 09)
     A reaction: This seems like common sense, but there are plenty of right-wing authoritarians who would claim that stable authority has priority over all social wrongs. I think that view is mistaken. But the problem is, how to know the future?
10 p.204 Ethics is universalisable - it must involve an impartial and universal view of things
     Full Idea: A distinguishng feature of ethics is that ethical judgements are universalisable. Ethics requires us to go beyond our own personal point of view to a standpoint like that of the impartial spectator who takes a universal point of view.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 10)
     A reaction: I'm thinking that ethical agents are more 'situated' than that. Suppose a finance minister stole billions in tax and gave it to a poor country. Good from the universal angle, perhaps, but a shocking betrayal of his own community.
10 p.216 Psychopaths may just be bored, because they cannot participate in normal emotional life
     Full Idea: Maybe psychopaths are bored because their emotional poverty means that they cannot take interest in, or gain satisfaction from, what for others are the most important things in life: love, family, success in business or professional life, etc.
     From: Peter Singer (Practical Ethics [1979], 10)
     A reaction: [he cites Hervey Cleckley for this] Maybe boredom is a symptom of some human inadequacy, but it might sometimes be a mark of superiority. It drives people to both creation and destruction. Quite a good account of criminal behaviour.
1980 Marx
p.14 In the 1840s Hegel seemed to defend society being right as it is, as a manifestation of Mind
     Full Idea: In the 1840s the orthodox interpretation of Hegel was that since human society is the manifestation of Mind [Geist] in the world, everything is right and rational as it is.
     From: report of Peter Singer (Marx [1980]) by Peter Singer - Marx 2
     A reaction: This orthodoxy provoked the rebellion of Marx and the Young Hegelians. Modern Communitarians like Hegel, but that view seems to hover between right-wing authoritarianism and left-wing egalitarianism.
6 p.34 Materialist history says we are subject to incomprehensable forces
     Full Idea: The materialist conception of history tells us that human beings are totally subject to forces they do not understand and control.
     From: Peter Singer (Marx [1980], 6)
     A reaction: How does Marx know the forces? An exceptionally influential idea, because it is a modern commonplace that we have very little control over our own lives (apart from right wingers asserting that 'you can have anything if you really really want it').
9 p.61 In Marxism the state will be superseded
     Full Idea: It is a famous Marxist doctrine that the state will be superseded.
     From: Peter Singer (Marx [1980], 9)
     A reaction: Why is that final state communism rather than anarchism?