Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 109

Peter Singer was already one of the most influential applied ethicists before the publication of Practical Ethics. He made his mark through his work on civil disobedience, famine relief, and animal liberation. In Practical Ethics, Singer expands on some of his earlier arguments and extends his analyses to other contemporary moral problems. The book is written in a clear, unadorned style that makes its arguments accessible to nonspecialists without sacrificing philosophical subtlety.

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Singer’s overall aim is to show how a broadly utilitarian theory successfully treats such problems as moral equality, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, obligations of the affluent to the impoverished, and the justification of means to ends.

The Nature of Ethics

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

Singer begins with a chapter on the nature of ethics. He counters common misconceptions, pointing out that ethics is not a set of prohibitions primarily concerned with sex, it is not merely a theoretical model that cannot be applied in everyday life, it is not dependent on a religious context, and it is not relative. Instead, Singer understands the point of ethical judgments to be the guiding of human practices. Moreover, the objectivity in ethics involves the kinds of reasons and justifications that are offered within the moral enterprise. Ethical reasons are universal: They go beyond one’s own likes and dislikes and rise to the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, which elevates them from the merely relative or subjective.

The moral point of view requires that one’s own interests cannot, simply because they are one’s interests, count more than the interests of anyone else; thus, one must give equal weight to the interests of all. Singer insists that the universal aspect of ethics therefore provides a persuasive, although not necessarily conclusive, reason for taking a broadly utilitarian position. In fact, utilitarianism, the view that an action is morally sound if and only if no other action available will foreseeably produce better overall consequences to those affected, is the minimal moral position reached by universalizing moral decision making. To go beyond utilitarianism, says Singer, people must be provided additional good reasons.

The moral point of view thus requires the principle of equal consideration of interests: One must give equal weight in moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by one’s actions. An interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be. The principle of equal consideration does not depend on a belief in factual equality, the belief that all people or all interest-bearers are actually equal in relevant physical and mental respects. Instead, it depends on the conviction that the most important interests, such as the interest in avoiding pain, in developing one’s abilities, in satisfying basic needs, in enjoying personal relationships, and in being free to pursue projects, are not affected by factual inequalities.

The rest of the book works out the implications of the principle of equal consideration of interests from a utilitarian standpoint. In general, Singer argues that people’s moral calculations and practices should change: People should accord more weight to the interests of animals than they currently do and less weight to members of their own species, such as fetuses, newborns, the severely retarded, and the senile, whose possession of interests is problematic. Consequently, some nonhuman lives, judged from the standpoint of richness of interests, are of higher quality than some human lives. In certain cases, abortion, euthanasia, and the killing of defective infants are justified, and some types of treatment of animals are morally...

(The entire section contains 2601 words.)

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