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.

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

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...

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Applying Utilitarianism

Singer applies the principle of equal consideration from a combination of classical and preference utilitarian theories. Classical utilitarianism is formulated around maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain, whereas preference utilitarianism is formulated around maximizing the fulfillment of desires and preferences. In his discussion of racial, sexual, and species equality, Singer emphasizes a version of classical utilitarianism. In his discussion of killing people and animals, he highlights preference utilitarianism in the case of persons, while referring to classical utilitarianism in the case of nonpersons. A person, for Singer, is a rational, self-conscious creature whose self-consciousness involves seeing oneself with a future and having desires related to that future, including the desire to continue living.

Practical Ethics contains an extensive discussion of the wrongness of killing. Preference utilitarianism provides a direct reason for not killing persons: Killing frustrates the person’s future-related desire to continue living. Classical utilitarianism provides only an argument from side effects, at least when the killing is instantaneous and painless, which is merely an indirect reason for not killing. The argument is that painlessly killing some people increases the unhappiness of surviving people who will worry that they might be killed in the future. Thus, there are two utilitarian reasons for holding that the killing of a person...

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Abortion and Euthanasia

Regarding abortion, Singer rejects the view that a fetus embodies moral significance because it is a potential person. He concludes that the life of a fetus or even a newborn has no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, and capacity to feel. The grounds for not killing persons therefore do not apply to fetuses or newborns. Restrictions on infanticide should issue only from the argument from side effects: the adverse effects of infanticide on others, particularly the parents of the victim. In cases of abortion where the people most affected, such as the prospective mother, want the abortion, the argument from side effects typically will not create moral prohibitions.

Singer also argues that voluntary euthanasia, the killing of a person with that person’s consent, is often morally permissible. When a person suffering from a painful and incurable disease wishes to die, neither the usual utilitarian nor nonutilitarian objections to killing apply. Under certain circumstances, Singer also endorses nonvoluntary euthanasia: when those killed lack the capacity to understand the choice between their continued existence or nonexistence, when that capacity will not be recovered or gained, when the foreseeable quality of life of the subject will be extremely poor, and when the argument from side effects creates no moral prohibition.

Distribution of Wealth

Singer’s most passionate arguments are directed at the reallocation of wealth from the developed nations to the poor of the undeveloped nations. He rejects the view that there is a morally relevant distinction between acts such as killing and omissions such as letting others die who require aid to survive. Singer argues that the relatively affluent have an obligation to help those in absolute poverty that is just as strong as their obligation to rescue a drowning child from a pond when they can help without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. He provides numerous facts and examples that highlight the consequences of people’s typical neglect of the impoverished of the world. Singer suggests a minimum ethical standard: Those earning average or above average incomes in affluent societies, unless they have an unusually large number of dependents or other special needs, ought to give one tenth of their income to reducing absolute poverty.

Morality as a Means to Happiness

When addressing the issue of why people should act morally, Singer claims that the notion of ethics has become misleading to the extent that moral worth is attributed only to actions taken because they are right, without any ulterior motive. He suggests that to act morally probably will make people happy, because fulfillment can be gained from the outward-looking, impartial way of life instead of from a direct search for happiness. Happiness can be an internal reward for moral achievements. Although those who do not follow the process are not necessarily irrational, self-awareness and reflection on the nature and point of human existence may lead people toward concerns broader than narrow self-interest.

Practicability and a Revised Edition

Practical Ethics has been widely used in philosophy courses in North America, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and it has been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, and Swedish. The book solidified Singer’s standing as the most influential contemporary utilitarian philosopher. Many organizations concerned with animal rights, famine relief, and euthanasia regard Singer as their ideological mentor.

Critics, however, charge that Singer fails to demonstrate why thinking ethically and impartially about everyone’s interests requires people to add up these interests and weigh them overall in a utilitarian calculus. Nonutilitarian methods permit people to evaluate the interests of everyone impartially without...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Bambrough, Renford, ed. Philosophy 53 (October, 1978): 433-563. A special issue of Philosophy devoted entirely to the discussion of the relations between humans and animals. Seven philosophers critically examine Singer’s positions on the moral treatment of animals.

Cottingham, John. “Ethics and Impartiality.” Philosophical Studies 43 (January, 1983): 83-99. The author attacks the impartiality thesis endorsed by Singer and argues that people are morally justified in giving special weight to their own interests and those of family and friends. Cottingham claims that the...

(The entire section is 567 words.)