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Practically Nonsense

A review of the book "Practical Ethics" by Peter Singer
by Bill Weaks
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After reading a few of his thoughts on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, I really wanted to dislike Peter Singer. To sum up his views, "they’re OK". The first in virtually all circumstances, the second in most, and the last in many. I do not agree.

But I couldn’t. Dislike him, that is. I can’t figure him out well enough to do that. Is he a conscienceless creature, a psychopath with no feelings at all? Or is he an enormous raw nerve, unable to stop "feeling your pain"? At the end of the book I am no further along in deciding. Of one thing, however, I am certain:

He is not a rational man. He is irrational because he is promoting an irrational philosophy: Utilitarianism. Utilitarian arguments are based solely on emotion and desire, and therefore, in the end, prove fatal to his cause.

He is not alone in introducing these emotional flaws into his philosophy. It is virtually inescapable when one begins with his most basic premises. These can be summed up in the following two sentences (with which, we will soon see, he explicitly agrees):

    1. We are the products of a meaningless, purposeless, mechanical process, beginning with and continuously operating on pure, blind, random chance.
    2. We are literally accidents of nature.

Put aside for the next few moments whether those statements are true. To believe that they are true and then attempt to find meaning – enough meaning upon which to build a system of ethics - ensures that one’s conclusions will be wrong, because these premises preclude the stated desire. To put it succinctly: If there is no meaning in the universe, then any philosophy or system of ethics is meaningless. It is, literally, a waste of the few moments we have here on earth to debate these things.

It is tempting to say that "in the end, they are meaningless". That would, however, be incorrect, for they are equally meaningless "in the now".  Click here for a short foray into this argument.

Does that seem a strong statement? For the moment, let’s say that it is, at least for the purposes of encompassing all philosophers who begin there. Since I am reviewing Singer’s book, let me tell you that he makes precisely the same case!

First things last

In the title of the final chapter (Why act morally?) he asks the question with which he should have begun. Here is a quote from that chapter describing his thoughts on the meaning of life:

"When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of molecules; it then evolved through chance mutations and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen for any overall purpose." (emphasis in the original)

If Singer had answered his last question first, he could have saved himself a lot of effort in writing this book. Having written the last chapter, he should have just put the manuscript in the shredder and gone on with his life. It can only have been pure ego which propelled him on to publish this book, as he ultimately has to admit that there is really no reason to "think ethically". Two more quotes from this chapter illuminate his answer:

"… the [rational] process [by which we arrive at an "ethical point of view"] is not a necessary one and those who do not take part in it – or, who in taking part, do not follow it all the way to the ethical point of view – are neither irrational or in error."

"… Other people find collecting stamps an entirely adequate way of giving purpose to their lives. There is nothing irrational about that; but others again grow out of stamp collecting 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."

In that last paragraph, Singer shows that he confuses being able to purpose with having a purpose – this is surprising in one sense, but inevitable in another.

It is surprising in the sense that he ought to know better. It should be clear that a process which begins and ends with no purpose simply can’t produce something with one. It is inevitable, because he cannot accept (any more than most of us can) the fact that his life really is meaning- and purpose- less, and must attempt to find meaning in something. As he readily admits, ethics is merely as good a thing as anything else (or nothing at all), and utilitarianism one of any number of systems from which one could choose. In his own words (stated in the introduction to the book) he is merely "inclined to hold a utilitarian position".

I shared my conclusion that he isn’t a rational man, and here is why I say that of him: Any form of morality claiming a mechanistic, purposeless origin for it’s creator must conform to the realities of the process which created him! That is, if Peter Singer is the result of a purposeless, mechanistic process, then any system of morality which he proposes must first take into account that process and conform to its realities. To do less is to reduce any such system of morality to mere emotion or whimsy, and thus to start from a non-rational basis.

I have no problem with this, unless the proposer won’t admit it. If they won’t, then to insist that it is rational moves immediately from non-rationality to irrationality. This, I shall attempt to show, is precisely what Singer does.

The Pursuit of Happiness

This book is about a particular system of ethics; a form of consequentialism called utilitarianism. As he explains it, utilitarianism looks at a very small part of existence – happiness and unhappiness, pleasure and suffering – and considers them the prime measures of ethical behavior. Rather than rules, the utilitarian builds goals:

    1. More happiness is good (moral, ethical).
    2. Less happiness is bad (immoral, unethical).
    3. We are to attempt to gauge the effects of our actions against the reservoir of happiness which will be left after we perform those actions.
    4. Those which increase happiness (or reduce suffering) are then ethical, and those which decrease it are not.

Utilitarianism (as does any system of ethics) thus requires a person to examine closely the consequences of a particular act on the largest scale, rather than a small, person-to-person scale.

Let me pose an example. Is it ethical to break the "moral" law against theft? If it increases my happiness by more than it decreases yours for me to steal your car, then it is conceivable that this is a moral act. You may be wealthy and easily be able to purchase another car, while I am poor and must have yours in order to feed my family. So, your suffering (at losing your car) is small compared to the happiness I derive (or the suffering I avoid) from possessing it.

However, what might be the consequences of breaking down the societal consensus against theft? At what degree of difference would we say that it ceased to be "right"? If it would result in an overall lessening of happiness because most people would be worried about their possessions being stolen (thus diminishing their happiness) it would be an immoral act, and so I should not steal merely because it is more beneficial to me. Therefore, one of the principles of utilitarian morality is that we must not consider merely our own interests in determining the ultimate morality of any particular act.

Singer goes further than this, though. Early in the book, he proposes a fundamental ethical principle: "Equal consideration of interests". You get a hint of it in the previous example, where one ought to consider other’s interests in your actions before actually performing that action. He then goes on to propose that it is only right to extend this consideration to species other than our own. To do otherwise is, in his words, "speciesist". He attaches the same significance to this that most people would to "racist". That is, it is a derogatory term.

This leads to all sorts of proposals that would give animals the same moral relevance as humans. In fact, he maintains that since a newborn baby is incapable of having interests (as he defines them) it actually has less of a "right to life" than a pig! There is nothing, in his estimation, which gives a human being an intrinsic value greater than a chicken or an oak tree. Given his beliefs in how we all came to be he is, of course, exactly correct. There is no intrinsic worth in anything – things are as they are simply because they are, with no rhyme nor reason.

If this principle is the basis of the remainder of his arguments - and he refers to it constantly - then by refuting it we might refute the rest. I believe that this is easily done, because there are three basic and irreconcilable flaws in the utilitarian premises from which it springs:

Flaw one

The first, fatal flaw does not confine itself to utilitarianism, but to any and all philosophies sharing as their most fundamental premises the two sentences which I stated above. The flaw is found in the assumption that a system of ethics (or of philosophy) is ultimately useful, desirable or necessary. If you cannot at least make a case for this, then any further speculation is (as is the universe itself) purposeless.

A system of ethics, let me propose, is an attempt to answer the question: "Why do virtually all "normal" people acknowledge that some actions - such as the indiscriminate killing of other humans - are "wrong", and some – such as attempting to rescue a drowning child - are "right"? Singer himself uses the qualification of normalcy (as compared to a psychopath, for instance, who does not share this moral "sense") so I feel free to do so myself. With quotes from many philosophers who came before him, he observes and remarks upon an almost universally recognized aspect of human nature: The notion of right and wrong; the notion of morality.

From this observation have sprung numerous schools of ethical thought, but they all presume that this nearly universal aspect of human experience actually has a basis in fact. That is, that normal people actually do have this shared quality of moral awareness. Further, they attempt to devise a system which can be both tight enough to provide us with guidance when a decision on a course of action needs to be made and loose enough to allow leeway for unforeseen circumstances. They assume that we can "know" what right and wrong is by applying this system of ethics to any given situation; any potential course of action.

Whatever their ultimate product, they all act as though this system is (or can be) rational - in the sense that "any rational person with enough information would agree" with the results obtained through the application of the ethical system. Why else would they spend all of these hours with their predicates and principles?

The Problem With "What Is"

Further (if they begin from a mechanistic premise) they insist that the process by which we came about is not sufficient in this area. This can be summed up in the phrase "What is isn’t what is right." Let me rephrase this so as to illuminate the irrationality of it: "What is (Everything we see is the result of a blind, random, mechanistic process. We are living in a universe with neither meaning nor purpose.) isn’t what is right". This is the reflexive disclaimer applied to almost every evolutionary "discovery" which seems to point out genetically induced behavior found to be contrary to our long and commonly held notions of morality.

When so plainly put, it should be obvious that this is the ultimate flaw in any argument beginning with a mechanistic universe and attempting to formulate what "ought to be" as compared to what "is". Science (applied thought) cannot decide the former, only describe the latter. A quote from Stephen Jay Gould, a leading evolutionist, is in order:

These quotes are taken from his book: Dinosaur in a Haystack in an essay entitled The most unkindest cut of all.

Regardless of how silly we might find the last quote - particularly the notions of sweetness or evil - in the light of a merciless process such as evolution, Gould is exactly right in his assessment of what is observed versus what we would have liked to have seen if we had our way. Science cannot tell you what ought to be. Further, according to the primary assumptions of a purely mechanistic universe, "what is" is all that there is! Let us be clear - the concepts of evil and sweetness; of right or wrong, are meaningless in a meaningless, purposeless universe. They are emotional potato chips - intellectual junk food - satisfying but lacking nutrition. And in the end, not very good for you, after all.

But we don’t want to hear that. Even a mechanic can’t accept it! Man needs meaning – morals, ethics. Man recoils at the notion that "what is, is right".

Notice how quickly a modern scientist hastens to claim that a new discovery may be "natural", but is not necessarily "moral". The most recent example I have found was in an article which described women finding certain facial styles more desirable depending upon the state of their monthly cycles. Here is a quote:

"In other words, by this reasoning, women may have a built-in tendency to cheat on their mates.

The researchers hasten to add that they are not condoning adultery.

‘I would like to point out, what’s advantageous in an evolutionary sense isn’t necessarily the ethical or moral thing to do,’ says David Perrett, a psychologist at University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an author of the paper. "Basically, cheating may be advantageous, it’s not necessarily moral.’"

What could he possibly mean by his last statement? It is! That’s all. Period. It merely is. Evolution is not the process of making moral judgments and acting upon them. It is the merciless, thoughtless, opportunistic mechanical process of the propagation of an individual’s genes. In fact, in an evolutionary sense, only those things which are "advantageous" can be "right".

It should be clear that if a large part of the population agrees upon certain actions as being "wrong", it is merely and solely because those who had the genetic predisposition to gauge those actions in that way were more successful. To attribute truth to the actions themselves (such as a seemingly altruistic sacrifice) or the lack of action (such as refraining from indiscriminate murder) is not rational, because they really weren’t calculations after all; they were programmed into our genes from time past. We have no way whatsoever to know whether they will actually be profitable in the long run, because we won’t be here! That they have been up until now is no measure at all.

If evolution is true, then the notions of right and wrong, and therefore of ethics itself, are meaningless. Further debate is pointless.

Flaw two

If we could get past flaw one and actually find some real purpose in a system of ethics (which is doubtful) then we can ask ourselves the question, "Is utilitarianism a rational system of ethics?" That is, given the premises it begins with, can one argue utilitarianism as a rational philosophy? Let’s see.

Utilitarianism presupposes that happiness or pleasure is good. Conversely, it presupposes that unhappiness or pain is bad. These are the bedrock predicates of the theory. But is this true in an evolutionary sense? Do these premises allow building a rational theory of ethics using them as a foundation? The answer has to be an unqualified "NO".

Natural selection is a pain avoidance process – it is not the result of the pursuit of pleasure. The successful organism is that which most often avoids the pain of A) not having dinner, and B) not being dinner! It is not the pleasure of a full stomach that breeds the next species, it is success in avoiding the pain of an empty one, for an habitually empty one means that the gene doesn’t propagate. It is not the pleasure of being able to leap higher than a predator that ratchets up the genome towards the next species, it is the avoidance of death that this ability allows.

So the giraffe’s neck grows, and the springbok’s leap increases in height and length. However, the tree upon which the giraffe feeds grows thorns and the speed of the cheetah which feeds on the springbok increases as well.

Therefore, pain is good; pain is the Creator of New Species. The creature with the least pain is the winner. This doesn’t take into account bacteria or other insensate organisms, of course, but then neither does Singer’s system, and so (I would argue) they aren’t relevant anyway. The example of the thorny tree is remarkably apt, though. The thorns cause pain, and the organisms which use the tree as food evolve ways to avoid it. So perhaps we should start conceiving of pain at the genetic level? Just kidding.

If pain is really good from the standpoint of evolution, then how about pleasure? As experiments have shown, lab rats which are given the choice of artificially stimulating their own pleasure centers or of eating will often starve to death rather than quit obtaining pleasure. One sees this type of behavior even more readily amongst human beings. If Singer’s conclusions are bona fide examples, I think we can successfully argue that a particularly virulent form of this suicide is utilitarianism!

On the other paw, if the stimulus is pain, a rat will soon learn to stop performing the actions which produce the pain. One does not see this as frequently amongst humans.

So, in the harsh and humorless light of evolutionary reality, would any rational person agree that pleasure is good? No rational person should be able to.

Flaw three

Evolution is not the process of perfecting a species. It is the process of creating new species. In this process it is the individual which is the key to all things. The individual is the one in whom the new adaptations occur – not the species. A single titmouse; an individual hominid; a solitary reptile; these are the progenitors of all new species, not the species itself. By propagating these solitary mutations, a new species arises. I can’t imagine that a single evolutionist would argue with this proposition. Indeed, it is the very basis of their theory.

Therefore, it may make sense to consider how my actions affect others, but in the long run, I should (and normally will) do what benefits my genes the most, regardless of what those effects might be. A virus makes no calculations to save the life of its host so that it can propagate more often. If the host dies, then it dies, and the virus either successfully transfers in some manner to another host or dies itself. We are no different, in substance or otherwise. We only think we are.

If I could calculate the effects of a particular action on society and find that it actually diminishes the chances of my genes propagating, then I would be foolish (from an evolutionary standpoint) to go ahead with the action. However, the gene has no such planning capacity. At least, not until intelligence evolved, though it apparently did quite well without it.

To the contrary, evolution did not "know" about ice ages or meteors or earthquakes or any of the other cataclysms which have acted as the catalysts for the great ages of evolution claimed in the fossil record. It made no value judgments about whether it was "right" for a T. Rex to gnosh on the first mammalian to timidly put forth a warm, hairy paw. Right and wrong weren’t a part of the process – it simply was (and is, and ever shall be).

Why go on?

If you agreed with the three flaws just presented, and with how easily the first renders not only Singer’s but all mechanistic philosophies moot, you might be wondering why I should continue with this, and I am prone to agree with you. But there are so many egregious errors in his reasoning that are commonly held by more than just Mr. Singer, I thought I would comment a bit further upon some of them.

The appeal to God

In the introduction, Singer makes reference to a philosophical tool called the "Ideal Observer" (hereafter personalized as IO). IO takes on "the point of view of the universe". Why would we need IO? Because we can’t be trusted to divest ourselves of our own interests when making ethical decisions. I quote from the introduction (About Ethics).

"[Since ethical judgments require that we look beyond our own narrow benefits]… Ethics requires us to go beyond ‘I’ and ‘you’ to the universal law, the universalisable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it."

Having rejected the concept of God, he immediately invents one to replace it! This is an explicit acceptance of the futility of trying to wring morality out of a totally, perfectly, amoral process. Since it cannot be done by a mere human (we are going to look out for our own interests, after all) we must have IO.

Further, this impartial observer must have access to all of the future knowledge in the universe. In order to calculate the overall effects of a course of action, IO must be able to "see the future". While not strictly necessary, it would be nice if IO could know all about the past, so that past consequences could be taken into account. This sounds like omniscience, doesn’t it?

IO is not truly like God, of course, because IO does not possess the power to enforce the decision. We are supposed to voluntarily do what is right, though, once IO has rendered a verdict.

Animal Rights

Singer is quite willing to go beyond the strict requirements of being anti-speciesist, all the way to giving non-human animals more rights than humans. For instance, he would have us count up the potential future happiness of all of the generations of all of the animals which might cease to exist because a dam is built to provide power to humans (The Environment). But he rejects that as a possible reason to be against aborting a human fetus, or even a fully born and perfectly functioning infant (Taking Life: the embryo and the fetus).

In fact, this is one of the many arguments he makes which are inconsistent from a rational point of view and untenable from an evolutionary point of view. Since by definition I am competing with animals, for me to give them an edge in any way which cannot be demonstrated to be in the interests of propagating my genes is ludicrous. The same is true of…

Abortion and Infanticide

Though I go further on this point in another essay (Evolution and Morality - The Ultimate Oxymoron) I will touch upon this here. Since evolution happens at the individual level, and not the species, abortion is perhaps the most anti-evolution activity in which humans engage. It is anathema to the whole theory to encourage killing what may be the next progenitor. If we really believe in evolution, then we should be encouraging every person on earth to have as many offspring as they can manufacture.

Granted, one can make the evolutionary case for aborting a genetically damaged child before birth, or even after, for that matter, since it is a waste of resources to prolong the life of something when those resources could be better used for healthy specimens.

However, that same reasoning applies equally well to disabled persons - Sorry, Dr. Hawking. If there is not a demonstrable savings of resources, then let’s take away the pretense and just kill everybody who cannot prove they can at least help to provide an environment in which the next species can emerge. And while we’re on that subject, let’s look at his take on…

The Ethics of Charity

According to Singer’s ethics, all of us ought to be willing to reduce our amenities and pleasures to the point that all humans on the planet can be reasonably happy. I suppose that one should appeal to the enigmatic IO in order to find this happy medium, but Singer has plenty of opinions on this without going that far. We should cycle instead of race cars; we should sail instead of "ski-doo".

Amazingly, he actually proposes that we should "tithe" in order to do that (Rich and Poor). Old IO is sounding more and more like God all the time!

Is this compatible with an evolutionary point of view? Again, we find that it is not. Since evolution is the result of competition - not comfort - then attempts to make a population comfortable means that evolution is stymied. The strong are not the only ones who survive in such an environment - the weight of succoring even just the very weak will overburden them.

Once again, we find the "facts" of evolution are ignored and replaced with the "wants" of Peter Singer. He decries our interference in things natural, then proposes (with abortion and charity) that we interfere at the most primitive levels of nature. This leads me to…

The Arrogance of Intelligence

We would not be having this discussion if we weren’t intelligent animals. I would argue that is far too early in the game to determine if intelligence is actually an evolutionary asset. How many sci-fi stories have you read which propose an insect-ruled future? These are all too plausible, and with philosophers like Peter Singer helping us along, they may actually come to be!

Here’s an example from the chapter (Equality for Animals?) which goes to my point:

"… This fact [that animals eat each other] suggests, they think, not that animals deserve to be eaten, but rather that there is a natural law according to which the stronger prey upon the weaker, a kind of Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ in which by eating animals we are merely playing our part.

This interpretation of the objection makes two basic mistakes, one a mistake of fact and the other an error of reasoning. The factual mistake lies in the assumption that our own consumption of animals is part of the natural evolutionary process. This might be true of a few primitive cultures that still hunt for food, but it has nothing to do with the mass production of domestic animals in factory farms.

Suppose that we did hunt for our food, though, and this was part of some natural evolutionary process. There would still be an error of reasoning that because this process is natural, it is right. …we do not have to assume that the natural way of doing things is incapable of improvement."

Here we have a handful of irrationalities on the same page. First, that there is not a "Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’". This is the core of evolution! Second is the assumption that our eating animals is not part of the natural evolutionary process. Third, that because we now no longer have to hunt, that eating meat is no longer natural. Fourth, the classic denial that what is, is right. Fifth, the arrogant notion that we can second guess evolution. The process which has been so successful - witness the millions of different species past and present - is now wrong. The genetic programming which has gotten us this far must be improved upon.


Singer is distressingly blithe about the potential misuse of his opinions. Like a child, he disclaims any responsibility for them, since they are "not what he is proposing" at all. In any event, these potential abuses are mere speculation, and (regardless of mankind’s history) not a reason against adopting his ideas.

Further, he leaves out some obvious arguments against his opinions. For instance, let’s look at this example (from the introduction) on casual sex:

"Thus, casual sexual intercourse may be wrong when it leads to the existence of children who cannot be adequately cared for, and not wrong when, because of the existence of effective contraception, it does not lead to reproduction at all".

Might not IO look at Africa and decide that a 25% HIV infection rate is decidedly increasing suffering? Since this is due almost entirely to casual sex, IO might conclude that the only "moral" sexual activity is monogamy. I doubt that Singer would reconsider his opinions, however much we can prove that real life just doesn’t coincide with his rosy and disingenuous deflections.

He dismisses the "slippery slope" argument as not worthy of concern given the "proper moral footholds" which he is proposing (Taking Life: Humans). Take euthanasia, for instance, and the Nazi programs to kill humans they deemed unworthy of life. First of all, he denies that the Nazi’s had a euthanasia program "in the proper sense of the word"! Second, he claims that a government bent on killing its citizens will do that regardless of the ethical system the citizenry is following. His solution? Keep democracy intact, and only elect people "who would not seriously wish to kill their opponents." As if the Nazi’s publicly laid out an explicit plan beforehand.

He cavalierly disregards the evolutionary implications of charity – especially on the global scale he champions (Rich and Poor). First, he pooh-poohs the notion that many would take advantage of the charity and just go on having more children. It "might happen", he says, when from an evolutionary point of view, nothing makes more sense, and it will surely, absolutely happen. It is to the potential progenitor’s advantage if somebody will feed his progeny. Further, if evolution does, in fact, work by weeding out the weak, then helping them along is an irrational act.

Enough is enough!

I’m worn out! I have earmarked dozens of pages where Singer makes bald assertions, flat statements, and leapfrogs from supposition to supposition, with each assuming the status of fact so that the next supposition can be made and flatly stated as proved. To go into each of them would - literally, I believe - require a book of the same length.

This book is ultimately a collection of personal opinions gussied up as philosophy. His emotional arguments (he would be against selling fetal tissue not because it is wrong, but because he dislikes commercialization) are bizarre and inconsistent. Given his premises, I necessarily found his arguments and subsequent conclusions both unsound and without merit.

I can sum up my review of this work with the following:

I bought the book because I was appalled at some of the statements attributed to Peter Singer from the book.

As I read the book, I was amused by the paucity of reason in his arguments. If they weren’t so irrational, they could actually be funny in a dark sort of way.

Then, I was abject at the prospect of people actually listening to somebody as irrational as this and considering that his opinions are worth serious debate. He is, after all, a professor at Princeton.

When I finished, I was applauding the imminent victory of reason. If this book represents some of the best arguments that a mechanistic philosophy can bring to bear on day-to-day life and morality, then the war is all but won! The more publicity this sort of irrational nonsense receives, the sooner it will be banished from the marketplace of ideas.

It is practically nonsense. It is practically worthless. The war upon reason is practically over.

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Last Updated 07/16/99