I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Books: Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I just finished reading Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer.

For those who don't know him, Peter Singer is a philosopher who has become very controversial because some of his positions, which he expressed without compromising clarity to political correctness.  This book is in my opinion a must-read for everybody who is concerned with moral and ethical issues.

In an interview conducted by Bob Abernethy and shoved on WNET-TV on 20 September 1999, he expressed very clearly the key concepts that form the basis of his positions (a transcript of the interview is included in the book).  In response to the very first question, he stated:

         First, it is important to say that in my view [...] a human being doesn't have value simply in virtue of belonging to the species Homo Sapiens.  Species membership alone isn't enough.  The qualities that I think are important are, first, a capacity to experience something—that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings.  That's really basic.  But then that's something we share with a huge range of nonhuman animals.  In addition, when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, I would say it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that that he or she actually has a life—that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future.
        I use the term "person" to refer to a being with that kind of self-awareness—in the words of the philosopher James Rachels, a being who can live a biographical life and not merely a biological life.  A person has a lot more to lose when his or her life is ended than a being that is conscious, and can feel pain, but nevertheless is conscious of its existence only moment by moment, experiencing only one moment of consciousness and then the next, without understanding the connection between them.

One of the results of his position is that in his opinion parents should be able to choose to kill their newborn child if it was born with conditions so severe that doctors don't really try to keep it alive.  In Singer's words, "It would be justifiable to take active steps to end that infant's life swiftly and more humanely than by allowing death to come through dehydration, starvation, or an untreated infection".

Clearly, such positions have generated a lot of controversy.  But I have to ask, once political correctness and absolute truths based on faith rather than logic are left behind, how can anybody disagree with such a statement?  The sanctity of human life advocated by many (perhaps most) is based on the concept that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated in a special way purely because they belong to the species Homo Sapiens.  But a baby, as a being, is no different from other mammals.  In fact, it can be argued that, given the choice between saving an adult chimpanzee and a human baby with spina bifida, we should save the chimpanzee.  An adult chimpanzee has a past and looks forward to a future life, why a human infant has no past and is not self-aware.

In general, I find that too often society reacts to ideas and events because it is perceived that people have to react that way, rather than because they have thought the whole matter through.  This is not the first time that I mention my hatred for political correctness (and empty politeness, but that's another matter).

Nowadays, you cannot disagree with some policies of the state of Israel or condemn some acts of the Israeli army without being accused of anti-semitism.  Well, I believe that Israel has no moral right to keep the people in Gaza captive and prevent ships from supplying them.  Hamas shouldn't send rockets to Israel.  It is, in fact, an activity that I found unacceptable and, frankly, also counterproductive.  But the Israeli government really are bullies.  And I am not for this an anti-semite!

You cannot observe that blacks and whites are different without being accused of being racist.  If you search the Internet, you will find that for decades people have argued about differences of IQ between ethnic groups.  Somebody wrote that blacks (or Africans?  I don't remember) have on average a lower IQ than European and that Asians (or Chinese?) have an average IQ higher than Europeans.  And so what?  First of all, we are talking of measurements that are not as straightforward as measuring heights of weights.  With these IQ tests, the only thing that you can be certain of is what the scores are.  Certainly not what they mean and what they exactly measure.  Secondly, there are so many factors that have an influence on the capacity to solve tests, ranging from education to nutrition, from health to how much coffee you have drunk before sitting for the test.  Even if it were true that blacks have lower average scores, very many blacks will still score better than most Europeans and Chinese!

And then, of course there is sexism.  Human females have smaller brains than males.  That is a fact.  Am I being sexist?  Probably not, unless I were than to say that women are therefore less intelligent (whatever that means) than men.  But I certainly don't believe so.  And what if I were to say that women are on average more emotional than men?  Perhaps such a statement has no basis in reality.  But would I be sexist if I were to believe it (I don't actually have an opinion either way)?  And can I allow myself to compliment the look of a woman without being accused of objectifying her simply because so many men and women are concerned with how one looks?  Whoof...

Another concept that cannot be contradicted with impunity in modern society is that everybody is equal.  Now, I believe that everybody should have the right to achieve the maximum level of fulfillment in their lives.  But to say that everybody's needs and capabilities are the same is nonsense.  We are all different!  I know, this can become an excuse for accepting or causing injustice, but by denying that we are different from each other, we run other risks.  For example, physically disabled people are different from people with fully-abled bodies.  If we were to deny it, we couldn't possibly advocate the presence of ramps in buildings, could we?  Peter Singer was accused of advocating euthanasia of disabled adults because of his position about unviable newborn babies.  Come on!

In all cases, the key is respect.  As long as I respect the people I am in contact with, regardless of their color, size, gender, and sexual orientation, I must be able to say what I believe to be true.  Or should I be denied to tell somebody that I think they are incompetent simply because he/she is black, or a woman, or gay, and my criticism might be interpreted as discrimination?  Let's face it: a stupid, as well as a genius, can come in any colour and shape!

What follows is a short section of Peter Singer's book.  The section title is Toward an Ethical Life and was first publishe in 1993 in the book How Are We to Live?

        In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance. Judged against the suffering of immobilized rabbits having shampoos dripped into their eyes, a better shampoo becomes an unworthy goal. The preservation of old-growth forests should override our desire to use disposable paper towels. An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine, but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into buying fashionable clothes, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the astonishing additional expense that marks out the prestige car market from the market in cars for people who just want a reliable means of getting from A to B—all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to take themselves, at least for a time, out of the spotlight. If a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will utterly change the society in which we live.
        We cannot expect that this higher ethical consciousness will become universal. There will always be people who don’t care for anyone or anything, not even for themselves. There will be others, more numerous and more calculating, who earn a living by taking advantage of others, especially the poor and the powerless. We cannot afford to wait for some coming glorious day when everyone will live in loving peace and harmony with everyone else. Human nature is not like that at present, and there is no sign of its changing sufficiently in the foreseeable future. Since reasoning alone proved incapable of fully resolving the clash between self-interest and ethics, it is unlikely that rational argument will persuade every rational person to act ethically. Even if reason had been able to take us further, we would still have had to face the reality of a world in which many people are very far from acting on the basis of reasoning of any kind, even crudely self-interested reasoning. So for a long time to come, the world is going to remain a tough place in which to live.
        Nevertheless, we are part of this world and there is a desperate need to do something now about the conditions in which people live and die, and to avoid both social and ecological disaster. There is no time to focus our thoughts on the possibility of a distant utopian future. Too many humans and nonhuman animals are suffering now, the forests are going too quickly, population growth is still out of control, and if we do not bring greenhouse gas emissions down rapidly, the lives and homes of 46 million people are at risk in the Nile and Bengal delta regions alone. Nor can we wait for governments to bring about the change that is needed. It is not in the interests of politicians to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the society they have been elected to lead. If 10 percent of the population were to take a consciously ethical outlook on life and act accordingly, the resulting change would be more significant than any change of government. The division between an ethical and a selfish approach to life is far more fundamental than the difference between the policies of the political right and the political left.
        We have to take the first step. We must reinstate the idea of living an ethical life as a realistic and viable alternative to the present dominance of materialist self-interest. If a critical mass of people with new priorities were to emerge, and if these people were seen to do well, in every sense of the term—if their cooperation with each other brings reciprocal benefits, if they find joy and fulfillment in their lives—then the ethical attitude will spread, and the conflict between ethics and self-interest will have been shown to be overcome, not by abstract reasoning alone, but by adopting the ethical life as a practical way of living and showing that it works, psychologically, socially, and ecologically.
        Anyone can become part of the critical mass that offers us a chance of improving the world before it is too late. You can rethink your goals and question what you are doing with your life. If your present way of living does not stand up against an impartial standard of value, then you can change it. That might mean quitting your job, selling your house, and going to work for a voluntary organization in India. More often, the commitment to a more ethical way of living will be the first step of a gradual but far-reaching evolution in your lifestyle and in your thinking about your place in the world. You will take up new causes and find your goals shifting. If you get involved in your work, money and status will become less important. From your new perspective, the world will look different. One thing is certain: you will find plenty of worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored or lack fulfillment in your life. Most important of all, you will know that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you will have become part of the great tradition of those who have responded to the amount of pain and suffering in the universe by trying to make the world a better place.