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Practical Ethics 
by Peter Singer.
Cambridge, 237 pp., £10, February 1980, 0 521 22920 0
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You possess two pain-killing injections and you encounter two casualties of an earthquake. Should you administer a shot apiece or give both to the person in the worse pain? Alternatively, you have enough medicine to treat one wound. Do you save the endangered leg of X or the endangered toe of Y, who has already lost a leg?

Those are two of the variations Peter Singer puts forward on the exam question that used to ask whether, in a fire of just such severity as to let you rescue one and no more, you would plump for your grandparent, your grandchild or the Titian that so surprisingly shared houseroom with them.

His new book takes, he says, ‘a broadly utilitarian position’, and it does nothing to shake my sneaking belief that the chief use of utilitarianism is to provide a decent intellectual cloak for souls too timid to entertain their fantasies of aggression naked.

Listing your friends in the order in which you would push them out of a leaky lifeboat is not nice, but it has point. At least you judge by the single, ascertainable criterion of your personal preference; and there would be a beneficiary – namely, you.

Ethics, however, Peter Singer begins his argument by declaring, transcends individual self-interests. Indeed, he locates the early stirrings of ethical thought in what he calls ‘the “Golden Rule” attributed to Moses’, which ‘tells us to go beyond our own personal interests and “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” ’.

Conceivably, when he describes the Golden Rule as ‘attributed to Moses’, Mr Singer means it was attributed to Moses and others by Jesus Christ, to whom Matthew VII, 12 ascribes the remark: ‘Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.’ All the same, he does seem in something of the difficulty about which came first, the Old Testament or the New, that other philosophers have experienced about the chicken and the egg. He continues: ‘The same idea of putting oneself in the position of another is involved in the Christian commandment that we love our neighbour as ourself.’ That, however, is a Christian commandment that really is a direct quotation from the Pentateuch (Leviticus XIX, 18).

His brief, bumpy ride through the history of ethics quickly reaches R.M. Hare and the ‘universalisability’ of moral judgments; on to the ‘imaginary “impartial spectator” ’ or ‘Ideal Observer’ (published, I suppose, in an ideal world, on respectively Saturday and Sunday) from whose point of view such judgments are framed; and in next to no time he is drawing up lists for ejection from the lifeboat, using as his measuring instrument that pair of utilitarian scales which ‘requires me to weigh up all these interests and adopt the course of action most likely to maximise the interests of those affected’.

Readers are left to guess that by maximising an interest Mr Singer means serving it, not making the interest itself as large as possible. He does, however, explain that interest-weighing is an extension of the classical weighing of ‘what increases pleasure and reduces pain’, though he adds that, if it is true that ‘classical utilitarians like Bentham and John Stuart Mill used “pleasure” ... to include achieving what one desired’ and vice versa, then ‘the difference between classical utilitarianism and utilitarianism based on interests disappears.’

In fact, achieving what one desires is not always synonymous with one’s interest; and the achievement of some objects of desire makes one stop thinking them desirable. The terms of the utilitarian game are a poor fit on human – perhaps on generic animal – psychology. A blackbird outside my window is wearing himself thin and ragged getting food for his babies. Granted he is achieving what he desires, but it would be silly to wonder whether he is experiencing pleasure or pain, serving or disserving his own interest. The terms just don’t apply. ‘Like Einstein I am not happy and do not want to be happy,’ wrote Bernard Shaw, and he would be endorsed by entire noble or foolish armies of martyrs to duty, vocation, the Life Force, passion or pathological compulsion. Indeed, Mr Singer might have come closer to psychological reality had he, sooner than questionably quoting Moses, consulted the author of the modern and metabiological Pentateuch. He might have begun with the first of the Maxims for Revolutionists (‘Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same’) and gone on to two which, I imagine by Shaw’s intention, expose some of the ambiguity of the utilitarian terms: ‘The man with toothache thinks everyone happy whose teeth are sound,’ and ‘The most intolerable pain is produced by prolonging the keenest pleasure.’

Even aside from the shakiness of the terms, the utilitarian scales, classical and post-classical models alike, will always seem to practical temperaments an elaborate machine with no real function. Life, which is the only thing that can sensibly be credited with either interests or a capacity for pleasure and pain, occurs only in the form of discrete individual parcels. I can weigh one parcel against another in terms of my personal preference, because my preference links the two: if I like you more, I really do, in a squeeze, like him less. But replace an individual’s preference by the pleasure and pain of all concerned and you remove the power of one weighing pan to influence the behaviour of the other. You can put any amount of utmost bliss experienced by me into one pan and it will have not the smallest effect on the other, which contains your agony.

This is not to deny that one might be forced into a choice made, if not on the utilitarian scales, at least by utilitarian rule of thumb. Most often it happens in discussion (or in answering exam questions that command ‘Discuss’). Anyone unprotected by the gentleman’s agreement that exempts politicians from replying to hypothetical questions may be driven into a utilitarian corner of the saloon bar or common-room. It is not even beyond conceiving that real life might place one at the wheel of a car that went selectively out of control in such a manner that one had to choose between crashing into the bus shelter on the left, with its queue of three, and the shelter on the right, with 12 – in which case I don’t deny that one both would and should opt for the three.

What matters, however, is that that choice is not a solution. The three you crash into are no less dead or maimed by virtue of the fact that you spared 12. The correct ethical solution to problems of this type consists of avoiding them. The most effective moralists in the case of the car are the legislators who impose the MOT test, just as the true moral of Mr Singer’s earthquake examples is ‘Better medical supplies for earthquake zones’ and that of the exam question ‘Better fire precautions for infants, old people, and Old Masters’. To the administrator, of course, it always seems that resources won’t stretch to all the objectives and that he has painfully to decide between them. It is politics that has the straightforward, if technically immensely hard, task of avoiding painful choices by maximising (in the usual sense of the word) resources.

It is disappointing that a book on ‘practical’ ethics should rush to impale itself on so many agonising dilemmas while retreating almost totally from practical (political and economic) thinking about how to circumvent them.

Mr Singer’s ‘practical’ problems are, he says, ‘relevant’. To what he doesn’t say. But he presently expands his description into: issues that confront ‘any thinking person’ daily (in which, to his credit, he includes the relation of humans to animals of other species, a confrontation which indeed takes place whenever a human chooses a meal or buys a bottle of a shampoo tested on non-human animal eyes but which most humans obscure under convention and euphemism); issues (abortion, euthanasia) that one easily might confront some day; and ‘issues of current concern about which any active participant in our society’s decision-making process needs to reflect’ – which I suppose means issues likely to be pressed on one in saloon bar or common-room.

I am not sure under which heading Mr Singer raises the question ‘Why act morally?’ He returns no satisfactory answer but reports one attempt, which he attributes to ‘modern Kantians, though it goes back at least as far as the Stoics’. The stages of the argument he records in these words (from which I have, for brevity, left out some explanatory bits but nothing logically vital): ‘1. Some requirement of universalisability or impartiality is essential to ethics. 2. Reason is universally or objectively valid ... Therefore 3. ...Ethics and reason both require us to rise above our own particular point of view ... Thus reason requires us to act on universalisable judgments and, to that extent, to act ethically.’

It takes Mr Singer a page and a half of discussion to conclude that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. This made me revise my opinion that formal logic, though deeply attractive, has no practical use. It would surely have been quicker to cast the argument in logical form (‘Ethics is universal; reason is universal; therefore reason is ethics’) and thus reveal it as an attempt to draw a syllogism reading ‘P a M, S a M, therefore S a P,’ which is invalid by reason of an undistributed middle.

His question ‘What’s wrong with killing?’ leaves Mr Singer yet worse confounded. This is of course a hairy one for the utilitarian scales since, unless heaven and hell really exist, the dead don’t experience pleasure or pain. Painful killing can be disapproved of, but against a quiet bomp on the head from behind Mr Singer has to invoke, variously, the distress of the survivors and arithmetic, whereby, if you despatch a happy being, you diminish the sum total of happiness unless you replace him by a being equally happy, a theory that would license parents of large families to commit multiple murder were it not for his next theory – that, if you kill a self-conscious being who is aware of wanting to continue his life in his own person, you remove from the total the pleasure he would have experienced in doing so.

These feeble and secondary lines of defence leave Mr Singer looking a pretty odd sort of vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist – at least in the eyes of a vegetarian anti-vivisectionist like myself who am so on a naive theory of rights, by which I cannot in fairness withhold from my fellow animals, whose lives are as unique and valuable to them as mine to me, rights that I claim absolutely for myself: not to be killed for no reason except that you would like the taste of me roasted, and not to be vivisected in order to further your career or your profits or on the off-chance of augmenting human knowledge.

Mr Singer, however, rejects a theory of rights (apparently on the grounds, which scarcely seem adequate, that it might be ‘controversial’) and, rushing on the dilemma, declares: ‘if one, or even a dozen animals had to suffer experiments in order to save thousands, I would think it right ... that they should do so.’

True, he insists the case is ‘hypothetical’ and that the same argument could be applied to brain-damaged humans. But since we live in a country that lawfully and in some cases under compulsion of law vivisects millions of non-human animals a year but, by consent even of the vivisectors, forbids vivisection of humans, it is his major concession, not his small-print provisos, that will be noticed.

Likewise, in a world eager to treat most non-human animals as things, his condemnation of factory farming, painful slaughter and the slaughter at all of ‘rational and self-conscious beings’ may well be less conspicuous than his claim that, provided you replace it, there is no wrong in killing an ‘impersonal’ being. It would be all right to breed chickens in order to kill and eat them, he says, provided chickens were ‘impersonal’ beings, a point on which he refuses to commit himself.

He describes an ‘impersonal being’ as one that ‘though alive, cannot aspire to longer life, because it lacks the conception of itself as a living being with a future’. For ‘a non-self-conscious being’, he maintains, ‘death is the cessation of experiences, in much the same way that birth is the beginning of experiences’ – a curious licence to kill, given that death is the cessation, and birth the beginning, of experiences for self-conscious beings, too.

Rationality and self-consciousness are the evolutionary specialisations of humans. It is easier for us to recognise personality in animals of species that have specialised in, very roughly, the same direction, but there is no reason or need (though people looking for an excuse to kill may fabricate one) to deny that a frog or cockroach may aspire to a future – though it would be reasonable to expect it to do so not in the human and conceptual manner but in frog or cockroach terms, which may be difficult for humans to read. It is unreasonable to test the thinking of one species in terms of another’s specialisation. From an intelligence test constructed in terms of a pigeon’s aptitude for topography, most humans would emerge as cretins.

The utilitarian habit of listing priorities seems to have left Mr Singer’s imagination inflexibly hierarchical. He is egalitarian to the extent of thinking that anyone capable of pleasure and pain has some claim, though not an inviolable one, to consideration of his (or, as Mr Singer would say in pursuit of reverse discrimination and defiance of English idiom, her) interests. But he seems to assume that human intelligence is a simple ladder on which the intelligent stand a discernible number of rungs higher than the stupid, which denies the common observation (sustained by statistics in Stephen Jay Gould’s article in the New York Review of Books of 1 May) that one may be on a high rung, say, musically but a low rung where, say, sculpture is concerned. Likewise he seems to think that animal species constitute an equally simple ladder, on which some species are simply less intelligent, tout court, than others, whereas any of the many humans who conduct a friendship with a dog or a cat could have told him that it is not a matter of associating with an intellectual inferior but a two-way give-and-take between persons who think and feel in different modes.

On the human plane, Mr Singer rejects the notion that higher intelligence should purchase privilege and goes on to question whether society is right to allocate wages and status in proportion to the intelligence a person has inherited. (Not having much noticed the patchy nature of intelligence itself, he has not noticed that in some specialised patches, such as literature, the tendency is to pay people less the better they are at the job.) He glimpses the alternative, of distributing incomes equally or according to need, but quickly backpedals out of that political solution with a bit of gossip about the difficulty of getting the plumbing mended in Communist countries, a hope of gradual movement towards equality in the West but the assertion that it would be ‘unrealistic’ to expect much change – for all the world like a saloon-bar ‘philosopher’ explaining that you can’t change human nature.

About animal nature he is crasser yet, thanks to his assumption that the things humans are good at are the apex, rather than one branch, of animal potentiality. Immunity from wanton killing is extended only to animals with ‘well-developed mental faculties’, which turn out to be faculties developed in a direction close enough to the human for humans to recognise them, and such animals are compared to ‘permanently defective human beings at a similar mental level’ – a piece of mis-observation contradictable by anyone who has actually known either a wise cat or a mentally defective cat. Cat wisdom and cat deficiency are both exercised in different dimensions from the human versions. It is not a hierarchical matter of levels.

I am therefore not disposed to trust Mr Singer’s imagination when he offers to use it to copy Puck’s ‘Sometimes a horse I’ll be, sometimes a hound’, and, by imaginatively impersonating first a horse and then an animal that is neither horse nor human, tell us whether the impartial third animal would rather be a horse or a human. This method he claims to be capable of producing a hierarchy of animal species in order of value. Mr Singer’s conclusion, that a happy human is of greater value than a happy horse, would impress me were it the conclusion of a (happy or unhappy) horse. As matters stand, I cannot acquit it of bias.

Neither do I acquit it of the aggressive impetus discernible in so many utilitarian jeux d’esprit. ‘Some comparisons may be too difficult,’ Mr Singer admits. ‘We may have to say that we have not the slightest idea whether it would be better to be a fish or a snake.’ So far so good, if silly – until he adds: ‘but then, we do not very often find ourselves forced to choose between killing a fish or a snake.’ (I suppose ‘or’ in this context means ‘and’.) How did a discussion about values suddenly turn into talk of killing? Another Puck exercise might persuade Mr Singer he would rather be a beautiful, intelligent woman than an ugly, stupid one. Would his next question be which, if forced, he would choose to kill?

Arguers for the rights of non-human as well as of human animals may well fear that Mr Singer’s book will undo much of the good propagandist work of his earlier Animal Liberation. His concession that vivisection would be justifiable in certain hypothetical circumstances is in any case poor strategy, since it diverts attention from the true moral imperative, which is to pour capital and ingenuity into developing other methods of experiment, thereby circumventing any dilemma there might genuinely be; and the effect of his concession is all the more dire in that he propounds the doctrine that to refrain from an action that could save a life renders you as guilty as if you had taken a life. Most vivisection has nothing to do with saving lives, but the entire vivisection industry takes refuge behind the comparatively small number of medical experimenters who argue, quite possibly in good conscience, that if they stopped seeking facts and cures by means of vivisection they would be guilty of letting patients whose cure might have been found die unnecessarily. Mr Singer plays into the hands of this argument and does nothing to emphasise that conscience could be satisfied by experimenting through other methods, provided those were as good or better, the essential point being that other methods will not be devised on a large scale until there are large-scale incentives and such marvellous ventures as the Lord Dowding Fund are augmented by public money and legislative effort.

Mr Singer applies his ‘as guilty as’ theory chiefly to the proposition that citizens of affluent countries are guilty of murder if they do not contribute their surplus income to the relief of starvation in poor ones. Again he retreats from political and economic thought, preferring to leave it to individual Westerners to decide what is surplus to their own needs and to give what they discard privately to Oxfam. (Should he not, as a vegetarian, have said Vegfam?) In practice, this method has made so far only a small dint in world starvation; and if, by magic, Mr Singer’s prescription were to be generally adopted, with a rigorous interpretation of ‘surplus’, it seems probable that the economies and cultures of the West, both of which run on money that is surplus to life-and-death needs, would cave in, to no benefit to the starving.

If, however, Mr Singer’s doctrine were correct, it would point to the urgency of solving the problem through politics. In other instances, it calls for a theory of rights, no matter how difficult or indeed controversial it might be to draw one up, which should mark off some neutral zone in place of a direct transfer of moral responsibility from those who set harmful deeds going to those who may or may not intervene to stop them. Intuitively I protest that a person is not morally obliged to be blackmailed into bed or marriage by any suitor unscrupulous or impassioned enough to utter a credible threat of suicide. Even were Mr Singer right when he says, ‘we do seem to do something bad if we knowingly bring a miserable being into existence, and if this is so, it is difficult to explain why we do not do something good when we knowingly bring a happy being into existence,’ I should resist the notion that a woman who could have ten happy children but doesn’t is in the same moral category as someone who murders ten such. If I refuse to torture the captured terrorist in order to find out where he has placed his time-bomb, I do not become guilty of the deaths his bomb causes when it goes off; neither am I guilty of deaths by starvation because I am not raising money for Vegfam by organising the kidnap and ransom of a rich industrialist, though I suspect I am cunning enough to carry off such an exploit successfully. The frontier is very hard to draw, but human metaphysical ingenuity can surely define the area inside which a person has a right to his own integrity.

There is something grotesque and overweening in the attempt to thrust universal moral responsibility onto every moral agent. Indeed, I suspect the utilitarian scales were devised by people who courted such a delusion of responsibility. Perhaps the true function of the scales is to allow those who use them to impersonate God, without benefit of the old boy’s traditional attribute of omniscience but with some of his traditional vindictiveness. Mr Singer, for instance, makes the Jehovah-like pronouncement: ‘those who kill with cars deserve not only blame but severe punishment.’ He seems positively addicted to pairs of metaphorical scales that don’t actually work, the scales of justice being another such, since retribution exacted from drivers does not restore those they have run over to life.

It is perhaps not Jehovah but Jesus, in his relationship with the barren fig tree, who is the model for Mr Singer’s vindictiveness towards what he calls weeds, by which loaded name he means plants he wants neither to pluck nor to eat. (Is an oak tree a weed?) He begins by questioning whether to speak of a plant seeking light in order to survive is ‘anything more than a metaphor’. (The answer is yes, because if the plant finds light it does survive.) He then does his Puck bit and imagines ‘living the life of the weed I am about to pull out of my garden’. He finds that ‘such a life is a complete blank,’ and from this he concludes that a weed’s life ‘is of no intrinsic value’. I don’t subscribe to reverence for life, prefer artificial to natural beauty and am not even sure if I believe in any literal way in the Life Force, but when Mr Singer moves from the declaration that a weed has no value for him to the pronouncement that it has no intrinsic value I seem to be listening to the self-centred and insensitive arrogance of a species that is a jumped-up latecomer in the majestic and multifarious processes of evolution.

It is indeed the saddest pity that Mr Singer makes no reference to the great prophet of creative evolution (and of political solutions to moral dilemmas). Most imperatively he should read The Doctor’s Dilemma, a play about utilitarianism. Indeed, apart from being more entertaining, the generic doctor (whom Shaw incarnates in several individual doctors) might be a character in one of Mr Singer’s moral conundrums. Having discovered the cure for a mortal disease, he has the means to administer it to only a small number of patients, with the result that he exercises the god-like universal moral responsibility of meting out life to the few he selects and death (by not intervening to save them) to the many he is forced to reject. Whether to save or condemn Louis Dubedat is weighed on the utilitarian scales: does Dubedat’s genius, in despite of his unscrupulousness in private life, outweigh the duller moral worthiness of alternative patients? Only, of course, Shaw being a scientific realist and doctors not being in fact omniscient gods, the cures are delusions and no one can stop Dubedat dying. It is in the Preface to that play that Shaw expounds his irrefutable case against vivisection. It rests both on the absolute right of innocent sentient beings not to be tortured and on the absolute right of humans, without incurring guilt, to preserve their integrity or honour by refusing to be torturers.

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