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Writings on an Ethical Life Paperback – September 18, 2001

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Editorial Reviews Review

Peter Singer's arguments have penetrating moral accountability that can be quite unnerving to the reader who is expecting an afternoon on the couch with a cup of coffee and a book. In fact, words like influential, controversial, and much less flattering adjectives are invariably appended to his name. There is no doubt that the first two titles apply, but whether he is deserving of the less flattering adjectives remains for readers of this book to decide. Writings on an Ethical Life collects his thoughts on practical ethics over the last 30 years into a single volume. Singer begins from the premise that "the whole point of ethical judgments is to guide practice," which may not seem very remarkable nowadays, but in its day was virtually anathema to academic ethicists, who preferred abstract theorizing to practical moral reasoning.

Singer first gained eminence for his profoundly important early work on animal rights, arguing convincingly for vegetarianism and against the commonplace cruel treatment of animals by large commercial interests. However, he has probably attracted the most notoriety for his much-maligned writings in defense of abortion rights and certain forms of euthanasia. Singer is frequently misunderstood, misquoted, and demonized. Ironically, the ferocity of his detractors--particularly during his appointment as DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University--has generated nearly unheard-of exposure for an academic philosopher. While a small portion of Singer's work has been catapulted into the limelight, lay audiences have often overlooked other equally important ideas--unfortunate, because he is a wonderfully plainspoken and powerful writer: "Where so many are in such great need, indulgence in luxury is not morally neutral, and the fact that we have not killed anyone is not enough to make us morally decent citizens of the world." It is no wonder Singer is so controversial and influential. --Eric de Place --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

While highly controversial (his appointment as professor of bioethics at Princeton's Center for Human Values last year unleashed a storm of protests), Singer is one of the most innovative, sensitive and honest philosophers of morality in today's world. His Animal Liberation established the modern animal rights movement, and in this new collection, Singer gathers many of his writings from the past 30 years to provide a clear view of his positions. For example, in his famous essay "Famine, Affluence and Morality," Singer argues that suffering and pain are bad and we should do all we can to prevent them. This thread, running consistently through Singer's writings, leads, for instance, to his much-debated position that we are justified in killing a severely disabled infant because the consequences of letting the baby live are more direDphysically, financially, sociallyDthan letting the baby die. Singer famously broadens this view to include animals. Inflicting pain on laboratory animals is unethical, Singer says, and charges that "all consumers of animal products are responsible for the existence of cruel practices involved in producing them." Our moral responsibility should compel us to avoid hamburgers because every time we eat one we are contributing to a cycle of suffering not only of animals, but also of humans, for the grain used to feed the animals we consume is more than enough to end hunger in many less industrialized and affluent countries. Very simply, Singer is a utilitarian and argues that the consequences of an act should determine our ethical decisions. (Dec.) Forecast: Singer, who has drawn media attention in the past for his controversial views, has a dedicated following among animal rights activists and among many physicians searching for a way to justify euthanasia of severely handicapped infants. This book makes a significant contribution to ethical discussions in modern society and will find a passionate, if small, audience.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (September 18, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060007443
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060007447
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #287,454 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Peter Singer is sometimes called "the world's most influential living philosopher" although he thinks that if that is true, it doesn't say much for all the other living philosophers around today. He has also been called the father (or grandfather?) of the modern animal rights movement, even though he doesn't base his philosophical views on rights, either for humans or for animals.
In 2005 Time magazine named Singer one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute ranked him 3rd among Global Thought Leaders for 2013. (He crashed to 68th the following year, after GDI changed its methodology, which just shows how fleeting fame can be.) He is known especially for his work on the ethics of our treatment of animals, for his controversial critique of the sanctity of life doctrine in bioethics, and for his writings on the obligations of the affluent to aid those living in extreme poverty.

Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. In 2011 Time included Animal Liberation on its "All-TIME" list of the 100 best nonfiction books published in English since the magazine began, in 1923. Singer has written, co-authored, edited or co-edited more than 40 books, including Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), The Life You Can Save, The Point of View of the Universe (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek), and, most recently, The Most Good You Can Do. His works have appeared in more than 25 languages.

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946, and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. After teaching in England, the United States and Australia, he has, since 1999, been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. Since 2005 he has combined that position with the position of Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. He is married, with three daughters and four grandchildren. His recreations include hiking and surfing. In 2012 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the nation's highest civic honour.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

74 of 77 people found the following review helpful By Matthew Cheney on December 9, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Peter Singer is a master of taking an idea to its logical conclusion, and sometimes farther. He is controversial because he is willing to examine some of our most basic and cherished beliefs, and find the contradictions in the values which inform our everyday lives. While it is not comfortable to be so challenged, reading Singer with as open a mind as possible will help you clarify your own ethics, whether you subscribe to his or not.
Singer is not a monster, and though some of his ideas are disturbingly cold and mechanical, the majority of his ideas, and his philosophy as a whole, are deeply humane. To understand this, you must read him. Not agree with him, but read him.
How dull our lives would be if we were only exposed to comfortable ideas which reinforced our own beliefs. My beliefs have become clearer and stronger because of Singer's challenges, and I am grateful to his writings for helping me think less hypocritically about the world. I've still got leather shoes, and I still value a newborn human more than a newborn rodent, but I am also much more aware of how I spend my money and about what the choices I make in life really mean. This book is a well-edited survey of Singer's thoughts and ideas, his challenges and critiques, his justifications and juxtapositions, his philosophies.
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49 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Doug Dallam on November 26, 2003
Format: Paperback
I've read many essays from Singer's books, and I can say that many of the reviewers here, I suspect not being formally trained in philosophy, have missed his points in some degree, which leads to their proposed "problems" singer has. First, if let me say this. If Singer has all of the problems that some say he has with the validity of his arguments, he would never have made it to any college, much less Princeton. What I glean from the objections to his arguments is that the readers are not fully understanding his positions, much less the technical but subtle and sound logic in them.
One writer writes that "Are we to believe that animals have a since of I or me" and "Does this mean that when an animal hurts, kills or steals from another that she should be charged with assault, murder or theft?" Of course not. Singer would never make such an outlandish assertion nor would even a first year grad student in philosophy. Another reader objects to infanticide, but the argument Singer gives-one on personhood-is sound and valid. It draws its ideas from both Judith Jarvis Thompson's essay and Michael Tooley's essay on that subject, which are both still preeminent. Singer does have some nice explanations to professional arguments on the other side too that neither Thompson nor Tooley address (because they are writing their own arguments). One of my favorite quotes on personhood and infanticide, for example, pithy, but to the point, is this: "Dropping an egg into boiling water is not the same as dropping a live chicken into boiling water" and this "The fact that Price Charles will be the king of England does not mean that he is now the King of England.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Arturo DiGenero on November 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
Singer writes about many subjects which are potentially disturbing to a complacent, wealthy American (such as myself). I found the essays to be a salutary reminder of my effect on the larger world, and refreshingly down-to-earth. These are not academic essays, but journalistic ones which address ethical matters of concern to every political person with a conscience.
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36 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Heany on December 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
The people that have dissed Singer here have distorted his message by oversimplification, the kind that of thing you would expect people from those who have not read him. Singer doesn't want to get rid of retarded people, as one reviewer suggests. Singer bases some of his arguments on the distinction between person-status and mere species memebership, and Singer would definitely rate retarded people as persons.
Anyways, Singer is definitely right that the last edifice of pre-Darwinian (or pre-Copernican) thought is the idea of humnan life as intrinsically more estimable than other life, no ifs ands or buts. Singer explores the implications of this fairly, admitting that he doesn't have all the answers (no dogma here) but offering well-thought-out new proposals for action given the world view we'll have to adopt.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 28, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is a passionate, well-argued, and thought-provoking collection of essays. Unlike most contemporary philosophers, Singer writes clearly and expressively. He completely avoids jargon and the ever-popular use of badly translated French expressions and concepts. I would recommend it very highly to anyone interested in topics such as animal rights, abortion, and euthanasia.
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12 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 4, 2002
Format: Paperback
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in the past when human slaves existed? Do you ever question whether you would have the knowledge or insight to realize that you were committing a moral injustice? Well, Professor Singer (he was my professor at Princeton University) is simply a man who has such a vision into the future and is able to understand the cruelties of this world and can explain why they are unjustifiable, regardless of popular opinion.
I don't dare to say that his ideas are popular; in fact, 50 mentally handicapped individuals chained themselves to the front gate of Princeton's campus in protest of his appointment. He is a man who argues for the legalization of infanticide, yet has the ability to understand that every American should send a portion of each paycheck to help ease the suffering of starvation in third world countries.
I recommend this book because I think Peter Singer can show us how to put an end to the "slave institutions" that we continue to use in this world. I guarantee you one thing; if you bring an open mind to this book, Peter Singer will change your outlook on life. Period.
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