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Notes on Peter Singer, Rich and Poor, Practical Ethics, 3rd ed., chapters 1-4

A Summary of Chapters 1-3

An oversimplified summary of the first three chapters of this book might read like this: the first chapter sets up a conception of ethics from which, in the second chapter, the principle of equal consideration of interests is derived; this principle is then used to illuminate problems about the sense in which humans are equal and, in the third chapter, applied to nonhuman animals. Thus, the principle of equal consideration of interests has been behind much of our discussion so far; but as I suggested in the previous chapter, the application of this principle when lives are at stake is less straightforward than when we are concerned with interests like avoiding pain and experiencing pleasure. In this chapter, we shall look at some views about the wrongness of taking life, in order to prepare the ground for the following chapters in which we shall turn to some practical issues about when it is wrong to kill someone and when it is wrong to allow someone to die (p. 71).

Chapter 1: About Ethics

What Ethics Is Not:
Ethics is not primarily about sex. Ethics is not good in theory but not in practice. Ethics is not based on religion. Ethics is not relative to the society in which you live. Ethics is not merely a matter of subjective taste or opinion

What Ethics Is: One View (Singers)

Ethics requires that you justify your beliefs and actions by giving reasons. The promotion of self-interest is an inadequate basis for ethics. Ethics requires a universal perspective. Singer endorses (preference) utilitarianism as a normative ethical theory.

Preference Utilitarianism
Suppose I then begin to think ethically, to the extent of putting myself in the position of others affected by my decision. To know what it is like to be in their position, I must take on their preferences I must imagine how hungry they are, how much they will enjoy the fruit and so on. Once I have done that, I must recognize that as I am thinking ethically, I cannot give my own preferences greater weight, simply because they are my own, than I give to the preferences of others. Hence, in place of my own preferences, I now have to take account of the preferences of all those affected by my decision. Unless there are some other ethically relevant considerations, this will lead me to weigh all these preferences and adopt the course of action most likely to maximize the preferences of those affected. Thus, at least at some level in my moral reasoning, ethics points towards the course of action that has the best consequences, on balance, for all affected (p. 12).

John Rawls on Moral Personality and Equality

Rawls suggests*that+ the property of moral personality is a property that virtually all humans possess, and all humans who possess this property possess it equally. By moral personality Rawls does not mean morally good personality; he is using moral in contrast to amoral. A moral person, Rawls says, must have a sense of justice. More broadly, one might say that to be a moral person is to be the kind of person to whom one can make moral appeals with some prospect that the appeal will be heeded. Rawls maintains that moral personality is the basis of human equality, a view that derives from his adherence to an approach to justice that stems from the social contract tradition. That tradition sees ethics as a kind of mutually beneficial agreement: Dont hit me, and I wont hit you. (That is far too crude but gives you the general idea.) Hence, only those capable of appreciating that they are not being hit, and of restraining their own hitting accordingly, are within the sphere of ethics (p. 18).

Singers Two Objections to Rawls

Having a moral personality is a matter of degree. Some people are highly sensitive to issues of justice and ethics generally; others, for a variety of reasons, have only a very limited awareness of such principles (p. 18). Not all humans are moral persons, even in the most minimal sense. Infants and small children, along with humans with profound intellectual disabilities, lack the required sense of justice (p. 18). So the possession of moral personality does not provide a satisfactory basis for the principle that all humans are equal. I doubt that any natural characteristiccan fulfil this function, for I doubt that there is any morally significant property that all humans possess equally (p. 19).

The Equal Consideration of Interests

The essence of the principle of equal consideration of interests is that we give equal weight in our moral deliberations to the like interests of all those affected by our actions. This means that if only X and Y would be affected by a possible act, and if X stands to lose more than Y stands to gain, it is better not to do the act. We cannot, if we accept the principle of equal consideration of interests, say that doing the act is better, despite the facts described, because we are more concerned about Y than we are about X. What the principle really amounts to is: an interest is an interest, whoevers interest it may be (p. 20).

Sentience and Suffering

If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that the suffering be counted equally with the like suffering in so far as rough comparisons can be made of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. This is why the limit of sentience (using the term as convenient, if not strictly accurate, shorthand for the capacity to suffer or experience enjoyment or happiness) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin colour? (p. 50).

Speciesism as an Analogy to Racism

Racists violate the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race. The white racists who supported slavery typically did not give the suffering of Africans as much weight as they gave to the suffering of Europeans. Similarly, speciesists give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species. Human speciesists do not accept that pain is as bad when it is felt by pigs or mice as when it is felt by humans (pp. 50-51).

Objections to Singer on Speciesism

How Do We Know That Animals Can Feel Pain? Animals Eat Each Other, So Why Shouldnt We Eat Them? Ethics and Reciprocity (social contract) Moral or Religious Differences Between Humans and Animals Defending Speciesism (Bernard Williams on the Human Prejudice) [Williams] asks us to imagine that our planet has been colonized by benevolent, fair-

minded and far-sighted aliens who judge it necessary to remove us. He then says that no matter how fair-minded and well-informed that decision was (we can imagine, perhaps, that our incorrigible aggression was likely, sooner or later, to destroy the planet), we would be right to side with our own species against these aliens. The ultimate question, Williams says, is Which side are you on? (pp. 69-70).

A Case Study
The view that human life has unique value is deeply rooted in our society and is enshrined in our law. To see how far it can be taken, consider what happened to Peggy Stinson, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, who was twenty-four weeks pregnant when she went into premature labor. The baby, whom Peggy and her husband named Andrew, was marginally viable. Despite a firm statement from both parents that they wanted no heroics, the doctors in charge of their child used all the technology of modern medicine to keep him alive for nearly six months. Andrew had periodic fits. Towards the end of that period, it was clear that if he survived at all, he would be seriously and permanently impaired. Andrew was also suffering considerably: at one point his doctor told the Stinsons that it must hurt like hell every time Andrew drew a breath. Andrews treatment cost $104,000, and these events took place in 1977 today the cost of keeping an infant in intensive care for six months could easily exceed a million dollars. Andrew Stinson was kept alive, against the wishes of his parents, at a substantial financial cost, notwithstanding evident suffering and despite the fact that after a certain point it was clear that he would never be able to live an independent life or to think and talk in the way that most humans do (p. 72).

Two Meanings to Human Being

It is possible to give human being a precise meaning. We can use it as equivalent to member of the species Homo sapiens. Whether a being is a member of a given species is something that can be determined scientifically by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms. In this sense there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence, an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being; and the same is true of the most profoundly and irreparably intellectually disabled human being, even of an anencephalic infant that is, an infant that, as a result of a defect in the formation of the neural tube, has no brain. There is another use of the term human, one proposed by Joseph Fletcher, a major figure in the development of bioethics. Fletcher com- piled a list of what he called Indicators of Humanhood that includes the following: self-awareness, selfcontrol, a sense of the future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others, concern for others, communication and curiosity. This is the sense of the term that we have in mind when we praise someone by saying that she is a real human being or shows truly human qualities. In saying this we are not, of course, referring to the persons membership in the species Homo sapiens, which as a matter of biological fact is never in doubt; we are implying that human beings characteristically possess certain qualities, and this person possesses them to a high degree (p. 73).

What is a Person?
In order to avoid begging any questions, I shall for the moment put aside the tricky term human and substitute two different terms, corresponding to the two different senses of human. For the first sense, the biological sense, I shall simply use the cumbersome but precise expression member of the species Homo sapiens, and for the second sense, I shall use the term personI propose to use person, in the sense of a rational and self-aware being, to capture those elements of the popular sense of human being that are not covered by member of the species Homo sapiens. (I take selfconscious and self-aware to mean the same thing (p. 74).

Four Categories of Beings

Human Persons = us Non-human Persons = great apes, cetaceans? Human Non-persons = fetus? Non-human Non-persons = most animals (+plants and natural objects)

Why is it Wrong to Kill a Person?

For preference utilitarians, taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being, because persons are highly future-oriented in their preferences. To kill a person is therefore, normally, to violate not just one but a wide range of the most central and significant preferences a being can have. Very often, it will make nonsense of everything that the victim has been trying to do in the past days, months or even years. In contrast, beings that cannot see themselves as entities with a future do not have any preferences about their own future existence. This is not to deny that such beings might struggle against a situation in which their lives are in danger, as a fish struggles to get free of the barbed hook in its mouth; but this indicates no more than a preference for the cessation of a state of affairs that causes pain or fear. The behaviour of a fish on a hook suggests a reason for not killing fish by that method but does not in itself suggest a preference utilitarian reason against killing fish by a method that brings about death instantly, without first causing pain or distress. Struggles against danger and pain do not suggest that fish are capable of preferring their own future existence to non-existence. (Again, remember that we are here considering what is especially wrong about killing a person; I am not saying that there are never any preference utilitarian reasons against killing sentient beings that are not persons (pp. 80-1).

Does a Person have a Right to Life?

Although preference utilitarianism does provide a direct reason for not killing a person, some may find the reason even when coupled with the important indirect reasons that any form of utilitarianism will take into account not sufficiently stringent. For preference utilitarianism, the wrong done to the person killed is serious, but not necessarily decisive. The preference of the victim for continued life could sometimes be outweighed by the strong preferences of others. Many believe that the prohibition on killing people is more absolute than any kind of utilitarian calculation can imply. Our lives, we feel, are things to which we have a right, and rights are not to be traded off against the preferences or pleasures of others. I am not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one, except when it is used as a shorthand way of referring to more fundamental moral considerations, such as the view that for the reasons offered in the preceding section for all normal circumstances we should we put the idea of killing people who want to go on living completely out our minds. Nevertheless, because the idea that we have a right to life is a popular one, it is worth asking whether there are grounds for attributing a right to life to a person, as distinct from other living beings (p. 81). Singer vs. Michael Tooley

Respect for Autonomy

There is a strand of ethical thought, associated with Kant but including many modern writers who are not Kantians, according to which respect for autonomy is a basic moral principle. Autonomy here refers to the capacity to choose and to act on ones own decisions. Rational and self-aware beings presumably have this capacity, whereas beings who cannot consider the alternatives open to them are not capable of choosing in the required sense and, hence, cannot be autonomous. In particular, only a being who can grasp the difference between dying and continuing to live can autonomously choose to live. Hence, killing a person who does not choose to die fails to respect that persons autonomy; and as the choice of living or dying is about the most fundamental choice anyone can make, the choice on which all other choices depend, killing a person who does not choose to die is the gravest possible violation of that persons autonomy (pp. 83-4).

Killing Merely Conscious Beings:

Would it really be good to create more pleasure by creating more pleased beings? (p. 87) The total view = we should aim to increase the total amount of pleasure (strictly, the net total amount of pleasure after deducting the total amount of pain) and we should be indifferent to whether this is done by increasing the pleasure of existing beings or increasing the number of beings who exist (p. 88). The prior existence view = is concerned with beings who exist, or whose existence is already determined, prior to the decision we are making*and+ denies that there is value in increasing pleasure by creating additional beings (p. 88).

John Stuart Mill on Comparing the Value of Different Lives

Few human creatures would consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest allowance of a beasts pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool, no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs . . . It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides (quoted on p. 92).