Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics

Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics

Edited by Jeffrey A. Schaler
Open Court, 2009
RRP:  £25.99
ISBN: 978-0-8126-9618-9 (sb)

Reviewed by Emily Beckwith

Peter Singer is renowned within the field of ethics both for his philosophical rigour and his controversy. Some conclusions of his utilitarian ethic have been condemned as irresponsible and inhumane, with his views on infanticide provoking much public disgust. His academic career has seen taunts from audiences during speeches, conferences cancelled for fear of uproar and death threats from pro-life campaigners. Yet, amid the stir, Singer has remained uncompromisingly consistent in his moral outlook. Above all else, he seeks to be a pure philosopher. He rides the paths of logic and reaches what he considers sound conclusions.

Peter Singer Under Fire, the third in Open Court’s Under Fire series, gives Singer a platform on which to defend his views. The layout of the book is akin to a philosophical discussion, with essays alternating between Singer and his critics. Each section addresses a key issue: the moral status of animals, the sanctity of life, global ethics and ethical theory.


An intellectual autobiography precedes the essays. This forms a helpful basis from which to understand Singer’s perspective. He describes an early preoccupation with finding truly satisfactory answers to pressing ethical questions. Philosophy appeared to him as the ideal tool to help in this quest, with its emphasis on consistency providing an appealing framework for morality. He observed how the field, for all its rigour, could ‘rub up’ against the real world. But this, he considered, was a rigour that was at least fair. He became a part of a generation of moral philosophers who wanted to apply their insights practically to the problems facing the world. With no belief in God and a determination to minimise suffering, he chose utilitarianism as the soundest tool to forge a moral life. This evolved into following preference utilitarianism, according to which actions are moral if they maximise the satisfaction of preferences. His desire to reduce suffering pervades the whole autobiography. It grounds the reader with a profound sense of the good intentions that formed the start of this controversial career.

The Moral Status of Animals

Redefining the principles of why we should care for animals has been a pursuit of Singer since his university days. His first popular book, Animal Liberation (1975), focussed on a systematic justification for why we should not eat animals. This stemmed from his presuppositions that we should seek to reduce suffering in the world, that animals experience suffering and that it is speciesist to view their suffering as less important than ours. Singer’s claim that to be human is not to command a special place in society has roused much opposition from both religious and atheist philosophers.  

I have always found Singer’s arguments for vegetarianism thoroughly convincing, so was interested to see the strength of opposition. Essays from Williams and Frey do not seem to ruffle Singer’s logic. Williams defends speciesism, but without the usually cited reason of man’s special relationship with God. His argument that it is ‘simply better’ that human beings – as our own species – should prosper, comes across as an intuitive, gut reaction that cannot be well defended philosophically. Singer draws a good comparison by arguing that Williams’ stance is no more justified than the taking sides of political leaders at war. Frey argues that we cannot relate to the preferences of animals and so preference utilitarianism is an inappropriate model to use. This makes for an interesting essay that at least attempts to undermine Singer’s main premises. Yet Singer, who has great practical involvement in animal liberation policy, has the empirical evidence to fend off these criticisms.

What I find most interesting about Singer’s views on animal liberation is how they also challenge liberationists. Singer’s utilitarianism means that he does not vest intrinsic rights in animals, therefore condoning both meat eating and animal experimentation in instances where they prevent more suffering than they cause. He encourages readers to assess their own logic and to be honest about the intuitive contradictions they defend. After this first section, many readers will find that they have been left with more challenges to their outlook than has Singer.

The Sanctity of Life

In Should the Baby Live, a book Singer co-authored with Helga Kuhse in 1988, Singer published an argument that would prove the most infamous of his career. He outlined the circumstances in which he deems it morally permissible, with parental permission, for severely handicapped babies to be killed. This conclusion stems logically from his core arguments that: a.) Life is not intrinsically sacred. b.) Letting die is not always more ethical than killing. And c.) We must seek to satisfy the preferences of those affected. His arguments for abortion have provoked similar unrest from pro-life campaigners, with both topics prompting the most charged section of the book.

Two representatives from ‘Not Dead Yet,’ an organisation that promotes the rights and quality of life of disabled people, provide emotive articles against Singer’s view. Drake’s essay is the most hostile attack of the book. He accuses Singer of intellectual sloppiness, bigotry and stereotyping. His remarks also malign the field of bioethics as a whole, claiming it sacrifices intellectual integrity in favour of an ‘unspoken goal’ to protect the authority of the medical establishment and gradually rid the disabled from society. Drake’s comments show some misreading of Singer’s argument that it should be parents – not doctors – who decide whether their severely disabled baby should live. Throughout, I think Drake fails to distinguish Singer’s anti-suffering approach with the prejudiced alternative of being anti-disabled. Johnson, disabled due to neuromuscular disease, writes an engaging testimony of how it has felt to ‘defend her existence’ in the face of Singer’s arguments. Yet her conclusion is that, as a lawyer and a philosopher respectively, she and Singer ‘speak in different terms and work in different spheres.’ That the essay ends amicably is testimony to Singer’s respectful demeanour and quiet clarity of argument. He is perhaps most ‘under fire’ here, but emerges unscathed.

Contributions by Marquis and Gensler also keep Singer within familiar territory of defence. Marquis offers a useful critique of the preference utilitarian stance on the wrongness of killing. For example, he argues that it would allow the killing of a depressed person who had no preference to go on living. This, he says, is clearly wrong. Singer replies that assistance in dying would not be wrong in this instance, if the person had been suffering for a long time and was making a coherent choice. Gensler argues that Singer should drop his most controversial views because they are simply counterproductive. He claims that, without the infanticide argument, Singer’s career would have had far more of an impact. I think that this assertion fails to account for Singer’s highest value, which is to pursue moral philosophy using the purest arguments. His view on infanticide has proved offensive, but it has also had the value of exposing some frailties in our most common viewpoints. As Singer puts it, in the longer term, we may do better morally by just doing good philosophy.  

Global Ethics

It seems that most of Singer’s conclusions have caused offence to somebody. Even his seemingly straightforward assertion that the rich should help the poor has been received with some hostility. Singer’s The Life You Can Save (2009) challenges readers to consider what they can do now to end world poverty, with a main emphasis placed on giving part of your income. The most emotive aspect of Singer’s approach here is his abandonment of the traditional acts and omissions distinction, whereby letting someone die (an omission) is clearly distinct from killing them (an act). He argues that to let people die in the developing world should be viewed as akin to killing people recklessly, such as through bad driving. We should therefore take far more responsibility than we do. The essays in this section focus on both philosophical and empirical objections to his argument.

One criticism is that Singer’s moral demands simply ask too much of people. Lichtenberg agrees with the need to help the poor, but encourages Singer to soften his approach in line with what we know about when and why people give. For example, the findings of social psychology can be used to understand what taps into people’s motivation. This could be more helpful than Singer’s focus on the exact limits of our obligation. Singer responds that such insight ‘points a way forward’ for a different application of his views. Lichenberg offers a helpful tweaking of Singer’s method without seeking to undermine his overall argument.

Cowen’s essay raises the main weakness I see in the book, which is that Singer spends a lot of time outlining how an essay has misrepresented his views. When he starts a response with a string of corrections, it does not make for interesting philosophy. Nevertheless, once clarifications have been made, an interesting debate ensues. Cowen criticises Singer’s model for solving world poverty, arguing for the capitalist perspective that growth is better than redistribution. He also argues against the notion that increased wealth does not make us happier passed a certain point. In response, Singer raises many relevant costs of economic development but agrees with Cowen that wealth is a decisive factor in wellbeing. Again, Singer’s method for solving poverty is being criticised rather than his overall intention. This makes for a more empirical than philosophical contribution. Nevertheless, debates about method are vital to Singer’s goal of bringing practical change from his views.

Ethical Theory

I was very pleased to find an entire section devoted to Singer’s ethical theory. The presuppositions covered in this section are that: a.) The principle of equal consideration of interests should be used in moral decision making. b.) The ability to suffer is relevant to a being’s moral status. c.) Moral decisions should be made impartially and be universalisable. d.) If we have the power to stop something bad happening, without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. And e.) Acting morally will make us happier than if we do not. The question of why we should be moral at all, a preoccupation for Singer throughout his career, is discussed throughout.

The principle of equal consideration of interests receives most commentary. Huemer argues that Singer’s application of this principle is simply his intuition about how morality should be conducted. He proceeds with a bold essay that says Singer should admit his intuitionist tendencies. Duwell argues that justification for the principle lacks strength, while Narveson adds that it would also not bring the good consequences Singer claims. Singer offers a convincing defence, saying that he did not ‘assume’ the equal consideration approach through intuition. Instead, having considered other alternatives, he simply finds it to be the most plausible view. Schmidtz lodges a similar attack with his criticism of presupposition d.). He argues that it is far from ‘uncontroversial’ and actually has bad unintended consequences. He proposes that, rather than being surrounded by ‘unconstrained maximisers’ – people who only focus on increasing utility - we would be better off sticking to the principles of human rights. These arguments are dealt with by Singer through a straightforward clarification of his approach. He agrees that adhering to some general rules can be better for overall utility, even if there are instances in which breaking the rule could be justified. An example would be a law prohibiting torture. Disappointingly, Schmidtz’s argument falls down through a misrepresentation of Singer’s views.

Why people seem so disinclined to follow Singer’s views is addressed in every contribution. Clearly you can refuse to act because you think he is wrong, or you can think he is right but still not be willing to act on it. Huemer argues that Singer’s conclusions have no hold on society unless he argues that they are objectively true. Narveson says that people are simply not inclined to act for other people’s utility, only for their own. The issue is one that Singer has not yet resolved, yet he finds no help in the arguments offered. The notion of an objective morality is refuted as puzzling, mysterious and not necessarily connected to our will to act. Narveson’s point implies that we are too selfish to take on Singer’s outlook, but this is not supported by empirical findings. The most pressing question to come out of the section is one of the deepest and most debated of moral philosophy: why should we be moral?


To conclude, Peter Singer Under Fire is a good detangling of Singer’s most controversial views. The layout of the book is probably its greatest strength, mimicking as it does the clashes of philosophical debate. I would recommend it therefore as a teaching text, particularly the essays that focus on ethical theory. Whether one likes Singer’s views or not, studying his method is a sure means of refining one’s own philosophical technique. Perhaps Jeffrey Schaler, the book’s editor, goes too far when he likens Singer’s vilification to that of Socrates. But at least this book gives readers the chance to make their choice about this much maligned and misunderstood iconoclast of our day.  



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