IN THE "real" world, Peter Singer is the most influential living philosopher. More than any other single work, his book Animal Liberation (1975) led to the movement of the same name. More recently, he has been vilified for his willingness to contemplate euthanasia for the terminally ill and for severely handicapped infants.
This excellent collection, taken from his wide-ranging work to date, with four new pieces and an introduction, is a welcome opportunity for readers to arrive at an informed opinion - not only about Singer, but about the issues he addresses.
All of Singer's conclusions rest on four claims: in brief, that pain is bad; that humans are not the only beings capable of suffering; that what matters about a being to be killed is not its race, sex or species but its characteristics as an individual; and that we are responsible not only for what we do but for what we could have prevented.
Proceeding patiently and logically, Singer becomes steadily more unsettling. For example, he concludes that the lives of some non- human animals have as much or more value than those of some humans; and not all human lives have equal value.
The justification that values a being simply because it is a fellow-human is indistinguishable from the justification of racism. The result, too, is tyranny. Every year, tens of billions of sentient beings lead miserable lives and die nasty deaths purely to satisfy our palates, with more killed on highly dubious medical grounds. This is a question of morality, not sentimentality.
Singer highlights the stark contradiction between casually sacrificing the life of a non-human animal that plainly wants to continue living, and has a good chance of a meaningful life in its own terms, while going to extraordinary lengths to preserve a human life, even against that person's wishes, or when there is no prospect of a meaningful life. Nor does it make sense to use the parlous state of many humans as a reason to ignore the state of non- humans.
Singer thus creates the havoc of someone who obtains our assent to a few simple, commonsensical propositions and then proceeds logically to draw radical truths from them. …