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During my recent studies in philosophy, I have come across Peter Singer and am currently reading his book, "Practical Ethics". Has anyone here ever read it? If so, what did you think:

1) from a Catholic perspective?

2) from a humanist perspective (if you dare try)? 
Well, I suppose no one has come across Singer in their discourses with modern philosophers. It is just as good that way. Consider yourselves blessed.
I remember hearing a bit about Singer in college in the course of my ethics courses, but I never studied his books. All I know is that he is one of the leading proponents of consequentialist ethics today, and deserves some respect for carrying his arguments to their logical conclusions, horrific though they might appear to common-sense. That, and his book Animal Liberation was highly influential in spurring the modern animal-rights movement.

I can't respond to his book specifically, but I can say I think consequentialism generally falls apart. Because an ethical agent, in this system, is equally responsible for the consequences of acting or failing to act in any given context, the individual agent ultimately dissolves into a node in an infinite web of "other peoples'" actions and intentions. The notion of an agent ceases to make sense (much less any useful concept of virtue, which I think is the proper focus of ethics).
(04-15-2010, 06:59 PM)Antonius Block Wrote: [ -> ]I remember hearing a bit about Singer in college in the course of my ethics courses, but I never studied his books. All I know is that he is one of the leading proponents of consequentialist ethics today, and deserves some respect for carrying his arguments to their logical conclusions, horrific though they might appear to common-sense. That, and his book Animal Liberation was highly influential in spurring the modern animal-rights movement.

I can't respond to his book specifically, but I can say I think consequentialism generally falls apart. Because an ethical agent, in this system, is equally responsible for the consequences of acting or failing to act in any given context, the individual agent ultimately dissolves into a node in an infinite web of "other peoples'" actions and intentions. The notion of an agent ceases to make sense (much less any useful concept of virtue, which I think is the proper focus of ethics).

Antonious, that is an interesting take on Singer and not at all unreasonable. He defines himself as largely utilitarian in his book, but he indicates that his perspectives are not always utilitarian and sometimes at odds with it. However, I think Singer would respond that, evaluatively speaking, a person should act according to the reasonable deductions of ethics as defined by the actions' consequences at any given point in time. One cannot always know the outcomes of their actions, but they can anticipate them. The rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by "your evaluation of what you expect the best consequences to be, after a reasonable amount of deliberation spent sorting through the various circumstances and facts available to you." (Shoemaker on [Ethical] Egoism, P.26 [Emphasis in original]) Though that is a view typically maintained by ethical egoists, it must also be the conclusion of the consequentialist.

Still, I think that Singer would define himself as an agent-neutral, preference consequentialist: "Agent-neutral consequentialism ignores the specific value a state of affairs has for any particular agent. Thus, in an agent-neutral theory, an actor's personal goals do not count any more than anyone else's goals in evaluating what action the actor should take."  And preference consequentialists posit that: "'good' is described as the satisfaction of each person's individual preferences or desires, and a right action is that which leads to this satisfaction." 

But I certainly agree with you. A closer examination of it reveals its folly.

Have you ever heard a consequentialist qualify "consequence"? I have not. To the consequentialist: "a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence." But what is a "good outcome"? What is good for you might not be good for me. Say someone wanted to assassinate a powerful political leader. If the tyrant is exterminating the poor in your own country, then killing the tyrant would produce a "good outcome". But if that same tyrant is supporting the poor (by preventing them from being killed) in another nation, killing the tyrant would produce a "bad outcome". If it is relative according to one's own personal needs and wants, then it begins to sound a lot like ethical egoism, which, although holds some weight, is not without its various pitfalls.
Interesting. Does Singer use utilitarianism, then, combined with consequentialism? In other words, the good we look for in the consequence is defined as the greatest good for greatest number? It still doesn't answer the ultimate question "what is good", but it would be more consistent with his previous work. I know the only essays of Singer's I've read, on animal rights, used utilitarianism as a basis.
(04-15-2010, 07:42 PM)INPEFESS Wrote: [ -> ]Have you ever heard a consequentialist qualify "consequence"? I have not. To the consequentialist: "a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence." But what is a "good outcome"? What is good for you might not be good for me. Say someone wanted to assassinate a powerful political leader. If the tyrant is exterminating the poor in your own country, then killing the tyrant would produce a "good outcome". But if that same tyrant is supporting the poor (by preventing them from being killed) in another nation, killing the tyrant would produce a "bad outcome". If it is relative according to one's own personal needs and wants, then it begins to sound a lot like ethical egoism, which, although holds some weight, is not without its various pitfalls.

Well, Mill appealed to what he called the Greatest Happiness principal, i.e., an action is good insofar as it tends to promote happiness and the absence of unhappiness. For him, happiness is simply "pleasure and the absence of pain," and unhappiness, "pain, and the privation of pleasure." For humans, this includes not only sensual but intellectual pleasures, which many thoughtful people would rate more highly than the merely physical.

As far as the second part of your paragraph goes, utilitarian metrics quickly get quite complicated! A utilitarian (of the agent-neutral variety) wouldn't deny that there was an answer, they would just say it's complicated. How many poor people is the tyrant oppressing? How many poor people is the tyrant helping? How much is he oppressing/helping them, in absolute and relative terms? What about the non-poor members of each country? Can some people or groups of people inherently experience greater degrees of pleasure or pain than others? How much so? How much will it hurt my head to figure all this out? And so on. This doesn't have any bearing on the validity of utilitarian ethics, or consequentialism more generally. There is an answer, it'll just take a while to get there.
(04-15-2010, 08:47 PM)Anastasia Wrote: [ -> ]Interesting. Does Singer use utilitarianism, then, combined with consequentialism? In other words, the good we look for in the consequence is defined as the greatest good for greatest number? It still doesn't answer the ultimate question "what is good", but it would be more consistent with his previous work. I know the only essays of Singer's I've read, on animal rights, used utilitarianism as a basis.

Sorry, I should have said utilitarianism rather than consequentialism when referrring to Singer's philosophy. Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism, though is not identical with it. All utilitarians are consequentialists, but not all consequentialists are utilitarians.
(04-15-2010, 08:47 PM)Anastasia Wrote: [ -> ]Interesting. Does Singer use utilitarianism, then, combined with consequentialism? In other words, the good we look for in the consequence is defined as the greatest good for greatest number? It still doesn't answer the ultimate question "what is good", but it would be more consistent with his previous work. I know the only essays of Singer's I've read, on animal rights, used utilitarianism as a basis.

Actually, yes. That's quite right. Essentially, Singer uses a largely utilitarian approach, but he is concidered a preference consequentialist. More later...
(04-15-2010, 08:58 PM)Antonius Block Wrote: [ -> ]
(04-15-2010, 08:47 PM)Anastasia Wrote: [ -> ]Interesting. Does Singer use utilitarianism, then, combined with consequentialism? In other words, the good we look for in the consequence is defined as the greatest good for greatest number? It still doesn't answer the ultimate question "what is good", but it would be more consistent with his previous work. I know the only essays of Singer's I've read, on animal rights, used utilitarianism as a basis.

Sorry, I should have said utilitarianism rather than consequentialism when referrring to Singer's philosophy. Utilitarianism is a subset of consequentialism, though is not identical with it. All utilitarians are consequentialists, but not all consequentialists are utilitarians.

Yes, I was going to mention that but I figured you'd explain it.
(04-15-2010, 08:56 PM)Antonius Block Wrote: [ -> ]
(04-15-2010, 07:42 PM)INPEFESS Wrote: [ -> ]Have you ever heard a consequentialist qualify "consequence"? I have not. To the consequentialist: "a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence." But what is a "good outcome"? What is good for you might not be good for me. Say someone wanted to assassinate a powerful political leader. If the tyrant is exterminating the poor in your own country, then killing the tyrant would produce a "good outcome". But if that same tyrant is supporting the poor (by preventing them from being killed) in another nation, killing the tyrant would produce a "bad outcome". If it is relative according to one's own personal needs and wants, then it begins to sound a lot like ethical egoism, which, although holds some weight, is not without its various pitfalls.

Well, Mill appealed to what he called the Greatest Happiness principal, i.e., an action is good insofar as it tends to promote happiness and the absence of unhappiness. For him, happiness is simply "pleasure and the absence of pain," and unhappiness, "pain, and the privation of pleasure." For humans, this includes not only sensual but intellectual pleasures, which many thoughtful people would rate more highly than the merely physical.

Yes, which is absolutely ludicrous because a man can derive pleasure from providing another with pain. ("Jack the Ripper" comes to mind.) Without either a utilitarian or egoistic qualifier, the ethics of the Greatest Happiness principal (*cough*) is relative to each individual affected by the action, which wreaks of subjectivist ethics.

Quote:As far as the second part of your paragraph goes, utilitarian metrics quickly get quite complicated!
Absolutely. It is a maze of uncertainty, which is why it is still maintained today (I believe). Many theories have been refuted and sunk, but a theory that is so incomprehensibly complex cannot possibly be measured in reality.

Quote:A utilitarian (of the agent-neutral variety) wouldn't deny that there was an answer, they would just say it's complicated. How many poor people is the tyrant oppressing? How many poor people is the tyrant helping? How much is he oppressing/helping them, in absolute and relative terms? What about the non-poor members of each country? Can some people or groups of people inherently experience greater degrees of pleasure or pain than others? How much so? How much will it hurt my head to figure all this out? And so on.

I realized after I had posted that my example was going to lead to no conclusion, but perhaps that is the best way to represent the folly of the theory: there can never really be any objective way to determine the rightness or wrongness of the action. With each step of the equation comes the introduction of new variables that require one to start at the beginning again. It gets no where.

Quote:This doesn't have any bearing on the validity of utilitarian ethics, or consequentialism more generally. There is an answer, it'll just take a while to get there.

Right. I agree that it is a valid argument, but I don't think it's sound. Similarly, I would posit that Singer's arguments are valid, but not in the least bit sound. I must say that his "equal consideration of interests" principle is probably the closest I've seen a contemporary ethicist get to the notion of equality.

On this note, I'm actually going to be writing a paper (or article) attempting to refute some of his views of abortion using his own principle of equal consideration of interests (from now ...on... referred to as PECI) as a premise. Obviously, in order to do this, I must accept his premises (which means that I cannot appeal to the existence of God), so it will be a bit of a challenge, but I've seen other posters on here tap into the same objection (I think one of them was QuisUtDeus) that seems obvious: having the choice of (potential) life for any organism is the most fundamental "interest" of all organisms. The inclusion of the qualifier "choice" is not something I morally agree with (suicide, for example), but without it, Singer would argue that not all organisms desire life (and here, he would have but to document one act of suicide and my refutation would fall through).

"Choice" means that it is in the organism's best interest to have the ability to choice whether it wants to live or not. So each 'objective existence' within life, which is capable of receiving this faculty and is endowed, by nature, with the tendency to develop physical independence from the mother, should be able to choose for itself. The mother choosing for the organism indicates that her interests are greater than the would-be interests of the organism: the interest of freely deciding whether it wants to live or not. Therefore, Singer's view implies that not all life is equal. An organism with a more highly developed brain, acquired only by the exercise of the equal interest of choice (to live or not to live), is not equal to (is greater than) an organism which naturally would have, but has not received the choice to exercise, this faculty. Ethically speaking, it's in the best interest of every life form (those capable of receiving this power) to have the power to choose between one act and another, which is the power of choice. Denying an organism that right deprives them of the most fundamental interest: the power to choose. (Suicide is a completely different moral discussion.)

But if I'm going to go down that route, it seems logical that I would have to accept his view of animals being parallel to human in the hierarchy of consciousness. I would justify the killing of animals for consumption of meat, but he would say that, according to PECI, the animal should be able to chose for itself whether or not it wants to be killed.

It is interesting studying philosophy. The countless philosophers and theorists all are looking for something - striving for an answer to a question. They all seek a set ("set" has been left intentionally ambiguous) of morals which is to dictate their actions. They develop theory after theory in vain attempting to replace God's objective moral code. However, under close scrutiny, they almost all fall apart.
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