Writings on an Ethical Life Singer, P. 2000
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

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