Books by Peter Singer

Released: Oct. 1, 2016

"Many pieces could well inspire conversations—and arguments—that deepen and complicate the crucial moral and ethical issues that Singer presents."
Collected opinion pieces from a renowned ethicist. Read full book review >
Released: Dec. 2, 2015

"A useful compendium of a seminal article and its offshoots, and it couldn't be timelier."
A distinguished philosopher offers his past and present thinking on the subject of moral obligations that members of affluent societies have to those living in extreme poverty. Read full book review >
Released: March 10, 2009

"Persuasive arguments and disturbing statistics, laced with stories of some generous and selfish people."
Controversial philosopher Singer (Bioethics/Princeton Univ.; The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush, 2004, etc.) lays out the haves' moral obligation to the have-nots. Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 2004

"High-concept ammunition for the anti-Bush crowd as the 2004 race heats up."
If George W. Bush fell down in a forest, would he know it? Read full book review >
Released: March 1, 2003

"A compelling look at a modest figure in the Freud-Adler controversy."
A moving biography of classical scholar David Oppenheim by his grandson, eminent philosopher Singer (Rethinking Life and Death, 1995, etc.). Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 15, 2000

Stimulating albeit uncomfortable reading, as all good philosophy is. Not everyone's cup of tea, but we're urged to make the effort. Read full book review >
Released: April 1, 1995

The doctrine of the sanctity of human life is in deep trouble, claims Australian philospher Singer (The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, 1981, etc.), who gives his own clear ideas of what should replace it in this decidedly provocative work. With crisp, dramatic tales involving brain-dead bodies, anencephalic infants, people in persistent vegetative states or with agonizing terminal illnesses, and other now-familiar hospital scenarios, Singer asserts that modern medical practice has become incompatible with a belief in the equal value of all human life. He argues that the ethical problems such situations pose would be simplified if we would only abandon our outdated thinking about life and death. He presents five commandments of what he calls the old ethic and suggests how they might be rewritten. In his scheme, the first, "Treat all human life as of equal worth," becomes "Recognize that the worth of human life varies"; the second, "Never intentionally take innocent human life," becomes "Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions." The third and fourth express Singer's views that people have the right to end their own lives and that unwanted children should not be brought into the world. All of these will trigger outrage in various quarters, but perhaps most provocative is his fifth revision: "Treat all human life as always more precious than any nonhuman life" becomes "Do not discriminate on the basis of species." A founder of the Animal Rights Movement, Singer argues that the right to life properly belongs not to Homo sapiens but to persons, by which he means those beings that possess self-awareness. In this view, an embryo or someone in an irreversible coma is clearly not a person, but a gorilla or a baboon is. Singer can't quite figure out how to regard newborn humans, but he gives infanticide a serious look before backing off. By going to the very core of our beliefs about life, Singer has created just about as controversial a book as possible. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 1, 1994

Look an orangutan straight in the eye and what do you see? A none-too-distant cousin, say animal-rightists Cavalieri and Singer (Making Babies, 1985, etc.)—a creature worthy of all the legal rights and privileges that humans enjoy. In an effort to extend aspects of equality—the right to life, the protection of individual liberties, the prohibition of torture- -to the nonhuman great apes (chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas), Cavalieri and Singer have collected original essays from a host of high-profile contributors, including Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, and Douglas Adams. All agree that there's sufficient kinship between humans and the other great apes to warrant a cross-species umbrella protecting basic rights. The arguments come at the reader from three angles: legalistic, biological/physiological, and ethical, with the last being by far the most persuasive (missing, though, is any piece dealing with the religious implications of the project). While important as buttressing material, the knowledge that chimps overlap more than 98 percent of their genes with us—or that, under common law, corporations are regarded as humans—just doesn't have the same impact as the knowledge that chimps experience joy, melancholy, and fear; that they can communicate to the point of having small conversations; or that they're jokesters with subtle senses of humor. Arguments that can really change attitudes include Richard Dawkins's piece on arch-ancestry and ring species (those transitional creatures between species); Tom Regan's peek into the ugly world of lab-testing; and Jane Goodall's cutting to the heart with portraits of chimps she's had the pleasure to know. Meanwhile, lurking behind the whole project is a major can of worms: What about the rights of other species and near cousins in the animal world? Where is the line drawn, and why is it drawn? There's enough forceful material here to make this a standard- bearer in what may soon become a major ethical debate. Read full book review >
Released: May 1, 1985

An educated, thoughtful discussion of the ethics of the new medical techniques concerned with conception. Australians Singer and Wells—philosopher (Practical Ethics, The Expanding Circle) and Member of Parliament respectively—gathered the latest on scientific research, medical practice, government recommendations, and popular polls from Australia, Britain, and the US. (Public opinion does not define right, the authors acknowledge; but it is nevertheless important to know what the majority is thinking.) Five practices are systematically examined: in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, ectogenesis ("growth and development of a being outside its mother's womb during a period when it would normally be inside the womb"—as in care of premature babies), cloning and sex selection, and genetic engineering. Singer and Wells pronounce definitely on each practice, at its current level of development. On IVF, for instance, they find that most current objections—charges of "unnaturalness," the 'rupture of sex and procreation," the risk of abnormal children—can be dismissed on medical or philosophical/ethical/ moral grounds. Legally, embryos can be viewed either as property or as potential children, subject to child custody laws; in either case, the authors stress, care must be taken beforehand: "If a couple has been well counselled and has signed statements covering the most likely eventualities, few of these disputes should need to go to court." Though the other techniques are not yet as prevalent, Singer and Wells maintain that we can be comfortable with surrogate motherhood supervised by a "Surrogate Board," with guidelines for use; and that while ectogenesis is best considered on an individual basis, we must reject the desire to save all babies ("the proposal to grow nonsentient embryos beyond the point at which they would normally have become sentient"). On overall recommendations, Singer and Wells founder with the rest of us: their basic proposal is for expert national bioethics committees to address these issues—however difficult it would be to decide the power of such groups or their membership. In spite of its final uncertainty: a serious, practiced addition to current discussion. Read full book review >
MARX by Peter Singer
Released: May 19, 1980

Confronted with the difficult task of trying to say something both introductory and meaningful about the prolific and world-shaking Karl Marx, philosopher Peter Singer (Monash Univ., Australia) has opted for a minimum of biography and a concentration on the "status" of Marx's writings. Focusing on the economic and historical theories of Marx, Singer notes that the claim for their scientific status rests largely with Marx himself-and he was using a notion of science which is not that of contemporary natural or social science: there is no room for "testing" in his theories, outside of history itself. By "science," Singer shows, Marx meant a more general idea about systematic knowledge, as had his mentor, Hegel. While the predictions Marx made based on the application of Hegel's ideas to history and economics have failed, Singer thinks it would be wrong to simply reject Marx's views as we would those of a scientist in the same position. Instead, Singer views Marx as preeminently a philosopher whose central concern is freedom, and whose great strength lies in his critique of the individualist notion of freedom prevalent in the English-speaking world. While Singer points out that Marx's own optimistic hopes for a collective propensity for freedom have thus far proved illusory, the hope nevertheless remains. More pointed than David McClellan's "Modern Masters" Marx, and more concerned with ideas, Singer's introduction manages to squeeze an argument into and around the exposition whereas McClellan attempts an impossible neutrality. Given the constraints imposed by the format, he has done a first-rate job. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 15, 1980

Peter Singer's critique of sociobiology as applied to ethics falls into the it's-okay-but-it-presumes-too-much school. Rather than rejecting Wilson's notions of altruism, Singer spends considerable time restating and defending the ideas of a genetic basis for kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and, to some extent, group selection. With homage to Dawkins, we hear again about the strategies of The Prisoner's Dilemma and other situations in which mutual altruism pays off better than pure selfishness. Only in the second half does Singer present his particular view, which is that moral behavior reflects the human ability to reason. As individuals and cultures mature, reason permits the extension of an ethical code to an ever-widening population. If this smacks of old-fashioned supremacy of Reason over Feelings, and concentric circles of morality (family, group, nation) in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, that is precisely what it seems. One should act with an impartial concern for all, Singer iterates, to promote the best interests of all. (He would, as he's written before, extend concern to other species as well.) He acknowledges that the abstract principle needs to be concretized in rules—to encourage some biological tendencies, to guide specific situations, to instruct the young, etc. However, his invoking of reason as the ultimate desideratum is in itself reductionist. He has nominated—if not reified—one special aspect of human behavior, arbitrarily dismissing religion as irrelevant and biology as inadequate. But what is Reason? Are there no conflicts of Reason? How does one encourage Reason to prevail? And should it always? Only in the last few pages does Singer aver "We must begin to design our culture so that it encourages broader concerns without frustrating important and relatively permanent human desires." Certainly sociobiology does not have the last word in ethics, but Singer's defense of Reason as the way out is unconvincing and similarly inadequate. Read full book review >
Released: Jan. 1, 1979

Singer (like Socrates) takes philosophy and puts it where it belongs—in the market place. In lucid, non-technical prose he tackles disputed moral questions—most notably abortion, euthanasia, civil disobedience, equality, animal rights, and the obligations of the haves to the have-nots—with a compelling blend of intellectual rigor and personal commitment. (An earlier, more limited example: Animal Liberation, 1975.) Singer calls himself a consequentialist, i.e., a utilitarian who measures acts against the norm of "what, on balance, furthers the interests of those affected" rather than with any simple calculus of pleasure and pain. He follows this guideline wherever it leads him—and sometimes winds up out on some pretty controversial limbs. He maintains, for instance, that some animals (chimpanzees, among others) are persons, because they are self-conscious, communicate, and have a notion of the future. Killing an adult, nonhuman primate, then, would be worse than killing a human baby, which is not a person in the strict sense. Singer is not promoting infanticide, but challenging this and other forms of "speciesism," a blind moral prejudice in favor of humanity. In another chapter he proposes with cool but passionate eloquence that withholding help from starving people (e.g., by spending money on luxuries instead of sending it to CARE) is "the moral equivalent of murder." Here and elsewhere Singer stops short of laying down any absolutes, but takes a bold stance that provokes the reader to respond, one way or another. Anti-abortionists will argue—with reason—that he does scant justice to the fetus' status as a potential human being. And ecologists will protest the narrowness of his view that only sentient beings are entitled to ethical consideration (so it's wrong to eat a hamburger, but all right to destroy a redwood forest?). Finally, professional philosophers will complain about the relative flimsiness of Singer's concluding chapter, "Why Act Morally?" on which, logically speaking, his whole case rests. But, whatever the objections, this is a superb performance, rich in substance and immaculately written: critical thinking at its creative best. Read full book review >
Released: Oct. 27, 1975

A tactless boor, this Peter Singer, who has the nerve not only to subject sophisticated audiences to a lengthy vegetarian and antivivisectionist argument, but to do it with great eloquence and intellectual force. Where most of us gracefully ignore the implications of eating animals or performing experiments on them, Singer proceeds with implacable logic from premises to conclusions. The premises are a) that all beings are morally entitled to equal consideration in respect of those capacities where they are equal; b) that the capacity of the higher vertebrates to feel pain must be presumed equal to that of humans. Only the narrow "speciesism" of the Judeo-Christian tradition ("into your hands are they delivered," says God in Genesis) lets us pretend we are entitled to treat an animal in any way we would not treat, say, a profoundly retarded human being—killing it for food, exploiting it for experimental purposes, or causing it unnecessary pain for any reason. Without hysteria, Singer points out the suffering much scientific research involves for animals, and the sheer uselessness of employing animal subjects to duplicate previous results (as is too often the case) or provide a cheap and convenient alternative to other investigative methods. He relates in chilling detail exactly how agribusiness turns animals into edible commodities, treating sentient creatures as nothing more than feed-converters and processing their short lives by the most economical assembly-line techniques. (See also Page Smith and Charles Daniel, The Chicken Book, p. 597.) The only method of boycotting agribusiness is of course vegetarianism, which Singer believes should be adopted anyhow on its own ethical and ecological merits. An inexorable, deliberately unemotional argument which reminds us that fundamental moral issues, like the Man upon the Stair, won't go away just by wishing. Read full book review >