FLORIDA, June 17, 2012 — In one way or another, even if we fail to see it, ethics guide our actions.
Some codes of ethics, such as federal law, are objective and are supposed to apply equally to all. Others, like romance etiquette, are subjective and vary from person to person.
What is the best way of viewing ethics in order to live a productive, fulfilling life?
This question has stumped philosophers for at least three millenia. Religion has tried to provide sound ethical doctrines that allow not only for happiness in life, but after death. Central as it is to human societies, ethics has become academic discipline in its own right.
The study of ethics has produced no universal solution to life’s multitude of problems. Faith helps many through serious dilemmas, and science has revealed much about the world around us, but studying ethics can leave even the most seasoned of scholars with more questions than answers.
Peter Singer is at the forefront of the practical application of ethics. The current Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, he is a world renowned authority on applied ethics from a utilitarian standpoint. A New York Times bestselling author, his books have challenged and captivated the minds of untold millions. Most notable of these is The Life You Can Save, published in 2009. A treatise against international poverty, it has attracted a groundswell of attention and activism.
Despite being named a Companion of the Order of Australia — his country’s highest civic award — only last week, Dr. Singer graciously took time to share his views on a number of important issues. From animal rights to the controversy over when human life begins to America’s presidential election, nary a stone was left unturned.
Joseph F. Cotto: Virtually everyone knows what ethics are. Not all, however, are acquainted with practical ethics. What is this, exactly?
Dr. Peter Singer: All ethics is aimed at guiding what we do, and so is in that sense practical. But philosophers have often been concerned with ethical theories at a level that is remote from everyday life. I have tried to focus more on those issues that we should all consider, if we want to live ethically.
Cotto: One of the gravest concerns you have cited with the world today is that an untold number of people live in abject poverty, and therefore face starvation. How, in your opinion, can this dilemma be dealt with?
Singer: Yes, about 8 million children die every year from avoidable, poverty-related causes. We can and should bring this number down rapidly. There are effective aid organizations (see, for example, the assessments on www.GiveWell.org) and if they had more resources, they could reduce the number of unnecessary deaths. In my book The Life You Can Save and on the website www.thelifeyoucansave.com, I recommend modest levels of donation that we could make. If we all did it, we could shrink those deaths dramatically, maybe to less than one million. Still too many, of course, but much better than the present situation.
Cotto: For several decades, you have been a tremendously important figure in the animal rights movement. What do you believe that the optimal relationship, generally speaking, is between humans and animals?
Singer: Pain is pain, no matter what the species of the being feeling it. We should give equal consideration to the interests of all animals. That means, most obviously, no more factory farms that keep billions of animals - nine billion in the US alone - in miserable conditions just so that we can get meat or eggs or milk a little more cheaply.
Cotto: Here in the United States, you have received extensive media exposure due to your views about when human life begins. Do you think that there is a specific point during which this happens, or is it more of an incremental process?
Singer: That’s the wrong question. I’m willing to grant that human life begins at conception. But just because a being is alive, and a member of the species Homo sapiens, doesn’t mean that it is wrong to end that life - and certainly not that it is worse to end that life than it is to end the life of an animal that is much more aware of its existence and more capable of feeling pain than a human embryo or fetus.
Cotto: As an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, you believe that fetal viability should not prevent a woman from terminating her pregnancy. Until when should abortion be allowed?
Singer: Once the fetus is capable of feeling pain - which is not earlier than 20 weeks of gestation - I think abortion should not be carried out except for serious reasons. But the law should still allow the pregnant woman to make the decision.
How often are we really challenged to think about such controversial subjects? Do we honestly have opinions on them, or do we just parrot what others say? Do we actually believe what we tell ourselves we believe?
These are hard questions worth considering. Dr. Singer’s insights may not answer them for you, but they provide perspectives to help us better understand the essential dilemmas of our time.
What does he have to say, though, about traditional Western philosophies, America’s presidential election, and the concept of faith?
Find out in part two.
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