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Thirty years ago, Peter Singer wrote the first edition of a book that has come to be considered part of the classical introduction to applied ethics. In keeping pace with current pressing ethical challenges, Singer revised and updated all the chapters for his third edition of Practical Ethics.
This third edition keeps the lucid style and provocative arguments of its predecessors, but with a more up to date perspective into current ethical challenges. This makes Practical ethics not only an ideal text for university courses, but also for anyone who wants to dedicate some serious thinking into how she or he ought to live.
One of the views distinguishing this book, throughout its different editions, is the refutation of any assumption that involves postulating a distinctive worth or inherent value of our own species that puts us above members of other species. However, there are some changes from previous editions. A significant philosophical change is Singer's reconsideration of his earlier position based solely on preference utilitarianism. Another change is the addition of a chapter on climate change that replaces the chapter in the previous edition dealing with our obligation to accept refugees.
The issues discussed in this book cover a wide area, from how we live our daily lives to more far-reaching issues that should concern us as global citizens. The book begins with an overview of ethics. In this chapter Singer stresses what ethics is not and what is.
The second chapter reviews equality and its implications. Equality and genetic diversity, racial and sexual differences, and the differences between equality of opportunity and equality of consideration are among the topics reviewed.
Singer moves in chapter three to discuss the extension of the principle of equality beyond our own species. Here Singer compares racism with speciesism. Singer offers a number of examples highlighting speciesism in practice, such as using animals as food and experimenting on animals. In this chapter Singer also addresses the main arguments that have been put forward to defend speciesism.
Chapter four looks at the issue of what is wrong with killing. Singer starts by distinguishing two different uses of our term 'human', one referring to a biological basis and the other to a number of capacities that are most commonly associated with humans but not necessarily unique to humans. He uses the 'person' to identify this latter category. Singer then invites the reader to compare the difference, if any, between killing a member of the species Homo Sapiens and killing a person.
Chapter five also focuses on the subject of taking life, but this time regarding animals. Singer suggests that given that some nonhuman animals are persons we cannot keep embracing the doctrine that killing a member of our species is always more significant than killing a member of another species. The second part of the chapter addresses the ethical implications of killing other animals that do not fulfil the personhood criteria.
Chapter six continues with the subject of taking life but with a focus on the embryo and fetus. Singer starts by describing the problem, presenting both the conservative and the liberal positions. This chapter also discusses the value of fetal life, from the perspective of the fetus as a sentient being and the fetus as potential life. The last part of the chapter deals with abortion and infanticide.
Chapter seven also focuses on taking human life by means of a discussion of euthanasia. Here, Singer highlights the distinction between voluntary, involuntary and nonvoluntary euthanasia. He also presents the distinction between active and passive euthanasia, as well as between killing and allowing die. Singer shows throughout the chapter the key role that autonomy, respect and informed consent play around this topic.
Chapter eight draws attention to the subjects of poverty and affluence. Singer questions whether declining to help those in extreme need, where you are in a position to do so, is the moral equivalent of murder. In this chapter he also discusses whether we have or not an obligation to assist those in extreme poverty, being himself of the opinion that doing so is an "elementary part of what is to live an ethical life" (p.215).
Chapter nine talks about the ethical implications and challenges of climate change. This chapter is regarded by Singer as the chapter with the "greatest practical importance". From a social perspective he points out issues related to what an equitable distribution of burden is, historical responsibility, and equal shares. But he also addresses the question of what individuals ought to do.
The tenth chapter reviews a topic closely connected to climate change, the environment. Singer starts by drawing the assumptions held by the western tradition which have shaped to a great extent our current views on the environment. He then presents and analyses some arguments and approaches that take a different view. He finishes this chapter by arguing for the importance of developing an environmental ethic.
In chapter eleven the topics of civil disobedience, violence and terrorism are reviewed. Here, Singer differentiates the individual conscience from the law. He also points out some reasons for obeying the law, while at the same time he acknowledges that there might be conflicting reasons for disobedience. The issue of how much moral weight we should give to democratic principles is also discussed.
Singer's closing chapter summarizes the different discussions presented in previous chapters by posing the question: why act morally? As part of this discussion the role reason and self-interest play within ethics is also analyzed.
We live in a time in which many of our long held beliefs will have to be questioned in order to move ethical discussion forward. Because philosophical reasoning has significant relevance for a better discussion of the current pressing ethical challenges we are faced with, this third edition of Practical Ethics remains a relevant and welcome contribution to ethics.
© 2012 Laura Cabrera
Institute for Biomedical Ethics, Basel University
Laura Cabrera is a postdoctoral researcher in bioethics and emergent technologies in the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at Basel University. Laura received a BSc in Electrical and Communication Engineering from the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (ITESM) in Mexico City, and a MA in Applied Ethics from Linköping University in Sweden. She will shortly receive a PhD in Applied Ethics from Charles Sturt University in Australia. Laura's current research focuses on bioethics and emergent technologies, especially those connected to medical issues and individual/social perspectives.