Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Any book review worth its merit is the product of difficult choices by the reviewer regarding what to describe and what to omit. This problem is proportionally increased with the size and complexity of a book. Consequently, this 600 page analysis of Peter Singer that includes a detailed intellectual autobiography, 15 critical essays and his replies to them, is quite the tricky one.
Unfortunately, I don't have time to examine the work in rigorous detail, but I will try to provide a few points so the reader has at least some notion of the work (and I'll stop describing how I don't have time to describe things).
1) I highly appreciated the 80 page intellectual biography as I had been curious to know more about Singer's life in general, as well as in relation to his work. Singer's breadth and depth of output is impressive and the fact it was sustained for so many years even more so. I always find it remarkable (and a bit amusing) when someone is known for X and even Y and Z, and then it turns out they know A, B and C. More directly, the influential moral philosopher also has detailed understandings of Marx and Hegel.
2)The book is divided into four sections that cover his work on the Moral Status of Animals, Sanctity of Life, Global Ethics and Ethical Theory. My primary interest was and is Global Ethics, but I enjoyed the first two sections as well. The Sanctity of Life section was more readable than I anticipated, likely due to the inclusion of Harriet Johnson's essay describing her personal interaction with Singer. The Ethical Theory section was one of the most important but the least readable. In general, it seems that although many authors tried, few were able to find any major weakness in Singer's arguments. Not only did I find Singer's replies to be clearer and more accessible than almost every critique, but his replies would often (unfortunately) contain a phrase similar to "I didn't really say that." One can tell that some authors put more effort into their critiques and had read more of his work than others. Highlights of critiques and replies that provided useful discussion were, among others, Judith Lichtenberg's psychological emphasis on Singer's global ethics, the aforementioned Johnson on the sanctity of life, Bernard Williams on animals and Michael Huemer on Singer's unstable meta-ethics.
3) Peter Singer Under Fire would not be a good introduction to his work but it would be worthwhile for an eager reader who has already read 2 or 3 of his books.
4) What did I actually learn? Many things of course, but mainly that Singer has some pretty tight analogies that make us examine who we are as moral beings if we want to be consistent. Additionally, I observed that his ethical theory may not be entirely sound but I have no idea what should replace it. Also, that maybe we shouldn't be using animals at all, even if we are not eating them. Finally, I was reminded once again, that it can be hard to accept that we are not who we want to be.