I am holding in my hands a volume of eighty-two essays. The subtitle asserts that the collection concerns “Things That Matter” and the inside flap introduces the author, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, as one of the world’s most “controversial” philosophers.
Having just finished the last of these, which run no more than four pages apiece, I am inclined to observe that neither is the author particularly controversial, nor are the essays, strictly speaking, about anything that matters. While Mr. Singer may be kept awake at night by questions such as “Is it OK to cheat at football?” or “Should adult sibling incest be a crime?” I expect most readers will feel, when their thoughts turn to bigger questions, that Singer’s book has sold philosophy short of its potential.
It has been nearly a year since “Ethics in the Real World”—comprised of newspaper and magazine articles written by Singer over the last two decades—first hit bookshelves. The work has since been received favorably, but with little fanfare. When any philosopher like Singer rises from his easy chair, emerges from his ivory tower, and dips his feet in the public discourse, his ripples are rarely enough to make a major splash.
Still, over the course of his career, Peter Singer has succeeded in becoming, while not quite a household name, at least a house-next-door name; the kind of thinker whose ideas are tangential, and rarely central, to many of the daily controversies that reach the front page. Animal rights. Artificial intelligence. Veganism. Illegal doping. The list goes on.
Peter Singer was a man with the world at his feet: he had an attentive audience, a comfortable job at a world-class university, and plenty of time to write. Yet Singer seems to have squandered these gifts: the audience stopped listening, and his writing circled the banalities of human life, never reaching loftier heights.
We can forgive Singer’s dry and humorless prose style, his uncompromising defiance of convention, and his total irreverence for the sacred. What is less forgivable—and forgiveness seems to be another quality absent from these essays—is that Singer believes he has converted us to his side.
The solutions to the “Things That Matter,” as provided by the Princeton professor, are drawn largely from Singer’s unyielding utilitarianism. The greatest good for the greatest number is his rallying cry, used to support the abortion of disabled babies, taxes on the obese, suicide for the terminally ill, and rights for both chimpanzees and robots.
Opinions contrary to his own are ridiculed in these essays as either irrelevant or laughable. Among those targeted by Singer’s ridicule are non-vegetarians, sports fans, art collectors, doctors who “believe that all human life is of infinite value,” and, above all, religious people.
When we open a book, we expect to be seduced by the writer. We look for intriguing turns in the argument, unexpected conclusions, and a feeling that the writer is, by and large, a trustworthy guide. Persuasive writing involves a kind of dance between the reader and writer; one misplaced step and the whole project falls apart, the reader departs dissatisfied. In this subtle art, Peter Singer has much to learn. Take for example the following dreary paragraph from an essay titled “Choosing death,” in which Singer attempts to convince us of the joy of being alive:
For most of us, fortunately, life is precious. We want to go on living because we have things to look forward to, or because, overall, we find it enjoyable, interesting, or stimulating. Sometimes we want to go on living because there are things we want to achieve, or people close to us whom we want to help.
The thrust of his argument—that life is worth living—dies amid dull prose and platitudinous phrasing. Singer’s body of work—at least, as it comes to us in “Ethics In the Real World”—is a sad reminder of the tendency of philosophic writing to fail in style even if it succeeds in argument.
Anyone searching for a more compelling reason to live can find one at the end of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”:
Why is life worth living? That’s a very good question. Well, there are certain things I guess that make it worthwhile. Like what? Okay, for me, I would say, Groucho Marx, to name one thing, and Willie Mays, and the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony, and Louie Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues,” Swedish movies, naturally, “Sentimental Education” by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne . . .
We have come to accept a dryness of style in philosophy. It was once observed that Kant’s sentences are droll while his meaning is powerful, whereas Nietzsche’s sentences are clear while his meaning is incomprehensible. But in either case, Kant and Nietzsche had something worthwhile to say. Karl Marx was wrong about many things, but he was right when he wrote: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
Peter Singer has not changed the word, though many of his ideas have been popularized. Vegetarianism is very much in vogue, climate change activism is gaining worldwide support, and abortion is slightly less the hot button issue it was two decades ago. Thanks, in part, to Singer, the world has never been more confident in its ability to solve thorny moral problems with utilitarian arguments.
On minor moral issues that garner media attention, Singer is clearly a star. But on “things that matter?” I am less convinced.
The collection of essays begins with a section on “Big Questions,” by far the most interesting section of the book. But even here, with fundamental philosophical issues such as “Does Anything Matter?” or “Is There Moral Progress?” on the line, Singer’s tone is flippant and unconvincing. In this first section he gives a step-by-step, but hardly life-changing account of Derek Parfit’s masterly “On What Matters.” Elsewhere he sweeps aside the mysteries of creation with the juvenile line: “The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world is not created by a god at all.”
If these essays had been targeted solely at Singer’s fellow academics, we might excuse the deficiencies in writing. Given that these pieces were directed toward a wider audience, however, the faults are indefensible. This book is useful in a pinch—for instance, when you wish to spoil Thanksgiving dinner by informing the table about the brutalities of U.S. turkey farming—but for the things that truly matter, look elsewhere.