Ethics in the Real World by Peter Singer

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter

by Peter Singer
Princeton University Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Once we start to question our evolved and culturally transmitted intuitive responses to moral issues, utilitarianism is, I believe, the most defensible ethical view…”

Peter Singer, bioethics professor and prolific essayist, has assembled a collection of writings on ethics. Sharing his views for decades, there are few topics, if any, this modern thinker has not touched upon. To cover the breadth of them in this review would be futile. While his point of view might be controversial to opposing thought, his words are vital in a society sorely lacking in civil public discourse. Regardless of our individual beliefs, it is essential that we consider arguments of focused and reasoned philosophers. In a time of swords and blood, thinkers like Singer are the antidote.

From the opening of this compendium, Singer is unafraid to tackle the big questions, and the existence of God is a philosophical debate for the ages. He focuses often on feelings as a supporting argument, particularly human suffering and its merciless existence. True, how can one assert the presence of an all-powerful God and justify world suffering in all of its forms? With this criterion as the basis, belief in God is impossible to sustain. However, Singer’s arguments are cherry-picked and at times more interested in highlighting the points he’s scored in public debate. He’s failed to absorb the full question, overlooking the existence of evil in all of its forms. Including this battleground and the mission of faith on Earth, so central to the Judeo-Christian tradition and others, might form a more complete debate.

Singer argues strongly in favor of godless morality, that it is human nature to construct morality. Moral principles, whether God-given or a manifestation of humankind, help to create a social structure in which people thrive. No one can deny this as a driving factor in the advancement of civilization. The author’s godless morality harkens Eric Hoffer’s query that the Ten Commandments, which is essentially an ethical code to lessen the chaos of human existence, was either divine in origin or man’s greatest invention. Singer plants himself in the latter camp. However, it makes one think: Does the genesis of morality really matter? To the pragmatist or historian, no. To the humanist or spiritualist, yes.

The author makes a strong case for the humane treatment of animals, including not killing or eating them. This has long been one his hallmark debates. Indeed, there is much evidence for the existence of emotional reason within nonhuman life forms and that the slaughter of animals for food is inhumane, if not unnecessary and perhaps nihilistic, in the modern world. This argument contradicts his support for abortion. He further asserts that not all life is worth the resources required to preserve or elongate it. This includes the right to choose death over life. The belief in the innate compassion of animals versus the selective diminishment of human life is a long-standing progressive conundrum that won’t be resolved any time soon.

The author delves into politics as well. Here we see progressive tenets addressed in summary fashion: defending utilitarianism, limiting religious freedom, embracing climate change solutions, pushing toward socialism and global governance, and demoting the US Constitution, to name a few. None of the pitfalls of these movements are touched upon. He hints at the egregious impingement of rights following 9-11, and he thankfully supports the complete freedom of speech, which has been for decades under assault by a neo-fascist progressive wing. He supports ethics—not fundamentalist restrictions—in science, which include global access to technology and information, humanitarian and environmentally conscious progression of the disciplines, and the silly notion of rights for robots. On that latter point, if one rejects the metaphysical nature of human existence unless given empirical proof, it’s easy to view a spirit in anything, even in a tumbling rock.

Singer’s writing is succinct and accessible as a manner of intent. Being able to write clearly and without pretension is a sign of intelligence and humility, for which any reader will be grateful. His arguments are well-defined, if not at times self-limited, although most skilled debaters tend to circumnavigate points that most challenge their suppositions. His essays do provoke an issue not often considered: Ethics are subject to a person’s belief system. We each have a belief system that falls somewhere between atheism and fundamentalism, and the dreaded confirmation bias is unavoidable. The world is a patchwork of various ethical codes, and when brought into bitter conflict, they can provoke outright war. The futility of this is difficult to refute. While the hope of assimilating ethics into a common code is slim, discussing various philosophies is useful and helps to maintain a civil opposition. Singer has his firm beliefs as well, and his book might be more appropriately called “Ethics in the Atheist World.” It’s a valid point of view of the godless moral principles. Nowhere are these better explained.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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Professional Revisions – Executing the Process

In this series, editor and author Christopher Klim takes you through a multi-level approach to revising your work. Excerpts taken from bestselling Write to Publish: Essentials for the Modern Fiction and Memoir Market.

All fine writing is the result of rewriting. I don’t know who coined that phrase, but it is certainly a fact. The first draft is the art of writing. The revision process exists to recognize mistakes and mop up the mess, and readers never witness the accident. Readers seek the ease of flawlessness.

EXECUTING REVISIONS

The four level revision process in Write to Publish a top down approach. Work the levels in iterations. Be comfortable with the work at one level, before moving onto the next. This builds the structure of the story before fixing the mess wrought by the construction. It also saves time. Why perfect a scene or paragraph that might not remain in the finished version? Upon passing from level two to three, a solid story stands in place. All scenes will remain on the story line and in their current position. It is now a matter of making them resonate in the reader’s mind.

A story is a unique creation, requiring a special effort to complete. During the draft process, pause to make note of ideas, weaknesses, and potential areas of research. I record story ideas and research information in a composition book. I also number revision concerns from the last page toward the front. I fill six to ten pages of notes on grammar, theme, tone, research requirements, and other specific story concerns. These are concrete problems, and I won’t slow the momentum of the draft to solve them. I might use too many passive verbs or fudge the details of an unfamiliar profession. Bad habits and the assumption of guesswork as fact are two comfortably dangerous behaviors, but the back of my composition book saves me, detailing my story’s shortcomings. It holds a checklist of needed revisions.

While good draft work is often brave and ground-breaking, the revision process requires another kind of courage. It is akin to self-surgery, knowing when to amputate one of your limbs. Be ruthless with your prose. If a word, sentence, scene, or chapter doesn’t serve the story, lop it off. It might contain the most brilliant prose of the piece, but it is cancer to the story, driving it off course and killing reader interest. Save it for another day. It might form the centerpiece of a new story. Trust your ability to think of even better words down the line.

SOLICITING FEEDBACK

There comes a point when a writer desires objectivity. Cultivate a trusted reader. I have a target reader in mind when I write, someone who appreciates the same aspects of storytelling. She knows when I miss the mark, and she is not afraid to tell me. I argue. I curse and moan, but in the end, I know she is right. She is not a writer. She is a reader. She doesn’t stay up at night considering character flaws or lifestyle element. She knows a good story. She laughs. She cries. She is entertained, and if I cannot do this for her, I have missed my objective.

Beyond that, build a reading circle. This is also com-posed of readers. Writers are a dangerous group to critique a work in progress. Each writer has a personal vision of a story, and it is often not yours. Good members of a reading circle are well read. They are just as happy with a biography of FDR, as the latest Robert Stone. They pick up TV Guide and The Economist in the same shopping trip. They love the written word. They are authorities to give the thumbs up or down on your work. They are a mere sample of the reading public. Try to remove your emotion and listen to them.

WHEN IS A STORY FINISHED?

Who knows? There comes a time when a writer must put the work down and move on. Writers often get a brain-storm and return to a particular piece with ideas to elevate the story, but overall, a point arrives when the writer can go no further and must let it rest on its laurels.

For my first published novel, I accepted countless pieces of advice from editors and agents, tweaking each nuance of the story. I reached a point where I was changing sentences because I was tired of reading the same lines over and over. I’d clearly spent too long with the story. I finally threw my hands up and told my writing mentor that I was finished accepting the often inane feedback leveled on my novel. An amazing thing happened. It was a moment out of a grainy kung fu movie. “Son,” my mentor said. “You’re ready to go to the next level.”

When the work is as good as it can be, move on. Begin another story. Hope for enlightenment, but learn when to quit spinning your wheels. If Michelangelo sought perfection – and he was darn near perfect in his art – he’d have chipped away at the statue of David, until it was small enough to clip on a key chain.

Finally, be patient with your talent at its current level. If you aspire to improve, you will sacrifice and work every day. You will get better. You will tell the stories you want to tell. Great artists learn to work in a vacuum, producing ideal works of art that hold a mirror to humanity, society, and themselves. Be brave.

EXERCISES

Outline your revision process. What do your talents require? Are you concentrating on your weaknesses? Can the ordinary be elevated?

Resurrect your old writing and run it through the aforementioned revision process. If the work is old enough, certain flaws will immediately stand out. See if the process doesn’t improve the story structure and prose.

Transpose a favorite writer’s passage to paper. Observe the sentence structure, pacing, and word selection.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

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