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.

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Seven Skeletons: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils

by Lydia Pyne
Viking

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“The stories of these seven fossils speak, in no small way, to the fragility of fame and the contingency of celebrity.”

What does it take to be a rock star in the world of fossils? Must the find be significant, lucky, or have the support of the scientific community? Reaching back four million years, historian and anthropologist Lydia Pyne plots man’s time on Earth through seven famous skeletons that take on a life of their own and reveal more truth about humanity than what is contained within their bones.

Beginning in 1908 with The Old Man of La Chapelle, a seminal million-year-old Neanderthal discovery is unearthed near a small French village. Pyne walks us through the scene of the crime, so to speak, which includes a remarkable find that like others was lucky to be located at all. This was the cusp of the great expansion of the sciences. Disciplines were forming, and dreams of splitting the atom took shape. While human fossils had been discovered prior, the Old Man or homo neanderthalensis and the ensuing research therein helped to frame the science for the next century.

We then visit the Piltdown Man. In 1915, amateur anthropologist Charles Dawson “discovered” and, then later with the help of more prominent experts, presented the so-called “missing link.” Was it the illusive and highly coveted bridge between man and ape? For four decades, experts debated its authenticity while simultaneously adoring it. This may have been in part a case of people wanting it to be true. Veiled in secrecy, it was eventually exposed as a clever assembly of man and ape fragments, fooling even the great Charles Darwin. One can only imagine the parlor wages lost, as well as the reputations of avid supporters. Still, as the author documents, the Piltdown Man’s ascent to notoriety remains, albeit one of a grand hoax. Pyne shows that stumbles in science are often a combination of hubris, passion, and a present lack of analytical tools and skills. Every discovery must be built from the ground up, or it cannot be placed in the pantheon.

At the end of this chain of seven renown dead ancestors, Pyne discusses Karab, and it is the climatic story line. Discovered by a nine-year-old in South Africa while exploring his father’s dig site, it rose as the most significant find of our young century. This two-million-year-old partial skeleton is still under research. Australopithecus sediba is believed to fill in an evolutionary step of modern man and helps to fuel the greater debate until the next rock star find.

Trough Payne’s insightful narrative, the scientists of this realm and their personalities, as well as their friends and enemies, play a major role in many of the fossils’ fate. Most of the bones were unearthed in the pre-Internet days—a time of missives and well-honed connections to the anthropological community and the wealth that supported it. Some key skeletons were lost, remaining only in records. Yet as the letters, drawings, and publications cross the seas and academic halls, the author shows us that a skeleton’s discovery can be just as important as the debate it inspires and the resulting redirection of scientific thinking.

Some believe the overriding journey of science has been to explain God—to either explain Him away or to discover His truth. Regardless of your personal bent, the understanding of man’s emergence through time is at the very least vital to our understanding of the future. Our ancestors or the man-like cousins, whichever you prefer, went extinct by either circumstance or fundamental flaws, but they paved a path toward our existence today. One aspect is clear: Humans will either adapt or suffer a similar fate.

The book is at times a heavy read for the layman, but Pyne makes the effort to engage and enlighten by humanizing the subject matter. While this is not a new movement in nonfiction narrative, it is an increasingly prevalent mode for the scientific discussion of complex issues, and it appears to be an increasingly present tool of scientific women who execute it with aplomb, saliency, and passion. Place Pyne in that category. As our understanding races even further ahead of the common man’s grasp, Pyne keeps us in touch with both the people and facts of discovery within a lasting read.

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The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

by Bandi
Grove Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”

Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.

The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.

“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.

Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.

Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

The Book

by Julius Freedman
Old Stone Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Books, I tell my students, are objects with stories both over and secret.”

It’s been a decade since an art book has taken the grand prize for the Eric Hoffer Book Award, but this beauty kept rising to the top of our judges’ scoring cards. Have you ever seen a book after it becomes wet and dries? It screams, with a puffed chest of curling pages like the arms of a roiling sea monster. Julius Freedman shows us this and more, as he takes on the book as both physical and symbolic object. In a sequence of building images, The Book begins with a book as art in its purest form—its complex leather bindings, the embedded tabs of a dictionary, the pages of sophisticated rag or weave. Then books begin to take flight, with pages misshapen, eventually cracking and splitting from their spines, the print itself escaping, until we enter the realm of collage, yet always tethered to the concept of a book itself.

Is a book a mere extension of our memories, or does it go deeper than its byproduct overlap with our brains? If Gabriel Garcia Marquez created a book to fit his prose, it might result in one of Freedman’s constructions. The organization, as well as thoughtful commentary by Pico Iyer and Jill Gage, strike the right balance with the art presentation. Unique, whimsy, thought-provoking, this beautiful coffee table edition is worthy of any collection. but it is so much more. It envelopes the very concept of the book itself. Bravo.

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Selected Poems: 1968-2014

by Paul Muldoon
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“A corduroy road on the quag kept me on the straight and narrow.”

In a collection that spans a lifetime, Paul Muldoon’s selected works reveals the evolution of a poet who achieved multiple honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. While many poets lock themselves into a particular style or gradual, organic ascent, Muldoon is known for major shifts in approach between collections, spanning a deft if not eclectic combinations of technique and form. While thoroughly a modern poet, his work anchors in the past, covering family origin, landscape, language, and bygone eras of society and the mind. In the reading, it is clearly Muldoon throughout the years in his charm and understated wit that flies so low on the radar it could be missed, more likely absorbed in reflection.

This book is organized by metered selections from his published collections and presented in chronological order. This is key to understanding the poet. Never before could his readers so clearly mark the years of his life in presentation and content. From “Cuba”…

With the world at war, if not at an end.’
My father was pounding the breakfast-table.

to “The Sonogram”…

Only a few weeks ago the sonogram of Jean’s womb
resembled nothing so much
as a satellite map of Ireland.

through the Pulitzer-prizewinning “Redknots”…

The day our son is due is the very day
the redknots are meant to touch down
on their long haul
from Chile to the Arctic Circle

and touching down for awhile in “A Hare at Aldergrove”…

A hare standing up at least on his own two feet
in the blasted grass by the runway may trace his lineage to the great
assembly of hares that, in the face of what might well have looked like defeat,
would, in 1963 or so, migrate
here from the abandoned airfield at Nutt’s Corner, not long after Marilyn Monroe
overflowed from her body stocking
in Something’s Got to Give…

and again as a way of final example in “Cuba (2)”…

The Riviera’s pool is shaped like a coffin.
So much has been submerged since the Bay of Pigs.
Maybe that’s why the buildings are wrinkled?
Maybe that’s why the cars have fins?

…his prose changes from inward reflection to an outward understanding of the world, and its structure expands to semi-epic proportion.

At times, the poet is accused of archaic or confounding world selection. Sure enough his lines deliver necessary pause. In the noise of today’s megalomaniacal output of information and predominantly tripe, we struggle to hear the authentic voices of our philosophers and poets. Muldoon asks us to slow down and hear the story. He is a generational poet of importance, at times reflecting the nonsensical thinking of our times, but he delivers significance with inspiring insight that comes upon you slowly in the way that you remember what is being said.

Kudos goes to the editor, who might be the poet himself, operating as a sort of curator for this retrospective. But let’s not bury Muldoon just yet. I’m sure he’s busy game-changing his prose in a new collection for the senses and thought.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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How We’ll Live on Mars

by Stephen L. Petranek
Simon & Schuster

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“There are some wildcards in terraforming Mars, including the possibility of reawakening ancient life-forms.”

President Nixon’s legacy, and resulting long shadow over history, rests with two monumental blunders unknown to most people. He took the US dollar off the gold standard, resulting in a global currency destabilization that may soon come home to roost. In addition, he canceled the Saturn V rocket—the largest rocket ever assembled by mankind, the rocket that would have launched astronauts to Mars. Without either of those decisions, the US space program might have already colonized the red planet and would have the money to accomplish it.

After a fifty-year malaise, NASA lacks both the funding and the technological will to get the job done. Although it appears to be catching up for lost time, it has purposefully suffered from a presidential lack of vision leading from Nixon to Obama. In short, the US is decades behind where it should be. Make no mistake about it; going as far back as the Mercury Program days and beyond, Mars has always been the goal. Its similarity to Earth and its close proximity to the mineral-rich asteroid belt make it the ultimate target within our solar system.

Petranek covers the basics of a potential trip to and the colonization of Mars in what appears to be a reprint of a TED lecture rather than any in-depth discussion on the topic. Still, he covers the necessary points regarding why, how, and then what happens next. Achieving Mars will be complicated. If cutting-edge engine technology doesn’t pan out, the trip will be a minimum of six to ten months, all the while exposing humans to an unprecedented level of radiation that doesn’t cease once they reach the planet. On the surface, humans must immediately tend to the basics of food, water, oxygen, and shelter. Temperatures range from 80 degrees to -225 degrees Fahrenheit, and the atmosphere is toxic. Luckily but not easily, Mars has water frozen at the poles, in regolith rock, and perhaps below the surface, and if you can reclaim water, you can make all the oxygen you require.

The author sticks with the theory that travelers to Mars will never return to Earth. This opposes a more ambitious plan for a Mars cycler commuting between planets while carrying passengers and cargo. Regardless of the approach, early arrivals to Mars will need to bring everything they need to survive, but to establish a colony, they’ll need to generate all vital staples on-site, including growing plants to eat and creating parts for repair and construction. Eventually they’ll go about the process of terraforming the surface to sustain life. A few theories regarding this latter transformation are kicked around in this book as well.

At times, the author pays too much homage to private enterprise players such as Elon Musk, but given NASA’s slowed pace and funding, it’s logical that humans aren’t going to reach Mars without the commercial interests of partners. Virtually no great human migration has been accomplished on idealism alone. For example, Christopher Columbus, like the Vikings before him, traveled to the New World in search of treasure for his homeland. Later on, the Pilgrims arrived via private funding with the hope of establishing a regular income stream for their investors.

Mars is the New World, and like the explorers that preceded them on Earth, travelers to Mars will go to change their lives, discover new frontiers for the species, and harvest the planet’s riches. Before long, our descendants will not return to Earth, but become Martians for future generations. This book provides an overview of how that might happen.

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Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt

by Kristin Hersh
University of Texas Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Hope’ has always stuck in my head. You hated hope, said it was misguided.”

If your introduction to Vic Chesnutt was the benefit album Sweet Relief II, you quickly moved past the great celebrity performances and asked: Who is this songwriter and why haven’t I heard of him before? If you still haven’t heard of Chesnutt—or the author of this book for that matter—you’d better go record shopping this afternoon before someone spots your musical blind spot. Regardless, in this haunting, poetic, musical road show memoir, singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh takes us inside her friendship with Chesnutt. Her experience is as insightful to a musician’s life as it is to the human existence—constantly probing and reevaluating self-understanding along with her footing on the planet.

Chesnutt, paralyzed since eighteen years of age, is a songwriter’s songwriter, whose catalogue has been rerecorded and admired for decades. He passed away on Christmas 2009 after an apparent self-induced overdose. He would likely find the sentimentality of that date to be nauseating. There was very little he wouldn’t poke fun of, including himself. He came across as somewhat twisted by life’s cruel blows and ironies, but he was beautiful as well, like a modern sculpture that acknowledges the past but rearranges it in a compelling way. As Hersh says, “he was broken in all the right places.” Listening to his songs, you had the feeling that you were always hearing the real Vic Chesnutt.

Much of this book covers a shared tour when Chesnutt was a decade or more into a brilliant career launch and Hersh was composing one of her best solo albums. You’ll understand Hersh’s must-have Sunny Border Blue better after reading this book. The line between Chesnutt’s everyday discourse and songs will be blurred. From town to town and stop to stop, as their vigilant spouses watch and occasionally mop up after them, Chesnutt and Hersh bounce off each other intellectually and emotionally, achieving spare equilibrium in one of the truly unique musical relationships.

The ending is the curtain fall you expected, although the author fights hard to meter her words while the songwriter fights just as hard to mute her sound regarding the event. Grief doesn’t get processed in a minute, a day, a year. Grief puts a new song in your head, one you never wanted to hear. Hersh sketches the loss, that song.

While a smidge more orientation would have been appreciated in general, this narrative isn’t about place and time. The writing is a lot like Hersh’s songs—focusing on moments, reflections, and the stray-dog objects that compose life. There are lines you’ll never forget, and you can’t help but love the adorable, self-sabotaging, curmudgeon Chesnutt revealed in these pages. You’ll wish you’d been there to absorb his flak backstage or in the southern sun. On balance, this book stands as a testament to the sincerity of his songwriting.