Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2016

Ethics in the Real World (2016), by Peter Singer

ethics-in-the-real-worldAustralian Peter Singer is one of my favourite philosophers because he writes about everyday issues that thoughtful citizens need to think about clearly.  I’ve reviewed a couple of his books about philanthropy (The Most Good You Can Do, and The Life You Can Save) but this latest title Ethics in the Real World  is different because it ranges widely over a variety of topics and as the sub-title says, it’s 86 Brief Essays on Things That Matter.  The 82 essays are short pieces of less than 1000 words written for newspapers or from Singer’s monthly column for Project Syndicate, a news service for media outlets in countries around the world.  As such, the essays resemble opinion pieces, and I didn’t find them as satisfying as his other books which offer a sustained and reasoned argument supporting his points of view.  It’s a book best dipped into on and off IMO.

The topics are arranged under headings which are self-explanatory:

  • Big Questions
  • Animals
  • Beyond the Ethics of the Sanctity of Life
  • Bioethics and Public Health
  • Sex and Gender
  • Doing Good
  • Happiness
  • Politics
  • Global Governance
  • Science and Technology, and
  • Living Playing Working

Singer is best known for his controversial views on animal liberation, on medical treatment for very premature babies and on euthanasia, but these pieces show that he can also present confronting arguments about other issues.  In ‘The Ethical Cost of High-Price Art’, for example, he tackles the art market, suggesting that donors who finance the purchase of expensive artworks would do better to donate to saving lives in the developing world.  On thinner ice, he distinguishes also between the intrinsic value of certain types of art. Discussing a Christie’s auction which sold $745 million worth of postwar and contemporary art he lists works by Barnett Newman, Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, each of which sold for more than $60 million.  Some of these, he acknowledges were bought as investments, but…

…if profit is not the motive, why would anyone want to pay tens of millions of dollars for works like these?  They are not beautiful, nor do they display great artistic skill.  (p.186)

The article goes on to make it very clear that Singer has a low opinion of modern art, indeed he is downright scornful about Jeff Koon’s art as a critique of luxury and excess:

Art as opposition to the widening gap between the rich and the poor!  How noble and courageous that sounds.  But the art market’s greatest strength is its ability to co-opt any radical demands that a work of art makes, and turn it into another consumer good for the super-rich. (p.188)

duccio-madonnaWhat’s frustrating about these short pieces is that there’s no room for him to clarify inconsistencies.  In the same piece, he tells us that donors financed the purchase of Duccio’s ‘Madonna and Child’ by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  He acknowledges that in The Life You Can Save he said that the donors could have spent the $45 million in a better way.  He says that he hasn’t changed his opinion, but …

… the Met’s Madonna is beautifully executed and 700 years old.  Duccio is a major figure who worked during a key transitional moment in the history of Western art, and few of his paintings have survived.  None of that applies to Newman or Warhol.  (p.188)

Now, I too would rather look at the Duccio than anything by the artists Singer dismisses, but still, in this context, the scorn for modern art looks more like populism than the reasoned thoughts of a major 21st century philosopher.

On the other hand, ‘The High Cost of Feeling Low’ is a cogent and compelling argument for treating depression and for developing public policy to prevent it.  The value of a short, snappy article like this (in whatever newspaper syndicated it) is that it provides an economic argument as well as a moral argument for spending more on treating depression.  CEOs of insurance companies that deny benefits for depression and bean-counting politicians are much more likely to read a brief piece that talks the language of cost-benefit analysis to them.  So brevity has its value.

With the US election looming (and many of us taking more notice of it than we usually do) I was interested in ‘Why vote?’ Singer compares the Australian compulsory voting system with its 95% turnout with the American 60% and makes some interesting points.  He gives the example of a recent election in Poland where so many people didn’t bother to vote that their prime minister was elected with only 6 million votes out of a potential 30 million.  That this was not what the people intended was shown when they were bundled out of office only two years later.  The trouble is that

… since our own vote makes such a tiny contribution to the outcome, each of us still faces the temptation to get a free ride, not bothering to vote while hoping that enough other people will vote to keep democracy robust and to elect a government that is responsive to the views of a majority of citizens.  (p.229)

To counter that, Singer offers possible reasons for voting:

  • it’s enjoyable, and you may not have anything better to do with the time spent doing it [he doesn’t mention sausage sizzles and cake stalls, always powerful incentives to get down to the local primary school!]
  • you might feel that it’s your civic duty
  • you can’t complain if you don’t like the government that gets elected
  • you might think that the chances of your vote influencing the outcome is miniscule, but the outcome is so important, it’s worth spending the time
  • even if you don’t think your vote counts, it’s like cheering on your football team!

Here in Australia where the social norm of voting is well-established, we look on at the US system with bafflement.  With such high levels of anxiety about Trump holding the keys to the nuclear arsenal, I’m sure I won’t be the only one to be very cross if he wins because of voter inertia…

I’d recommend Ethics in the Real World for reading at relaxed weekend breakfasts … theses pieces are beaut conversation starters about topics of interest to everyone.

Author: Peter Singer
Title: Ethics in the Real World, 86 Brief Essays on Things That Matter
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355857
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Ethics in the Real World: 86 Brief Essays on Things That Matter


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. Peter Singer is a consequentialist, an ethical position I used to support before I actually studied ethics at Monash. I now think that this position is flawed – what’s best for the majority can lead to injustices for minorities.


    • Hi Tim:)
      He says in the intro that he is a utilitarian, but that in this book he doesn’t presuppose utilitarianism. “That is because on many of the issues I discuss, my conclusions follow from many non-utilitarian positions as well as from utilitarianism. Given the practical importance of these issues, as a good utilitarian I ought to aim to write for the broadest possibly audience, and not merely for a narrow band of committed utilitarians.”


  3. Of course utilitarianism is a type of consequentialism.


  4. I’m probably too opinionated to read Singer. I think he’s wrong about Warhol – either it’s ethical to spend $60 mil on art or it’s not, he can’t say it’s only ethical for artists that he likes.


    • Well yes, that’s what I meant about the argument looking shallow because the pieces are too short. This one suffers because the point about what donors should so with their money too easily gets deflected into Singer’s taste in art
      I like the concept behind Warhol’s work, but when I went to an exhibition of his work in Singapore, I realised that there was no need to. I’d seen the images before ad nauseam, and since there was no technique to get interested in, it was a bit humdrum. From a philosophical PoV, I would have been better to spend the entry fee on something more worthwhile.
      I think Singer has a valid point about the art market per se, but so what? Everyone except the participants in it has an opinion about the art market. It’s like remuneration for CEOs: everyone else thinks it’s insane, corrupt, selfish and morally wrong, but the ones inside the bubble can’t see it.


      • Yes, I have a Warhol calendar on my kitchen wall. Good point about CEOs.


  5. I think I read How Are We To LIve? years ago and found his style very readable.

    I can never see the argument for compulsory elections. If, say, 10% of the electorate chose to vote then I think I would rather have the election decided on the 10% who wanted to vote rather than including the decisions (or random choices) of the 90% who didn’t want to vote.


    • Ooh, that would be risky in some places. The far right occupies between 10% and 20% of the vote in many places in Europe and elsewhere (including Australia). If the middle ground abandons voting out of inertia or disgust, that lends itself to a scary result.


      • Well, I wasn’t suggesting that people should abandon voting. It seems just as dangerous to force an uninterested or hostile electorate to vote as they may choose the most extreme or outlandish candidate as a protest to being forced to do something against their will.


        • I suppose some might though *chuckle* it seems a bit like shooting oneself in the foot to me.
          But here, because voting is just a normal thing you do every now and again, that doesn’t happen. I used to be an electoral official at one stage (part time staff hired just for the election) and people who complained were very rare, and the informal vote was/is consistently low too.
          I guess we’ll never know if the Brexit vote would have been different if the UK had compulsory voting…

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Singer is definitely an interesting fellow whether you agree with him or not. The book sounds like a fun one to have on hand for the odd moment here and there. Will definitely look for it at the library sometime.


    • I have certainly had some interesting conversations in the wake of reading this book…

      Liked by 1 person

Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: