A Philosophical Self-Portrait
In Thomas Mautner, The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy, London, 1997, pp. 521-522

The ultimate practical question is: 'How are we to live?' To give a general answer to such a broad question is, however, a daunting task, and most of my writing has focused on more specific practical questions.

I am probably best known for Animal Liberation, 1st edn 1975, 2nd edn 1990, a book that gave its title to a worldwide movement. The essential philosophical view it maintains is simple but revolutionary. Species is, in itself, as irrelevant to moral status as race or sex. Hence all beings with interests are entitled to equal consideration: that is, we should not give their interests any less consideration that we give to the similar interests of members of our own species. Taken seriously, this conclusion requires radical changes in almost every interaction we have with animals, including our diet, our economy, and our relations with the natural environment.

To say that this idea is revolutionary is not to say that it was especially novel. Similar ideas can be found, for instance, in Henry Salt's Animals' Rights, first published in 1892. My contribution was to restate this view clearly and rigorously, and to illustrate that alternative views are based on self-interest, either naked or disguised by religious or other myths.

My broader credo can be found in Practical Ethics, 1st edn 1979, 2nd edn 1993. Here the treatment of animals receives its proper place, as one among several major ethical issues. I approach each issue by seeking the solution that has the best consequences for all affected. By 'best consequences', I understand that which satisfies the most preferences, weighted un accordance with the strength of the preferences. Thus my ethical position is a form of preference-utilitarianism.

In Practical Ethics I apply this ethic to such issues as equality (both between humans, and between humans and non-human animals), abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, the obligations of the wealthy to those who are living in poverty, the refugee question, our interactions with non-human beings and ecological systems, and obedience to the law. A non-speciesist and consequentialist approach to these issues leads to striking conclusions. It offers a clear-cut account of why abortion is ethically justifiable, and an equally clear condemnation of our failure to share our wealth with people who are in desperate need.

Some of my conclusions have been found shocking, and not only in respect of animals. In Germany, my advocacy of active euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants has generated heated controversy. I first discussed this in Practical Ethics; later, as co-author, with Helga Kuhse, in Should the Baby Live?, 1985; and most recently in Rethinking Life and Death, 1995. Perhaps it is only to be expected, though, that there should be heated opposition to an ethic that challenges the hitherto generally accepted ethical superiority of human beings, and the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'A Philosophical Self-Portrait'