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Book Review - Refuting Peter Singer's Ethical Theory
Refuting Peter Singer's Ethical Theory
by Susan Lufkin Kranz
Praeger, 2001
Review by Rob Loftis, Ph.D.
Jul 15th 2002

Peter Singer’s ideas aren’t just a threat to society; they endanger the very existence of ethics and ethical behavior. At least this is how Susan Lufkin Kranz sees it. Singer’s thinking “is clearly an affront to our common humanity” (xiv). “Singer is not just aiming to overthrow traditional ethics; he is undermining ethics itself” (13). Adopting Singer’s ethical viewpoint would “spell the death of ethics and of every human value” (15). Singer is threatening specifically because of his theory of moral status. A theory of moral status outlines which entities we have duties towards and which entities we don’t. Singer thinks that no special status comes from being a member of the human species. What makes an entity important is sentience, the capacity to feel pleasure and pain and form preferences. This means that many nonhuman animals, such as chimpanzees, dogs, and cats, are morally significant. Some humans, on the other hand, such as fetuses and humans in a persistent vegetative state, are not. Most controversially, this means that infants with anencephaly, a developmental disorder where the child is born with just a brain stem and no mid-brain or higher brain, have absolutely no intrinsic moral status. If the parents consented, they can be used as a source of organs for transplant, even though they are not dead. Hence the shocking aspect of Singer’s beliefs: it is wrong to eat a cow, but it is sometimes ok to kill a baby. For Kranz, the claim that being a member of the human species does not bring moral status is beyond the pale of legitimate ethical systems: “Either humanity will retain its central position in the ethical universe, or else human ethics will come to an end and the values of the marketplace or some other horror will fill the vacuum” (15).

Kranz is hardly alone in finding Singer so alarming. He has been shouted down by protesters at his talks and sometimes physically prevented from speaking. Singer has also been the subject of much more level-headed critique from the academic community. Kranz contributes to the latter by attempting to show how Singer’s more abstract ideas—for example, his conception of the nature of philosophical ethics, his metaphysics of morals and his justification for preference utilitarianism, etc.—have deep flaws that lead to his bizarre conclusion about the value of being human. Many of her criticisms of Singer’s more theoretical principles are well taken. However, when it comes to her primary goal, refuting Singer’s thesis that being biologically human is of no moral import, she is reduced to foot stamping. She also sometimes slips into the same kind of annoying mistakes that have marred public criticism of Singer, including confusing valuing species membership as such with valuing properties held by most members of that species. While this book would make an accessible introduction for anyone interested in why Singer causes such alarm, I am not sure it really moves the debate forward.

One of Kranz’s effective theoretical criticisms is her critique of Singer’s use of human evolution and human history. Part of Singer’s project is to undermine our traditional ethical instincts, and one tactic he has used to do this is to show how our ethical instincts are accidental products of natural selection and the vicissitudes of human history. Our tendency to favor our own kin, for instance, is a clear product of natural selection. This is not a new argumentative strategy. It has long been known that explaining the history of an idea or social structure can remove the illusion of inevitability that idea or structure might have, paving the way to undermining belief in it. Kranz rightly points out, though, that facts about an idea’s history do not logically undermine its legitimacy. Singer’s mistake here is the inverse of the fallacy of the old social Darwinists, who assumed that because competition is natural it must be good. Charitably, we might say that Singer’s intent here is more rhetorical than argumentative. Singer has never been above backing his arguments with emotional appeals—think of the pictures of factory farms in Animal Liberation. His use of human evolution and history to undermine conventional ethics might be more of a piece with this kind of move. It is also worth noting that his most recent treatment of human evolution, A Darwinian Left, does not repeat the arguments Kranz criticizes.

Kranz is also on solid ground in Chapter 3 when she criticizes part of the backbone of Singer’s utilitarian ethical theory: the idea that there can be no basis for ethics other than the subjective preference of sentient organisms. Singer, on Kranz’s reconstruction, believes the world consists of matters of fact and individual preferences. The only way ethics can achieve anything like objectivity is by taking into account the preferences of as many organisms as possible. Kranz points out, however, that preferences are not formed arbitrarily, but can be rationally criticized. Therefore, she claims, preferences can be right or wrong, and there must be more to ethics than the satisfaction of them. Kranz is surely right to claim that subjective preferences can be rationally criticized. Kranz’s account of how we criticize preferences, however, is quite unsatisfactory. Kranz believes in a kind of Husserlian eidetic intuition, where we simply “know” that certain preferences are wrong. There is a tradition of calling this sort of immediate grasping rational, but I never understood it. No reason is being given for one’s views, only dogmatic assertion.

Kranz’s argument begins to fall apart when it focuses on her core target: Singer’s claim that simply being human has no moral worth. Let’s be clear about what he is saying. Singer is not denying the moral worth of people on the basis of their race, creed, or gender. He is denying the moral worth of infants born without a brain and humans in an irreversible coma. Such creatures are alive and human, but they will never achieve consciousness. For Singer, they have the moral worth of a cabbage, which will also never achieve consciousness. Kranz, it turns out, doesn’t have much to say when it comes to criticizing the claim that species membership makes no moral difference. She summarizes her argument like this: “Moral deliberations ought never to disregard the human, however, because the human good is exactly what moral deliberation is primarily about” (105). In other words, removing humans from the center of the ethical system will lead to the end of human ethics. It is ambiguous, however, whether she thinks that removing humans from the center of the ethical system will mean that the system will cease to be human, or that it will cease to be ethical. The former charge is hollow. Singer would no doubt happily admit that his ethic is no longer human. The accusation is like calling Osama bin Laden un-American. Kranz’s second possible charge, that a system of rules without humans at the center would no longer be ethical, is question begging. In order to declare that a system of rules without humans at the center is not ethical, you have to assume the truth of the principle of human dignity. Moreover, this move has intuitive counterexamples. Numerous normative systems around the world do not put special value on being human, but at least on the surface seem quite noble. According to some Buddhist and Hindu systems, humans can be reincarnated as animals and vice versa. Life is valued, not the particular species it is incarnated in. The Hindu notion of ahimsa, or nonviolence, demands that all life be protected but does not put a premium on human life. If this isn’t an ethical system, I don’t know what is.

Another argument that Kranz makes repeatedly is that Singer’s ethic is psychologically unsound. Drawing on the work of neurologist Antonio Demasio, Kranz argues that any ethic that requires us to put aside natural human sympathies, such as our preference for kin and conspecifics, would unhinge us psychologically. This point is no doubt true, but its impact is muted by the fact that Singer accepts Hare’s distinction between the intuitive and the critical level of ethics. The critical level is the realm of abstract reflection where ethical truths can be found. The intuitive level is the level of day-to-day thinking where actual ethical decisions are made. While it may be that on the critical level, all sentient beings are equal, it would be good on the intuitive level to cultivate caring relationships, which prejudice us to particular individuals. The need for this intuitive bias can actually be proved on an unbiased critical level. In a 1995 essay with Kuhse and Cannold entitled “William Godwin and the Defense of Impartialist Ethics,” Singer endorses this idea and traces it back to Godwin. It is important to note, though, that this argument does more to justify a prejudice in favor of one’s family and friends than a prejudice for one’s species. After all, the kind of caring bond that is described is a bond to people one has a history with, not to a species as such.

Kranz also falls into the classic mistake made by too many opponents of the animal liberation movement: she equivocates between valuing species membership as such and valuing properties like intelligence, which are possessed by some but not all members of a species. When she defines the value of humanity, she makes it clear that she is talking about humanity as such: “For the value and the uniqueness of human beings are grounded in their very being and not reducible to any quantitative facts about them (1.6% of DNA) nor to any qualitative features such that their loss would involve the loss of human value (for instance, artistic ability, or facility with language, or even ‘normal’ intelligence)” (17). But when she turns around and criticizes the rights of apes and chimpanzees, suddenly higher mental properties are important again: “How many articles have the great apes written about us? How many chimpanzees are trying to teach their languages to human beings? How many gorillas care about the human beings starving in sub-Saharan Africa? How many orangutans are concerned about human beings on death row in Texas?” (15). She does nearly the exact same thing on pages 52–52, first defending the value of an embryo in a Petrie dish on the grounds that it is human, and then criticizing the value of apes on the grounds that they cannot reason as humans do. In other words, Kranz ignores what Narveson has labeled the “argument from marginal cases.” Basically, this argument says that for every animal whose moral status one wishes to deny, one can find a human with roughly the same cognitive ability. But cognitive ability can’t both be relevant to the moral evaluation of animals and not relevant to the moral evaluation of “marginal” humans. Therefore those who invoke the importance of cognitive ability must either respect both the animal and the marginal human, or neither the animal nor the marginal human. Kranz discusses the argument from marginal cases (although not under that name) when she recapitulates the argument of Animal Liberation in Chapter 4. However, she seems to forget it in other places in her argument, consistently using cognitive measures to deny moral status to animals, while saying cognitive measures are not relevant to the moral status of humans.

Despite my criticisms, I recommend this book to anyone interested in practical ethics. People who perhaps have read about Singer in the popular media and want to learn more should read it. (You should also, of course, read Singer himself, starting probably with Animal Liberation.) If a cheap paperback edition of Kranz’s book were available, I would use it in an ethics class that covers animal ethics or medical ethics. For the more knowledgeable reader interested in criticisms of Singer, however, I would still recommend Singer and His Critics edited by Dale Jamieson.



© 2002 Rob Loftis


Rob Loftis received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Northwestern University in 1999 and currently teaches at Auburn University. He is currently working on the evaluation of pain in nonlinguistic organisms.