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Practical Ethics

January 11th, 2003
Peter Singer

Practical Ethics

Practical Ethics is the one book I know that can, without fail start a heated argument in any company. You just open to any page read a paragraph out loud. Instant debate.

Peter Singer makes a habit of bait-and-switching the reader. Starting with what (usually) sound like simple, easy to agree with axioms he builds up easy to follow example. Then proceeds to explain why, if you agree with the example, which most people do, you have agreed to something that most people would find unacceptable.

Using this process Singer explores the consequences of applying a Utilitarian ethical system to many of the toughest questions; abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, the environment. Even if you have a utilitarian ethic when you start reading Practical Ethics, you may find yourself, apparently, agreeing to statements you would reject normally.

The one issue with this book is that Singer moves quickly. Maybe to avoid overly verbose and academic discussions, trying to be more “layman”, but the book does sometimes jump to a conclusion that leaves you feeling that you need more to really swallow the pill.

I’m a naturally liberal and logical person and Practical Ethics is probably the single most influential book I have read. I think having, and understanding, a ethical system is a good thing. Too many people never think about their ethics and why they make the decisions they do. They just repeat decisions they don’t really understand.

I was a utilitarian before I read Practical Ethics, but it forced me to examine what that means in the extreme. Taking all the basic utilitarian axioms and pushing them to their logical limits.

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