December 24, 2016
In his influential memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” (2016), J. D. Vance explains why some middle-class Americans turned against Michelle Obama. The first lady, he writes, “tells us that we shouldn’t be feeding our children certain foods, and we hate her for it — not because we think she’s wrong, but because we know she’s right.”
It is possible to dislike the philosopher Peter Singer — born in Australia, he teaches at Princeton University — along similar lines. He is right about so many things, and appears to live so much more virtuously than most of us do, that listening him can make you want to tip a turtle on its back or consume all the endangered seafood that’s left because, as a blowhard I know put it, “If we don’t eat it now, there are a billion people right behind us who will.”
Mr. Singer is best known for his book “Animal Liberation” (1975), a founding text of the contemporary animal-rights movement. More recently he has been interested in effective altruism, which asks: How can we use what we have to help others the most?
He takes aim at sins of omission. In his book “The Life You Can Save” (2009) and elsewhere, he has argued that if relatively affluent Westerners do not regularly donate at least a sliver of our incomes to aid agencies, to prevent the unnecessary deaths of millions of people worldwide, we are in the moral wrong. We are complicit in something close to murder.
In his new book, “Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter,” Mr. Singer picks up the topics of animal rights and poverty amelioration and runs quite far with them. But he’s written better and more fully about these issues elsewhere; they are not the primary reason to come to this book.
“Ethics in the Real World” comprises short pieces, most of them previously published. This book is interesting because it offers a chance to witness this influential thinker grapple with more offbeat questions.
Among the essay titles here: “Should Adult Sibling Incest Be a Crime?”; “Is It O.K. to Cheat at Football?”; “Tiger Mothers or Elephant Mothers?”; “Rights for Robots?”; and “Kidneys for Sale?” This book is the equivalent of a moral news conference, or a particularly good Terry Gross interview.
Its informal quality is tonic. I’m reminded of a comment by the critic Wilfrid Sheed, who said he would trade half of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” for an interview with him, and “all of ‘Adam Bede’ for the same with George Eliot.”
The first thing that needs to be said about “Ethics in the Real World” is that the writing is mostly dishwater gray. Mr. Singer seems to regard wit as immoral adornment. He picks up his topics as if they were heavy rocks, hauls them a few feet, and drops them, sometimes on our toes. His abstemious style made me long for a despairing wisecrack.
What carries you is the quality of his thought. He is persuasive on so many topics that he makes you wish we could turn the world off, then on again, in an attempt to reset it.
He is an ardent critic of religion. About the notion, strong in my own childhood, that we were born with original sin because Eve flouted God’s decree against eating from the tree of knowledge, he writes: “This is a triply repellent idea, for it implies, firstly, that knowledge is a bad thing, secondly, that disobeying god’s will is the greatest sin of all, and thirdly, that children inherit the sins of their ancestors, and may be justly punished for them.”
He speaks loudly on behalf of tolerance. He believes we should allow for three categories on passports and other documents: “male, female, and indeterminate.” He further argues that the world would be a better place if humans were not so often asked to proclaim their sex on forms.
He leans in favor of permitting adult incest because for him, an essential question is always this one: “When someone proposes making something a criminal offense, we should always ask: who is harmed?”
In one of my favorite passages, he zeros in on those who pay many millions of dollars for paintings while people are starving. The art critic in him emerges.
Writing about the sale of paintings by artists like Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol for obscene sums at Christie’s, he declares: “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. They are not even unusual within the artist’s oeuvres. Do an image search for ‘Barnett Newman’ and you will see many paintings with vertical color bars, usually divided by a thin line. Once Newman had an idea, it seems, he liked to work out all the variations.”
His bottom line: “In a more ethical world, to spend tens of millions of dollars on works of art would be status-lowering, not status-enhancing.”
There is an essay about how to keep a New Year’s resolution. In another he denounces the trend, seen in some Manhattan restaurants and bars, toward decorating with Soviet-era kitsch, including images of Stalin. At least he writes, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no Nazi-themed restaurant in New York; nor is there a Gestapo or SS bar.”
Late in this book, Mr. Singer reports that one of his daughters once asked him, during a car ride, “Would you rather that we were clever or that we were happy?”
Mr. Singer finds moral behavior to be its own kind of cleverness, and certainly happy-making.