Robert L. Frazier ( www.rlfrazier.org )

How Are We to Live?. By Peter Singer. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1995. Pp. x + 262. £17.95.


Singer believes that there are too many people motivated mainly by greed and narrow self interest. He wants each of us to live an ethical life. This is a life where, ``I must, if I am thinking ethically, imagine myself in the situation of all those affected by my action (with the preferences that they have)''. (p. 174) This, he thinks, will result in our being able to ``recognize the urgency of doing something about the pain and suffering of others, before we even consider promoting (for their own sake rather than as a means to reducing pain and suffering) other possible values like beauty, knowledge, autonomy or happiness''. (p. 232) In essence, the sort of life he recommends is one where we adopt a kind of negative (at least for now) utilitarianism.

The way that the question is posed in the title of the book is revealing: instead of asking how we should live, it asks how we are to live. This is because, according to Singer, there is not an objectively good way to live. (p. 232) At most he can recommend or promote some way of life. Why should we adopt the way that he recommends? To put the question in a very old fashioned way: why should we be ethical? One possible answer is to say that the mere recognition of a way of life as ethical provides adequate motivation or reason for adopting it. Another is to say that it is a requirement of consistency: principles that are already accepted, or, perhaps, rationality itself, require living this way of life. Singer places little reliance on these answers. Whether we adopt an ethical way of life is an ``ultimate choice'', where ``the fundamental values themselves come to the fore'' and ``we are choosing between different possible ways of living ...''. (p. 4)

Instead, and perhaps surprisingly, his main advertisement for an ethical way of life has to do with the value it has for the one who lives it. It is not so much that he thinks that self interest requires one to live an ethical life, but, rather, that such a life is not impossible, and, most importantly, is likely to be more fulfilling than its competitors. He takes the main competitor to an ethical life to be one where materialistic, narrow self interest is the dominant value. He acknowledges that there may be other possibilities, such as an aesthetic life, but says that he will not discuss them.

His arguments that living an ethical life is possible are persuasive. He argues that there is nothing in evolution (ch. 5) or rational decision making (ch. 7) that prevents our living an ethical life. Also persuasive is his argument that not living an ethical life can lead to harm to oneself and others (chs 2 & 3). In addition he discusses what he takes to be the reasons that Western, capitalist society has turned out to have self interest as the dominant value (ch. 4) and how it is possible for modern capitalist societies, e.g., Japanese society, to be based on values other than self interest (ch. 6). I, at least, am willing to accept all of this.

More problematic, however, is his view that the best strategy for having a fulfilling life is to live an ethical life. The argument for it is, roughly, as follows: There is a ``need for commitment to a cause larger than the self, if we are to find genuine self-esteem, and to be all we can be''. (p. 216) ``If we are to find meaning in our lives by working for a cause, that cause must be ...a `transcendent cause', that is a cause that extends beyond the boundaries of our self''. (p. 218) So, ``living an ethical life is certainly not the only way of making a commitment that can give substance and worth to your life; but for anyone choosing one kind of life rather than another; it is the commitment with the firmest foundations''. (p. 218)

There are two problems with this view. The first is that the choices he presents are too stark. The main contrast Singer offers is between an ethical life, which, as he characterises it, is a utilitarian life, and a life where narrow self interest is the dominant value. As he admits, these are not the only possibilities, but he merely mentions and does not in any detail discuss other interesting competitors to an ethical life. For one thing, there are non-utilitarian conceptions of an ethical life, such as a life in accordance with Aristotelian virtues. We have been given no reason to think that such a life would not satisfy the need, if there is one, for a ``transcendent cause'' in one's life and have just as firm foundations. In addition, there are other kinds of lives that are likely to involve such transcendent causes, for example, the life of a scholar, the life of a warrior, or a religious life.

The second problem is that his argument relies too heavily on examples. He presents a number of cases where persons not living ethical lives do not have fulfilling lives (chs 1 & 10) and a number of cases where persons living ethical lives (or, if not strictly ethical as Singer characterises it, ones where there is some commitment to helping others) find their lives fulfilling (chs 8, 10 & 11). Who would want to doubt that there are such cases? This is not enough to show that living an ethical life (on any conception of ``ethical'') is each person's best strategy for having a fulfilling life. Nor does it show that living a narrowly self interested life is never anyone's best strategy.

It is unclear how one should evaluate Singer's book. It seems to me to depend on the audience. As a philosopher, I would have liked a more detailed discussion of the reasons why it is an ``ethical life'' that is the only firm foundation for a fulfilling life, and indeed a much better characterisation of what it is to have a fulfilling life. However, it seems to me that philosophers are not his main intended audience, but that his book is aimed at a much wider audience. He seems much more interested in changing attitudes than in giving detailed philosophical defences of his position. This is not an objection: Mill's Utilitarianism has somewhat the same status. A simplification of relevant arguments in order to make them accessible to non-philosophers has an important and interesting place. Singer's book provides such a simplification. Although some might take this feature of his book to be objectionable, I do not. At the very least, his book gives us reason to think that a fulfilling life can involve a deep concern for the well being of others. And that lives can be like this is certainly worth knowing, and worth telling.

There is another very conspicuous virtue of Singer's book: it is very cleanly written. The theses Singer wants to defend are clear, and his reasons for adopting them are equally perspicuous. Unfortunately, the actual print of the book is exceeding sloppy. Such an interesting book deserves better production.


ROBERT L. FRAZIER
Christ Church
Oxford University
Oxford, Oxon., OX1 1DP
U.K.



Robert L. Frazier