The Expanding Circle

I’ve been reading Singer for a while now. I started with One World, which I found underwhelming, but thought it indicated a mind that would interesting on other topics. I tried How are we to live, and found it disappointing.

The Expanding Circle was really my final attempt to like Singer. It’s a on a really important topic – ethics, evolution, and how they connect – but I found it deeply disappointing. So much of what has annoyed me his other books is present here too. I’ll walk through what bothered me in a little more detail below, but in short, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Singer starts by talking about evolution, and how it connects to ethics. From there, he moves into a discussion of what that means, both historically (in a limited discussion), and the ethical implications.

Part of what bothers me is how sloppy his writing feels. On evolution, it’s apparent that he’s not a biologist. This isn’t a detailed, descriptive study of how ethics operate in an evolutionary context; it’s someone taking ‘just-so’ evolutionary stories and riffing off them. Sometimes that can be useful, but it isn’t a rigorous inductive piece of work. Which means we’re then left relying on Singer’s ability to step through clearly and logically a set of philosophical conclusions; and I found that part deeply unsatisfying. Perhaps he does it more clearly in his academic writings, but in his popular publications I’ve found the thinking loose and uneven, to the point where it makes for quite frustrating reading at points.

A central part of his argument is that as groupings of agents, we develop a moral code that applies universally within our groups or societies. I think this is a questionable claim – I think what actually happens is more complex than that. But from there, Singer argues that our capacity for reason (again – given how crucial this is in his argument, I would have preferred a much clearer definition and proof of this) means we need ethical systems that apply consistently across agents (again, I think this isn’t clearly established).

But even given this assumption, there’s a question about why this moral code that’s socially applied should apply individually. I think to say that simply because a society accepts a moral code, we should internalise it, is very wrong. But from my reading of his piece, this is a crucial part of his argument; that we gain our moral systems from the one that emerges in society.

And particularly, I think a key part of his argument is that this moral code has an impartial point of view; I think this is a little bit ‘just-so‘ for my taste. However, the one that really bothers me is the idea that this impartial point of view gives equal weight to all agents involved.

To be clear, it’s not that the conclusion bothers me. I think it’s absolutely correct, and an important conclusion. I just don’t think that Singer does anywhere near the work that’s required, and I don’t think his logical arguments enable him to draw that conclusion rigorously. And I think because it’s such an important – such a central point, with so much of what follows hanging off it – that it annoys me he isn’t rigorous in establishing it.

It seems that I’m not the only one who’s found Singer’s logic a little weak. A review of Singer under fire notes that some critics have found this argument a little weak:

Marcus Düwell claims that Singer moves illegitimately from the observation that moral language incorporates a concern for impartial justification to the substantive conclusion that morality requires impartial concern (p. 404-407). Singer responds by arguing that he does not make this transition without argument. He sees the perspective of impartial concern as the “first base” of ethical thinking, a simple universalization of self-interested decision making. Unless arguments can be given that other considerations are relevant from an impartial point of view, we should assume that impartial justification involves impartial consideration of interests (p. 421-422).

It’s not that I disagree with the conclusion; I think a rigorous form of ethics relies on seeing people (agents) equally. But I think because that point is so central, it has to be rigorously justified, and I think Singer’s piece is sloppy and unsatisfying.

So. That’s probably the last Singer I’ll read for a while. It was disappointing, and I think if you’re interested in ethics and philosophy, I’d recommend starting somewhere else. Gewirth is one I’ve found useful, and I’m planning to read a little more down the road.

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