In The Point of View of the Universe, Peter Singer and Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek defend a non-naturalistic form of moral realism. Moral facts, the authors argue, boil down to facts about what kinds of things we have reason to do. When we say that someone ought to do X, what we mean is that they have an overriding reason to do X. In other words, it would be irrational of them not to X. These reasons exist independently of our desires and emotions, and we can arrive at them by starting with some basic moral truths that human beings apprehend through rational intuition.
The subtitle of this book is called Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, and Singer and Lazari-Radek build on the system Henry Sidgwick laid out in his 1874 work, The Methods of Ethics. Sidgwick argued in favor non-naturalistic moral realism, moral intuitionism and hedonistic act-utilitarianism. Now, Sidgwick isn’t as well known as the other classical utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but the authors of The Point of View of the Universe argue that as a philosopher, he was the best of the three. I will admit that I tried reading The Methods of Ethics once, but found it too dry and difficult a read and so had to put it down. Singer and Lazari-Radek, however, write in a clear, engaging and highly accessible style, as they polish and strengthen Sidgwick’s arguments and respond to his many critics. I haven’t gotten through the whole book yet, but I’m really enjoying it. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the book’s title refers to a phrase from The Methods of Ethics, where Sidgwick talks about
…the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other…
Singer and Lazari-Radek, like Sidgwick, call this a moral “axiom” that we intuitively grasp to be true.
I’m learning a lot as I read this book, and have had several of my views about meta and normative ethics challenged. To clarify all of this in my mind, I’ve decided to blog through the book. I’m planning to focus on the chapters that I found the most thought provoking, outline the major arguments in each chapter in a couple of posts, and then maybe raise some concerns and doubts I have at the end. These are the chapters I’ve tentatively planned to focus on:
Chapter Two: Reason and Action
This chapter is an exhaustive treatment of the nature of rationality, reasons for action and the different varieties of moral motivation. It lays the groundwork for the rest of the book. What’s central to this chapter is the controversial claim that a person can have normative reasons for action that exist independently of the subject’s desires. This is a frontal assault on the widely accepted and highly intuitive Humean theory of practical rationality. Hume thought that reason by itself could not yield action, and was merely instrumental. He argued that reason is subservient to an agent’s desires, interests and emotions and therefore wasn’t an adequate foundation for morality. By rejecting this instrumentalist view, Singer and Lazari-Radek maintain that reason does indeed play a more foundational role when it comes to morality than Hume thought.
Chapter Five: Justification in Ethics
Here, the authors outline and defend moral intuitionism and Singer’s axioms of ethics. These are the Axiom of Prudence, the Axiom of Justice and the Axiom of Rational Benevolence.
Chapter Seven: The Origins of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason
In this chapter, Singer and Lazari-Radek respond to common skeptical challenges to moral realism. The notorious evolutionary debunking arguments that one hears about everywhere these days are discussed in great detail. They also aim to resolve to the supposed conflict between morality and self-interest, and argue that we have reason to believe that benevolence is more rational than egoism. This chapter is probably my favorite, although I’m not sure I agree with everything in it.
Chapter Nine: Ultimate Good, Part II – Hedonism
Chapter Nine is an outline and defense of hedonistic utilitarianism. The authors discuss concepts such as pleasure and happiness, and internalist and externalist theories of the Good. Familiar challenges to hedonism such as Nozick’s thought experiment about an “experience machine” are dealt with. There is also some more discussion of evolutionary debunking arguments and how they relate to hedonism.
If I have the time, I might also spend a few blog posts on the final chapter, Distribution. The focus here is on specific issues such in applied ethics, such as animal welfare, population and the environment, and effective altruism.
Phew. This isn’t going to be easy, so wish me luck! And stay tuned.
Before starting on my series of posts, I recommend checking out this short video, where Singer talks about the book:
Also take a look at the first published review of The Point of View of the Universe. It says that the book is a “spectacular display of philosophical fireworks.” I wholeheartedly agree.