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Hard Cases in Hard Places: Singer's Agenda for Applied Ethics*

  • Peter A. Danielson (a1) and Chris J. MacDonald (a1)

It may seem that there is no need to review such a well-known book. This is the second edition of Peter Singer's text, Practical Ethics. The first edition has been widely used and influential; indeed for many it defines the field of applied ethics. The field is lucky; rarely is such popular work so carefully argued, so factually well informed and so well written. In addition, it is unusual for the author of a basic text to be so daring. Peter Singer deserves credit for placing the interests of animals and famine victims on the agenda of applied ethics, and for making that agenda so prominent in public fora. But it behooves us to scrutinize carefully the power of definitive works as well. What sets the agenda is, for that very reason, more difficult to assess critically.

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1 Singer seems to go out of his way to block even this weak claim, with his example of equality including those who “would kill a stranger for $100 if they could get away with it” (p. 17).

2 Steven Brams and D. Kilgour use a game like this to show how rational agents can stabilize co-operation by threatening to defect (Brams Steven and Kilgour D., "National Security Games," Synthese, Vol. 76 [August 1988]: 183200). Thanks to Kenn Crossley for bringing this article to our attention.

3 These events are described in Singer's Appendix, pp. 337-59. For a well-balanced discussion by German authors, Schöne-Seifert see Bettina and Rippe Klaus, “Silencing the Singer: Antibioethics in Germany,” Hastings Center Report (November-December 1991), pp. 2027.

4 Ibid., p. 23.4 p. 23.

5 Ibid., p. 225. p. 22.

6 Danielson Peter, "The Lockean Proviso," in Peter Vallentyne, ed., Contractarianism and Rational Choice: Essays on Gauthier (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), criticizes David Gauthier's Morals by Agreement (London: Oxford University Press, 1986) in this regard.

7 Singer himself stresses this in his stimulating book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981).

* Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), xii + 395 pp., $17.80. Page references are to this work.

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Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review / Revue canadienne de philosophie
  • ISSN: 0012-2173
  • EISSN: 1759-0949
  • URL: /core/journals/dialogue-canadian-philosophical-review-revue-canadienne-de-philosophie
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