The Ethics of Peter Singer
by Victor Gunasekara
Peter Albert David Singer has earned for himself a reputation as one of the leading ethical philosophers of the present day. He is also perhaps the most controversial. He has been called all kinds of things, from “the greatest living philosopher” to “the most dangerous man in the world”.
He shot into international prominence when he was appointed to the Ira W. DeCamp Chair of Bioethics at Princeton, a prestigious American University. This led to the greatest controversy in the US relating to an academic appointment since the appointment of the noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell to a similar position in the last century. Singer himself has drawn attention to this comparison . The campaign to bar Singer was less successful than that to bar Bertrand Russell who had to return after a short spell. This will give some comfort to those who think that educational and scientific principles have triumphed over those of sectarian bigotry, even when the latter is backed by the threat to withdraw substantial endowments to the University, as was the case with Singer’s appointment.
Peter Singer has been active in several areas including the political arena when he ran for a seat in the Australian Senate as a Green candidate. But in this article we shall be concerned only with his ethical views. He has had some connections with Humanism in Australia, his native country. The Humanist Society of Victoria was a part sponsor of the Oscar Mendelsohn lecture he gave at Monash University in 1999. In the following year he was a patron of Australis2000 the regional conference of the International Humanist and Ethical Union hosted by the Humanist Society of NSW. In 2004 he was nominated as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. However it is not clear if he has considered himself as a Humanist. He declined to sign the Third Humanist Manifesto. So a comparison of Singer’s ethical views with what passes for Humanist ethics may be appropriate.
Singer has been a prodigious writer and his academic bibliography is very extensive. His first work to attract international attention was Animal Liberation (1975) and his latest (by no means the last) appears to be The President of Good & Evil: the Ethics of George W. Bush (2004). In between these works he has produced a constant stream of writings mainly in the area of practical ethics . He has touched on many philosophical and ethical topics as well as a number of social issues. It would be impossible to deal with all his contributions in a short article such as the present. Instead we shall concentrate on the main themes to which he has made a contribution.
Singer’s Main Ethical Concerns
In several places in his writings Singer has identified his main concerns and contributions. One of these is contained in this quotation (taken from the Internet):
“I am probably best known for Animal Liberation a book that gave its title to a worldwide movement. The essential philosophical view it maintains is simple but revolutionary. Species is, in itself, as irrelevant to moral status as race or sex. Hence all beings with interests are entitled to equal consideration: that is, we should not give their interests any less consideration that we give to the similar interests of members of our own species. Taken seriously, this conclusion requires radical changes in almost every interaction we have with animals, including our diet, our economy, and our relations with the natural environment.
“To say that this idea is revolutionary is not to say that it was especially novel. Similar ideas can be found, for instance, in Henry Salt's Animals' Rights, first published in 1892. My contribution was to restate this view clearly and rigorously, and to illustrate that alternative views are based on self-interest, either naked or disguised by religious or other myths.
“My broader credo can be found in Practical Ethics (1979,1993). Here the treatment of animals receives its proper place, as one among several major ethical issues. I approach each issue by seeking the solution that has the best consequences for all affected. By 'best consequences', I understand that which satisfies the most preferences, weighted by an accordance with the strength of the preferences. Thus my ethical position is a form of preference-utilitarianism.
“In Practical Ethics I apply this ethic to such issues as equality (both between humans, and between humans and non-human animals), abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, the obligations of the wealthy to those who are living in poverty, the refugee question, our interactions with non-human beings and ecological systems, and obedience to the law. A non-speciesist and consequentialist approach to these issues leads to striking conclusions. It offers a clear-cut account of why abortion is ethically justifiable, and an equally clear condemnation of our failure to share our wealth with people who are in desperate need.
“Some of my conclusions have been found shocking, and not only in respect of animals. In Germany, my advocacy of active euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants has generated heated controversy. I first discussed this in Practical Ethics; later, as co-author, with Helga Kuhse, in Should the Baby Live? (1985); and most recently in Rethinking Life and Death (1995). Perhaps it is only to be expected, though, that there should be heated opposition to an ethic that challenges the hitherto generally accepted ethical superiority of human beings, and the traditional view of the sanctity of human life.”
Another statement of his priorities in contained in his work Writings on an Ethical Life. Here he writes:
“The issue on which I have made my most significant contribution to ethical thinking ... is my work on the ethics of our relations with animals... In contrast, my views on the obligation of the rich to help the world’s poorest people are potentially as significant as my thinking on animals, but they have, unfortunately, had much less influence. The issues raised by the critical work I have done on the idea of the sanctity of human life, including the discussion of euthanasia that has aroused much hostility, are in one respect less important than those two topics, simply because the treatment of animals and the maldistribution of wealth affect far more people (or in the case of animals, sentient beings), and relatively simple changes in these areas could relieve so much suffering. It is my critique of the sanctity of human life that gets the media headlines because it can easily be made to sound quite shocking...” (pp. xiv-xv).
From these self-identified topics it is clear that Singer’s order of priorities is (1) ethics relating to the treatment of animals, (2) ethics relating to wealth distribution, and (3) ethics relating to the sanctity of life. Other issues mentioned like refugees, environment, etc. are distinctly minor and will not be considered in this essay.
I propose to call the first and third areas of Singer’s ethical inquiry the Ethics of Sentience, as they relate to sentient beings both human and non-human, and the second area identified by Singer as Ethics of Distribution. Of these two areas by far the greater weight is given to the Ethics of Sentience, and this topic will occupy most of our critique. This section is can be divided into ethics of sentience as it relates to animals, and ethics of sentience as it relates to human life-and-death questions. On the other hand there is much less attention paid to the Ethics of Distribution and this area of ethics involves problems which are radically different from those involved in the ethics of sentience.
We much however first consider the basic standpoint of Singer’s ethical inquiry
Singer has been classified as a consequentialist (or teleological) ethicist. What this means is that the ethical quality of an action is determined by the consequences or effects of that action. A non-consequentialist (or de-ontological) ethicist will determine the quality of an action by the application of some a priori rule or principle. Thus religious ethics are regarded as non-consequentialist as they are determined by their compatibility with a set of prior rules determined, in theistic religions, allegedly by God. Thus if God proscribes the eating of pork then it is ethically wrong to eat it. It has nothing to do with the consequences of eating pork as against, say, the eating of beef. Under this system where some ambiguity arises as to the compatibility of an action with the pre-determined rules some adjudication by a person in authority, e.g. the Pope, is needed. Other systems of de-ontological ethics may lay down different principles .
Humanist ethics is difficult to classify on the basis of teleology or de-ontology. This is mainly because there is no clear statement of what Humanist ethics is. Sometimes very general rules like the Golden Rule is adduced. This will be a de-ontological position. At other times specific rules are asserted on an ad-hoc teleological basis. Thus it is considered right to assist a person to commit voluntary euthanasia (although it could have been made from a non-consequentialist position). While Singer is careful to state the way he derives his ethical rules Humanism does not seem to have considered this position deeply enough. This accounts for the unsatisfactory state of Humanist ethics.
Singer determines the consequences of an action in terms of Benthamite utilitarianism. Thus he has been referred to as a consequential-utilitarian ethicist. There are however serious problems in utilitarianism when used as the basis for evaluating the consequences of an act when it affects different people differently. It cannot be said that Singer has resolved these problems satisfactorily.
Singer claims that he is concerned with practical or applied ethics while traditional ethics has dealt with theoretical ethics. He even claims credit for shifting the emphasis from theory to practice. However this distinction may not be very important as theoretical ethics too has practical implications. Supporters of traditional non-consequentialist ethics may consider Singer’s method as being too pragmatic. However Singer does identify four rules which from which he derives his ethical postulates. It is to these that we must now turn.
Singer’s Four Axioms
Singer has identified four axioms (he calls them “claims”) from which he derives his ethical rules. These are:
S1. “Pain is bad, and similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be... Conversely pleasure and happiness are good, no matter whose pleasure or happiness they might be”.
S2. “Humans are not the only beings capable of feeling pain or of suffering”.
S3. “When we consider how serious it is to take a life, we should look not at the race, sex, species to which that being belongs but at the characteristics of the individual being killed”.
S4. “We are responsible not only for what we do but also for what we could have prevented.”
Given the importance of these axioms in the derivation of Singer’s ethical rules they should be considered in some detail before we go on to consider Singer’s practical ethics.
Many of these axioms have not generally been accepted in Western thinking, based as it on Abrahamic religion. Some of them have been commonplace in Asian religious and philosophical thinking for millennia, even though Singer rarely acknowledges this. It is questionable whether even Humanists accept all these axioms. However these axioms pose several problems and they need be considered before proceeding to consider how Singer applies them to derive his main ethical positions.
In S1 there are two major problems. Firstly there is the problem of quantification as when he speaks of “similar amounts” of pain or pleasure. Secondly there is the problem of inter-person or inter-species comparability when a given act involves pleasure to some and pain to others. Very few acts involve an unambiguous increase in pleasure and/or reduction in pain. Unfortunately most acts on which a judgement has to be made as to their ethical value there are those who benefit and those who suffer. To calculate the Benthamite “greatest happiness of the greatest number” in these circumstances will be almost impossible . To apply this axiom in these circumstances an arbitrary value has to be imputed to the pain and pleasure of the individuals involved in the given action.
There is also a more fundamental issue involved in that human beings have not always been concerned with the maximization of pleasure. Some early Humanists have been defining the “purpose of life” as the maximization of pleasure, but this has been modified of late, but nothing meaningful has replaced it. Singer’s concern of practical ethics means that he is not concerned with meta-questions like the meaning of life.
Axiom S2 is the one on which there is the greatest degree of agreement. Singer asserts that “all the mammals and birds that we habitually eat” can feel pain. Some biologists have argued that animals without well developed nervous systems (like insects) do not feel pain. However Singer defines pain to include suffering and distress of all kinds, so every sentient being could be brought within the ambit of this axiom even if we are not sure if they enjoy pleasure or suffer pain.
S3 amplifies the ethic attached to killing, which is the one ethic on which all ethical systems take a stand. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethic confines the “thou shalt not kill” commandment only to human beings, and that too with some exceptions (as in the conduct of war, or the punishment of criminals, or with respect to slaves). Singer’s important change is to extend the non-killing ethic to animals. Eastern religions like Buddhism and Jainism had made the non-killing precept applicable to all sentient beings. But Singer’s innovation is new to Western ethics. But Singer does not have a blanket opposition to all killing. In this he is similar to the Abrahamic religions. But he claims that it is the characteristics of the being that is being killed that determines whether the killing is ethically approved or not. We shall consider this further when we examine his other ethic of sentience.
The last axiom S4 too introduces a new principle extending ethical responsibility not only for what we do but also for what we could do. He cites the example of a person who does not save a drowning child if he could have saved this child without danger to himself as being morally culpable. However the qualification that the person should not suffer in the process of doing what he could do is a serious limitation to the practical validity of this axiom.
Ethics of Sentience: Animals
This is the one area with which Peter Singer is most associated. He is seen as the founder of the ‘Animal Liberation’ movement and the most articulate spokesperson for Animal Rights. In this sense he introduced a new dimension to ethical thinking in the West even though most of these ideas had been widely accepted in the East for a long time . Singer has claimed that his arguments have affected a great improvement in the way that animals are reared for food. In many countries there are regulations relating to animal welfare like in “battery” poultry production and in “lot-fed” production of beef and pork. We can certainly attribute much of this to Singer’s arguments. However he has been less successful in reducing the trauma associated in the slaughter of animals.
Singer considers his concern for animals as simply an extension of the “principle of equality” from the intra-species (actually the intra-human) level to the inter-species level. Thus he writes:
“... having accepted the principle of equality as a sound basis for relations with others of our own species, we are also committed to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species – the nonhuman animals”.
Glossing over the fact that the ‘principal of equality’ has still not been fully accepted as even relating to humans (witness the remnants of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination) the question that it can be extended to inter-species relations is by no means obvious. A real equality between all species cannot be established by relying only on empirical evidence. Even the “Great Ape Project’ with which Singer is associated only speaks of personhood for those primates closest to humans.
Singer’s arguments against the methods of animal rearing for food and other animal products, and the use of animals for experimentation are well known and sound. They have been widely accepted and need not be discussed here. So we shall skip this area which has almost become non-controversial and conclude this discussion of Singer’s Ethics of Sentience in relation to animals by considering two specific issues relating to animal ethics on which Singer has something to say – vegetarianism and bestiality.
It is well-known that Singer is a vegetarian and a vegan. But there is a dilemma here in that the agricultural production too involves the killing of animals. The present writer in an essay Buddhism and Vegetarianism wrote:
“Many vegetarians relish in taking the moral high-ground. They claim either that their diet does not involve the killing and suffering of animals, or that even if it does so there would be greater suffering and animal killing if they adopted non-vegetarian diets. It is a simple fact is that commercial agriculture, which is the basis of vegetarian diets, cannot be undertaken without the destruction of life. Even the very act of tilling the ground kills many earth-bound insect life, but the main form of killing comes from the need to protect crops and harvests from insects, predators and other vermin. We need only contemplate the wholesale killing of feral pigs, rabbits, kangaroos, etc. for this purpose, often using poison, traps, and man-induced diseases involving cruel and horrible deaths. The snails, grasshoppers, grubs, locusts and other insects destroyed by powerful insecticides number by the billion. Even the number of rats killed to save the stored-up grain from being eaten greatly exceed the number of cattle slaughtered to feed the meat eaters. Indeed it could be argued that the number of animals and insects killed to produce the average vegetarian meal greatly exceeds the number of animals killed to produce the a non-vegetarian meal of equal food value. If this is so the adoption of a vegetarian diet may actually increase the number lives lost in the food production process.”
I have not seen any refutation of this argument by Singer. So his advocacy of vegetarianism may violate some of the axioms he claims to be the basis of his ethics.
The claim that Singer considers bestiality as morally justifiable may have some merit. The text that is relevant for this is Singer’s review of the book Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers (Verso, 2000) in the online magazine Nerve. Towards the end Singer recounts a conversation he had at a conference on great apes with a woman who had worked at a rehabilitation centre for captured orangutans in Borneo run by Birute Galdikas. There she was seized by a male orangutang with sexual intentions and was assured by Galdikas that the ape would leave her which it did. Then Singer writes: “That may be because Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” It is this last sentence that sex across the species barrier is not an offence to the status and dignity of a human that has been seized by Singer’s critics, some of whom have accused him of promoting sexual exploitation of animals. Richard John Neuhaus has even claimed that as animals cannot expressly give consent any sexual relations with them will amount to rape.
While a great deal is made of this subject there does not appear to be any other writing on the subject by Singer. However Singer could have put his views on the subject explicitly given the criticism that has been attached to this, but he has not done so.
Ethics of Sentience: Life and Death
The most controversial areas of Singer’s ethics relate to the other area of his Ethics of Sentience which deals with the question of life and death. Basically the question here is to determine when it is ethically justifiable to end the life of a human.
This is the area that brings Singer into conflict with the prevailing religious code in the West. That code is based on the alleged “sanctity of life”. This asserts that human life is created by God and it is only God who would determine when an individual is to die. Intervention in this process by human agency is considered inappropriate, even a sin.
Discussion in this area has concentrated around a number of specific issues and it is convenient to consider this question around these well-debated topics. As the arguments on both sides are well-known, and are discussed in detail in Singer’s work, we will not be examining these arguments here. What we will do is to state Singer’s position on these issues, and to consider how these are justified in terms of Singer’s own criteria.
(a) Eugenics of the new-born
By this term we shall mean the question of terminating the life of a new-born child (or a fetus) with a serious and uncorrectable deformity such as Downs syndrome, spina bifida, or anencephalia. The accepted moral position on this question is that nothing should be done explicitly to terminate life in these circumstances. This comes from the aforementioned “sacredness” of life doctrine. However Singer asserts that this view “is now part of a broadly secular ethic, and it is as part of this secular ethic that it is most influential today”(Practical Ethics, p.73). He cites the case of a child born with Downs syndrome (mongolism) who was kept alive on court orders, despite the mother’s contrary wishes. In terms of a utilitarian calculus the pain and costs imposed on the mother far exceeds the pleasure derived by the grossly retarded child. Singer’s conclusion is that it would be ethical to terminate the life of the child.
(b) Voluntary Euthanasia
This occurs at the other end of life span of an individual and relates to an individual’s “right to die”. There is much less public opposition to this as the circumstances in which a person may make this choice, such as continuous pain which cannot be relieved through palliative care, or an unacceptable quality of life, are things with which most people can empathise. If the person can bring about the termination of life unassisted it would be a case of suicide, which in some jurisdictions like Australia is not a crime.
So the question relates to giving assistance to a person who wants to die. On the moral side Singer along with most Humanists will agree that no wrong is involved. But the question relates to the legal side as the recent case of a lady Nancy on the Gold Coast who terminated her life in the company of family and friends. It was claimed that it was illegal for them to have been at the bedside of the dying person . Singer of course is not directly concerned with legal matters, and as an ethicist can concentrate only on the ethical side of the matter. It may be claimed that by preventing continuous pain with no cost to anyone there has been a net utilitarian gain.
(c) Involuntary Euthanasia
The extreme example of this is Hitler’s policy of killing people considered defective in some sense even if they express a desire to live. There is no support for this in Singer’s ethics.
The difficult case is when a person who is clearly suffering but is unable to express a desire whether to live or die should be put to death. Singer’s position here is that it would not be wrong to do so. Examples are unconscious people in life-support systems with no chance of recovery, and people in an advanced state of Alzeimer’s disease.
Singer considers the case of abortion (if the mother wants it) easier to justify than either the cases (a) or (b) considered above. His argument is as follows:
“Since no fetus is a person, no fetus has the same claim to life as a person. Moreover it is very unlikely that fetuses of less than 18 weeks are capable of feeling anything at all, since their nervous system appears to be insufficiently developed to function. If this is so an abortion up to this point terminated an existence that is of no intrinsic value at all. In between 18 weeks and birth when the fetus may be conscious though not self-conscious abortion does end a life of some intrinsic value, and so should not be taken lightly. But a woman’s serious interests would normally override the rudimentary interests of the fetus.”
However Singer qualifies this by saying that methods of abortion which cause a fetus to feel pain should be avoided.
(e) The new-born
Singer in fact goes beyond justifying abortion and says that a new-born baby does not automatically have a right to life. He argues that laws “should deny a full legal right to life to babies only for a short period after birth – perhaps a month”(Practical Ethics, p. 125). Why new-born baby is denied the full right to life is that it cannot be considered a ‘person’ defined as “a being with certain characteristics such as rationality and self-awareness” . The decision is made by the parents. On this Kevin Toolis has written: “Parents would be free to kill their infants if they did not like their skin, hair colour, sex or the length of their legs. His philosophy justifies the infanticide practised in China against baby girls during the years of the One Child policy.” (The Guardian, Nov 6, 1999).
The Ethics of Distribution
The third broad area of Singer’s ethics (actually the second area according to his ranking) is what we have called the ethics of distribution.
The most important ethical principle that Singer establishes in his ethics of distribution is the proposition that those with more (of a good thing) should share some of it with those with less. More specifically he is referring to is the distribution of income. In this ethical redistribution he generally emphasises the international redistribution between rich and poor countries:
“...by not giving more than we do, people in rich countries are allowing those in poor countries to suffer from absolute poverty, with consequent malnutrition, ill health and death... If, then, allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers” (Practical Ethics, p. 162).
The last conclusion comes from Singer’s Axiom S4 on which we had commented earlier. Singer has even given the precise amount of US$30,000 as the income at which people in the US should start donating to “voluntary relief organizations” like Oxfam, Freedom from Hunger, etc. This has caused him some embarrassment.
But using charity to solve economic problems is the ‘religious’ way of doing things, and it has even been compared to Christian moral hyperbole. Socio-economic problems have to be solved by social and economic policies. It is not an area for the exercise of moral or ethical principles. Unequal development in the world has to be tackled by appropriate global policies which Singer as a philosopher may not be able to suggest.
If Singer were to use his utility analysis he would conclude that if a dollar is shifted from a rich to a poor person the utility gained by the latter is greater than the utility lost by the former. Thus the maximization of utility (equating it with the Benthamite ‘happiness’) must require an equal distribution of income. If this is done on a global scale everyone will be left well below the poverty line, so great is the existing inequality of income. All what this shows is that socio-economic problems cannot be solved by the application of ethical principles.
While we should appreciate Singer’s concern for the world’s poor the kind of charity he is contemplating is not the real way to solve it.
On the Darwinian Left and on Bush
Though not directly connected with his ethical theory Singer’s short book The Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (Yale, 2000) expands on his view of Distributional Ethics.
Singer had been interested in the writings of Marx and Darwin, probably the most influential thinkers of their century. Today both are attacked, Marx as a false prophet and Darwin as the most powerful voice against the doctrine of divine creation. So it would be interesting to consider Singer’s views on the subject. Singer wrote a book on Marx but not one devoted to an examination of Darwin’s theory.
A central feature of the thought of both Marx and Darwin is the balance between competition and co-operation. In Marx the central conflict is the class struggle, the cooperative effort is class solidarity whether of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. To Darwin the central conflict is the struggle for survival amongst species, the co-operative element comes in the symbiosis between divergent species without which neither could survive. In both it is correct to say that it is element of conflict that dominates over that of co-operation and determines the dynamic of advance. Marx saw the similarity between his own work and that of Darwin and wanted to dedicate a volume of Das Kapital to Darwin, which the latter declined.
Singer while recognising the elements of conflict seeks to shift emphasis to the co-operative aspects. This is the central feature of his vision of the modern “left” whereas the old left was stuck in the idiom of conflict. The other elements of his agenda include: not inferring what is “right” from what is “natural”; recognising that people will compete to improve their position whatever the system but will enter into mutually beneficial forms of cooperation; not exploiting animals and exaggerating the gulf between humans and animals; being on the side of the weak, poor and oppressed, etc. This is in fact the traditional left agenda except for the treatment of animals.
By calling this vision the Darwinian Left Singer seems to imply that there is also a Darwinian Right. But Left and Right are purely political terms, perhaps applicable to Marx but not to Darwin. For Darwin was a scientist and science is generally free of the political nuances of Right and Left or ethical questions of right and wrong. This could be considered a fundamental misreading of Darwin by Singer.
Singer’s latest book The President of Good and Evil: the Ethics of George W. Bush is also an excursion into the politico-moral arena. Bush is perhaps a worthy subject of study for an ethicist because his rhetoric is liberally laced with the terms Good and Evil (especially the latter).
Singer calls Bush "a moral failure, in his own terms, and in any terms." He points out the constant reference to the sanctity of life in Bush’s anti-abortion rhetoric and then contrasts this with his readiness to go to war and to use long-range missiles which have killed large numbers of innocents in Iraq. He claims that Bush was definitely wrong in going to war with Iraq as it did not pose a threat to the U.S. None of these are novel positions but coming from a Professor in a prestigious US university it was something special.
Although many Humanists share the left-leaning views of Singer Humanism itself is something that is politically neutral.
The signal contribution of Peter Singer to Western philosophy was to extend the scope of ethics from humans to sentient beings. This was a blow struck at the Judeo-Christian basis of Western thinking. Another assault on this system was to challenge the concept of the “sanctity of life”. Western morality has still not grasped fully the implications of these two innovations introduced by Singer. Both are expressly rejected by the Religious Right which has been on the ascendent in recent times, especially in the US. The law in many areas has not caught up with the new thinking, but Singer’s ideas has had a wider resonance amongst thinking people, perhaps to a greater extent Singer may have originally hoped for.
The downside of his ethical theory is its complete teleological basis. Even so the criteria employed to judge the effects of actions are not clearly defined or consistently applied. The utilitarian calculus which Singer employs has several inherent limitations and Singer has not addressed them. He has hardly made an advance over John Stuart Mill(Singer’s "preference utilitarianism" is only a marginal change over that of Mill. He considers the interests and preferences of all involved, but economists since Vilfredo Pareto had already done that.), and has ignored the extensive debate on Welfare Economics in the twentieth century which too started from a utilitarian base and arrived at conclusions which Singer could well have used..
In my view a correct ethical analysis must employ elements of both the de-ontological and the teleological approaches. This may appear an impossible combination, but it is only so if the de-ontology is derived from theistic religion as has been the case with Western ethics. The principles from which ethical rules are derived cannot be immutably fixed. A dialectical relationship should exist between the principles and the results of applying them. If needed the principles themselves have to be changed in light of the results of their application in concrete instances. Above all it must be remembered that all systems of ethics are arbitrary and do not belong to the domain of positive science. In fact some people define religion as the reliance on a system of (necessarily arbitrary) ethics. In this sense even Humanism is a religion unlike, say, rationalism, atheism, or skepticism which do not espouse ethics and so are not religious.
There is some congruence between Humanist ethics and those of Singer. This is particularly true in issues like voluntary Euthanasia and abortion. But there is no total congruence. Would Humanists would go along with the ethic of killing babies without congenital deformities in the first month of their existence? The difficulty is that Humanist ethics has never been completely or consistently articulated. Western Humanism has absorbed much of the thinking of the Abrahamic religion, and this is seen in some of its ethical postulates.
Despite his radical ethical views it is easy to see that Singer has not completely abandoned the Judeo-Christian religion to which he was born. To some extent Singer has reconciled the Western religious ehtic with some aspects of Eastern ethical thinking. But he does not seem to be sufficiently conversant with, or to have understood, Eastern philosophy. The way forward for Humanist ethics is to integrate the most appropriate principles out of both the Western and the Eastern ethical systems. Such a synthesis is still a long way off.