Synopsis of ‘Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter’—Peter Singer
The first section of this book focuses on the ‘Big Questions.’ Singer starts with a quote from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I do not seek or conjecture either of them as if they were veiled obscurities or extravagances beyond the horizon of my vision; I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence.”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason.
Kant found a sense of awe looking up at the starry host. His knowledge would have extended as far as the planet Saturn; even that was absolutely amazing. Today, there is much more to know, and that starry host goes beyond our comprehension. Singer suggests that this knowledge increases our reverence and awe, rather than diminishing, as one might expect.
Singer quotes Bertram Russell, from an article entitles “Dreams and Facts” (1919) In it Russell is quoted as saying, “The universe as astronomy reveals it is very vast. How much there may be beyond what our telescopes show, we cannot tell; but what we can know is of unimaginable immensity. In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment; within this fragment, the solar system is an infinitesimal speck, and of this speck, our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of impure carbon and water, of complicated structure, with somewhat unusual physical and chemical properties, crawl about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.”
Singer points out that we no longer need just words to prove earth insignificance, science has shown through pictures taken by Voyager, that the earth is but a dot on the horizon and that we are but a speck on that dot. Russell goes on the say, “No man is liberated from fear who dare not see his place in the world as it is; no man can achieve the greatness of which he is capable until he has allowed himself to see his own littleness.”
Singer points out that Russell was not nihilistic, a conclusion one might come to be reading his work and that he went on to spend the remainder of his life as an activist for nuclear disarmament.
Singer concludes, “Sagan (the astronomer) took a similar view. While seeing the Earth as a whole diminishes the importance of things like national boundaries that divide us, he said, it also “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” Al Gore used the “pale blue dot” image at the end of his film, An Inconvenient Truth, suggesting that if we wreck this planet, we have nowhere else to go. That’s probably true, even though scientists are now discovering other planets outside our solar system. Perhaps one day we will find that we are not the only intelligent beings in the universe, and perhaps we will be able to discuss issues of interspecies ethics with such beings.”
Our smallness does not paralyze us but shows the greatness of our God, and our responsibility to take care of the creation God has left in our charge.
Singer, Peter. Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter. Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ. 2016