RETHINKING LIFE AND DEATH by Peter Singer. New York; St. Martin's Press, 1994. 222 pages, footnotes and index. Hardcover; $22.95.

The subtitle of this work is "The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics." Author Singer presents arguments that cannot easily be dismissed, arguments which challenge many traditional ethics accepted by humanity for centuries. He demonstrates that the traditional ways of thinking, such as insisting on "the sanctity of human life" as an absolute, often lead to absurdities.

The chapter titles:

1. Birth After Death. Two specific case studies
2. How Death Was Redefined. By a legal definition that upset few.
3. Dr. Shann's Dilemma. How traditional ethics prevented healing.
4. The Tony Bland Case. "Life's intrinsic value" fails the test.
5. Uncertain Beginnings. The abortion debate.
6. Making Quality of Life Judgements. On selective non-treatment.
7. Asking for Death. How voluntary euthanasia actually works.
8. Beyond the Discontinuous Mind. The Western Image under attack.
9. In Place of the Old Ethic. Some answers.

Singer's plea (page 220) is "I hope I have shown that it is not so easy
to ignore the fact that our standard view of the ethics of life and
death is incoherent." He has done exactly that in this book; its
arguments cannot be ignored. "That's what you say; I think you are
wrong" is not a valid response. Singer provides a tentative pattern for
a new ethic, not "something carved in stone," but a discussion point
for an ongoing activity. Here is that pattern; he defines it as "five
commandments" but means something much less dogmatic:

The old commandment               The new commandment

1  Treat all human life           Recognize that the worth
   as of equal worth              of human life varies

2  Never intentionally            Take responsibility for the
   take innocent human life       consequences of your actions

3  Never take your own life,      Respect a person's desire
   and always try to prevent      to live or die
   others from taking theirs

4  Be fruitful and multiply       Bring children into the world
                                  only when they are wanted

5  Treat all human life as        Do not discriminate on the
   always more precious than      basis of species
   any nonhuman life

There is much to agree with in this book; there is much to question, as
well. And that's what the author wants to happen. In the closing pages,
Singer suggests that abandoning just two central assumptions of one's
life ethic is enough to make the transformation!

1. We are responsible for intentional acts in a way that we are not
   responsible for acts of omission.

2. The lives of members of our species are more worthy of protection
   than the lives of any other being.

Each of these assumptions, he argues, has a religious origin, and is on
weak grounds otherwise. Singer proposes their renunciation. What is our

Reviewed by John W. (Burgy) Burgeson
Published in Compuserve's library in the early 1990s.

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