Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How Are We to Live?

How Are We to Live? may not be the most elegant of book titles, but at least it's provocative enough to attract the attentions of browsers. That's how I discovered this book - the work of a philosopher whose reputation rested on his pioneering work with the animal liberation movement.

If I was a dictator I would ban at least 95% of the self-help/popular psychology books in print and give everyone a free copy of Peter Singer's wonderful book about ethics in an age of uncertainty. In simple, commonsense language, Singer not only discusses some of the dilemmas of modern life but also dares to come up with a blueprint for living the good life. In a nutshell, he says: treat other people they way you'd want them to treat you, but don't take any crap. You might think that's blindingly obvious, but this simple common sense has eluded thinkers like Plato and Jesus.

Peter Singer - sheep may safely graze

This book was my staff recommendation in Crawley - a town where many grandmothers are still looking forward to their 30th birthdays - and to my amazement I sold more than any other title I'd picked. At first the book cost 8.99, but every few months it would go into reprint and reappear at a higher price. Eventually, Oxford University Press increased the cover price to a level that made it impossible to sell the book. This was a great pity. I wonder how many they're selling now.

I have thought about Singer's book a lot recently as I have been faced with several ethical dilemmas in the last year and it has made me realise how marginalised the subject of ethics has become. We use the word ethical more than ever in our daily lives, but usually as consumers. Questions of good and evil seem to be largely reserved for theologians, but in today's secular society we need to re-establish a common ground that can partially fill the void left by the moral certainties of the past. We could do worse than start with Peter Singer's book.

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