01/25/2016 12:00 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Peter Singer Explains How Philosophy Can Be Hard To Grasp

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Answers by Peter Singer, Philosopher, Author, on Quora.

Q: If a philosopher's work is extremely difficult to understand by reasonably bright people, does that undermine the value of the work?

A: Some philosophical questions are genuinely difficult, and yet working on them can be important (see my earlier example of Derek Parfit's work on population ethics in Reasons and Persons, Part IV). Reasonably bright people can understand Parfit's work on these issues, but not without putting in some work.
On the other hand, there is a lot of philosophy that is written in an unnecessarily difficult style. It is as if some philosophers believe that if they write too accessibly, people will not regard them as profound thinkers. A lot of post-modernist thinking is like that. Life is short, and if people do not make the effort to write clearly, readers should ask whether it is going to be worth the effort to understand them.


Q: What are specific moral questions that you have a great deal of uncertainty about?

A: I'm fairly confident of my views on a lot of topics, such as the wrongness of the way we now treat animals, our obligations to do much more to help people in extreme poverty, and to reduce the impact of climate change, the justifiability of abortion (at least before the fetus is capable of feeling pain) and of voluntary euthanasia. As I wrote in answer to another question, I'm uncertain about which issues I ought to focus on -- that depends not only on the importance of the issue, but on what impact I can have by working on it. And I am uncertain about the issue that Parfit discusses in Reasons and Persons, Part IV: is it good, other things being equal, to bring a being into existence if that being will have a happy life? And if so, how do we compare the value thus created with the value of improving the life of a being who already exists?


Q: What is the most difficult ethical judgment you have had to make?

A: There are too many! Trying to decide what causes to work on is one very difficult ethical judgment: should we be focusing on reducing global poverty, or on ending factory farming (which causes so much suffering to animals, as well as being an environmental disaster, and is totally wasteful and unnecessary)? And what about climate change, or reducing the risk that some catastrophe will end intelligent life on earth?

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