Uses of philosophical slander

You describe Roger Scruton as "demolishing" Peter Singer (Books, 22 January).

"Demolish" is a success word: to vilify on the basis of demonstrably false assertions is not to "demolish".

Scruton's claim that "Anybody who has had to choose between saving a child or a cat from drowning . . . will know that Singer's view is nonsense" implies that Singer's view entails that we should not prefer the child. This is easily demolished by anyone who looks at Singer's work. In one chapter of Practical Ethics, for example, he endorses a number of arguments for saying that "taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being".

Scruton claims that Sin- ger's views are rooted in "a crudely sketched utilitarianism, according to which the right course of action is discovered by summing the interests of all who might be affected by it". This, too, is easily demolished by Singer's defence of preference, as opposed to "classical", utilitarianism. Besides, to be a "crudely sketched utilitarian" is surely incompatible with having "chased from his philosophy every moral absolute". Singer makes people furious precisely because he sets moral standards so exigent no one can live up to them. As for the epistemological difficulty of discovering what people's interests are, it is hardly unique to him. Whatever one's principles, it is not always easy to tell when they apply. For Scruton to pretend otherwise is at least a vice of rhetoric - maybe even "a vice of thinking that is also a vice of style".

Scruton's article is not a review, nor is it a "demolition". It is intellectual slander.

Ronald de Sousa
Department of Philosophy
University of Toronto, Canada

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Laughing all the way to No 10?