Life has always been held cheap

September 1, 1995

Peter Singer's thesis about changing views of life and death (THES, August 18) is based on a fallacy - that "the traditional sanctity of life ethic" has lasted "for nearly 2,000 years".

In fact this ethic has only ever existed in a few moralistic and legalistic minds - theologians, philosophers, lawyers. For most ordinary people and practising professionals the "traditional ethic" of life and death has always been a much more pragmatic matter, accepting the deliberate killing of human beings in many circumstances - defence of self and response to provocation, religious and political martyrdom, national and civil war, punishment for crime and preservation of order, revenge for injury (vendetta) and vindication of honour (duelling), abortion of unwanted foetuses, infanticide of hopelessly deformed children, euthanasia of hopelessly ill adults, suicide and assisted suicide. See Western history and literature, passim.

The recent legal and political changes which he sees as "surface tremors resulting from major shifts deep in the bedrock of Western ethics" and signs of a "transitional period" he says " we are going through" are actually examples of formal decisions belatedly catching up with informal assumptions made by majority opinion and common practice for thousands of years. Like so many academics, Peter Singer has read too much and listened too little.

NICOLAS WALTER

Islington High Street, London, N1

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