Notes on Peter Singer’s Expanding Circle

I finally got around to reading Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle (Princeton, 2011). I love the book and agree with its central thesis that biology gets ethics started but that human reason pushes it forward. I also find various problems with the book. Following are my summary notes with commentary. Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the printed text.

Biological Origins of Ethics

Singer begins by briefly considering and then quickly rejecting the now obviously false view that humans started out in isolation and then rationally “came together to hammer out a basis for setting up the first human society,” the so-called social-contract theory of ethics (4). Our prehuman and early human ancestors were social by their evolved biology. Singer takes E. O. Wilson’s 1975 Sociobiology as the “most impressive attempt” to that point (Singer’s book first appeared in 1981) to explain the biological origins of ethics (4).

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Countering Bias about Media Bias

“Media trust hits new low,” Axios notes, based on the Edelman “trust barometer” (and I trust this source!). Fifty-eight percent of Americans thought “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.”

I think the public vastly underrates the quality of the news media. Almost all (actual) news organizations are predominantly concerned with informing the public, even if they also sometimes promote a political agenda.

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Polar Express and the Limits of Belief

Years ago, when first I tried to watch the 2004 Robert Zemeckis film Polar Express, I found the visual effects so bizarre that couldn’t sit through the film. But last year my young son watched the film on an Imax screen and loved it, so this year the family watched the film together at home.

I enjoyed the film more than I thought I would. To me, what’s interesting about it is how it sketches, through a strange dream sequence, the psychology of loss and anxiety.

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In Defense of Rudolph

Caitlin Flanagan doesn’t like the 1964 television film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Actually it’s not entirely clear to me that she’s serious; her article is so strange I wonder if it’s tongue-in-cheek or satire. But it seems like Flanagan probably is serious so I will respond as though she is.

In my view, Rudolph is one of the greatest films of all time.

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