Peter Singer

[PHILOSOPHER]

“WE COULD SOLVE THE WORST OF THE PROBLEMS IF EVERYONE GAVE 1 PERCENT OF THEIR INCOME. BUT SINCE MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT DOING THAT, THERE IS A NEED FOR THOSE OF US WHO DO TRY TO ACT ETHICALLY TO DO MUCH MORE.”
Bad priorities:
Supporting the theater while people don’t have drinking water
Eating meat when we can nourish ourselves without it
Driving large cars when they may prevent
foreigners from growing food in a stable climate
Protecting embryos but starting wars

Peter Singer is a Utilitarian, a philosopher who believes we should strive in our actions to maximize the amount of happiness in the world. Singer is said to measure morality by the numbers—one of his most infamous examples being that, sometimes, the way to maximize happiness is to allow parents of infants born with severe, life-threatening disabilities the option of euthanization. His comparison between the choices we make about fetuses inside the womb and the choices we ought to be able to make with certain newborn infants produced protests, physical threats, and talk of armed security to guard his Princeton office.

He’s also been attacked from inside the ivory tower. Some philosophers don’t think much of ideas that are accessible enough to have practical import. Yet despite some efforts to dismiss Singer’s work, his primacy in university life is undeniable. His Practical Ethics and Animal Liberation are used extensively in ethics classes, and his ideas appear regularly in seminars and conferences. This is because, with a zeal that suggests he’s computing the moral significance of every passing minute, Singer tackles the hard questions of the day; from research on cloned embryos, to the use of animals in food and research, to famine in India and AIDS in Africa. Invariably, his conclusions threaten our moral aplomb by relentlessly demonstrating the ways in which it’s not nearly enough that we empty our pockets to the homeless we pass on the streets, that we don’t shop at Wal-Mart, that we’re on the wait list for a Toyota Prius, or even that we recycle our soy-milk cartons. He argues that we must do much, much more, donating enough of our income to poor, developing nations so that wealth is more evenly distributed globally, even if it involves a drastic reduction in our standard of living.

His critics argue that things are not so simple, that his arguments don’t take into account special relationships and going to the opera. Here, Peter Singer responds to some of these criticisms, as well as to questions on his views about the duties of U.S. citizens, the state of the animal rights movement, and his most recent book, The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature, coedited with his novelist wife, Renata Singer.

—Sahar Akhtar

*

THE BELIEVER: You stress that a government might have a greater responsibility towards its nationals than to foreigners. Do you have a principled reason for determining how much concern the policymakers of a particular state ought to give to other citizens?

PETER SINGER: In principle, at the most fundamental level of our moral thinking, we should all give equal weight to the interests of everyone. But since we don’t have any alternative to states as yet, governments must be regarded as having primary responsibilities toward their own citizens. Nevertheless, this should not go so far as to give preference to the trivial wants of their own citizens (for example, to drive heavy, gas-guzzling vehicles) over the basic needs of foreigners (for example, their need that the climate not be altered unpredictably in ways that might leave them unable to grow enough food).

BLVR: Isn’t it naïve to think that governments ought to be less partial to their citizens, since it’s only their own citizens that vote for them? What’s the incentive for leaders to become less partial?

PS: It will take an educated public that cares about the impact of their actions on people in other countries.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Sahar Akhtar is an economist and a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Duke University. She does research on ethics, economics, and policy, and has also written for Salon.

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