In the spirit of Bentham, Peter Singer, Princeton Professor
Singer has published
books on animal rights, on world poverty, and the moral poverty of G.W. Bush (all available through amazon.com).
Singer’s website @ http://www.utilitarian.net/index.htm
Lunch with the FT: Meaty arguments
Peter Singer interviewed
by Krishna Guha
Financial Times, July 29, 2005
Singer arrives for lunch with the liberated air of an east coast intellectual taking a break from George Bush’s America.
The other diners at Woodlands, a Tamil vegetarian restaurant near Piccadilly Circus, don’t look up as he and his wife,
Renata, pass by. Doubtless none of them realise that the lightly tanned man with wisps of white hair is one of the most consequential
thinkers of our time: a radical philosopher whom many regard as the father of the animal liberation movement.
The restaurant was my choice,
not his. Singer asked me to book an old vegetarian haunt called Hare Krishna. I could not find any trace of it, so we have
ended up here. The decor is faded, and the flute music threatens to drown our conversation, but the steady stream of Indian
office workers suggests the kitchen knows what it is about.
Singer - or rather his views
- often attracts rather more attention. His appointment as professor of bioethics at Princeton University six years ago provoked
anger from people outraged at his support for abortion, euthanasia and infanticide of the severely disabled.
Matters did not improve in 2001,
when he reviewed a book on bestiality for an online sex magazine, Nerve.com, and suggested the main moral issue at stake in
such acts was whether animals suffered.
He is visiting London to give
a lecture on “Our Future and the Genome” at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and to promote two new books:
In Defence of Animals, a collection of essays, and The Moral of the Story, an anthology of ethics in literature, which he
edited with Renata, which is why he insisted that she come along for lunch too.
Renata, who has just returned
from a trip to Africa with Oxfam America, races through the menu with enthusiasm. “What’s chaat? Does it have
potatoes in it? Maybe I’ll try the uthappam.”
Singer is more considered, or
perhaps just confused. “Is it all vegan, or do they cook with ghee?” he says. In the end the waitress chooses
for him: kancheepuram idli (a lentil donut) followed by a spicy Mysore masala dosa.
An Australian accent lightens
Singer’s words. He was born in Melbourne to a family of Jewish refugees from Austria, not long after three of his grandparents
died in Nazi concentration camps.
Ordering done, I ask Singer if
he is surprised or disappointed at how much has changed in the 30 years since he published his groundbreaking Animal Liberation.
”Both, I guess,”
says Singer. “When we started people told us you’ll never change this. There have been significant changes, particularly
in Europe.” He pauses. “On the other hand, when I was writing Animal Liberation it seemed to me that the arguments
were so clear that what we were doing was wrong and indefensible that I hoped people would just read it and say that has got
to stop. And it hasn’t.” I ask why he thinks his argument has been only half-persuasive. Renata laughs. “There
are a lot of people who like eating meat and they are not really open to ethical arguments.”
Singer is proud of the movement
he helped to inspire - “full of wonderful people”. But he regrets the emergence of a violent “tiny minority”.
“They are sincere, and I think they are right. But what would I say to people who are equally sincere in opposing abortion?”
The starters arrive. Renata is
excited by her chaat. Singer slices off a corner of his idli. After a while, without exchanging a word, they swap plates to
try each other’s dishes.
Singer famously contends that
some animals, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, have more moral significance than severely mentally disabled human beings.
It may be hard to consider humans the only beings worth moral consideration - a belief Singer labels “speciesism”
- when we know we share 99 per cent of our genetic code with chimpanzees and 50 per cent with bananas. But I tell him I find
his argument disturbing because it undermines the sense that every human life has unique value.
”I would not really want
a sense of the unique value of each human life. There are cases where that is actually a harmful thing, where it may cause
suffering, because we do not accept euthanasia for example,” Singer says.
The main courses arrive. Singer
samples his dosa, a kind of pancake. Renata tries her uthappam, a rice-based pizza. Again, after a while, they swap without
a word. Then, a bit later, they swap back.
There is a question I am keen
to ask Singer: what is the right exchange rate between human and animal interests? “That is an impossible question.”
I insist: it is a necessary question.
If he were faced with the choice of rescuing one baby or 200 animals from a burning barn, which would he choose?
”A normal human child,
whose mother would be utterly devastated?” He pauses. “I would choose the child.” But if the child was severely
mentally disabled, and an orphan, would his answer be different? He answers with quiet honesty. “Yes, it would.”
I say that plenty of disabled people would find that offensive. He is unperturbed. “Some. Not all. Some.”
In The Moral of the Story Singer
poses himself the question Dostoevsky asks in The Brothers Karamazov: would he torture to death an innocent child if by doing
so he would secure happiness for the rest of mankind? Dostoevsky, through Alyosha, says no. Singer says yes.
This project was a real husband
and wife partnership: she picked the extracts, he posed the ethical questions. They took it on after reading the best-selling
The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, a collection of literature aimed at building
moral character. “The Book of Virtues is full of tedious extracts of 19th-century literature. You must do this. You
must do that. It is really depressing,” says Renata.
I venture the thought that the
ethics debate is increasingly dominated by Singer and his radical utilitarianism on one hand, and the Christian sanctity of
life school on the other. Singer gets animated about the latter. “I don’t think their position is consistent.”
Briefly, he slips into the language of Michael Moore. “Bush talks about the sanctity of life while bombing villages
in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But normal service resumes. “Also, this business about life existing from conception
is starting to crumble because of the possibility of taking human cells and creating life.”
Genetics cuts both ways, though.
I ask Singer if he would be in favour of genetically re-engineering animals so they do not suffer from factory farming.
”The quadruped that wants
to be eaten?” he laughs, in reference to the cow in Douglas Adams’ satirical book The Restaurant at the End of
the Universe. “That is totally hypothetical.”
But what about re-engineering
chickens with soft beaks, so that they do not peck each other, or sterile pigs that do not need to be violently castrated?
He pauses for a moment. “Suppose that you could engineer a pig that did not have to be castrated? I would have to say
- that would be a good thing.”
What of the potential for human
genetic re-engineering? “First of all it is almost inevitable - it is going to happen. Parents will want to enhance
their children,” Singer says thoughtfully. He toys with his glass. “The problem is to see how we can regulate
it... I think there are genuine ethical objections in a society in which if you are rich you can ensure your children have
genetic advantages. You would get a permanent aristocracy, like France before the Revolution.”
A state such as Singapore might
buy enhancement for all its citizens. But what if the cost is too great? “You could have a lottery system in which nobody
could do it unless they have the lucky ticket. Or you could have a system in which people who can afford to do it themselves
do it themselves and the rest get a ticket to the lottery.”
So are philosophers keeping up
with the dramatic advances in genetic science? “If you are talking about professional ethicists, bioethicists, yes.
If what you mean is have we produced a public consensus on the way we should go, absolutely not.”
I put it that the US - with its
stark divide between the secular and religious - may be incapable of ever reaching such a consensus. “It is a serious
possibility, I have to admit,” he says.
It is time for Singer and Renata
to leave for a meeting with their publishers. I apologise to Renata for going over what must be very familiar territory.
”Thank you for refreshing
me on his thinking,” she says. I look a bit perplexed. They both smile. “It’s not as if we talk about this
over breakfast every day,” says Singer.
Interview over, we head for the
door, with Singer and Renata talking enthusiastically about being in Britain. “The British have such a great sense of
irony. Americans have no sense of irony,” says Renata. As Singer scoops up a handful of Indian sweets by the exit he
says how surprised he and his wife have been to see on British television a comedian joking irreverently about Prince Charles
and the Queen: “The comedian steps up and says, ‘I don’t care if she’s your mother. Just put a pillow
over her head!’ On public television! You would never get that in America.” And out they step into the London
Woodlands, Panton Street London
The Singer Solution to World Poverty
The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 5, 1999, pp. 60-63
the Brazilian film "Central Station," Dora is a retired schoolteacher who makes ends meet by sitting at the station writing
letters for illiterate people. Suddenly she has an opportunity to pocket $1,000. All she has to do is persuade a homeless
9-year-old boy to follow her to an address she has been given. (She is told he will be adopted by wealthy foreigners.) She
delivers the boy, gets the money, spends some of it on a television set and settles down to enjoy her new acquisition. Her
neighbor spoils the fun, however, by telling her that the boy was too old to be adopted —he will be killed and his organs
sold for transplantation. Perhaps Dora knew this all along, but after her neighbor's plain speaking, she spends a troubled
night. In the morning Dora resolves to take the boy back.
Suppose Dora had told her neighbor
that it is a tough world, other people have nice new TV's too, and if selling the kid is the only way she can get one, well,
he was only a street kid. She would then have become, in the eyes of the audience, a monster. She redeems herself only by
being prepared to bear considerable risks to save the boy.
At the end of the movie, in cinemas
in the affluent nations of the world, people who would have been quick to condemn Dora if she had not rescued the boy go home
to places far more comfortable than her apartment. In fact, the average family in the United States spends almost one-third
of its income on things that are no more necessary to them than Dora's new TV was to her. Going out to nice restaurants, buying
new clothes because the old ones are no longer stylish, vacationing at beach resorts —so much of our income is spent
on things not essential to the preservation of our lives and health. Donated to one of a number of charitable agencies, that
money could mean the difference between life and death for children in need.
All of which raises a question:
In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American
who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one —knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would
use it to save the lives of kids in need?
Of course, there are several
differences between the two situations that could support different moral judgments about them. For one thing, to be able
to consign a child to death when he is standing right in front of you takes a chilling kind of heartlessness; it is much easier
to ignore an appeal for money to help children you will never meet. Yet for a utilitarian philosopher like myself —that is, one who judges whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences—
if the upshot of the American's failure to donate the money is that one more kid dies on the streets of a Brazilian city,
then it is, in some sense, just as bad as selling the kid to the organ peddlers. But one doesn't need to embrace my utilitarian
ethic to see that, at the very least, there is a troubling incongruity in being so quick to condemn Dora for taking the child
to the organ peddlers while, at the same time, not regarding the American consumer's behavior as raising a serious moral issue.
In his 1996 book, Living
High and Letting Die, the New York University philosopher Peter Unger presented an ingenious series of imaginary
examples designed to probe our intuitions about whether it is wrong to live well without giving substantial amounts of money
to help people who are hungry, malnourished or dying from easily treatable illnesses like diarrhea. Here's my paraphrase of
one of these examples:
Bob is close to retirement. He
has invested most of his savings in a very rare and valuable old car, a Bugatti, which he has not been able to insure. The
Bugatti is his pride and joy. In addition to the pleasure he gets from driving and caring for his car, Bob knows that its
rising market value means that he will always be able to sell it and live comfortably after retirement. One day when Bob is
out for a drive, he parks the Bugatti near the end of a railway siding and goes for a walk up the track. As he does so, he
sees that a runaway train, with no one aboard, is running down the railway track. Looking farther down the track, he sees
the small figure of a child very likely to be killed by the runaway train. He can't stop the train and the child is too far
away to warn of the danger, but he can throw a switch that will divert the train down the siding where his Bugatti is parked.
Then nobody will be killed —but the train will destroy his Bugatti. Thinking of his joy in owning the car and the financial
security it represents, Bob decides not to throw the switch. The child is killed. For many years to come, Bob enjoys owning
his Bugatti and the financial security it represents.
Bob's conduct, most of us will
immediately respond, was gravely wrong. Unger agrees. But then he reminds us that we, too, have opportunities to save the
lives of children. We can give to organizations like UNICEF or Oxfam America. How much would we have to give one of these
organizations to have a high probability of saving the life of a child threatened by easily preventable diseases? (I do not
believe that children are more worth saving than adults, but since no one can argue that children have brought their poverty
on themselves, focusing on them simplifies the issues.) Unger called up some experts and used the information they provided
to offer some plausible estimates that include the cost of raising money, administrative expenses and the cost of delivering
aid where it is most needed. By his calculation, $200 in donations would help a sickly 2-year-old transform into a healthy
6-year-old —offering safe passage through childhood's most dangerous years. To show how practical philosophical argument
can be, Unger even tells his readers that they can easily donate funds by using their credit card and calling one of these
toll-free numbers: (800) 367-5437 for Unicef; (800) 693-2687 for Oxfam America. [http://supportunicef.org/forms/whichcountry2.html for Unicef and http://www.oxfam.org/eng/donate.htm for Oxfam —PS]
Now you, too, have the information
you need to save a child's life. How should you judge yourself if you don't do it? Think again about Bob and his Bugatti.
Unlike Dora, Bob did not have to look into the eyes of the child he was sacrificing for his own material comfort. The child
was a complete stranger to him and too far away to relate to in an intimate, personal way. Unlike Dora, too, he did not mislead
the child or initiate the chain of events imperiling him. In all these respects, Bob's situation resembles that of people
able but unwilling to donate to overseas aid and differs from Dora's situation.
If you still think that it was
very wrong of Bob not to throw the switch that would have diverted the train and saved the child's life, then it is hard to
see how you could deny that it is also very wrong not to send money to one of the organizations listed above. Unless, that
is, there is some morally important difference between the two situations that I have overlooked.
Is it the practical uncertainties
about whether aid will really reach the people who need it? Nobody who knows the world of overseas aid can doubt that such
uncertainties exist. But Unger's figure of $200 to save a child's life was reached after he had made conservative assumptions
about the proportion of the money donated that will actually reach its target.
One genuine difference between
Bob and those who can afford to donate to overseas aid organizations but don't is that only Bob can save the child on the
tracks, whereas there are hundreds of millions of people who can give $200 to overseas aid organizations. The problem is that
most of them aren't doing it. Does this mean that it is all right for you not to do it?
Suppose that there were more
owners of priceless vintage cars —Carol, Dave, Emma, Fred and so on, down to Ziggy— all in exactly the same situation
as Bob, with their own siding and their own switch, all sacrificing the child in order to preserve their own cherished car.
Would that make it all right for Bob to do the same? To answer this question affirmatively is to endorse follow-the-crowd
ethics —the kind of ethics that led many Germans to look away when the Nazi atrocities were being committed. We do not
excuse them because others were behaving no better.
We seem to lack a sound basis
for drawing a clear moral line between Bob's situation and that of any reader of this article with $200 to spare who does
not donate it to an overseas aid agency. These readers seem to be acting at least as badly as Bob was acting when he chose
to let the runaway train hurtle toward the unsuspecting child. In the light of this conclusion, I trust that many readers
will reach for the phone and donate that $200. Perhaps you should do it before reading further.
Now that you have distinguished
yourself morally from people who put their vintage cars ahead of a child's life, how about treating yourself and your partner
to dinner at your favorite restaurant? But wait. The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives
of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one
month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub.
Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could
save for another $200. Are you therefore obliged to keep giving until you have nothing left? At what point can you stop?
Hypothetical examples can easily
become farcical. Consider Bob. How far past losing the Bugatti should he go? Imagine that Bob had got his foot stuck in the
track of the siding, and if he diverted the train, then before it rammed the car it would also amputate his big toe. Should
he still throw the switch? What if it would amputate his foot? His entire leg?
As absurd as the Bugatti scenario
gets when pushed to extremes, the point it raises is a serious one: only when the sacrifices become very significant indeed
would most people be prepared to say that Bob does nothing wrong when he decides not to throw the switch. Of course, most
people could be wrong; we can't decide moral issues by taking opinion polls. But consider for yourself the level of sacrifice
that you would demand of Bob, and then think about how much money you would have to give away in order to make a sacrifice
that is roughly equal to that. It's almost certainly much, much more than $200. For most middle-class Americans, it could
easily be more like $200,000.
Isn't it counterproductive to
ask people to do so much? Don't we run the risk that many will shrug their shoulders and say that morality, so conceived,
is fine for saints but not for them? I accept that we are unlikely to see, in the near or even medium-term future, a world
in which it is normal for wealthy Americans to give the bulk of their wealth to strangers. When it comes to praising or blaming
people for what they do, we tend to use a standard that is relative to some conception of normal behavior. Comfortably off
Americans who give, say, 10 percent of their income to overseas aid organizations are so far ahead of most of their equally
comfortable fellow citizens that I wouldn't go out of my way to chastise them for not doing more. Nevertheless, they should
be doing much more, and they are in no position to criticize Bob for failing to make the much greater sacrifice of his Bugatti.
At this point various objections
may crop up. Someone may say: "If every citizen living in the affluent nations contributed his or her share I wouldn't have
to make such a drastic sacrifice, because long before such levels were reached, the resources would have been there to save
the lives of all those children dying from lack of food or medical care. So why should I give more than my fair share?" Another,
related, objection is that the Government ought to increase its overseas aid allocations, since that would spread the burden
more equitably across all taxpayers.
Yet the question of how much
we ought to give is a matter to be decided in the real world —and that, sadly, is a world in which we know that most
people do not, and in the immediate future will not, give substantial amounts to overseas aid agencies. We know, too, that
at least in the next year, the United States Government is not going to meet even the very modest United Nations-recommended
target of 0.7 percent of gross national product; at the moment it lags far below that, at 0.09 percent, not even half of Japan's
0.22 percent or a tenth of Denmark's 0.97 percent. Thus, we know that the money we can give beyond that theoretical "fair
share" is still going to save lives that would otherwise be lost. While the idea that no one need do more than his or her
fair share is a powerful one, should it prevail if we know that others are not doing their fair share and that children will
die preventable deaths unless we do more than our fair share? That would be taking fairness too far.
Thus, this ground for limiting
how much we ought to give also fails. In the world as it is now, I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of
us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so
dire as to be life-threatening. That's right: I'm saying that you shouldn't buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate
the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a $1,000 suit could save five children's lives.
So how does my philosophy break
down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities,
according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000
a year, donations to help the world's poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities
holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula
is simple: whatever money you're spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.
Now, evolutionary psychologists
tell us that human nature just isn't sufficiently altruistic to make it plausible that many people will sacrifice so much
for strangers. On the facts of human nature, they might be right, but they would be wrong to draw a moral conclusion from
those facts. If it is the case that we ought to do things that, predictably, most of us won't do, then let's face that fact
head-on. Then, if we value the life of a child more than going to fancy restaurants, the next time we dine out we will know
that we could have done something better with our money. If that makes living a morally decent life extremely arduous, well,
then that is the way things are. If we don't do it, then we should at least know that we are failing to live a morally decent
life —not because it is good to wallow in guilt but because knowing where we should be going is the first step toward
heading in that direction.
When Bob first grasped the dilemma
that faced him as he stood by that railway switch, he must have thought how extraordinarily unlucky he was to be placed in
a situation in which he must choose between the life of an innocent child and the sacrifice of most of his savings. But he
was not unlucky at all. We are all in that situation.