The Journal of Practical Ethics recently posed 20 hardball questions to Peter Singer about his philosophy. They offer a terrific insight into his thinking as his long career draws to a close.
Singer made his reputation in the 1970s with his book Animal Liberation. Nowadays he may be the world’s best known philosopher. Certainly he is the best-known utilitarian ethicist and the best-known Australian philosopher. Aged 70 now, he is a professor at Princeton University in the United States.
Singer has become notorious for challenging the idea of the “sanctity of life” in areas such as abortion and euthanasia while defending the rights of intelligent animals like apes, pigs and dolphins. But all too often the offending quotations are drawn from articles or books published decades ago. This excellent interview appeared on-line in December, so the views he expresses are up-to-date. And, guess what? They have hardly changed.
Here are a few brief excerpts from the interview presented without editorial commentary.
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About utilitarianism: Why do many intelligent and sophisticated people reject utilitarianism? Some people give more weight to their intuitions than I do—and less weight to arguments for debunking intuitions. Does that reduce my confidence in utilitarianism? Yes, to some extent, but I still remain reasonably confident that it is the most defensible view of ethics. I don’t know if everyone will accept utilitarianism in 100 years, but I don’t find the prospect frightening. It would only be frightening if people misapplied it, and I do not assume that they will.
On critics: There have been many critics of my views about euthanasia for severely disabled infants. I had some good discussions with the late Harriet McBryde Johnson, who was not a philosopher but a lawyer who had a rich and full life despite being born with a very disabling condition. As long as she was alive, when I wrote anything on that topic, I wrote with her potentially critical response in mind.
The objective truth of morality: You could just say “these are my normative views, and I’m going to treat them as if they were true, without thinking about whether moral judgments really can be objectively true.” If you do that, then in practice your decisions will be the same whether or not moral judgments can be objectively true. But given that I think morality is highly demanding, it becomes easier to say that, since morality is so highly demanding, and there is nothing irrational about not doing what morality demands, I’m not going to bother doing what I know to be right. If there are objective reasons for doing what morality demands, it’s more troubling to go against them.
On absolute moral standards: There are still absolutists. Some are proponents of the “new natural law” tradition, which has its roots in Catholic moral theology, even though it is presented as a secular position. Others are Kantians, many of them outside English-speaking philosophy. In Germany, for example, you would find wide support for the idea that we should not torture a child, even if (as in Dostoevsky’s example in The Brothers Karamazov) that would produce peace on earth forever. To me it seems obvious that if by torturing one child you could prevent a vast number of children (and adults) suffering as much or more than the child you have to torture, it would be wrong not to torture that child.
On “common sense” morality: I haven’t changed my views about our everyday moral intuitions. In fact my readiness to reject them has, if anything, increased. It is a mistake to judge normative theories by the extent to which they match our everyday moral judgments. I used to argue against many of our intuitions (for example, the intuition that the killing of a newborn infant is just as wrong as the killing of an older person who wants to go on living) on the grounds that they were based on religious beliefs and specific to Western culture. That’s still my view, but during the past twenty years we have learned a lot more from work in moral psychology by Josh Greene and others. We now know that many of our moral intuitions have an evolved biological basis. So even when moral intuitions are universally held, that doesn’t show them to be a reliable guide to what we ought to do…
On inconsistency: The view that I take in Practical Ethics and some other writings is not that not aiding is the same as harming in all respects… [So why not donate a spare kidney?] I don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.
On adopting out a [hypthetical] Down syndrome child: For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop.
On dogs, pigs, and disabled babies: Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.
On bestiality and infanticide: Many people have attacked me because of what I wrote in reviewing [the book Dearest Pet]; but it was only a book review, for goodness sake! Anyway, I stand by what I wrote there (which basically just raises the question why it should be a criminal offense to have sexual contact with animals in a way that does not harm them). A psychotherapist who works with people troubled by their sexual feelings for animals told me that he gives my book review to his patients, and some of them find it helpful to see that the topic can be discussed in a calm and rational way. So I’m not even sure that, with hindsight, I regret having written it.
As for the issue of infanticide, anyone thinking hard about what makes killing wrong will need to consider that issue. I’m certainly not the only philosopher to suggest that killing an infant is different, ethically, from killing an older human being who wants to go on living. So I don’t regret discussing that topic either.
I don’t put forward provocative views for the sake of doing so. I put them forward where I think they have a basis in sound argument, and where it serves a purpose to have them discussed. I hope that other philosophers will do the same.
On the future: I worry that if people who think a lot about others and act altruistically decide not to have children, while those who do not care about others continue to have children, the future isn’t going to be good.
On moral bioenhancement: I have some practical concerns: will it work? Will there be unexpected negative side-effects? But suppose that we can put aside those worries and can be highly confident that the proposed bioenhancement will reduce suffering and increase happiness for all affected—then I have no problem with human bioenhancement. Indeed, it would be a very positive thing. As for moral bioenhancement specifically, I doubt that it will happen quickly enough, or spread widely enough, to solve the global moral problems like climate change that we face right now. But once again, if we could do it, that would be very good.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.