The Most Good You Can Do – An Interview with Peter Singer
Interviewer: Hassan Alsharif
Let’s start from your beginnings, Peter. Who is the philosopher who influenced you the most as a student while you were still at the beginning of your journey with philosophy? How would you describe such an influence ?
When I was an undergraduate, the philosopher who influenced me most was H.J. McCloskey, who taught the first ethics course I took. This was at the University of Melbourne, a philosophy department very much influenced by Wittgenstein, J.L. Austin and “ordinary language” philosophy, which consisted of analysing the meanings of words. McCloskey was considered old-fashioned, because he still believed that it was worthwhile arguing about substantive issues in ethics and political philosophy. To me, that seemed a worthwhile thing to do – in contrast to linguistic analysis, it could make a difference to the world. Although I came to disagree strongly with McCloskey about substantive ethical matters, if it were not for him, I probably would not have continued with philosophy.
During your 55-year journey of philosophy, what were the event(s) during which you began to realize that you were on your way to becoming more than just a regular philosopher? Tell me how you handled this part of your life.
The crucial event took place in 1970, when I was a graduate student at Oxford University. A chance lunchtime meeting with Richard Keshen, a Canadian graduate student, changed my life, because when he was offered spaghetti, he asked if there was meet in the sauce, and when he was told that there was, he refused it. I had never met a vegetarian before, and so I asked him why he didn’t eat meat. He told me that he didn’t think it is right to treat animals in the way that the animals we eat are treated before they are killed. I was surprised – of course I knew that animals are slaughtered to provide meat for us, but I had no idea that already most animals raised for food had been brought indoors and were crowded together in sheds that caused them to lead miserable lives, not at all suited to their needs. That started me thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals, and I came to realize that I could not defend it. So here I was, a graduate student in philosophy, focusing especially on ethics, and every day I was doing something I could no longer justify. I stopped eating meat, and so for the first time my thinking about ethics had fundamentally changed not only my opinions, but also my daily life. That distinguished me from “regular philosophers” and made me an early proponent of “practical ethics”.
Professor Singer, let’s get into a little discussion of your philosophical work. Most of your philosophical work revolves around ethics. Why does ethics take such a priority for you?
I’ve already provided some clues towards an answer to that question. Ethics takes priority because it is about how we ought to live. It makes a difference to our lives and through our actions, to the world. What other subject can change lives in the way that studying ethics can?
Of course ethics makes a difference to our lives, but I’m still confused why you think that understanding how we should live is more influential on our lives than, for example, understanding how we should know? Or how we actually live and know?
If by “understanding how we should know” you mean understanding which are, and which are not, reliable ways of knowing what is true, that is an interesting and important question. Steven Pinker has just published a excellent book on that topic, entitled “Rationality: What it is, Why it seems scarce, Why it Matters“, and I recommend it to your readers. Perhaps that area of philosophy and psychology can also change lives in the way that ethics can. On the other hand, I think that understanding how we actually live is unlikely to change lives, or at least, is unlikely to change lives unless coupled with an ethical stance. That’s because understanding how we actually live is descriptive. It doesn’t raise the question: is this the best way to live? To ask that question is to do ethics.
I would like to know your opinion about an objection that might be made about the concern for ethics. Some may object that the interest in ethics, especially teaching ethics, is based on the assumption that people make their moral judgments based on moral reasoning, but a great deal of moral psychology literature suggests that we make moral judgments mostly based on moral intuition, and even if we use moral reasoning, we just use it as post-hoc to justify our moral intuition. Thus, it looks that teaching ethics may not seem effective as long as our ability to use moral reasoning is bounded. How do you respond to this challenge?
I have responded to that challenge by proving it to be false, or at best, a partial truth. Ethics does change the way people live. Not everyone is influenced by ethics, of course, but some are. I’ve known this for many years, because people who read my books or taken my classes have told me how my ideas have changed their lives. That was just anecdotal, of course. But together with two colleagues, Eric Schwitzgebel and Brad Cokelet, we have shown, in two rigorously controlled studies, that students randomly selected to take part in a class discussing the ethics of eating meat ordered fewer meals containing meat than a similar group of students who discussed a different topic. See “Do ethics classes influence student behavior? Case study: Teaching the ethics of eating meat”, Cognition, vol. 203, (October 2020) (with Eric Schwitzgebel and Brad Cokelet), and “Students Eat Less Meat After Studying Meat Ethics,” Review of Philosophy and Psychology, November 6, 2021 (with Eric Schwitzgebel and Brad Cokelet).
Do you think non-argument factors such as TA influence could be driving the change in student eating behavior?
We tested that in the second of the two studies I mentioned, and the answer seems to be no, that wasn’t driving the change.
Do you think that your food ethics result will generalize to other areas of ethics? How?
It may. Anecdotally, many people have told me that they have been influenced by my courses to do more for people who are much less fortunate than they are – those living in extreme poverty. And The Life You Can Save, a charity I founded to encourage people to donate to the most effective charities helping people in extreme poverty, has shown that ethical arguments for helping people in poverty, combined with information about the best ways to do that, can lead to increasing the number of people who donate, so that tens of millions of additional dollars are available to assist people in poverty.
In response to the refugee crisis in East Pakistan in 1972, you wrote your famous well-known article “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, and since then you have been strongly committing to this philosophy, I mean effective altruism. Can you briefly explain to us what effective altruism is?
Effective altruism is both a philosophy and a social movement. As a philosophy, it is the idea that making the world a better place should be one of our goals in life. That doesn’t mean that it has to be our only goal – few people are saints. But it should be important to us, and add meaning and fulfilment to our lives. That is the “altruism” part of Effective Altruism. The “effective” part simply says: get the best value possible from whatever resources you are putting towards your goal of making the world a better place. That is a principle most of us follow when buying consumer goods: we do some research so that we don’t spend more than we need to for a new phone, computer or car. But strangely, when giving to charity, few people apply the same principle. They give impulsively, without knowing how much good their donation is likely to do. Yet research shows that the very best charities can do one hundred times as much good as average charities. (To find the very best charities, go to www.thelifeyoucansave.org)
Does that mean that a morally better person is more concerned about making the world a better place? If so, then a fully ethical life, I think, would be an unappealing life. A person who is very concerned about making the world a better place wouldn’t have enough time for fun, friendship, or hobbies .. etc. Wouldn’t you think that there is something wrong with a moral theory that produces such a conception of fully ethical life?
On the contrary, I think it shows that there is something wrong with the world in which we are living, that there are so many things that could be done to make the world a better place, and yet most people are not doing them! And I don’t agree, by the way, that to live ethically one has to give up fun and friendship. Few of us are saints, and without a truly saintly and very rare nature, we cannot be so dedicated to good causes that we forego all fun, and have no time for friends. I have seen people try to live that way, but most of them do not last long. They burn out, and so they have less impact than they would if they relaxed a little.
Intriguingly, your concern of effective altruism was not only expressed by your philosophical reflection but also by your social activism. How can the philosophical reflection of a philosopher and their activism coexist without one ruining the other and dissipating its force?
Being a philosopher and being an activist can co-exist in the one person, but not at the same time. As a teacher of philosophy, I seek to educate my students in evaluating arguments. So whatever issue I teach, I present arguments that favor the position I hold, and arguments opposed to my position. I don’t pretend to be neutral – that would be dishonest, and in any case students would soon find what I have written. But I invite them to criticize what I have written, and I make sure that they know that the grades they get depend on how well they argue, and that they will do better if they can find strong arguments against my views than if they merely paraphrase what I have already written. In my philosophical writing and research, I also try to present objections to my views as fairly as possible. Even as an activist, treating opponents honestly and fairly is important, but obviously if a journalist asks me to comment and I know that I am only going to get an eight second sound bite, I have to say what I think is both right and most important, and then there is no time to express the nuances that I would want to provide on occasions that allow me to say more.
Prof. Singer, when people engage in activism they often develop an enduring emotional attachment، which makes them more vulnerable to motivated reasoning. Don’t you think that there is a risk that when one wants to play the philosopher role, one will have difficulty resisting that negative influence on reasoning? If that’s the case, would you agree that philosophers have a responsibility to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks?
Despite the very real danger to which you are pointing, I think it is possible, and in some circumstances even desirable, for philosophers to be activists. It can be desirable, I believe, for two reasons. First, because philosophers can assist the cause for which they are active, by helping to set out more clearly and rigorously the reasons for the change they are trying to achieve. Secondly, when students see that their teachers really care about the issues they are discussing, that may lead at least some students to realize that philosophy is not just an idle intellectual exercise, like solving a chess puzzle, but something that really matters. Now, as I have already acknowledged, there may be a danger that an activist develops an emotional attachment that leads them to reason less well about the issue on which they are active. But philosophers should be aware of this danger and, particularly in their teaching, make sure that they always present not only the point of view that they themselves support but also the arguments put forward by the opponents of that point of view. The philosophy classroom should not be the venue for activism, but rather for an open discussion of arguments for and against; and students should be graded on the quality of their arguments, and not on the extent to which they agree with the views of their teacher.
Let’s move, Professor Singer, to another area of ethics. As you know, AI is changing the way we live and work. In your veiw, how will AI affect our moral thinking, and what are the implications for the field of ethics in general?
Sorry, but that’s a whole new topic and I don’t have time to discuss it now.
If there is one advice you would give to young philosophers, what would it be?
Find important issues to discuss, issues on which you can make a difference. Use your capacity to reason, and think critically about ideas that others take for granted
What are your current interests? What is the topic of the next book ?
I am revising Animal Liberation – an update is long overdue. The philosophical arguments have held up well over the years, but many of the facts I describe have changed. I remain interested in the obligations we affluent people have to those in extreme poverty. And I also work from time to time on issues in bioethics – I wrote several articles about issues raised by the pandemic. Many of my short popular writings have been collected in “Ethics in the Real World”, and I am also preparing a new edition of that book
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Hassan Alsharif, an assistant professor of philosophy at Taibah University, and the co-founder of SCOPE (Saudi Center Of Philosophy & Ethics)