Peter Singer, arguably the world’s most influential living philosopher, is best known for applying rigorous logic to a range of practical issues from animal rights, giving to charity to whether it’s okay to abort a severely disabled child.

Singer was born in Melbourne in 1946 to Austrian Jewish Holocaust survivors. As a teen he declared his atheism and refused to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah. After studying law, history and philosophy at Melbourne University, he won a scholarship to Oxford University, writing his thesis on civil disobedience. In 1996 he ran unsuccessfully for the Greens in the Victorian State Parliament, and he has held posts at Melbourne, Monash, New York, London and Princeton Universities. His impact on public debate and academic philosophy cannot be overstated.

A key aspect of Singer’s contributions is the idea of ‘equal consideration of interests’. This informs both his views towards animals and charity. It means that we should consider the interests of any sentient beings who have the capacity to suffer and feel pleasure and pain.

Singer is a consequentialist, which means he defines ethical actions as ones that maximise overall pleasure and reduce overall pain. Part of what makes him such a challenging and influential thinker is his application of utilitarianism to real-world problems to offer counter-intuitive yet compelling solutions.’

Are you speciesist?

While at Oxford, Singer recalls a conversation with a friend over lunch that was the “most formative experience of [his] life”. Singer had the meat spaghetti, whereas his friend opted for the salad. His friend was the “first ethical vegetarian” he’d met. Two weeks later, Singer became a vegetarian and several years later published his seminal work Animal Liberation (1975).

Singer’s argument for not eating meat is more-or-less the same as another utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham wrote that “the question is not can they reason or can they talk, but can they suffer?” Similarly, Singer argues that animals have the capacity to suffer. Just as we rightly condemn torture, we should also condemn practices like factory farming that inflict unjustifiable pain on non-human animals. He coined the term ‘speciesism’ to describe the privileging of humans over other animals.

Although the term ‘speciesist’ is intended to invoke an emotive response like the irrational prejudices of racism and sexism, perhaps Singer himself inadvertently promotes another form of ‘ism’ by focussing too heavily on the experiences of suffering that humans find most recognisable to their own. It isn’t clear that plants don’t feel pain and don’t have interests. Plant liberation may be arguing too much, but it shows a problem with taking speciesism seriously: we just don’t know what species suffer and have consciousness and which don’t

Giving to charity

In Singer’s essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality” (1972), he argues that people in rich countries have a moral obligation to give to charities that help people in poverty overseas. He uses an analogy of a drowning child: if we were walking past a shallow pond and saw a child drowning, we would wade in and save the child, even if this meant wrecking our favourite and most expensive pair of shoes. Likewise, because we know there are children dying overseas from preventable poverty-related diseases, we should be giving at least some of our income to charities that fight this.

Opponents to Singer argue that his view about giving to charity is psychologically untenable, and that there are differences between giving to charity and saving a drowning child. For example, the physical act of pulling a child out from water is more morally compelling than sending a cheque overseas. Other arguments include: we don’t know the child will definitely be saved when we send the cheque, fighting poverty requires a collective global effort not just an individual donation, and charities are ineffective and have high overhead costs.

Singer concedes that there may be psychological reasons why people would save the drowning child yet don’t give much to charity, but he says even if it seems strange, rationally there are no relevant moral differences between the cases.

Responding to the criticism that charities may not be effective has led Singer to be a proponent of ‘effective altruism’. In his book The Most Good You Can Do (2015) he describes how a number of charity evaluators can recommend the most cost-effective way to do good. Singer recommends giving on a progressive scale, depending on one’s income.

Instead of pursuing careers in academia, some of Singer’s brightest past students have decided to work for Wall Street to make as much money as possible to then give this away to effective charities.

Controversy around infanticide

Singer has faced sustained criticism and protest throughout his career for his views on the sanctity of life and disability – especially in Germany, where in the 90’s, his views were compared to Nazism and university courses that set his books were boycotted. While he has always been a staunch supporter of abortion on the grounds that a fetus lacks self-consciousness and the criteria of personhood, his view is extreme in that there is no moral difference between abortion in the womb and killing a newborn. Furthermore, because a newborn cannot yet be classified as a person, if its parents do not want it to survive, or if it has an extreme disability meaning that keeping it alive would be very costly, there is potential justification in killing it.

On Singer’s view, newborn infants have less moral worth than adult chimpanzees, or other non-human animals that display more characteristics of personhood such as “rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness”.

Religious sanctity-of-life critics argue that Singer’s ethics ignore the fundamental sanctity of human life. Disability rights advocates argue that Singer’s views are ableist. Arguing that the quality of life of a disabled person is less than that of a non-disabled person ignores the socially-constructed nature of disability, in that its harms and inconveniences are largely because the built environment is made for able-bodied people.

Singer thinks that opponents to his view often form their opinions based off keywords and quotes, and that his views are “not threatening to anyone, even minimally” when understood in the context of his wider belief system. Some credit must be given to Singer for his willingness to discuss opposing views, often in the face of hostility and anger.

Conclusion

Singer provides a clear and logical way of adjudicating ethical dilemmas. While some of his views are understandably controversial, overall he provides a welcome breath of fresh air into a philosophical landscape that is often couched in technical jargon and complicated arguments.

Above all, he practices what he preaches – he is a vegan, wears second-hand clothes and gives a large proportion of his money to charity and he is committed to trying to do the most good he can with his life as a public philosopher and educator.

Join the conversation

Should you give equal consideration to the interests of all sentient beings?