The Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Singer interviewed by Ronald Bailey

Controversial philosopher Peter Singer argues for animal rights, utilitarian ethics, and A Darwinian Left.


The New Yorker calls him "the most influential living philosopher." His critics call him "the most dangerous man in the world." Peter Singer, the De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, is most widely and controversially known for his view that animals have the same moral status as humans. He is the author of many books, including Practical Ethics (1979), Rethinking Life and Death (1995), and Animal Liberation (1975), which has sold more than 450,000 copies. This year he published Writings on an Ethical Life (Ecco Press) and A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation (Yale University Press), which argues that the left must replace Marx with Darwin if it is to remain a viable force.

Singer is perhaps the most thoroughgoing philosophical utilitarian since Jeremy Bentham. As such, he believes animals have rights because the relevant moral consideration is not whether a being can reason or talk but whether it can suffer. Jettisoning the traditional distinction between humans and nonhumans, Singer distinguishes instead between persons and non-persons. Persons are beings that feel, reason, have self-awareness, and look forward to a future. Thus, fetuses and some very impaired human beings are not persons in his view and have a lesser moral status than, say, adult gorillas and chimpanzees.

Given such views, it was no surprise that anti-abortion activists and disability rights advocates loudly decried the Australian-born Singer's appointment at Princeton last year. Indeed, his language regarding the treatment of disabled human beings is at times appallingly similar to the eugenic arguments used by Nazi theorists concerning "life unworthy of life." Singer, however, believes that only parents, not the state, should have the power to make decisions about the fates of disabled infants.

Singer has made similarly controversial plunges into social policy. In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, he argued that the affluent in developed countries are killing people by not giving away to the poor all of their wealth in excess of their needs. How did he come to this conclusion? "If…allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers," he explains in Practical Ethics. He calculates that the average American household needs $30,000 per year; to avoid murder, anything over that should be given away to the poor. "So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000," he wrote in the Times.

Rigorous adherence to a single principle has a way of hoisting one by one's own petard. Singer's mother suffers from severe Alzheimer's disease, and so she no longer qualifies as a person by his own standards, yet he spends considerable sums on her care. This apparent contradiction of his principles has not gone unnoticed by the media. When I asked him about it during our interview at his Manhattan apartment in late July, he sighed and explained that he is not the only person who is involved in making decisions about his mother (he has a sister). He did say that if he were solely responsible, his mother might not be alive today.

Singer's proclamation about income has also come back to haunt him. To all appearances, he lives on far more than $30,000 a year. Aside from the Manhattan apartment—he asked me not to give the address or describe it as a condition of granting an interview—he and his wife Renata, to whom he has been married for some three decades, have a house in Princeton. The average salary of a full professor at Princeton runs around $100,000 per year; Singer also draws income from a trust fund that his father set up and from the sales of his books. He says he gives away 20 percent of his income to famine relief organizations, but he is certainly living on a sum far beyond $30,000. When asked about this, he forthrightly admitted that he was not living up to his own standards. He insisted that he was doing far more than most and hinted that he would increase his giving when everybody else started contributing similar amounts of their incomes.

There is some question as to how seriously one should take the dictates of a person who himself cannot live up to them. If he finds it impossible to follow his own rules, perhaps that means that he should reconsider his conclusions. Singer would no doubt respond that his personal failings hardly invalidate his ideas.

In his mid 50s, Singer is a rail-thin, quietly genial man who seems very comfortable with himself. At one point I asked him, "If it resulted in an overall increase in the happiness of morally significant beings, whoever they may be, would you favor the slow, painful torture of professional philosophers, including ethicists?" His reply was good-natured: "I find it fortunately hard to imagine the circumstances in which that would occur, but if I were absolutely persuaded that this was the only way to do it, I guess I would have to."

Reason: A Darwinian Left argues that the left must dump Marx, whose ideas have not fared well in the real world, and replace him with Darwin. Why bother to reinvigorate the left, especially if it means jettisoning its foundational thinker?

Peter Singer: That's a question that an American would be more likely to ask than someone from Britain or Australia or Western Europe. When I wrote this book, I wasn't living in the United States. I started work on it in order to give a lecture at the London School of Economics. I think the assumptions Americans often make that the left is dead or moribund is not an assumption that any Australian or British or Western European would make. There are leftist governments in power there. You can argue about how you define the left, but most people would say, I think, that the governments in power in Britain and Germany, say, are leftist governments. There was a left-wing government in power in Australia until 1996, and may well be again. So this is an ongoing part of politics. I think America is a little exceptional in that respect, but even here I think there is clearly a left of varying shades. So the question of how should the left proceed and what sort of ideas should it have is what preoccupied me, rather than seeing it as in need of reinvigorating.

Reason: What limits does Darwinian thinking put on the left's core goal of fostering egalitarianism?

Singer: I think understanding Darwinian thinking makes us realize that humans are not by nature egalitarian. To the contrary and by nature, they form hierarchies and rankings and try to move up those hierarchies. That doesn't mean that you can't or shouldn't work toward a more egalitarian society, but it does mean that you should be aware that you won't be able to do so simply by removing artificial contrivances that maintain inequality. You'll have to do more than that. You'll have to do something positive in order to promote or maintain equality, and there will be costs in doing that. The question the left then has to ask is, What costs are worth paying and what costs aren't worth paying?

Reason: What are those costs? What are the limits that this kind of thinking would set on a program of egalitarianism?

Singer: I don't see theoretical limits. You could imagine societies in which people maintain by fairly stern authoritarian measures equality of wealth. It's hard to imagine them all having equality of power, because if it were an authoritarian society some people would have to be telling others what to do, but conceivably that could be distributed in an egalitarian way.

Reason: Let me put it differently: What limits should be set on a program of egalitarianism?

Singer: Right, right. That's a different question. I think the limits ought to be essentially those that can be achieved without the kind of authoritarianism that would be incompatible with fairly liberal democratic traditions and without enormous costs and enormous loss. You have to consider whether you're going to trade off some element of the total overall prosperity of a society for the sake of having it be more egalitarian. I think those are questions of judgment. I think it's reasonable to trade off some measure of that, but obviously not enough to create a widespread hardship.

Reason: What do you think would be a reasonable tradeoff?

Singer: I would look at it in terms of meeting people's basic needs and providing for a certain level of comfort. I think the kind of thing you're talking about is if you could ensure that there are virtually no people whose basic needs for food, shelter, warmth—those sorts of things—are not being met. I think that might be something that was worth doing, but I emphasize only if you could do it without introducing authoritarian measures, and that's a separate question.

Reason: It is very popular among some segments of the intellectual left to say that various aspects of society are "socially constructed" in the sense that humans are radically free to make social institutions and social roles be whatever we want them to be. Yet you argue that some common human tendencies—including hierarchy, male dominance, and sex roles—transcend cultural variation. Are the social constructivists deluded by ideology?

Singer: I think they are factually in error. At least, that's my best guess. This is obviously an area where there are no demonstrable proofs, but I would say that the evidence that's been coming in—the evidence of evolutionary theory, the evidence of cross-cultural comparisons, the evidence of looking at our closer primate relatives—suggests that these things are not simply culturally constructed.

Reason: You write, "Modern Darwinian thought embraces both competition and reciprocal altruism, which is really a more technical term for cooperation." You also write, "Modern market economies are premised on the idea that we are all dominated by acquisitive and competitive desires." But aren't markets really the primary arenas for reciprocal altruism? I give you something in exchange for something you give me back. There's a lot of reciprocal altruism in markets. Billions of transactions take place every day in the market, and 99.9 percent of the time both parties go away happy.

Singer: Yes, you can see markets as involving reciprocal altruism. Certainly they involve all sorts of relationships, and that's part of it. In the statement you read I was thinking not so much of ongoing trading relationships [as] the mentality of advertising—that is, essentially seeing consumers as acquisitive and trying to attract their acquisitive desires to this product rather than that product.

When I'm thinking of reciprocal altruism, I'm thinking of things where there is not just a single exchange but an ongoing relationship. A lot of those billions of transactions do take place in ongoing relationships, where you go to the same little outlet that sells your fruit and vegetables or whatever. But a lot of them, particularly in larger societies, get more anonymous, and there really is no such relationship. It's a sort of one-off thing, and it's not a relationship that's built up over time or that has the same conditions.

Reason: As I understand Darwinism, there's nothing beyond reciprocal altruism. As you write, "We often reserve the greatest rewards for those who do not seek them, precisely because we wish to encourage readiness to sacrifice one's own interest for the sake of others." Don't people who sacrifice in this way understand that they are engaging in a kind of tit for tat: "If I do this risky thing, there's a good chance I will get a good reputation, which will lead to more money, more attractive mating possibilities, more children, etc."? By reserving rewards for such sacrifices, haven't we constructed a society where people understand tit for tat in this larger sense? And doesn't that fit well within the notion of Darwinian reciprocal altruism?

Singer: I think that's a slightly cynical interpretation of why people do these things. You say, "Well, they all know that"—so it suggests that in some way this has more or less consciously got into their motivation. There are many cases of altruistic acts that are more spontaneous than that, or more anonymous than that. A lot of people give to the blood bank, but they don't go out wearing the little badges that say, "I gave to the blood bank today." Some people do, but a lot of them don't. So it's not clear who's going to know about altruistic behavior or how they're going to get rewarded for it. Where I'm talking about altruism, I'm excluding those people who are doing it with the sense of getting a reward for it. This is what I call genuine altruism, as distinct from reciprocal altruism. There can be such people who act because they do in fact get rewarded, but that's a somewhat separate question from what their conscious motivations are for doing it.

Reason: You admit in the book that a very small proportion of the people in society will actually be motivated to genuine altruism. What kind of institutions do you see for increasing that number, given Darwinian constraints?

Singer: You can only do it in a piecemeal, experimental way and see what's going to work. You can create the opportunities for it, and you can see whether people will voluntarily come to it. I think those experiments are interesting. Obviously, the blood bank is an institution with a long history. Bone marrow registers are more recent, require a significantly greater sacrifice, and attract a smaller number of people. But they still attract numbers that are real, and that may be sufficient for it to achieve its purposes.

Reason: Both Japan and Britain have to import from the United States about half their blood plasma because they don't get enough from donations. The reason the United States is the world's largest exporter of human plasma is that we have commercial blood collection centers. So in a certain sense, if it's a good thing to do, to have these supplies, why not commercialize it?

Singer: There's at least an argument to say that the opportunity to give altruistically is something that fosters a sense of community, a sense of community ties. It is not entirely a coincidence that the United States has more commercial ways of doing these things. Maybe they do produce more plasma, but on most accounts the United States is also a society which has weaker social ties. Individuals tend to be isolated more easily and so on; perhaps this has some broader social costs as well.

Reason: What does Darwinian thinking tell the left about why so many of the social programs they have favored have had difficulties or have failed?

Singer: It tells the left that some of them have failed because their goals were really unrealistic. For example, if their goals were to achieve equality and to combine that with a high degree of liberty—to have the state withering away, as Marx said—it's very difficult to see how you're going to be able to achieve that. If you let the state wither away, then humans' natural tendencies to form hierarchies and rank and so on are going to assert themselves. What happened specifically with the form of communism that was attempted in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was that people went into it with some vague idea that they could have this sort of society. But they kept needing to strengthen the power of the state rather than allow it to wither away. In that sense, the original idea would just collapse. You simply couldn't achieve it. Human beings are not such that you could expect them to work for the common good in the way that the theory assumed. The failure to understand that human nature is not as plastic as socialists often assume is a substantial part of why some of these schemes have failed.

Reason: Would you agree that the pursuit of equality as the primary social goal is the source of most of the human suffering in the 20th century?

Singer: That's a bit of an overstatement. I don't see the suffering generated by the Nazis as in pursuit of equality. But it has undoubtedly been the source of significant amounts of suffering, perhaps because of its failures and also because of the regimes that it allowed to become established. I mean, I don't really see the existence of Stalin as the most direct thing related to the pursuit of equality, but you could say his regime grew out of the pursuit of equality. So that's true, and I think that's why I'm saying that the left has to moderate those aims. It already has to a good extent, but it has to consider what aims it really values enough to stick to, given various costs that would need to be paid.

Reason: Some welfare policies eliminate tit for tat, so that even if beneficiaries don't cooperate, they still get rewarded. What are the policy implications of that insight? One of the things often said by proponents of market forces is that poverty is like anything else—the more money you pay for it, the more of it you can get.

Singer: Yes. This is a good case where there are two values at stake that you need to try to sort out. On the one hand, I think those on the left will want to say we don't want to see anyone starving in a society that's as wealthy as the United States. We don't want to see anyone without shelter. Maybe most people would also say we don't want to see anyone without basic levels of health care.

[But] if you give those things to people and there's no reciprocity, then, human nature being what it is, aren't they simply going to take advantage of the fact that you're giving it to them and cease to be productive in any way? You really have to be more careful than some of these schemes were, when initially promoted, in trying to distinguish people who can reciprocate and those who can't for [a good] reason.

Reason: Well, do you cut off those who can but just won't cooperate?

Singer: You keep them to a really bare minimum at that point. It doesn't take much to feed someone so that they're getting enough calories and so that they're not seriously hungry or undernourished. It doesn't take much to provide someone with the opportunity to have a warm, dry bed if they're willing to use it. You keep them at that very bare minimum.

Reason: So would you approve of what we've been doing in this country with workfare programs?

Singer: Yeah, as long as they're sufficiently attuned to allow for people who can't take part in that. I think requiring people to work for a reasonable kind of social security benefit is a good thing to do.

Reason: Is it possible that we are being misled by our reasoning into thinking that there is something more to ethics than evolved behavior—that all this talk is simply beside the point?

Singer: That's certainly possible. I don't really have a yes or no answer to that question. At some ultimate, deep level that may be the case, that the most fundamental moral commitments are not matters of knowledge and therefore are not things which we can say are true or false.

But there's nevertheless a lot of reasoning that can go on in ethics. Think about why you might think that abortion is wrong or why you might think it's justified: How does that fit with your general view about the sanctity of human life? Within these frameworks, you can say that's a statement that's inconsistent with something you said before, or that's an arbitrary way of drawing a line that you can't really defend, or that's not a well-grounded statement.

Reason: Could it be that our behaviors are constrained so that we really aren't able to choose? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking that we can actually choose to do one thing or another?

Singer: Darwinian theory suggests that choices are constrained in a sense that statistically you can predict what most people will do under some circumstances. But that's different from the sort of first-person sense of freedom that we have, where we're facing a question and we have this strong sense that we are free to choose what to do. Really, we are free to choose in the sense that if I decide that this is what I'm going to do, I can get up and do it, even if statistically it's going to be rare for people to do that. The sense of freedom there is genuine. I'm what has been called a "compatibilist" or a "soft determinist"—I think determinism is true, but it doesn't eliminate the claim that we have a choice and that we are responsible for our choices.

Determinism is true in the sense that if you knew everything about the world at state A, you would be able to predict what it would be like in state B later. But freedom is also real in the sense in which the world confronts us as a real capacity for choice. It's a mistake to simply dismiss it as an illusion. The kind of choice required for responsibility and for saying that someone is free is not something that is incompatible with the belief that their actions are caused. Think about the conditions for holding someone responsible: If they did something because they'd been drugged, then we say they're not free, they're not responsible. But if they did something because they sat there, they thought about it, and in the end the reasons and the values that they held led them to choose A rather than B, well, we say they're responsible. You could also say that if we'd known everything about them, we could have predicted that they would choose A rather than B. But they made a choice because they were free from all of those other factors which diminish responsibility.

Reason: So we choose among relevant causes?

Singer: That's right—the sorts of causes that we associate with a person being autonomous and those that make for free decisions.

Reason: From the perspective of the left, what is wrong with Huxley's Brave New World? Nearly everybody in that society is having a perfectly pleasurable time. They are certainly not suffering. Why is that not a moral world?

Singer: I shouldn't answer that on behalf of all the left because many on the left have differing values. It's in fact a tougher question for a utilitarian or a consequentialist like myself, who regards happiness or satisfaction of preferences as the ultimate value. There might be some on the left who see freedom as an ultimate value, and for them the objection to Brave New World would be that these people are being programmed and therefore aren't free. From my point of view, it all depends on whether people like the "savage" are rare—1 in 10 million or something like that—and whether the rest of the people are perfectly content and happy. If the choice is a society in which there's vastly more misery through violence, conflict, poverty, and so on, and you could bring about a Brave New World–like society, that would be fine. That would be an ideal society.

Reason: Part of what provokes my question about Brave New World is your last paragraph in A Darwinian Left.

Singer: Ah, right. The stuff about genetics.

Reason: You write: "For the first time since life emerged from the primeval soup, there are beings who understand how they came to be what they are. To those who fear adding to the power of government and the scientific establishment, this seems more of a danger than a source of freedom. In the more distant future that we can still barely glimpse, it may turn out to be the prerequisite of a new kind of freedom." You seem to hold out the possibility that science could eventually fulfill the left's dream of a malleable human nature.

Singer: Yes. I'm saying it's possible. Human nature is not malleable as the left believes it to be, but it may become malleable. It is under the control of our genes. We may learn how to alter it, and that may be a very long story. It may be that alterations also have great costs, just as political measures have great costs. You know, you bring in one thing, you lose something else. Over some time scale, I'd have to say that we will learn these things, and if people then want to change human nature, they will have the power to do so.

Reason: You say, "If people want to." If I choose to change my human nature, that's OK. But already some people with left-leaning tendencies—like Time's Robert Wright—have written that furthering their egalitarian project may require that the government offer these genetic technologies to everybody and subsidize their development and use. That scares me because it brings the state back in. And the state has not been very good on eugenics.

Singer: No, it hasn't. But the other option worries me too. You say, "If I change my human nature, that's my business." But in fact it's not likely to be, at least initially, your human nature that you change, but the human nature of your offspring. So we have one model, which is basically the free market model, that says, "Those who want to use genetic technology to change the nature of their offspring and can afford to do so may do so. Those who don't, or can't afford to do so, needn't or can't do it." A possible outcome—and I say possible because it depends a little bit on how much it actually does cost and what can be achieved and so on—is that the children of the wealthy will have capacities that will enable them to succeed in life, and the children of the poor won't. So you'll get a society that is more sharply divided than it is today. Already, the wealthy give their children enormous advantages in succeeding in life, but the advantages are such that the idea of equality of opportunity still lingers. Whether it's myth or reality, the expensive prep schools and colleges give scholarships to poor kids, and there is still a sense that if you're bright enough, and you work hard enough at it, you can make it.

If you start to get society dividing into those who have had their genes manipulated in desirable ways and those who haven't, you are actually going to get something that's going to be more like Brave New World. That's why various people have said, "Look, if that's what's going to happen, then maybe the government should subsidize these services and enable everyone to have them to some degree." For those societies that already provide health care services to their populations, it's not a big step. They will very likely provide services to eliminate what everyone would agree to be genetic defects and disabilities, so there's going to be the question of whether we should provide some particular kinds of enhancements as well. That is a somewhat nervy prospect. I don't disagree with that. The difference between that and previous government interventions in genetics could be that it's not coercive—that it's an offer of a subsidy. It's not saying "you must have this" or "we'll sterilize you if you don't do this."

Reason: You disagree with the many bioethicists who say that genetic enhancements should not be made available to anybody?

Singer: Certainly it would be premature to reach such a judgment. I think there's nothing in principle wrong with genetic enhancements and, as I say, there may be costs and dangers. It could be seen as a kind of human experimentation, and that has its problems. We talked about the dangers with a divided society. Those are issues that need to be talked about, but I don't think they're a reason for saying that genetic enhancement is per se wrong and ought to be prohibited.

Reason: The chief theme of Darwinism is successful reproduction. Do you see a concordance between your views with regard to the killing of certain defective infants and the Darwinian desire to successfully reproduce?

Singer: You're drawing together somewhat different aspects of my writings. What's probably true is that some of the reaction that people have to the birth of infants with evident disabilities is genetically coded. That is, for most of human history these infants were unlikely to survive, unlikely to reproduce. Therefore, it was better to not invest in them further: Abandon them and go on with reproduction that can lead to your genes passing on to further generations. I think that's certainly possible. I don't want to say that that makes it good, just as I don't want to say that male dominance being natural makes it good. Given that we now have the possibility of keeping these infants alive, we still need to ask, Well, is that a good thing to do or not a good thing to do, and why?

Reason: Would you require the death of a defective infant because other hypothetical babies would not be born who might lead more fulfilled lives?

Singer: No. My position is that the parents ought to be able to choose this. [Requiring the death of a defective infant] probably wouldn't increase overall happiness, if the parents wanted their child to stay alive. Parent have a very strong desire for their children, so it's hard to imagine.

Reason: But maybe they're wrong. They've misjudged.

Singer: Well, they may be wrong, but if they're going to suffer acutely for a long time over it, it's unlikely I think that the suffering of the child is going to be so great and so impossible to relieve that it will outweigh that. So that's why I would not require it. I could not imagine a society that would function well if it did require that, if it did take that decision from parents. I can imagine some very bizarre cases—if this child really had some condition [such that it] was just going to suffer excruciatingly and the parents nevertheless wanted it kept alive due to religious ideology. I would hope that the doctor would do something so the child didn't live and maybe say to the parents, "Unfortunately it died." But I wouldn't want to make that a matter of general social policy.

Reason: In A Darwinian Left, you talk about not withholding insulin from diabetic children. Yet elsewhere you've argued that it would be all right for parents to choose to kill a hemophiliac infant. Nowadays a hemophiliac can take a shot of blood clotting Factor 8 every week and essentially live a normal life. Why did you make that distinction, or does the decision depend on the state of medical technology?

Singer: First, the quote about hemophiliac babies, which is often cited, is something of a misrepresentation. If you look at the actual passage, I am exploring the implications of a particular viewpoint in which nothing's going on except the parents and the child. Having done that, I come back some pages later to say, but when you look at the larger society, if you've got childless couples who would like to adopt a child and hemophilia is not a serious problem, then it's wrong to kill that child if parents really don't want to rear it for some reason. They ought to give it up for adoption. So that's really the kind of thing I'm saying there. But it is also true that when I first wrote that book back in 1979, it wasn't as easy as it is now to treat hemophilia.

Reason: So the moral choices that people make change with advances in technology?

Singer: Yeah. The morality of the situation depends on the consequences of what you're doing. If the consequences of keeping the baby alive are that you have to go to enormous trouble and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep it alive, then that's a morally different choice from if all you have to do is spend $20 a week, or whatever, for the shot.

Reason: Is it conceptually possible that capitalist market economies actually lead to the greatest overall happiness of humans than other social arrangements?

Singer: It's conceptually possible, certainly. It's an empirical question as to whether capitalist markets work better in terms of providing greater happiness than any other arrangement.

Reason: What kind of argument would persuade you that it is in fact empirically the case?

Singer: Historical arguments about the failure of alternatives are really powerful here. And it all depends, of course, what you mean by "capitalist markets." Some people mean very unregulated free enterprise systems. Other people would look at the Scandinavian countries or the Netherlands or, more generally, Western and Central Europe, and say they are capitalist economies with more social welfare provisions and that they're doing better. There's a debate that can go on about options, and you can look at different societies and compare them within that existing range. It's a fairly narrow range. Then you can look at the other attempts we talked about earlier: the Soviet sort of models, which really didn't work. You can look at smaller institutions like the kibbutzim too. That's probably the best way to reason about it, against the background of evolutionary theory that helps us to understand human psychology.

I think the evidence is that, within certain limits, things do work better if you let people decide for themselves. The debate is not whether there should be any [economic liberty] but how much.