Free Minds & Free Markets

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.

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