Peter Singer is reserved when I meet him at the Oxford Union. Despite immaculate manners, he rarely laughs and his answers never drift from my questions. It’s the conversation of a man who’s spent his life justifying views which some people find abhorrent.
As the world’s most famous utilitarian philosopher, Singer is used to controversy. His 1975 book Animal Liberation was instrumental for me deciding to stop eating meat in 2010. Every conclusion he draws is based on a logical equation – which decision will cause the least suffering? He argues that this is the only proper basis for morality. The approach made him a pioneer of vegetarianism in the 1970s, but has also caused him to justify bestiality, and killing severely disabled children.
I ask whether Singer’s utilitarianism ever leads him to uncomfortable answers. For decades, he’s been embroiled in arguments over euthanasia, but today he says the public is on his side. Yet on other issues, Singer recognises that he’s divisive. “I supported infanticide for severely disabled infants, and that is a bit different [to euthanasia], because it’s not voluntary. And a lot of people do support that, or at least they support allowing these children to die, which is not all that different. That was a bit harder to come to because it was going more against popular opinion. I’m not sure there’s anything now that I hold back, after that experience.”
I’m impressed that Singer is able to detach his moral decisions from emotional instinct. He is desperate to avoid irrationality. I ask him for his thoughts on Guantanamo Bay, and he’s only concerned with its overall consequences. “I think it’s counter-productive because it blurs the distinction between the United States as a defender of human rights, and other repressive regimes And I think it’s good to have that distinction so dictators can’t say, well, you know, it’s all just sham rhetoric.” It’s striking that Singer’s opinions are based on broad outcomes, not the suffering of individual prisoners.
Born in Melbourne in 1946, Singer was an undergraduate at the University of Melbourne. But he began to act on his ethical ideas when studying for a DPhil at University College, Oxford. He describes the moment he became a vegetarian, chatting with a friend in Balliol hall. “I sat down next to someone, who was a vegetarian and we were talking about other things… He hadn’t actually said he was a vegetarian, he just asked what was in the spaghetti sauce, and when he found out there was meat in it he didn’t take any. So I actually asked him, and he sounded pretty convincing really so I took it further.”
The urge to act on a moral basis has defined Singer’s lifestyle for decades. I question why so few people pursue their moral ideas more strongly, and he emphasises evolution. “I think it’s because we’re influenced by self-interested considerations more than they really ought to account, and the explanation for that is evolutionary. If our ancestors hadn’t been self-interested, or interested in the wellbeing of their kin, those genes responsible for how they think and behave would have died out. So I think the evolution of selection is one which tilts survivors towards thinking of themselves and their kin, and that’s clearly what most humans do.”
It’s an unusually pessimistic interpretation of humanity for a left-wing thinker. The sentiment is part of his broader analysis of politics. Singer wants the left to reject any hangover from Marxism, and embrace a Darwinian view of human nature – unorthodox, considering the current association between Darwin, competition, and neoliberal economics.
Adopting Singer’s politics would require several shifts of this magnitude. However, when I ask if he thinks utilitarianism would overturn the existing political framework, he seems unsure. He argues that our judicial system is compatible with utilitarianism. He also says that the current emphasis on human rights is tokenistic. “You could argue that the acceptance of killing civilians by drones shows they [politicians] don’t really believe in the rhetoric of absolute rights. Maybe it’s because those people are not Americans, although actually two of them have been Americans, but they haven’t been Americans living in the United States, or they’ve been Americans of Arab descent or something like that.”
Singer believes the shift towards utilitarianism has begun, notably in Australia and Sweden. Yet it hasn’t spread universally. “I think the US in the English speaking world is probably the one that’s furthest from that way of thinking… Britain is somewhat more utilitarian. For example the stuff that NICE [the National Institute for Clinical Excellence] does in saying which drugs are too expensive. You can’t say that openly in the US: there’s a myth that care service ought to provide everything that’s good. That you can’t have bureaucrats deciding who lives and who dies, whereas in fact you can’t not have bureaucrats making that decision, because inevitably you have to allocate resources.”
I express cynicism that a utilitarian world will ever exist, but Singer is an optimist. “Look, never is a very long time. If we assume the human species will survive for a million years, who can predict what it will be like. We’ve had relatively little time where we understand the world, where we’ve had modern science, and methods of changing ourselves and structuring society, so I don’t think anybody could say never. But I could say I’m not going to see a world like that, and I think you’d be lucky if you are.”
To me, the problem is that a utilitarian lifestyle is almost impossible. I tell him about my veggie guilt about eating dairy products and eggs, although my beliefs imply I should be vegan. He cuts me off – “They’re very demanding, yeah you’re right… I think in a lot of these things the utilitarian perspective is very demanding if you follow it all the way. But you can say ‘look, this is what I’m prepared to do at this stage. I’m going to stick at that, so I’ll be doing quite well relative to where the rest of our society is. And I don’t have to feel terrible about myself for not going further.’”
There’s something endearing about Singer’s conversation. Everything he says is closely reasoned, making it seem impossible to chat idly. It feels like a tutorial, but means there’s little small-talk in the interview.
The next day, I go to watch Singer speak about food ethics. The speech is straightforward, expressing the same arguments animal rights activists have been pushing since the 1970s. If any other speaker had given the talk, it would have been unoriginal. The room’s enthusiastic response isn’t based on Singer’s lecture. We’re recognising his attempts to increase the world’s happiness over the last forty years.