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Interview: Peter Singer

Over Skype, Peter Singer is the consummate philosopher: calm, reasoned but possessing a distinct alacrity when answering questions pertaining to his work. It is striking that such a rational mind was the architect of Effective Altruism, a mode of thinking that he considers both a philosophy and a social movement. At first glance, one could assume that Effective Altruism concerns our emotional, passionate domains rather than our logical faculties. What Singer clarifies throughout our conversation, however, is that his work is principally the result of rational observation. He maintains, over 40 years on from the publication of his first work, that Effective Altruism, as well as what it entails, simply is the appropriate moral code for us humans. There is no reasonable alternative. I ask him first to explain exactly what Effective Altruism is.

“The philosophy is the idea that at least one of our aims should be to do good, to do good in the world. In doing that we should use whatever resources we bring to it as effectively as possible, be that time or skill. From a social perspective, it is an emerging movement, about ten years old now, of people who have chosen to live in this way, forming organisations and groups to discuss what is the best thing to do and how to do it.”

With this in mind, Singer proceeds to tell me about his own personal, original motivation for pursuing such a philosophy, citing his renowned article Famine, Affluence and Morality from 1972 as a starting point. 

“I wrote that because I was concerned that we were not doing enough for particular crisis situations, such as the crisis in East Pakistan, which is now modern day Bangladesh. There were nine million refugees in need of assistance, and that just got me thinking about what our obligations are as people in affluent societies when it comes to helping people in great need elsewhere in the world.”

He is quick, however, to state that Effective Altruism must be a continuous ethical standard, not just a convenient one at a moment of crisis.

“It’s not just when there is a big crisis in the headlines that there are people in great need. There are people in great poverty now in countries where there is no war, where there is no particular drought or famine. Their lives are not the types of life we think human beings ought to have. This broader understanding now motivates a lot of people. It’s not just this crisis or that crisis, but a situation in the world that we can do something about.”

I ask him about the media’s role in all of this, considering their proclivity to exploit humans’ natural orientation towards flash headlines and sudden disaster. He agrees that this might be a problem for the movement.

“The media has a certain bias towards things that will generate headlines, towards particular events that may, in fact, be far less important. You get dramatic headlines if there is a shooting that kills fifty people, you don’t get such headlines when five million babies die before their first birthday in the last year. It is not easy to overcome that, it is a matter of educating people. It’s a constant struggle, but the movement has made significant progress.”

“It is also really important to notice and make known the positive changes happening in the world. If people are left unaware of the impact movements like ours have, they can get discouraged, they can feel that money has been given and it has not done any good. If newspapers just report the negatives, you might well get that feeling. Back in 1960, when the world’s population was a lot smaller, twenty million babies died before their first birthday. So we have made very good progress in reducing that number. We need to get that positive message across too.”

Given that there is still much work to do, it is vital that the movement continues to gain popularity. I question Singer on whether rational discussion can really draw in large swathes of people who may be governed by more emotional desires.

“I think it’s important that people not only act from their passions but they draw on their reasoning ability as well. But I don’t expect people to let go of those emotions, because I don’t think it would be good if they did. They may become less motivated to act at all. However, we need to get people to pause and think about what they are doing. It can’t all be blind emotion.”

He briefly mentions the role of students who are more willing to reflect on their own values and actions. He proudly recalls how many of his own students have been turned towards Effective Altruism and have decided to integrate it into their future lives. He then briefly alludes to students’ political leanings, and I decide to probe a little further, asking, more generally, about how the philosophy plays out in the political domain.

“It’s clearly political in so far as it is trying to get away from the views of people on the right, like Ayn Rand. It is a movement away from the idea that it is good to be selfish, that somehow under capitalism people thinking and acting selfishly works under this hidden hand to do the most good. It doesn’t do the most good, and we need to think about directly aiming at doing good for people who don’t have the same chance to get into the global economy. So in that sense it is taking a stance against a certain political and economic thinking. On the other hand, it is also taking a stance against the idea that the solution to all these problems is a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system. It is saying, look, capitalism has been around a long time, it doesn’t look like we are going to overthrow it very soon and it is not clear what the best alternative would be. So while we are here, let’s try to do what we can within that system. In fact, it is kind of ironic that sometimes Marxists object to this, and yet that is exactly what Engels did. He was a capitalist running a factory in Manchester, and without his financial support, Marx wouldn’t have had the leisure to write the works that he did.”

On this note of extreme ideological thinking, he quickly dismisses anyone who aggressively, or even violently, tries to push their own agenda, even if that agenda is something like Effective Altruism. 

“You understand why people get carried away with the importance of the issue, but they really need to think more about the consequences of the way they are talking to people.”

A common charge thrown at Singer is that his philosophy is invariably opposed to a bias towards egoism that all humans possess, as a result of our evolutionary history. He discusses the issue with typical composure, always focussing on the vital role of rationality.

“The crucial thing to remember is that for most of the existence of our species, and the species from which we descended, we lived in small groups, of around a hundred to two hundred people. We evolved responses to those circumstances, which meant that if there was somebody who needed our assistance who was a part of our group, we’d be likely to help them. That helped us form cooperative relationships and helped us survive, as well as ensuring the survival of the rest of the group. We developed a tendency to help people in need, especially if it was someone close to us. Now of course the world has changed: we live in far vaster communities, and so we don’t have the same emotional response to help people we don’t know. If I was to tell you that a very effective way to save the lives of children is to donate to the Against Malaria Foundation so they can prevent mosquitoes infecting children, I can’t show you the child who you will help. That’s a big problem when trying to persuade people to react. That’s why we need to use our reason. Yes we have an emotional concern to help people in need that we know, but if we can help more people even when we can’t see them, then we need to bring our reason into play there.”

The conversation soon naturally progresses to animal rights, an area in which Singer has been an authoritative voice since the publication of Animal Liberation in 1975. He jumps onto the topic eagerly.

“When I became a vegetarian in 1971, I hadn’t met a vegan, I don’t really think there was a vegan society. There were certainly no vegan restaurants. It’s been a huge change.”

I ask him how much being a figurehead for the animal rights movement has affected him personally, and how proud he is of how far it has gone.

“It certainly affected me. In that area I became far more involved in activism than I had ever been before. I did become a spokesperson for the movement, and I think we’ve made significant progress for animals, not only in changing attitudes but also in the legal system, where there have been attempts to improve conditions for animals. The great tragedy is that while this has been happening in a positive way in the European Union and some parts of the United States, there has been a huge boom in meat consumption in China, in particular. They are adopting some of the worst factory farming practices without the laws and regulations of other counties. Therefore you have to say globally the situation has not really improved, but it’s good that people’s attitudes have changed, and hopefully that will soon spread to China and other parts of East Asia as well.”

Curious about the origin of this development in Asia, I ask Singer why such an influx of meat eating has occurred. As expected, the topic is dealt with carefully.

“It’s a little odd because China has Buddhist traditions, which were far in front of Christian teachings for most of the history of Christendom. I suppose in China there is just such a great drive to produce more and to feed people more that the ethics regarding how animals are treated is not taken very seriously. Interestingly, in Taiwan there is much greater awareness. Perhaps that’s the Buddhist tradition coming through. Around 10% of people in Taiwan are vegetarians, actually. So it’s not really an Asian versus Western thing; it’s something to do with people emerging out of relative poverty and wanting to eat meat. The government just feel like they have to satisfy them.”

Inherent in Singer’s work on animals is the quantification of pain and pleasure. With such a focus vital to any piece of utilitarian moral thinking, it has become incumbent on philosophers in the 21st century to think beyond the animal world, into the realms of artificial intelligence. It becomes clear that he has thought closely about what the introduction of AI will mean for the future of humanity.

“Well if are convinced that artificial intelligence has achieved consciousness, that they are not just clever digital algorithms that are responding to what we are saying in ways that mimic the way a human might respond – and it’s an interesting question how we could tell that – then we would have to give consideration to those beings and minds. We would have to regard them as having desires and preferences, as being capable of pleasure and pain. It would be a significant change. It is also going to change the social landscape regardless of these machines are conscious. It is certainly going to alter employment. We have to think about what we are going to do when we get replaced by AI. We have to think about how we are going to support that society. Are we going to have a universal basic income? These are very important questions that we will be grappling with over the next decades. However, I don’t think it will fundamentally alter the moral landscape. it wouldn’t undermine what we believe now, that pain is bad whether it is felt by humans, animals, or even artificial intelligence. We will still be concerned with giving all sentient beings good lives, with stopping unnecessary suffering when it can be stopped.”

Perhaps the more controversial aspect of Singer’s utilitarian work lies in his analysis of euthanasia and abortion, so much so that he has been labelled the ‘most dangerous philosopher in the world’. He quickly corrects me.

“It was actually the world’s most dangerous man. This was just polemics at Princeton. The conservatives who are against abortion and euthanasia gave me this label to get Princeton to withdraw their offer of a chair, and to persuade people that I am dangerous because I want to undermine the sanctity of life ethic. It might have been an interesting tagline, but there was nothing behind it.”

“With the secularisation of society, those conservative beliefs that dictate their views on abortion and euthanasia are steadily decreasing. In many countries, such as Australia and the U.K., abortion is not really a serious issue anymore. They may be opponents of abortion around, but in terms of actually trying to stop women having abortions I think they have more or less given up. In the USA they haven’t, and that’s perhaps because of the stronger hold religion has over there.”

On the subject of the United States, I can’t help but ask Singer about his opinion on the president. 

“I have many worries about Donald Trump: he is putting conservatives in the Supreme Court, and they will be there for a long term and that’s very problematic. But there are many other worries regarding him, especially with climate change.”

As we wrap up our conversation, I was interested in finding out his views on Oxford. Having obtained a BPhil here in 1971, he speaks highly of the university.

“I thought Oxford was a terrific place, both in terms of the assemblage of people you were learning from and also your fellow students. The friends I met there are still hugely influential on me.”

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