Monday, September 25, 2017

Interview: How do practical ethics work in the average American's life? Peter Singer explains.

Editor's note: The second and third segments of this interview have been published.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

What does it mean to be ethical?

The only honest answer to this question might well be another question: What are ethics in the first place?

Many billions of people chalk this query up to god, goddess, or whatever higher power they believe in. For others, though, only more fact-based answers will suffice. Certain individuals devote their entire careers to understanding the hows and whys of, more or less, hows and whys.

Peter Singer is one of these people. His decades-long work investigating morality, how it serves human needs (or perhaps does not), and what the best manner of applying ethical practices are has earned him worldwide acclaim -- though more than a few detractors to boot.

"I am Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University," Singer explains on his website. "Since 2005, I have combined this position with that of Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne.

"I am also the co-founder of The Life You Can Save and continue to actively work with the Team and serve on its board of directors.  The Life You Can Save, based on my book of the same name, is a nonprofit devoted to spreading my ideas about why we should be doing much more to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty."

His Princeton biography notes that "Singer first became well-known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation (1975). His other books include: Democracy and Disobedience (1973); Practical Ethics (1979, 3rd. ed. 2011); The Expanding Circle (1981, new ed 2011); Marx (1980); Hegel (1983); The Reproduction Revolution (1984) (co-authored with Deane Wells); Should the Baby Live? (1986) (co-authored with Helga Kuhse); How Are We to Live? (1995); Rethinking Life and Death (1996); One World (2002; revised edition One World Now, 2016); Pushing Time Away (2003); The President of Good and Evil (2004); The Ethics of What We Eat (2006) (co-authored with Jim Mason); The Life You Can Save (2009); The Point of View of the Universe (2014) co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek; The Most Good You Can Do (2015); Ethics in the Real World (2016); and Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, co-authored by Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek."

Singer, who was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2012, conversed with me about practical ethics and their relevance in American society, among other issues. Some of our conversation is included below.


Joseph Ford Cotto: Virtually everyone knows what ethics are. Not all, however, are acquainted with practical ethics. How might these relate to the life of an average American?

Credit: Alletta Vaandering

Peter Singer: Practical ethics is simply ethics applied to practical problems.  In a sense, all ethics is practical.  But when I was studying ethics as part of degrees in philosophy at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, philosophers focused on questions about the meanings of moral terms (this was called metaethics) and about general theories like utilitarianism, theories of justice, and natural law (this was called normative ethics).  So when I and other younger philosophers wanted to discuss the ethics of civil disobedience, the war in Vietnam, abortion, global poverty, the treatment of animals, and so on, we needed a new term for what we were doing  I used “Practical Ethics” as the title of a book in that area.  How does this relate to the life of the average American?  Well, it directly addresses questions such a person faces, for example “what should I eat?  Is it ethical to eat animal products produced in factory farms?  If I get pregnant and don’t want to have a child now, is it OK to have an abortion? Should I be donating to nonprofits trying to help people in extreme poverty in developing countries?

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns you have cited with the world today is that an untold number of people live in abject poverty, and therefore face starvation. On an ethical plane, does the United States shoulder any responsibility for this?

Singer: It’s actually not an untold number.  The World Bank says it is currently around 700 million.  That means, probably for the first time since humans evolved, less than 10% of our species is unable to reliably meet their basic needs.

Yes, the United States does have some responsibility for this.  For example, as Leif Wenar explains in his excellent book Blood Oil, we get our oil from countries run by dictators ( Equatorial Guinea is a good example) who pocket most of the weath, keeping the people in poverty.  The wealth should belong to the people of the country, not its de facto government.  In paying dictators for their oil, we are in effect buying stolen goods, and helping to keep people in poverty.   

Furthermore, the U.S. is continuing to add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a much higher rate, per capita, than any other nation of comparable size.  This is going to hurt people in developing countries much more than it will hurt people in affluent countries, because poor people have fewer resources to fall back on, and are more dependent on rainfall to grow their food.

But even apart from that, the U.S.should be doing more to assist people in extreme poverty.  U.S. aid is a very small proportion of our GDP, less than a quarter of some other affluent nations.  Nor is much private philanthropy from the U.S. directed to helping people in extreme poverty, although there are some exceptions, most notably, of course, the Gates Foundation. (For information on which are the most effective nonprofits helping to reduce extreme poverty, go to
Cotto: For several decades, you have been a tremendously important figure in the animal rights movement. In American society, what do you believe the optimal relationship should be between humans and animals?

Singer: The optimal relationship is one in which we are not speciesist.  That does not mean that we treat humans and animals alike, because their interests are different, but it does mean that where their interests are similar, we give them similar weight.  So we are not justified in inflicting severe pain on an animal except in order to avoid severe pain – or something equally significant – for a human.  That means that the fact that we may like eating chicken better than a vegan alternative does not justify us in raising chickens in appallingly crowded sheds in conditions that, as Professor John Webster of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Science has said, causes them to be chronic pain for the last 20% of their lives.

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