The Observer, July 23, 2005
George W Bush and Peter Singer were born on the same day - July 6 1946. But there the similarity ends. Only one is an Australian vegetarian who campaigns against animal cruelty and does not believe in the Judaeo-Christian nostrum of the sanctity of life. Only one supports abortion and infanticide in some cases and backs stem-cell research that uses genetic material from embryos. Only one thinks the world would be better if the US were subject to UN sanctions for emitting more than its fair share of greenhouse gases.
And yet there are parallels. In his 2003 book The President of Good and Evil: Taking George W Bush Seriously, Singer quoted from one of Bush's speeches: "Some people think it's inappropriate to make moral judgments anymore. Not me." To which Singer added: "Well, not me either, so that is one view about morality on which the president and I agree." Both men, in an age of seeming moral relativism and selfishness, insist on the overwhelming importance of moral renewal.
That book nonetheless argued that Bush's ethics consisted mostly of hypocrisy and intellectual confusion. By contrast, Singer stresses that his moral philosophy is the product of cold logic. Singer concedes his views are often upsetting for Bush supporters. "In a Christian society we have views about the sanctity of life that were formed in a totally different period when we didn't have to make decisions about embryos or whether you should keep people alive who are irrevocably unconscious. People get stuck with this ethic from the past, which has not been able to adapt itself to other circumstances because it has been encapsulated in a set of religious beliefs."
Singer sought the clash with neo-con America, partly to revive a career that was going stale. True, when he was appointed Ira W de Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University in 1999, Bill Clinton was in the White House, but still Singer had been lured from the relatively liberal milieu of academic Melbourne because he thought the challenges in one of the world's most selfish, reactionary societies would galvanise him anew as an ethical person. "The things I'm saying I believe need to be said here," says Singer in his office at Princeton's Centre for Human Values. "There's a lack of radical critique of the status quo in America. I'm not just talking about my views on euthanasia, but also the obligations on rich countries to assist the world's poorest people."
Understimulated in Melbourne, he stood as a Green candidate for the Australian senate in 1996, and, when defeated, started to unearth the history of his grandfather, a Viennese Jew who collaborated with Freud and Adler, who died in Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943.
Those excavations resulted in Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, hailed by the New York Times as having "all the power of a great novel". Both before and after its publication in 2003, though, with dark irony, Singer was frequently compared to the Nazis who imprisoned his grandfather David, grandmother Amalie and other members of his family. One "pro-life" group accused him of "taking the Josef Mengele chair in bioethics", while the Wall Street Journal, attacking Princeton for "jettisoning ... the understanding of man's dignity that has defined western civilisation for two millennia" in appointing Singer, compared him to Hitler's deputy Martin Bormann.
Ten years before, his glasses were broken by protesters during a thwarted lecture tour of Germany during which he sought to set out his views on euthanasia. Disability rights groups compared him to Third Reich leaders. Before he arrived in the US, groups such as Princeton Students Against Infanticide and Not Dead Yet mounted campus protests. Singer was then still in Melbourne, campaigning against the brutality of chicken farming. His departure was not lamented in all quarters: an article in The Age newspaper by philosopher David Oderberg was headlined "Good riddance to the warped philosopher".
He and Princeton president Harold Shapiro received death threats. The university laid on security for his first lecture and supplied him with a scanner to check his mail for bombs. "The larger protests were pretty much entirely people from outside the campus, some bussed in from Illinois," Singer recalls. "That's not to say there weren't people in the university who probably thought I shouldn't be appointed, but they didn't protest about it - they had more respect for academic freedom."
The New York Times said that not since 1940, when City College tried to hire Bertrand Russell, had a philosopher's appointment by an American university caused such a commotion.
One of those causing the commotion was Steve Forbes, CEO of publisher Forbes, who stood twice for Republican presidential nomination and was, crucially, a Princeton trustee. "The Singer appointment," Forbes wrote to Shapiro, "sends a dangerous and debilitating message that anything goes, that there are no bounds when it comes to questions of life and death." He threatened to freeze his donations to his alma mater until it got rid of Singer.
Singer refused to withdraw. "He is very brave. He stands his ground and I admire that," says Simon Blackburn, Cambridge professor of philosophy. "Peter's style is always very in your face. He is not afraid of saying there are some persons for whom it might be reasonable to regard their lives as not worth preserving." And yet Blackburn suggests that those disabled people who protested against Singer at Princeton, chanting "We're not dead yet!", misunderstood his views on euthanasia and infanticide. "Nobody with the kind of disability that Peter was talking about could possibly campaign against him."
Singer argues that in certain circumstances people in irreversible vegetative states ought to be killed rather than allowing nature to take its course or pointlessly keeping them alive. More challengingly, he argues that parents and doctors might be justified in deciding to kill neonates with drastic disabilities, such as lack of higher brain functions or spina bifida.
Marca Bristo, chairperson of the National Council on Disability, said during one of the Princeton protests: "Singer's core vision, that the life of a person with a disability is worth less than the life of a person without a disability, and therefore it is OK to kill infants with disabilities if that is what the parent wants to do, amounts to a defence of genocide."
Singer denies advocating genocide or discriminating against those with disabilities. "It is always frustrating to be misunderstood. But I've had to put up with that frustration for a long time."
In the preface to One World (2002), written after the Princeton row, he thanked his wife Renata. "Her readiness for adventure made it possible for us to leave our friends and families in Australia to try the new life in the United States." Would she have come had she known what she knows now? "Aside from the small but not negligible risk of getting shot by some right-wing lunatic, we would have both been up for it even if we'd known all the facts. Maybe she'd have had some doubts about going, but she's a courageous woman."
Singer says he has flourished at Princeton, writing not just his book on Bush, but editing a collection of his essays, Writings on an Ethical Life (2000), commissioned because the furore around his appointment provoked renewed interest in his views. He was invited to give the prestigious Dwight H Terry Lectures at Yale in November 2000, and later published them as One World: The Ethics of Globalisation. "To work you need a good local environment so I need people to talk to and debate with and the sense of feeling welcome and supported. Princeton gives me exactly that." He's researching a book about the ethics of what we eat, and is contemplating another about what goes on in our heads neurologically when we make moral judgments. It's invidious to suggest that death threats and hate mail have stimulated Singer, but his US adventure has given him a second wind.
That said, the Singers have found some aspects of American life hard to deal with. "We haven't waved any national flags since we were kids in school, lining the streets to welcome visiting royalty," he wrote recently. "So when, after September 11, the board of our apartment block hung a huge American flag off the side of the building, we felt uncomfortable." The couple live in an apartment block in Chelsea, Manhattan, though Peter also has a flat on the Princeton campus. They describe themselves as "rootless cosmopolitans", ironic since it was originally Stalinist code for Jews, suggesting they had no commitment to the Russian Motherland.
They met as students in Melbourne and have been married for 37 years. Renata was born in Poland, like him the child of Jews who migrated to Melbourne. She has written novels, developed anti-racist programmes, taught in secondary schools and run workshops. She teaches part-time at New Jersey City University, demographically very distant from Ivy League Princeton. They have collaborated on The Moral of the Story, an anthology of great literary passages relevant to particular questions of moral philosophy. It sounds as though it could be an insufferably intense marriage, but it isn't. "People think we spend our lives in philosophical discourse," says Renata. "Usually our conversations go like this: 'Did you put the rubbish out?' 'Yeah. Why are you asking?'"
But Singer spends a great deal of time thinking about and discussing philosophy: International Who's Who 2006 may list his recreations as "Bushwalking, reading, swimming", but his academic commitments leave little time for outside interests.
To understand Singer's moral character as an adult we must go back to Melbourne, August 19 1946, when his grandmother Amalie, liberated from Theresienstadt in May, arrived in Australia. "There she met not only the six-year-old granddaughter who occupied her thoughts during the dark years of Hitler's rule, but also her six-week-old grandson, myself," he writes in Pushing Time Away. "To both of us, for the nine years that she was still to live, she gave all the pent-up love that had been frustrated during so many years of sadness."
His parents, Ernst and Cora, escaped the 1938 Anschluss and fled to Australia. His father became a successful coffee and tea importer, while his mother practised medicine. Peter was seduced into philosophy by a Catholic friend called John Dwyer, who was then dating and later married his sister Joan. "He'd done a law degree but was doing a master's in philosophy because he'd got interested in the philosophical questions, 'what is an act?' and 'what are the consequences of an act?'. Was someone pulling a trigger, were they firing at a shape in the bushes, were they killing a human being: there are various possible descriptions of an act, some of which suggest moral culpability and some don't, and that's very relevant for, say, Catholic discussions of what counts in taking a human life." Ironically, it was just these sorts of distinctions that the mature Singer would reject in arguing that consequences alone were relevant for determining whether an act was right or wrong.
"It was the whole enterprise of arguing about these things that intrigued me," says Singer, who studied philosophy at Melbourne University, graduating in 1967. Singer says he was lucky to avoid the abstruse linguistic analysis that passed for moral philosophy in much of the anglophone academic community. He recalls one particularly influential teacher, the intuitionist HJ McCloskey. "He was rather old-fashioned in that he believed there were important substantive issues of right and wrong that philosophers should discuss, whereas many other philosophers at Oxford at that time would have thought this wasn't something they should do."
Nonetheless, Singer went on a scholarship to do a BPhil at Oxford, partly because it was "the natural climax to the education of an Australian philosophy student preparing for an academic career". His MA thesis in Australia was entitled "Why Should I Be Moral?". As Radcliffe lecturer at University College, Oxford, he worked on a PhD on civil disobedience (published as Democracy and Disobedience) under RM Hare. "He was always pushing you to be very clear in your arguments and language."
Important, too, was Hare's account of the universal nature of moral judgments. In How Are We to Live? (1993), Singer took this to mean that irrespective of personal affiliations, doing the right thing meant attending to the sufferings and preferences of other sentient beings. Already, Singer was committed to practical ethics, applying his reflections to everyday moral problems.
At Oxford, beyond his steady progress towards the academic holy grail - tenure - Singer made a radical difference to how he acted. One day in 1970, he left a lecture on free will by Jonathan Glover and fell into a conversation with a graduate student called Richard Keshen. The Canadian proposed that the conversation continue over lunch at his college, Balliol. Singer heard Keshen ask whether the spaghetti sauce contained meat and when he found it did, took a meatless salad. "I asked Richard why he had avoided meat," Singer recalled in Between the Species. "That discussion changed my life."
Singer and his wife read about factory farms and animal experimentation. "Renata and I decided that if we were to retain our self-respect and take moral issues seriously, we should cease to eat animals."
How was this received by his contemporaries? "I remember a conversation with Gareth Evans [the philosopher of language], who was incredulous. The sense I had was that what people ate or should eat was a private matter like money or religion - not a fit subject for the common room. I think he came to see one could philosophically question the networks of concepts that people held, that they might not hold together as well as people thought, which was what he was doing in his work. Having been involved with protests against the Vietnam war I guess I was more open to the idea that widely accepted beliefs might be wrong."
Was Singer temperamentally susceptible to such arguments? "I was never an animal lover, and in Australia I'd certainly been a hearty meat-eater. I remember going for a walk with my father along a beach and there were people fishing and a bucket with fish suffocating in it. He said: 'I don't know how people can think it's a pleasant way of relaxing with these poor fish dying next to them', so I guess I had that sense that suffering extends to fish."
One of the vegetarian thinkers with whom Singer increasingly associated at Oxford was Richard Ryder, who coined the term speciesism to describe meat-eaters' belief systems. Singer took this to mean there was a tyranny of human over non-human animals and inspired by that thought, the dearth of animal liberation organisations and the mistreatment of animals, he decided to write a book. In the preface to the 1975 edition of Animal Liberation, he drew a parallel with another liberation movement: "This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans."
Even as a graduate student at Oxford, Singer was a utilitarian - one who believes a person's first duty is to maximise utility, where that term can be variously taken to mean increasing overall pleasure and minimising pain, or preference-satisfaction. In Animal Liberation, he wrote: "The ethical principle on which human equality rests requires us to extend equal consideration to animals too." To those who would ask why, Singer quoted Jeremy Bentham, the British utilitarian philosopher, who wrote: "The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?"
Singer wrote much of this book in 1973-74 at New York University, where he accepted a visiting position. Animal Liberation, says Singer, was not an immediate success, either in terms of sales or reducing animal suffering. Thirty years on, he says, animal liberation is very much on the popular agenda - the US animal-rights group called People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has 750,000 members and supporters, while his book has been translated into 18 languages. During those decades, though, Singer has felt obliged to dissociate himself from those who couch anti-speciesist arguments in terms of animal rights, and also from those who use violence to press their cause.
Even philosophical critics of Singer have praised his writings on animals. Martha Nussbaum, Chicago professor of law and ethics, writes in Frontiers of Justice, published this autumn: "Peter Singer's writing contains some of the most powerful invitations to imagine animal suffering ever written ... Good imaginative writing has been crucial in motivating opposition to cruelty toward animals."
Philosopher Roger Scruton, too, praises Singer for demonstrating that humans "have no God-given right to ignore the suffering just because the victim belongs to some other species". In Animal Rights and Wrongs, though, he wrote: "In the arguments of Singer and his followers I find much casuistry, little ethical philosophy and no serious metaphysics."
After completing the book, Singer returned to Melbourne where, apart from numerous visiting appointments, he remained until 1999, first as senior lecturer at La Trobe University, then from 1977 as professor of philosophy at Monash University. There he continued to write and campaign against speciesism, and to write on life and death.
Singer was once asked what he would do if he had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire. He replied: "In almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something - that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it's something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind who can see he or she actually has a life - that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understanding this."
This means, says Nussbaum, not all animals are equally worth saving. "The painless killing of an animal that does not foresee its own death or take a conscious interest in the continuation of its life is, for Singer and Bentham, not bad, for all badness, for them, consists in the frustration of interests, understood as forms of conscious awareness." This view underpins not just Singer's vegetarian philosophy but his views on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and genetic research. "I hold to the preference utilitarian approach because I cannot deny that for me, a good life is one in which my own considered, informed preferences are maximally satisfied."
In the late 1990s, his mother suffered Alzheimer's and could no longer recognise her family. Philosophy lecturer Peter Colosi, of the Franciscan University in Gaming, Austria, says: "According to his ethical theory, she ought to have been killed or left to die. Certainly no money should have been spent on her care, since it could be better spent lowering the suffering of the greatest number of other people." Instead, Singer arranged expensive hospital care. He argued it was not hypocritical, explaining his sister's preferences had been important. If he were solely responsible, he might not have acted as he did.
Singer has tried, throughout his ethical life, not to be swayed by personal preferences. Indeed, in The Expanding Circle (1981), he called Mother Teresa irrational because she described her love for others as love for each of a succession of individuals rather than as "love for mankind merely as such". "If we were more rational," he wrote, "we would use our resources to save as many lives as possible." Singer says only a universal ethic will do, that one is obliged to do good for strangers as much as one's family. He contends that such a universal ethic, the so-called golden rule, is accepted by all major ethical traditions. In How Are We to Live? he delineates several formulations of that rule, including Jesus's "Love your neighbour as yourself".
He proposed in his essay "Famine, Affluence and Morality" that anyone able to help the poor should donate at least 10% of their income to relieve poverty, reasoning that, when one is already living comfortably, a further purchase to increase comfort will lack the same moral importance as saving another person's life. Singer donates 20% of his salary to Oxfam and Unicef.
This year, his Princeton contract became part time, enabling him to work as professor of applied philosophy at his alma mater, the University of Melbourne. While he remains in the US, however, he feels there is plenty of work to do. "The abortion debate is much more intractable here, but the view that I hold had simply not been part of the American debate and now it is, so maybe I can take credit for that. The debate had been in terms of whether the embryo or foetus is a human being. But what matters is having characteristics such as minimum sentience or perhaps even self-awareness. And that position is now at least getting noticed, even if it's regarded as notorious. But the Bush book obviously didn't have enough impact because if it had he wouldn't have got re-elected."
He is hopeful that Bush's hostility to embryo research will be overcome, and welcomes this prospect not least because it highlights what he regards as the obsolescence of ethical systems based on the sanctity of human life. "It's now clear that the fact that the embryo has the potential to develop into a person is not unique to embryos because it's true of every cell in our body. I'm sure that the cloning of human beings by this method will be possible. So if you're going to talk about the sanctity of life you're going to have to talk about a way of distinguishing embryos from other cells. It's not as easy as you might think."
For Singer, technological innovation opens up the possibility that human nature can be improved. In an article entitled "Darwin for the Left", he enthused about the "freedom to shape our genes so that instead of living in societies constrained by our evolutionary origins, we can build the kind of society we judge best."
Indeed, earlier this month he gave a talk at London's Institute for Contemporary Arts in which he expressed some startling hopes for genetic therapy. "He wasn't being contrarian, but what he said was very challenging for an audience of English intellectuals and animal rights people," says James Harkin, the ICA's director of talks. "He suggested that if you could cure paedophiles by gene therapy that would be a good idea. He saw no problem with parents giving their children gene therapy in order to make them more intelligent. He even suggested that if you could modify genes and thereby equip animals to do human jobs and they were happy doing such work, there would be no ethical problem."
"I think the question will be, can we control our abilities in such a way that the genetic modifications will be positive and leave us all better off?" says Singer. "Evolution is a crapshoot so I don't think we should regard it as untouchable. If we can improve on it without any harmful side effects, we should."
Peter Albert David Singer
Born: Melbourne, July 6 1946.
Education: 1967 BA, Melbourne; '69 MA, Melbourne; '71 BPhil, Oxford.
Career: 1971-73 Radcliffe lecturer, Oxford; '73-74 New York University; '75-76 La Trobe; '77-99 Monash; '99- Princeton; '05- University of Melbourne.
Married: 1968 Renata Diamond; three children: Ruth, Marion and Esther.
Some books: 1973 Democracy and Disobedience; '75 Animal Liberation; '79 Practical Ethics; '82 Test-tube Babies; '85 Should the Baby Live? (co-written with Helga Kuhse); '93 How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest; '94 Rethinking Life and Death; '99 A Darwinian Left; 2002 One World: The Ethics of Globalisation; '03 Pushing Time Away, The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W Bush; '05 The Moral of the Story (co-edited with Renata Singer).