Talking Taboo with Peter Singer
Peter Singer interviewed by Rachael Kohn
ABC, February 9, 2001

For more than two decades, Peter Singer has been one of the world's most outspoken and controversial philosophers. He first came to prominence as one of the architects of the Animal Rights movement in the 1970s. Since then his views on abortion, euthanasia, infanticide and 'animal love' have polarised public opinion. His appointment in 1999 to the chair of Bioethics at Princeton University incited widespread campus protests. But Peter Singer claims many of his critics have not properly read his work and that his views have frequently been misrepresented. Peter Singer discusses the reasoning behind his views with Rachael Kohn.


The music from the original Planet of the Apes, the film thatís not so far-fetched if youíre Peter Singer, the bio-ethicist who claims that the apes are really more human than we think.

Hello and welcome to The Spirit of Things with me, Rachael Kohn, where Iíll be talking taboo subjects with Peter Singer.

This program is not really about apes, but about one of the most influential and controversial philosophers today, Melbourne-born Peter Singer. With his more than 20-year focus on ethics, Peter Singer is interested in how we behave toward each other, and toward animals. As he reminds us, the most contact that humans have with animals is around the dinner table: we eat them. But shouldnít we have a greater responsibility toward them?

Most of us assuage our guilt by harbouring happy visions of animals in the wild, running free, and safe from the factory farm. But even that reality is about to disappear. Before we hear from Peter Singer, listen to this item from ABC-TVís Foreign Correspondent which showed that the wild animals of Africa are anything but free to roam. They are being killed and butchered at an alarming rate, as Dr Norton Griffiths of the Global Environment Research Centre observes.

Norton Griffiths: We know that we have lost 50% of all wildlife in the last 20 years, and that is just an atrocious situation. The large dangerous animals like elephants, like buffaloes, they go first. Perhaps some of the grazing animals will hang on for longer. But last to go perhaps, the smaller animals, bush buck, the dik-dik, the duikers, they can hang on in little patches of habitat. Ultimately theyíll all go.

Neremiah Rotich: Unless we address the problem of poaching for game meat outside the National Parks, the National Parks are the next target and they are actually at the boundary at the moment, so very soon theyíll go inside unless something tangible is done.

Rachael Kohn: That was Dr Neremiah Rotich, the Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service. Imagine a world without giraffes, zebras and antelope, except locked in cages for the paying public. Peter Singerís early work on Animal Liberation rallied many people to the cause of relieving this kind of imprisonment. But his later concerns, particularly his support of voluntary euthanasia and in some cases infanticide, have caused a furore.

As a result, Singer has been barred from appearing in a number of places in Germany for his views, and his appointment as De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University in the US was met with protests. Before we hear from him, this is how heated things can get around the issue of animal experimentation. These were protests at an Animal Rights Conference in Washington a few years ago.


Rachael Kohn: Well Peter Singer, itís great to have you on The Spirit of Things, welcome.

Peter Singer: Thank you, itís good to be here, Rachael.

Rachael Kohn: Peter, do you think the interest in ethics is on the upswing, sort of on par with the way civil rights was in the Ď60s and new religious movements were in the Ď70s?

Peter Singer: I think thatís right. I think thereís an enormous amount of interest in it in a whole range of different areas. Iím very encouraged by the increased interest in global justice issues. Maybe itís at the level of rhetoric, you could get cynical about it, but certainly thereís so much concern about doing something for global poverty so that people like James Wilkinson of the World Bank is now making speeches that a few years ago you would have only heard from the critics of the World Bank.

Rachael Kohn: Well do you think itís just the leaders who are pushing it, or what else is driving it do you think?

Peter Singer: Thereís concern about the big issues, like the one I just mentioned, and a whole range of others.

Thereís concern for example about the ethics of biotechnology, thatís something that Iím particularly interested in, and President Bush made a great deal of how he was taking a moral stand. He thought about stem cell research, I donít actually personally agree with his stand, but I thought it was still interesting that he thought that this was a moral issue that he has to take a stand on. So that I think drives too the idea that somehow science is getting out of control, we need to have ethics to decide what it ought or ought not to do, and at a personal level, I think thereís a bit of a feeling perhaps of putting meaning in our lives in various ways, getting fulfilment out of it, perhaps some dissatisfaction with just the idea of the consumer ethic.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, well certainly the popularity of your book says an indication that there is widespread interest in ethics, but itís certainly much harder than simply believing in a set of beliefs that have been revealed, or being obedient to some rules.

Peter Singer: Itís certainly harder in the sense that it calls for more thought, and things are not black and white, so there are grey areas where you donít know that you make the right decision, all of those things. And yet in another sense itís much easier than believing in rules handed down on stone tablets, because you donít have to believe anything that is fairly hard to believe, for which there just isnít good evidence.

Rachael Kohn: But it means you have to think really hard, and it means you have to understand the rules of logic and maybe even casuistry the way the rabbis and the fathers of the church and even imams use their own powers of reasoning to apply rather simple rules to complex issues. This is really the role that youíve taken.

Peter Singer: I suppose you could look at it that way. Yes, I donít totally think of myself as a casuist because those are people who are working with given rules, if you like. They say, Well these are the rules that have come from the Torah or the Qur'an or whatever else it is, and now we have to work out how to apply them to particular situations, and to some extent you could argue that they are bending or twisting the rules to enable them to do what they actually think to be the right thing but which might not obviously fit in with the rules.

Iím not so wedded to a system of rules, I certainly donít take anything as unchallengeable sacred text, so I donít have those rules, so I rather go directly to saying ĎWell what will lead to the best outcome?í or another way of putting it is, ĎWhat would I like done if I were on the receiving end of this, if it was being done to me, instead of me doing to others?í

Rachael Kohn: Well Peter, you take a broadly utilitarian position which places you in the great English tradition of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill; what attracted you to the utilitarians at a time especially when everyone was looking to the Continent for kind of Post-Modern philosophy?

Peter Singer: Well I was a utilitarian long before Post-Modernism had been heard of.

I think I first started thinking about utilitarianism when I was an undergraduate studying ethics at Melbourne University, and Iím now talking about the mid-1960s, and I had a lecturer who was hostile to utilitarianism and stated the view and then gave his criticisms of it, his objections to it, and I thought that the objections had reasonably obvious answers, or at least that they could all be answered, so I just started working out answers to those objections and ways of defending it, and having done so I guess I persuaded myself that it was right, or at least that it was the best and most defensible ethical view around that I had found at that time, and you could say that Iíve spent the last 30 years waiting for someone to come along with something better, but I havenít found it, and certainly I donít find it in the Post-Modernists that you mention, I find them just immensely obscure really, and insofar as they say anything that I can follow, it doesnít really lead you to conclusions about what you ought to do.

Rachael Kohn: Well can we summarise the utilitarian perspective as maximising the quantity of happiness for society as a whole and also for its individuals?

Peter Singer: Iíd like to qualify that just in a couple of ways. Firstly, what youíve given is the classical or hedonistic view; you mentioned Jeremy Bentham, and thatís the view that Bentham would have supported, but there are more variants around now and for me itís not so much happiness as the satisfaction of preferences or of what people want, so that someone might want something thatís not only for their happiness, they might want to write a great poem and that might not be done for the sake of happiness, but it might be a very essential desire that they have, loosely we call them preferences. So I would want to see that satisfied if it were in my power to do so. Even if it wasnít going to make someone happy, so thatís one variation.

The second thing that I would say is itís not just for people in society, and actually here Iím totally in agreement with Bentham, because he noticed this point. Others who are not in our society, whether theyíre people in a distant part of the world with whom we have little contact, or non-human animals existing totally in their own native habitat. They also canít, on the utilitarian scale, they also can experience happiness or the capacity to feel pain if weíre talking about the classical view, or they may have preferences, including of course preferences to get enough food, not to suffer pain, to live in a society that satisfied their social needs so they have the company of others, and so on. But if we add all of those things together then I think your definition is OK.

Rachael Kohn: Well if I can just go to that first qualifier, and that is the satisfaction of preferences. It would seem to make utilitarianism very well suited to our own culture, which is very self interested.

Peter Singer: Ah but you see utilitarianism doesnít tell you just to satisfy your own preferences, it tells you to give consideration to the preferences of all those affected by your action. So whereas our consumer and materialist society will say Buy this new suit; Go to this movie; Take this vacation; Go to this theatre performance, the utilitarian if theyíre thinking carefully will say, ĎWell if I do that then I canít support some other causes that may satisfy a lot more preferences. I canít, say, give the money to Oxfam Australia so that they can save the lives of undernourished children who would otherwise die.í

So utilitarianism really if taken seriously actually is a very unselfish doctrine and really would cut very much against the trend of the consumer society in affluent nations.

Rachael Kohn: But it does seem to mean that we are constantly thrown into a situation of having to weigh our own interests against others. Itís a very complex and arduous project, or an arduous way to live, it would seem.

Peter Singer: Itís both complex and arduous, youíre quite right about that. But you know, I donít see a way out of that really. I think an ethic that simply disregarded our obligations to the poor would clearly be lacking in something, so the question really then in Well, can you define them in some other way, can you modify them or limit them?

For practical purposes I suppose even the utilitarian can do that, the utilitarian can say, Well, youíre better if you give 1% of your income to groups that aid the poor than if you give nothing, and youíre better if you give 5% than if you give 1%, and youíre better if you give 10% than if you give 5%. So it has standards for saying that youíre acting reasonably well in comparison to the others in your society for instance, but it might still say youíre not doing quite as much as you could.

Rachael Kohn: We never are doing as much as we could, are we?

Peter Singer: Thatís right, no.

Rachael Kohn: Peter, I want to go to your second qualifier and that is your mention of non-human animals. Now youíve been especially known for your advocacy of a particular definition of the person, which emphasises self-consciousness, and this means that in some cases humans compare less favourably than others. Now I must admit that I think even some very self-conscious humans compare less favourably to animals. But you call the assertion of human superiority over what we call animals, Ďspeciesismí. Can you spell that out?

Peter Singer: Yes, gladly. Speciesism is an attitude of prejudice against beings of other species, which means that we give less consideration to their interests than we give to the similar interests of beings of our own species.

So to take a very straightforward example, if I am prepared to perform a painful experiment on a non-human animal that I would not perform on a human being that would cause a similar amount of pain to that human being, (and letís assume weíre not talking about a lethal experiment here, just one that causes a certain amount of pain,) and I justify this by saying Well that animal is not human, then thatís speciesism, because my view is and the general utilitarian view is that pain is pain. Itís not relevant to the moral weight you ought to give the pain, whether the pain is suffered by a being of your species or of some other species, just as, and I think we would all agree, itís not relevant to the assessment of pain whether itís suffered by a human being of your race or one of another race.

Rachael Kohn: So you have on that basis, asserted that non-human animals and animals must exist in the same moral universe?

Peter Singer: Well at least insofar as they can suffer pain, perhaps can experience pleasure, then yes, we do live in the same universe, and we have the same status.

Now I emphasise that thatís to do with pain and suffering, because earlier you referred to my definition of a person, and linked that with self-consciousness; I think that there are animals which can feel pain which are not self-conscious, letís say a fish for instance I think can feel pain, but isnít a self-aware being. And the self-consciousness is relevant to me when it comes to taking life, but not really relevant when it comes to weighing the wrongness of inflicting pain.

Rachael Kohn: Well we certainly do now have increasing knowledge of animal consciousness, and thatís something that you hold out as a very important link between us and animals, particularly primates.

Peter Singer: Yes, this is I think a huge change from when I first became interested in this issue 30 years ago, that thereís been so much more scientific work done about animal consciousness and the whole attitude of scientists has changed, because 30 years ago many psychologists for example, were still behaviourists, they just reported on the behaviour of animals, they refused to make any assumptions that animals had any kind of consciousness at all.

Rachael Kohn: Thatís Peter Singer, who is visiting Australia for the Melbourne Writersí Festival. His recent book, Writings on an Ethical Life is a compilation of essays and chapters that heís written over the years, and itís a great introduction to his lifeís work.


Rachael Kohn: Can we not be utterly committed to protecting animals from torture and pain because we are an entirely different species, and because they are, and because we are not the same. Why is it important for you to kind of break down that barrier between species?

Peter Singer: In theory we could be concerned about them because theyíre different, but the history of human relations with non-human animals has unfortunately been just the opposite of that. We have seen them as different, and therefore disparaged them, discounted their interests, neglected and ignored them, or else used them for our own purposes whether they be for food or furs or as laboratory tools or whatever else it might be.

So I believe that trying to emphasise the similarities between ourselves and non-human animals, and particularly those who are closest to us, like the great apes, could help to change that, could help us to have more empathy for them and to see that itís not really a question of thereís humans and then thereís animals, but rather that there is a continuum between different species of animals of which we are one.

Rachael Kohn: Well we certainly donít treat our own species very well, even though we share the same genetic make-up, so why should we treat the great apes any better, who do not share all of our genetic make-up? Maybe we need to assert that they have an inherent worth and most especially that they have a different status, a different species.

Peter Singer: I certainly want to assert that they have an inherent worth, but they are a different species I donít deny that, but although itís true that we donít treat our own species well, in fact we donít accept dealing with our own species in the way that we do accept dealing with other animals.

We donít accept confining humans in cages and fattening them in order to eat them, although no doubt there is meat you could get off them, and occasionally there have been human societies that have eaten humans, so it would be a possible thing to do, but we reject it with abhorrence.

We also, although itís true that we carry out some experiments on human beings, we do so under safeguards that are far stricter than what we do with animals. People would be outraged if they were to discover that scientists had been doing things to human beings of the sort that they quite routinely and with government funds, do to non-human animals.

Rachael Kohn: Yes. Well those are terrible and tragic situations, but I wonder at the remedy that youíve proposed, pulling us, drawing us closer together. Itís even made you say in a very recent article, that it could be all right to have sex with animals. Surely thatís going too far?

Peter Singer: It wasnít exactly an article, it was a book review, and I really just wanted to raise some questions about human attitudes to animals as expressed in two apparently two contradictory facts: one is that as this book showed, humans have been having sexual contact with animals since at least the Stone Age, there are cave paintings of it; and in a wide variety of different cultures. And secondly, we have this very strict taboo about it, and I thought that that was interesting in that it showed on the one hand the similarities are sufficient for some humans at least to see animals as sexual objects, and at the same time our attempt to differentiate ourselves.

I wasnít really expressing an opinion on whether human sexual contact is right or wrong, although I did point out that where such contact involves cruelty or suffering to the animals, it certainly ought to be as it is, a criminal offence, but I raised the question as to whether it ought to be a criminal offence when there is no suffering or coercion on the animal.

Rachael Kohn: Well in the important area of medical ethics, you make a very strong point that again compares animals with humans, saying that it may be preferable to perform infanticide on a severely disabled newborn that has no consciousness, than to perform dastardly experiments on an animal which is conscious and does know whatís happening to it. Iím not sure whether they need to be compared, but I think they both may be true. But still, were you prepared for the accusations that came your way from Germans, that you were going down the Nazi path?

Peter Singer: No, that came as a complete surprise to me, because it only happened some years after I wrote that, but it was connected with the fact that I was going to visit Germany to speak at a conference, and especially the allegation obviously had something to do with the Nazis, was something that was both shocking and I felt really deeply that it was very wrong, because my background in Jewish, my parents were refugees from the Nazis and their parents, my grandparents, three of them died in the Nazi camps. So I think that what I was talking about is really totally different from the kind of ethic that the Nazis supported from its fundamental roots upwards.

Rachael Kohn: Well I guess youíve pointed out that certain types of infanticide are already routinely occurring anyway in hospital settings, but we as a society sort of refuse to publicly endorse or recognise that that is happening. So is that a kind of lag there between what is actually happening and our ethical judgements on these matters?

Peter Singer: I think itís an instance of a tendency that we have to draw a veil over things that actually conflict sharply with traditional ethical standards, which includes a prohibition on taking innocent human life, when in fact we might realise if we look at the situation that there are some circumstances in which taking innocent human life is actually the best thing to do, and so while doctors are aware, and certainly those who work with newborn babies and with infants with severe disabilities, are aware of the fact that decisions are made to end the lives of those babies in hospitals all the time.

But they donít really sort of want to go to the government and say, ĎWell look, can you pass a law which specifies the circumstances in which we can do this, or makes it clear that what weíre doing is legally acceptableí, because theyíre worried that that might simply mobilise the opposition to have stricter laws which actually prohibit this, and that would be a bad thing for the infants themselves, and certainly for their families.

Rachael Kohn: So itís a pragmatic strategy. But even the utilitarians knew that the long-term consequences of a good and charitable act can turn sour. Can we ever be sure that as individuals we can control those kind of decisions that occur in hospital settings?

Peter Singer: We can never be totally sure of whatís going to happen in the future, because we donít have crystal balls. We can only make judgements on our best expectations, our best estimates, and yes, they can go wrong, but of course they can go wrong in a variety of different ways. It may be that if we allow doctors to practice this openly, theyíll start to practice it too widely, it may be that if we donít allow them to practice it openly, weíll end up with tragedies in which perhaps parents will themselves take action into their own hands, with worse consequences for the children and for the parents themselves.

Rachael Kohn: Well those are individual decisions and Iíd like to go on to the rather large, almost global issue which you are very known for, and that is the liberating of animals from factory farming, which subjects them to all sorts of terrible tortured lives.

But I confess that I get perplexed on thinking the whole thing through, because if we shut down all the meat processing, it throws large numbers of people and countries into poverty, and the same could be said for, say, your views on reducing our spending on luxuries. So the question is, how do we decide ethical behaviour when itís entangled in this global economy, globalise community of interdependencies?

Peter Singer: Well let me just question a little bit what youíve said. Certainly if we close down factory farms, there will be some people now working on factory farms who will need to find new jobs. But we will be eating other things. I think there will be other jobs that are developed, and in fact factory farming is not at all labour intensive, in fact itís exactly the opposite. The whole point of it is to reduce labour costs as much as possible, so there are relative small number of unpleasant and poorly paid jobs in the factory farming industry.

I donít know of any countries that would become poor if factory farming were stopped.

Rachael Kohn: Well how about Argentina for example, I think its economy is on the back of the steer, isnít it?

Peter Singer: Right, this is not factory farming though, Argentina basically runs its cattle free range across the pampas, and thatís why theyíre a large cattle country. So your point there might apply if we became vegetarian, but not if we simply stop factory faming, because Argentinian beef might actually then benefit, because people who were no longer eating pork or chicken or our feedlot raised beef from America, might buy more Argentinian beef, those are possibilities.

Also on the question of if people gave more to the worldís poorest nations and therefore didnít consume as much, actually if we were all to do it, it wouldnít be such a huge amount that we would have to give. Iíve seen estimates that suggest that we could really, something like 2% to 3% of the average income of all of the about a billion affluent people in the world, would be enough to lift the 1.2-billion poor people in the world out of poverty, because the purchasing power of just 2% or 3% of the income of the richest people is so great that it could treble the average income of the poorest people.

Now Iím not saying that they should just take the money and give it to them, I think that would not be the best way, but put into sensible development projects that would enable them to become self sustaining, to have safe water supplies, to treat the most basic diseases at least, that could be done for not huge amounts of expenditure, and so I donít think it would dislocate the world economies, itís actually roughly comparable with the drop in defence spending that countries like the United States have had since the end of the Cold War, and that caused unemployment in some of the defence industry sectors., but didnít impoverish the United States.

Rachael Kohn: Gosh Peter, in your dreams do you ever imagine that this will happen in your lifetime?

Peter Singer: Oh in my dreams I certainly do. In my lifetime? Well Iím 55 now, it depends a bit how lucky I am, I donít expect itíll happen in a decade or two. Iíll have to be fairly long-lived I guess to see it.

Rachael Kohn: Weíll have to work quickly.

Rachael Kohn: Thatís philosopher Peter Singer, one of Australiaís most well known exports to America, where he holds the DeCamp Chair of Bioethics at Princeton University.


Rachael Kohn: America is a land of extremes, from pro-abortionist lobbies to luxury clubs for your four-legged friends. Hereís a window into that world. Craig McMurtry from ABC-TV's Foreign Correspondent went along to a club called Bisquits and Bath.

Man: When you join your dog becomes a member and is issued with a membership card.


Man: We have Singles Nights for dogs, and every Friday night we have a jazz night for dogs. We also have acupuncture for dogs, we have seminars for dogs.

Craig McMurtrie: And a pool for dogs. With a lifeguard, who gives swimming lessons.

Man: Let me tell you something, we got to suit up and actually go in the water because theyíre so intimidated.

Craig McMurtry: A platinum membership is $US1500 for just over a year. Hundreds of New Yorkers have signed their pooches up for grooming, day care and overnight boarding. And as Miles Horn, an eager joint partner says, so much more.

Miles Horn: We have espresso and cappuccino and organic doggy treats so that our members and their parents can eat together.


Rachael Kohn: What an incredible job, to be a lifesaver in a doggie swimming club. All that hair in the pool, not to mention other things!

Well back to the more serious world of ethics, with Peter Singer, the philosopher whoís unafraid to tackle taboo subjects like euthanasia, infanticide, animal experimentation and animal love.

Peter, I want to ask you about the ethical society and how oddly paradoxical it is. If we design a society in which relationships are all structured to guarantee every one a sort of proper proportion of happiness, which I suppose is the utilitarian dream, then we end up expecting it and demanding it, and then this gap grows between the ethical structures in place and our actual behaviour. We get lazy, we get demanding. How do we guarantee the individual impulse to behave ethically?

Peter Singer: We have to be a little cleverer in our construction of the ethical society, than simply giving everyone entitlements and hand-outs.

I think that was the old idea of the social welfare state, and itís valid up to a point, we certainly should look after those who are truly needy, but we must be careful about structuring this in a way that doesnít mean that people just think Well, therefore I can sit back and expect a hand-out.

I think the culture of rights actually, bears some of the blame for this. As a utilitarian, Iím not a great advocate of the language of rights. Itís not that I never use it or think that it has no place, but I donít think morality and ethical debate starts from the notion of a right, and so whereas I certainly think that itís good for societies that are affluent to ensure that no-one in that society is starving, that no-one goes without basic health care, that every child gets an education, to just sit back and say, ĎI have a right to social security, to unemployment reliefí or whatever, is the wrong way of looking at it. Society should give it to you if you canít provide for yourself, but it must provide you with incentives to provide it for yourself if you possibly can.

Rachael Kohn: Peter, the utilitarian philosophy can sound very cut and dry, like an exchange of interests, and I certainly notice that your essays are incredibly incisive, there is a logical clarity that just glistens, but thereís not much sentimentality there. You even make a point of saying that youíre not even keen on having animals as pets.

Iím asking this because one doesnít really encounter in your writing, those kind of passionate sentiments like sacrifice and love, even your hero, Henry Spira, the great animal activist, said he got a high from fighting the cause, he didnít feel that he sacrificed anything.

Peter Singer: Yes, I suppose I donít have that sense that we should feel that weíre sacrificing. I donít support a tradition in which your virtue comes from feeling that you are sacrificing. I think itís a better world if we can achieve good things without feeling a sacrifice.

In that sense Iím more in harmony I guess with the ancient world, with Greek traditions of thought, where the good man gets fulfilment from doing the right thing, and is leading a good life through leading a life of virtue. That is, in other words, a life that he or she enjoys, and I think thatís what Henry Spira was saying about his life in the passage that youíre referring to, that heíd worked for, in fact throughout his life he worked for oppressed and underprivileged of all kinds, people of different sorts and animals, and he got a lot of satisfaction from that, he enjoyed what he was doing, and I think thatís a really good life.

As for sentimentality, itís true, I guess I donít like it, I have some sort of repugnance from it, and when I started thinking about animals, the animal movement (this is back in the late 1960s of early 1970s I guess) was really dominated by sentimentality.

The literature that was put out always had pictures of cute kittens and puppies, even it was about animal experimentation, and very few of the animals experimented on are cute kittens and puppies. Some dogs and cats are used, but the great majority are rodents, rats and mice, and there are some monkeys, but it was always the cute animals that figured to appeal to sentimentality. And the general idea was if you love animals, then you shouldnít want people to be mean to them.

I wanted to say We shouldnít be exploiting animals, we shouldnít just be thinking about them as things for us to use, whether we love them or not, just as we shouldnít enslave Africans whether we happen to think that Africans are people that we love or not, that itís just something we shouldnít do.

Rachael Kohn: Yes, but there is a role it seems to me, for that sense of passionate connection to other human beings, and Iím thinking of Yad Vashem, the memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem, which has a special avenue that honours those who have risked their lives to save persecuted Jews in Europe. Now these are people who acted not out of a system of interests and outcomes, but perhaps out of a Christian love ethic for all humanity. Your own parents, in fact, were helped and saved by a stranger.

Peter Singer: Thatís true. I think the people honoured at Yad Vashem, the Righteous Gentiles, acted from a whole range of motives. Some of them may have acted knowingly taking risks and making sacrifices, some of them may have acted because they felt they just couldnít see other human beings treated in that way without helping them. Some may even have enjoyed the risk of defying the Nazis.

If you think for example of Oskar Schindler, of the film ĎSchindlerís Listí, he was not from people who described him, at all a person given to sacrifices and privation. He loved wine, women and song and that kind of lifestyle, yet nevertheless he saved a large number of Jews at considerable risk to his life.

But itís hard to say what motivates people to do these things, and I guess I think that there can be circumstances in which you have to take risks and you have to make sacrifices, and thatís clearly the right thing to do. But on the whole I would prefer a world in which people can get fulfilment and enjoyment from doing the right thing without feeling that theyíre making those sacrifices.

Rachael Kohn: Well your own background is Jewish; has it contributed to your ethical outlook?

Peter Singer: Itís really hard to say that. I was not brought up in a religious way. I didnít even get a lot of Jewish culture from my parents, there were certainly books about Judaism and the Jewish people around in our home, but I didnít feel in the path that I took in philosophy and in ethics that there was anything particularly Jewish about it, and the utilitarian ethic is not one that is one that you would take out of the Jewish tradition really, although obviously in the Jewish tradition there is a concern for helping the weak, thereís a great concern for preventing suffering, and you could perhaps argue that my concern about preventing suffering is consistent with a Jewish tradition, and might also have something to do with the background that my parents came from and the suffering that they saw and that happened to their families.

So I guess Iím being a bit vague but itís because really these are things, itís so hard to pinpoint the influences, but thereís no obvious and direct link between my current ideas and my background as someone growing up in a Jewish family.

Rachael Kohn: You obviously have enormous compassion for sentient beings, animals and humans; has that come from some kind of Buddhist influence?

Peter Singer: Iíve never been consciously influenced by Buddhist teachings. I think I came to my views about animals before I really knew very much about Buddhist thinking.

Subsequently I read some of the Buddhist texts and read about Buddhism, because I was interested in its views about animals, and I do find much to admire there, not just in its views about animals but in the entire approach to life, especially in those Buddhist streams, and there are many different of Buddhism, which are not really religious, because I donít regard Buddhism as a religion, it doesnít have a belief, you know, divine being or anything of that sort, itís rather a way of life, and itís a way of life that I think has a lot to commend it but I donít consider myself a Buddhist, and I donít think that I have been very much influenced by Buddhism, I think Iíve rather come to somewhat similar views on some issues.

Rachael Kohn: Peter Singer, itís been great having you on The Spirit of Things. Thank you.

Peter Singer: Thank you, Rachael, good to talk to you too.


Rachael Kohn: Thatís Peter Singer, bioethicist and author of numerous books and articles, extracts of which have been collected into a volume called Writings on an Ethical Life.

This program is produced by me and Geoff Wood, with technical production by Roi Huberman.

Next week we have a rare treat. He is called the greatest living writer in the English language, Sir V.S. Naipual is also the most impressive observer of India, the land of his forefathers. Part of the Indian Diaspora at the beginning of the last century, he grew up in Trinidad. But for 40 years his eyes have been turned to the land of the Mahatma, the Raj, the Partition, and the religious and social divisions that are uniquely played out in modern India.

So join me for a unique look at the worldís oldest and perhaps most troubled civilisation, India, through V.S. Naipualís eyes. Thatís next week on The Spirit of Things, Radio National.

Till then, so long from me, Rachael Kohn.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Talking Taboo with Peter Singer', interview with Rachael Kohn