Peter Singer interviewed by Terry Lane
ABC, May 13, 2001
Terry Lane: Professor Peter Singer these days is the De Campe Professor in the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University in America. And Peter Singer has published a new book called ‘Writings on an Ethical Life’, and the book consists of a collection of previously published extracts from books, articles and essays, and in his introduction, Peter suggests that this collection of his writings all in one place will help his many detractors, enemies and critics to get a better appreciation of his moral philosophy.
The New York Times says that Peter Singer is perhaps the world’s most controversial ethicist, and judging from the Internet, they’re not wrong. There are very many anti-Singer websites on which he’s savaged for his views of euthanasia and infanticide. And when you consider that Peter Singer held and expressed all of these opinions while he was Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, before going to the United States, without stirring up anything like the fuss that he has over there, it makes you wonder about us. Are we more tolerant? More objective? Or just plain uninterested?
Well here’s Peter Singer on the phone from his office in New Jersey. Peter, lovely to talk to you again.
Peter Singer: Hi Terry.
Terry Lane: Nice to talk to you in the United States; what’s it like being at the top of the educational tree at Princeton University?
Peter Singer: It’s very good really. The students are good, my colleagues are very good too, and there’s actually time to really do the things that you ought to do in universities, like sit around and discuss issues rather than rush off from one meeting to another.
Terry Lane: Are standards higher than in Australia?
Peter Singer: That’s interesting. I think certainly the graduate students are extremely good, they’re very selected, and I think probably yes, the standards are a bit higher. With the undergraduates, although they’re all very bright, they basically don’t have courses that are hierarchical in the way that ours are, so there’s no such thing as putting on a third year course and assuming that everyone has done some ethics or philosophy in first year and then built further on that in the second year and then gone on to your course. So you get people who are very bright but they actually have little background in the subject, and that means that you can’t really teach at a higher standard in the sense of one that presupposes that they really know a lot about ethics.
Terry Lane: What do your graduate students expect to do when they finish studying? Are they all bound to be teachers, or what are their ambitions?
Peter Singer: Most of them are wanting to be an academic, yes, and I think if you get a PhD from Princeton, your chances of that are pretty good. That’s certainly a difference between, say, getting a PhD from Monash, which may be an excellent degree but doesn’t carry the same kudos and therefore doesn’t guarantee you an academic job in the way that a Princeton PhD probably pretty well does.
Terry Lane: How do they react to the point that you make quite strongly in ‘Writing on an Ethical Life’, that the... well I don’t even know what to call you - the professional ethicist? - does have social responsibilities?
Peter Singer: I think there’s a recognition here that at least some of the people doing ethics, not all of them, will have a public role, and that that’s really an essential part of democratic discussion, that people in the academy should get involved in that debate. Of course there are other colleagues and people in the Philosophy Department who really are doing questions about ethics that don’t have substantive impact on major issues, so not everyone feels the need to do that, but there’s an acceptance that it’s part of what goes on here.
Terry Lane: Would there be a tendency to attract students who are predisposed towards social involvement and want a formal academic underpinning for their activities? Like, for instance, would you be more likely to have amongst your students supporters of Ralph Nader?
Peter Singer: Well, there are certainly a number who are supporters of Ralph Nader, not necessarily in the sense of his political campaign for the presidency, but supporters of doing the general sort of thing that he did. In fact he is a Princeton graduate, and the year that he was in, the class that graduated in 1955, has set up a program called Project 55 to encourage Princeton students to take jobs with non-government organisations, and that has a certain success and a certain following, even though it’s probably still a minority one.
Terry Lane: Presumably Princeton students are the children of the plutocracy?
Peter Singer: Not entirely. You would think so, and certainly a number of them have gone to private schools and have wealthy parents, but Princeton is very generous in its financial aid, and what it does really is it selects the students that it wants to take on merit. It takes, I think, less than 10% of those that apply, but then once you’re accepted on merit, they will say to you, ‘If for financial reasons you would not be able to take up this place, come and talk to us’, and they will then put together a package which will provide you with aid. It may involve you in some work for the university, part-time work of various sorts as well, which they say means that even a person who comes from a home without any money at all should be able to take up the place.
Terry Lane: Peter, what do your colleagues in the faculty say about your argument that the professional ethicist does have a responsibility to turn his objective ideas into political action?
Peter Singer: I think it depends who you talk to. There’s probably actually more sympathy for that view among people in the Departments of Politics and the Woodrow Wilson School of Policy Studies, where a lot of people actually yes, they are commenting on policy all the time, and they expect in one way or another, that we’ll have some political impact - maybe not through actually taking political action themselves, but through being picked out by people who are more directly in the political arena. My colleagues in Philosophy here are probably not so much involved in that, it doesn’t tend to be the emphasis of this Philosophy Department.
Terry Lane: But what about specifically? Because of all the people who teach Philosophy at Princeton, I imagine that you are the one who enjoys the greatest fame; what do they think about you personally?
Peter Singer: I get on very well with people that I talk to around the department. Some of them, I guess I would have to say, I don’t really know what they think about me personally, because their work may be in metaphysics or epistemology, something fairly removed from what I’m doing, and we only have a fairly casual acquaintance. But I think those who do have some interest in ethics and social philosophy, as far as I can tell, we have good personal relationships and they respect what I’m doing.
Terry Lane: What about the students, do you attract students because you are known as a philosopher-activist?
Peter Singer: I think there’s some of that, yes. I’ve certainly been getting big enrolments for the courses that I’ve put on, and I think part of it is the controversy that arose when people protested about my appointment here, and various things that have followed that. So I think there are some people who are just curious to see what this is all about, if you like. But there are definitely students who are simply interested in the issues that are coming for that reason.
Terry Lane: I get the impression from the introduction [to your book] Peter, that this is an attempt – I should point out that it’s, what’ll we call it?, a digest of writings that already exist in other forms, either as magazine articles or as parts of books - but it looks like it’s an attempt to provide your hostile critics with your thinking in context.
Peter Singer: That’s correct. It’s not only my hostile critics but I guess people who have read about me, have heard something at second hand about me, and perhaps from what they’ve read, are inclined to be hostile, but are prepared to actually say ‘Well OK, if I can get all this together in one volume I’ll take a look at what this guy actually says and make up my own mind rather than allow it to be mediated by a journalist.’ So those are really the people that I’m trying to reach, the people who haven’t actually read me directly themselves.
Terry Lane: I don’t think they’re going to be reassured, Peter.
Peter Singer: Well, I hope that they’ll see that there are real problems. I guess what’s annoyed me about some of the coverage is that people just report my conclusions as if I’d just dreamt these conclusions up or just laid them down as my fiats or something like that, and they don’t see that they’re a response to real problems and issues where we need to try and think a bit more clearly than we have been thinking so far.
Terry Lane: But if we go to the heart of your thinking, which is objectionable to many people, I’ll just quote a sentence from the book: ‘We begin to see the differences between us and the non-human animals as differences of degree, not of kind.’ Now this is an important principle in your thinking, and my guess is that most of your hostile critics will read those words and they will say, ‘Yes, he is as bad as we thought he was, he makes no distinction between pigs and new-born infants.’
Peter Singer: Well the sentence doesn’t say that I make no distinction, it says that there’s differences of degree, but not of kind, that in a sense we’re on a continuum. So yes, maybe some people will still find that wrong, certainly people who think for instance that all humans have an immortal soul and no non-human animals have an immortal soul will think that there’s a difference of kind, that there’s a sharp distinction there. But I think people who don’t start from those kinds of preconceptions will perhaps be willing to see that when we look at the abilities of various animals and various humans, that there’s really an overlap, there’s not a huge gulf which puts all humans above all non-human animals.
Terry Lane: Looking back on your life, one of the curious things is that you’ve been able to develop these ideas and propagate these ideas in Australia without causing, as far as I know, without causing any storm of hostile protest. But in Europe and the United States, the hostility has been more marked. Perhaps that’s because we don’t care about ideas in Australia.
Peter Singer: Perhaps there’s actually a bit of that I suppose, that people paid less attention to what intellectuals, so-called, say. But I think you need to be a little more nuanced; I think they provoke more response in the United States because the United States is still a very much more religious country than Australia and it has a much stronger anti-abortion movement. I mean you could see in the last presidential election that abortion was a major election issue in a way that it really isn’t in Australia. In Europe I wouldn’t say that I’ve had such a hostile response, except in Germany where there was organised opposition because of my views about euthanasia - and I think that’s explicable because of the Nazi past, and the sense of guilt about that. But, for example, if I go to England, if I go to the Netherlands, I go to Italy, in Spain, I’ve given lectures in all those countries, and certainly there’s controversy, but there’s not the level of opposition and protest that there has been in the United States and Germany.
Terry Lane: Look, on this question of the immortal soul, because this is something that you mention from time to time in the discussion of the concept of the sanctity of life, this religious idea that the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is the immortal soul: the concept of the immortal soul quite clearly is just a mythical attempt to explain why we feel we are different from other animals, and it seems to me that just to ridicule the superstition and then to proceed with a logical argument based on Darwinism is not actually going to dispel from people’s minds the feeling that we are different in some way.
Peter Singer: Well, I don’t know, you may be right. I mean I certainly think that what you just said about the idea of the immortal soul being a mythical way of expressing the difference between ourselves and animals, is not the way that many people, and certainly many people here would see it. I mean they would simply see it as something that’s literally true.
Terry Lane: Yes I know, but I’m talking about you and me at this stage, the way that we would see it. We can cope with the concept of a myth.
Peter Singer: Right. Well, I mean I guess the question is, what sort of myths do we need to have really? Then if we’re going to take the discussion to that level, we need to really look at ourselves and look at non-human animals and say in what respects are we similar, and in what respects are we different. And as I say, I’ve never denied that there are differences, particularly differences between people like you and me who can have this sort of abstract discussion, and non-human animals, none of which are really capable of having that sort of discussion. But of course that’s not true of all human beings either, not all human beings are capable of understanding abstract reasoning either.
Terry Lane: No, but we don’t value them because of that, we value them because of our species kinship with them. And I’ll read another thing that is sure to provoke, well I think that this is at the basis of the hostility to you, where you write: ‘I have argued that the life of a foetus is of no greater value than the life of a non-human animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc, and that since no foetus is a person, no foetus has the same claim to life as a person. Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the new-born baby as much as to the foetus.’ Now there, you cross that mystical line of birth, and I appreciate your argument about the fact that life is a continuum but when you cross that line of birth, which is significant for human beings, a lot of people are not going to be able to make the journey with you.
Peter Singer: Yes, maybe. As you say, I’m interested in these boundary lines which seem to me we elevate to an importance that they don’t really have. In the case of birth, I suspect that a reasonable number of people do have a sort of intuitive gut response that the death of a new-born infant, while often very sad for the parents who wanted and cherished that infant, is not a tragedy in the same way that the death of an older child would be. And to that extent they are seeing this as part of a continual, a gradual process in the development and importance, or value, or whatever you want to call it, of the human being. And certainly other cultures have very often drawn the line in different places. We think of Ancient Greece or in more recent times in Japan, until the Westernisation of Japan, where infanticide was quite widely and openly practiced.
Terry Lane: You’re listening to The National Interest, and I’m talking to Peter Singer about his book ‘Writings on an Ethical Life’, and on that very subject, Peter, this is where you make another very controversial proposition, that perhaps there should be a 28-day period after the birth of a child during which it has not acquired the full moral status or right to life that we would accord to other human beings.
Peter Singer: Yes. The 28-day period is not something that I now want to really place any emphasis on. I think there is a problem with any sort of arbitrary cut-off point for something as serious as a right to life. But I guess what I was suggesting was that there’s a gradual development of capacities like self-awareness, which I think we can say are important in terms of giving a being a right to life, and they, whenever they do occur, they’re not really there within the first month of life, and that would be a fairly safe kind of cut-off point to saying you haven’t got a being that has that degree of self-awareness that later humans have, which could well be seen as something relevant to the wrongness of killing them.
Terry Lane: I’d like to do a little sidetrack: you tell two stories in the book, one about Primo Levi and his benefactor, Lorenzo, and the other about your parents and how they came to Australia rather than the United States just before the war. Now could you first tell us the story of Primo Levi?
Peter Singer: Well the point I was making with Primo Levi was that he was a prisoner in Auschwitz, and was pretty much I guess at the point of giving up that terrible struggle for existence when he was saved by the kindness and generosity of a fellow Italian who was a labourer in an adjacent camp - not a prisoner in the same sense because Primo Levy was Jewish and the Italian workers was not - who saved scraps of his food. They had better rations, the workers. Lorenzo saved scraps of his food and passed it through the wire to Levi and gave him various other things. And it was this act of altruism really of simply a stranger responding in a human way to someone else’s need, that Primo Levi says gave him the will to live and the idea that this still was a world of human beings out there that was worth looking for.
Terry Lane: Now tell us about your mother and father coming to Australia.
Peter Singer: My mother and father, who were also Jewish of course, were living in Austria, in Vienna, at the time when Hitler annexed Austria. And immediately, having seen what was happening to Jews in Germany, they realised that they had to leave as soon as they could. My father had an uncle who had gone some years before to the United States, and to go basically anywhere at that time, you needed to be sponsored by someone in the country you were going to. That is, they needed to say that you would not be a burden on the state, and they would undertake to pay any of your necessary costs for the first three years if you couldn’t find employment. So my father wrote to this uncle, asking him to sponsor himself and my mother. They were married at that time; they’d been married about a year. And the uncle wrote back and said, ‘Dear Ernst’ (that was my father’s name) ‘I’d be very happy to sponsor you, but unfortunately I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting your wife, and I regret that I’m unable to sponsor her.’ So in that situation of course my father didn’t contemplate going. In desperation my mother picked up a Christmas card that had been sent to her by an Australian, a man called Donovan, who she had met fairly casually in Austria the previous year; he’d come as a tourist, and he sent her a card, and she kept the card basically because it was so exotic having a card from a remote, faraway country like Australia. So she had the card and she had the address, and she wrote to him and said ‘Look, we really need to get out of Austria, we’d be willing to go to Australia, but we need a sponsor. Would you perhaps be willing to sponsor myself’ and she had to tell him that she was now married, she’d got married between meeting this man, ‘and my husband as well?’ And although he was a virtual stranger, or at most a very casual acquaintance, he immediately wrote back saying he would do everything possible to get a visa for them immediately, and he was as good as his word. The visa came through very rapidly and they were able to come out to Australia, where he welcomed them and helped them to get settled. So that’s I guess what made me an Australian rather than other children they might have had who would have been American.
Terry Lane: And to ask the obvious question, I presume he wasn’t Jewish?
Peter Singer: No, he was a Roman Catholic.
Terry Lane: Do you know, the thing that struck me as I read those two stories was that my reaction to them was entirely emotional and not rational. Which made me think about – you see, your approach to ethics is a rigidly logical approach to ethical questions. But human beings, when they approach moral questions, are greatly influenced by irrational factors. I mean things like disgust and revulsion, or excitement, or in the case of – I don’t even know what the right word is, in the case of the two stories that you’ve just told – but we would say we are moved by those stories. What, is it dangerous to make moral judgements on the basis of irrational emotions?
Peter Singer: Well I think it’s dangerous to try and decide difficult issues about what’s right and wrong on the basis of emotions, because people have all sorts of emotions in different periods, and there are many things that people emotionally reacted to. For example, 50 years ago in Mississippi a mixed race couple walking arm in arm in the street would have elicited a very strong negative emotional response. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that emotions have no role to play. I think emotions are really very important for everything in ethics, and the emotions that I think both of these stories reveal are ones of a kind of general sympathy or compassion, benevolence if you like, for others. And I think that’s hugely important in ethics. It’s not what we should use to decide difficult ethical issues, so if someone comes up with some new ethical question, we shouldn’t just consult our emotions and decide whether that gives us a yukky feeling of revulsion or a kind of warm glow. But we should be prepared to use our critical reason and look at the consequences. But if we see that something is causing suffering to someone, someone who has not merited that suffering in any way, then an emotional response of sympathy or compassion is exactly what we should feel and what will hopefully motivate people to act in the right way.
Terry Lane: But that takes us back in the circle back to how we will look at the baby, how we will regard the baby the minute before birth and the minute after birth. And I think that the strong emotional reaction to the newborn baby is, I suppose - again if we wanted to be rational, we would say that the strong emotional reaction, the impetus to look after this new life is genetically imprinted on us, it’s an evolutionary device that’s been necessary for the preservation of the species; it’s very hard to take a cold, rational look at the moral status of a newborn baby.
Peter Singer: Yes, I think what you’re saying is largely true. I’m sure there is a genetically based reason why we feel sort of supportive of newborn infants. Of course probably the fact that we don’t feel so supportive if they have obvious visible abnormalities is also genetically imprinted. That is, if a baby has clear visible abnormalities, they’re much more likely to be rejected and there’s good reasons again in evolutionary terms why parents living in circumstances where basically you need to be pretty fit to survive, would be primed to reject babies that look as if they’re going to be particularly a burden and not going to be able to cope with themselves. But I guess what we have now is we have medical technology that enables us to say of a baby who looks pretty normal, ‘This baby has a major problem; there’s been a massive haemorrhage in the brain’ or something of that sort. And that’s part of the problem, I suppose, that then we have this emotional appeal to the cute, helpless baby, but the knowledge perhaps that this baby will actually never grow up to be able to play and laugh and enjoy life. And those are the situations that are very difficult for people to cope with, because there, I guess, that reason and emotion do come into some degree of conflict.
Terry Lane: Well, the thinking of Peter Singer on these and other difficult ethical issues can be found in ‘Writings on an Ethical Life’ by Professor Peter Singer. Are you at Princeton for good?
Peter Singer: Oh, nothing is for good, but I’m at Princeton for a reasonably long run I think. I’m enjoying it, and I plan to stay here.