Peter Singer interviewed by Andrew Denton
Enough Rope, October 4, 2004
Andrew Denton: Welcome, Peter. Can we start at the beginning? What's the difference between an ethic and a moral?
Professor Peter Singer: A lot of people use the terms now so that they really don't have a difference, but I think, in standard ideas, morality is a system of prohibitions, usually often something to do with sex or something like that, something that's fun to do that you shouldn't be doing. Ethics is a broader term that really covers the whole range of possible answers to questions, "how ought I to live?" So I think ethics is the broader thing that's less focused on prohibitions and is more perhaps looking at principles and questions and ideas about how to live your life.
Andrew Denton: So, the moral is, you know, "Should I be doing this sexual act," the ethic is, "Should I have been doing it with that person?"
Professor Peter Singer: Well, I think, you know...
Andrew Denton: I'm just trying to give a metaphor here to get us kicked along.
Professor Peter Singer: Is it part of a good life? Let's put it that way.
Andrew Denton: Oh, damn, yeah... Oh, sorry, yes. Right. That's right, I forgot. Other examples. I mean, I know that you, for instance, you give 20 per cemt of your money...income to charity, and you won't eat or wear any animal products. Do you have a guilty secret? How well do you do? Is there somewhere where you slip under the wire ethically?
Professor Peter Singer: Oh, I'm certainly not pure, even in that, you know. You say I don't eat any animal products, but if I'm travelling, I'm not going to really sort of turn back something that might have a bit of dairy product or something like that in it. I think life gets too difficult if you try and be absolutely pure about these things. So, basically, my view is I don't want to support the exploitation of animals, and within reason, I will do what I can to avoid it, but it's not like it's a religion for me. It's not like I consider I'm polluted if somehow some bit of milk or cheese or something passes my lips. So it's always a matter, I think, of finding a balance between trying to do what you think is right and is going to have the best effect, and not living your life in such a way that you can't actually get on with the important things in life.
Andrew Denton: OK, that can be done, but a lot of people don't. Why do we find it so hard?
Professor Peter Singer: We grow up in a society that basically thinks a successful life is one where you, you know, earn as much as you can, rise up whatever corporate or professional ladder you can, buy a bigger house than the one you had before, and a more expensive car, and, you know, leave behind a bigger pile of garbage at the end of your life, and that's really about it, and I think it takes a deliberate effort to say, "No, those are not the values that are really most important, that's not the most fulfilling kind of life that I want to lead. There are other things that I can do with it."
Andrew Denton: You have been called the most dangerous man on the planet. What is it about what you do that is dangerous and why do people take exception to it?
Professor Peter Singer: I think that that particular epithet was because I've been a critic of what people sometimes call the 'sanctity of life' view. That is, the view that every human life, just because it's human, is sacrosanct and must never be taken. Now, I think that people who say they believe that are usually hypocrites. They actually don't believe it, and we can talk about that in more detail, I hope, but because I openly question it, whereas other people pay lip-service to it, even if they don't actually follow through, people think that that's dangerous. They think that that might lead to some sort of breakdown, you know, cause sort of a slippery slope where we start allowing people to ask their doctor to end their lives when they're terminally ill and have cancer, and we end up with a state selecting people who are politically undesirable and killing them. So I think that's kind of what they're getting at with that term, but personally, I don't believe that there is any such slippery slope, and I think it's probably more dangerous to pretend that we adhere to an ethic that we don't really accept than to say, "Look, let's really talk about this openly. Let's be honest about what we're doing and try and develop the best and most defensible ethical approach to the whole range of complex decisions about when it's OK to take human life and when it's not."
Andrew Denton: It's incredibly complex. We will get to it. Before we do, let's just paint a picture of you as a man who's not simply sitting in the ivory tower of Princeton University. You're a man that's actually been out there on the front line, and never more so than with Animal Liberation. This is footage of you at a protest back when you lived in Australia some years ago.
ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE (COURTESY: Animal Liberation)
Professor Peter Singer: It's November 21. My name is Peter Singer. I'm at Parkville Piggery, and I've chained myself out of solidarity with this pig, which is also chained by this totally cruel and obsolete method of using chains. You can see the pig cannot move around, cannot turn around, can't walk more than a single step the length of this chain backwards and forwards, and these pigs are like this for months at a time.
Andrew Denton: A man out there on the front line. Now, you say that we shouldn't eat animals. We are omnivores. Why shouldn't we do what other omnivores do and eat meat?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, we have a choice. We're capable of reflecting. Other omnivores or carnivores, for that matter, generally don't have our abilities to reason and to reflect on what we're doing. And we can live very well, you know. This may not be true for every human being, alright? If they're someone who is in great poverty, that's a different situation, and I wouldn't blame them at all if they use whatever there is that's nutritious and that's available to them and their family. But if we are fortunate enough to be living in a society where we walk into the supermarket and we have a choice between, you know, buying some miserable chicken that's come out of a factory farm and has never walked on grass or seen the light of day or, say, a slab of tofu that we can cook in some wok, stir-fried, marinated way that will make a nutritious and delicious dish with vegetables, then I think that we ought to be doing the thing that reduces harm, that doesn't support the suffering that we put the chicken through in order to turn it into that supermarket product.
Andrew Denton: Is your objection merely to the way animals are treated or is your objection overall to the fact that we are choosing to eat animals - those of us who have a choice?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, it's because they suffer in the way that we treat them, really. I mean, I don't object to eating animals as such. You know, if you want to eat road kill, that's fine with me. I mean, you know, I think that if the animal has died anyway, I have no objection to your eating it. So it's not eating animals, it's the process that we put them through in order to turn them into products on the supermarket shelves.
Andrew Denton: Have you, in putting forward this argument, taken into account the basic human right not to have to eat tofu?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, you know, it's one of the funny things about people who talk about human rights is that they can always just intuit a new one that's convenient for them, so you're a perfect example. Thanks for that.
Andrew Denton: My father used to say that tofu is made of toe jam, which is why it tastes like that.
Professor Peter Singer: Your father needs to be educated by a good chef.
Andrew Denton: In 2001, for an online erotica magazine called 'Nerve', you agreed to do a book review...
Professor Peter Singer: I knew we'd get to this one.
Andrew Denton: Yeah, well, it's a good one. For a book about bestiality. Why did you say yes?
Professor Peter Singer: Uh, maybe I was a little rash on that occasion.
Andrew Denton: Yeah? Why were you rash?
Professor Peter Singer: I suppose I felt a bit challenged in the sense that the editor was saying, you know, "Here's a topic that nobody really talks about openly, sexual contact between humans and animals." And it was a serious book on the topic. It was a scholarly book on the topic. "So, would you review it and think a little bit about why, although some sexual taboos have gone, this one, the idea of sexual contact between humans and animals, the taboo is as strong as ever." So, I sort of felt I shouldn't run away from that challenge, I guess.
Andrew Denton: I'm impressed with the thinking, although you don't strike me as a man that ever does anything that's rash. You seem very considered.
Professor Peter Singer: But sometimes, you know, maybe that sense of, well, you know, "I don't want to run away from this challenge," actually is stronger than it ought to be. And it might have been... Just because I know that I've got lots of opponents who will take anything that I say and, you know, twist it and take it out of context and use it against me, so maybe it would have been more prudent, nevertheless, to say, you know, even though here I am running away from a challenge, that's the right thing to do. That's the sensible thing to do.
Andrew Denton: I believe one of the headlines at the time was 'The Love That Dare Not Bark Its Name'.
Professor Peter Singer: Yes. (Laughs) There were some good jokes.
Andrew Denton: There were some good jokes.
Professor Peter Singer: There were some good jokes, yes.
Andrew Denton: In retrospect do you - because you said 'rash' - do you, because you can be easily sidelined by your critics as the baby-killing, animal-loving guy from Australia, have you made yourself an easy mark doing this sort of stuff? Have you actually sidelined the more important things you need to say?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, that's probably the best example because it's not a major issue, really. I mean, a couple of good things have come out of that. I mean, a psychologist who has clients who have had sexual contact with animals has actually told me that she's given them that review and it's helped them to understand that they don't have to feel as guilty and tortured about what they were doing as they did before. So it's not totally a bad thing, but in terms of this larger picture that you mention, of making it easier for people to sideline me, that's probably the worst example.
Andrew Denton: And I certainly don't wish to dwell on this. I'm just curious, though. When you were writing that article, reviewing the book, did you take the animal's point of view into mind?
Professor Peter Singer: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, because what I actually said in the review was of course there's a lot of sexual contact between humans and animals that's forced on the animal, that's, you know, painful for the animal and so on, but I imagine situations - and there are situations - where it's clear that the animal is absolutely free to choose to leave or not, you know, and is not being harmed. So that's the point. That's the point of view of the animal. And, obviously, anything that is abusing the animal, making the animal suffer, I wouldn't support for a moment, ought to be prohibited.
Andrew Denton: Opinions on animals have led to other positions which have caused far more controversy, one of which is that in some circumstances, it is better to perform experiments on humans than animals. What circumstances?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, I said that because I wanted to make the point that I don't think species is really what's crucially important. I mean, now we have, you know... The way the whole law is set up, if you're a human being, no matter what your condition, that is, no matter what your capacity for being aware of what you're doing is, you are protected by law and you cannot be, well, with some exceptions, you cannot be used in harmful experiments without consent or something like that. Whereas if you're an animal, again, no matter how high your level of awareness, you can be. So I wanted to make the point that there are some humans, the example I took is, say, an anencephalic human. Now, this is a condition that occasionally occurs that a baby is born, essentially, without a brain. I mean, they have a brain stem, so they're not brain dead. And because of that brain stem they breathe, their heart beats, their blood circulates. But they have no higher brain. So they will never be aware of anything. They'll never feel anything. This baby will never recognise his or her mother, will never smile. And mostly they're not treated medically and so they die within hours or days of birth. What I was saying was if someone says to you, "Look, we have to do this medical research. It's really urgent. And we have to do it on chimpanzees because they're the only beings sufficiently like us to be useful for this experiment." Then I would say, "Well, would you be prepared to do it on an anencephalic baby if the parents gave you permission to do it?" And I think that, given that a chimpanzee is a very aware, even self-conscious being, I think, understands his or her situation well and can suffer in various ways, it would be better to do it on a human being who has less awareness of what's going on, with the consent of the parents, than to do it on a chimpanzee, who has far more potential to suffer.
Andrew Denton: You've also made the case that it can be ethical to kill a sick or disabled infant after it's been born and for this, above all, you've created enemies. And when this comes up, you often say that you were taken out of context or misquoted. Can you tell us specifically what the basis of this argument is?
Professor Peter Singer: Sure. Let me first start with why I began to think about this issue. This was when I was at Monash at the Centre for Human Bioethics in the 1980s. And together with my colleague there, Helga Kuhse, we were approached by doctors from Melbourne hospitals who were dealing with either very premature or very severely disabled infants. They came to see us because they said, "We have ethical dilemmas." What they were doing with some of these infants was they were forming the view that the baby's condition is so serious that the life of the child will be one that is full of suffering and one that you wouldn't really want to inflict on anyone. So they were, therefore, not treating the babies' conditions. And that meant... You know, the various conditions they were talking about, one of them was spina bifida, but there are others. So in the case, say, of spina bifida, this is a condition where there's an open wound on the spine. And they would allow that wound to remain open until an infection developed. And they would not treat the infection, so the baby would become ill, would become feverish, perhaps would not eat. Maybe there would be a build-up of fluid in the brain and the head would swell. And eventually, from all of these conditions, the baby would die. Maybe the baby would die a week after birth, maybe a month after birth, in some cases, six months after birth. And during that time, of course, the baby was having a very miserable time of it, the parents were having a miserable time of it and the hospital was as well.
Andrew Denton: This is not normal medical practice, though, with spina bifida.
Professor Peter Singer: Not anymore, but it was in the '80s. It was in the '80s. Now we have somewhat better methods of dealing with this condition.
Andrew Denton: Is the point you're making, though, that that infant would have been better terminated?
Professor Peter Singer: Exactly. But the point was that the doctors were making a life or death decision for this infant, no question about it. But because they believed it was wrong to kill, they were actually inflicting more suffering on the child and on the parents, and the hospital staff too had a tough time with this, than they would have if they had believed that it was alright to actively do something to help the baby to die. So, you know, we looked at this situation and we thought, well, firstly, it shouldn't really be just the doctors making this life or death decision. It's the parents who are the most affected and who can perhaps best be regarded as having the child's interest at heart. So the parents have to be brought into the decision-making process. And in the early 1980s, that was not at all the standard view. I'm pleased to say that now it is. But, secondly, we thought that if you're going to make a decision that it's not in the child's interest to continue to live you ought to be able to, really, help the child to die, essentially, to give the child a lethal injection. And that's something that the law hasn't changed about and so you still can't do that. But I think, privately, some doctors will say, "Well, we are prepared to help children to die by giving them pain-killers in a way that we know will shorten life."
Andrew Denton: Practically, though, on what basis can you make this judgment, that a baby's life is one that should be terminated? What possible practical guidelines can you put in place for that?
Professor Peter Singer: I don't think that you can actually say, "The condition must be such and such." You know, you can't specify all the variables. And that's why I think the parents' input is so important because if the parents really want this child, whatever the condition, love this child, and want to take the child home and give the child a loving home, then the child's prospects of having a reasonable life are much better than if the parents say, "No, we can't cope with this." So I think that the parents, informed by the doctors, ought to be making that decision. And if the doctors think, with their experience of these cases, that the parents are making a reasonable decision, they should go along with it. If the doctors think the parents are being completely unreasonable then, you know, they can't accept it and maybe it has to go to a hospital ethics committee or even to a court to decide.
Andrew Denton: You've also said that if you'd had a Down syndrome child and there was another couple that wanted to raise that child that you would adopt it out. Now, you're a man who has resources. You could raise that child. It seems almost, on the surface, like a lifestyle choice, a selfish lifestyle choice. Why no sense of responsibility or caring towards that child?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, I think what I said there was in comment on, you know, how would I have dealt with such a child, right? And I think that I would have had a lot of difficulty in giving that child the love and care and attention that every child should have.
Andrew Denton: What does that say about you?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, perhaps it says that I'm the kind of person who would want my children to be children that I could expect to grow up to be ones that I could have the kind of conversation with that I'm having with you now. So maybe it is because, if you like, I live a life where conversations and ideas and that sort of thing are important, that I would have felt, I think, an enormous sadness the idea that my child will never grow up to be someone that I could have that kind of conversation with.
Andrew Denton: It does seem like a selfish view.
Professor Peter Singer: Well, you know, if you like. If you like. But as I say...
Andrew Denton: But isn't the whole point of your philosophy and your life's work...? In fact the driving force is that you're trying to decrease human suffering, and yet what you're saying seems to be a cold thing.
Professor Peter Singer: Well, no, I think that I'm not the sort of person who's well suited for that kind of child rearing and I would rather not do it. I mean, I think there's many other things that I could do with my time that would be more beneficial for the world as a whole than trying to be the father of a child like that, and I would... You know, as I said, I think there's a limited number of children that my wife and I were planning to have and had one of them been a child with Down's, then I think that we would have felt that we would have missed something which we've fortunately been able to have from our other children.
Andrew Denton: There are critics who would suggest that this underlines that you actually have a problem with the concept of disability - that you're confronted by it - and therefore it makes your ethical judgments on disability ones to be discounted.
Professor Peter Singer: Well, I don't have any problem with the idea and, I mean, I know people with disabilities and I don't have any problem in terms of relating to them. I guess I just think that, you know, disability is exactly what the word says. I mean, some people deny that in any way you should judge a life as less fortunate because someone has a disability. And of course it's true that many people with disabilities end up leading wonderful lives. But nevertheless, other things being equal, I think most of us would prefer our children not to have disabilities. And that's why when women are told that they're pregnant with a child who will have Down syndrome, 85 per cent of them in this country, about, choose to terminate the pregnancy. So I think, on this issue, I'm just part of that 85 per cent majority.
Andrew Denton: If there's a weakness in your world view, Peter, where do you think it is?
Professor Peter Singer: I mean, I guess the... People do say - it's a bit like what you've been saying - that I don't give enough weight to the fact that we have emotions and passions and that some of the things that I say about, for example, sharing what we have with strangers living in Mozambique or Bangladesh, or wherever else it might be, doesn't give enough weight to the importance of family ties. Now, I mean, on one level I think that that's wrong because, you know, family ties are important for me. I think I'm as loving a father as any father to my children, and that is important. I just think that we sometimes, at least, ought to be going beyond that and have a broader perspective. But it's true that the views that I put out therefore are ones that don't get as readily taken up in the community. I mean, I can say this to your million viewers or whatever it might be and I hope that some of them will actually look at what they're doing and write cheques to Oxfam or other groups and so on. But probably a large number of them are not, and that's the gap, if you like, between where people are in their own lives and their sense of priorities and it's the limits of how far reasoning and argument can take you in this.
Andrew Denton: Let's talk about perception. I want to show you a photograph. What is the difference between you and this man?
(PICTURE OF LEONARD NIMOY AS SPOCK, POINTING A WEAPON)
Professor Peter Singer: He has longer ears, I think, doesn't he?
Andrew Denton: (Laughs) People do see you as bloodless, don't they? As cold?
Professor Peter Singer: Yeah, look, I mean...professionally, I'm a philosopher. Philosophers use reason and argument, you know. If I were a poet, I would be writing poetry that would pull at your emotions in order to make you empathise with the situation of the battery hen or of the family who can't afford to put food on the table. So, you know, that's the professional hazard, if you like, of being a philosopher - is that you get seen as someone who is all reason and no emotion. I think as a portrait of me personally, it's false but as a portrait of what I do in my professional life, in my writing and talking, it's just part of the game.
Andrew Denton: With so many controversial matters on your slate, is the point here not necessarily that you're right but that these things should be discussed?
Professor Peter Singer: Well, that's a large part of it, you know. And when people say, "Well, you know, what do you think about the controversy that you've created?" I do often say, "Well, at least it means that these issues are getting out there, whether you agree with me or disagree with me." I hope that people will support the idea that people have a right to say these things, that it's better to have these issues out in the open, better to have them discussed and tossed around and come to an informed view than to try, as some people would say, to gag me, not allow me to speak, not allow these issues to be raised in a public arena.
Andrew Denton: And for our kids, what are going to be the big ethical questions in their lifetime?
Professor Peter Singer: Probably, unfortunately, the divide between the haves and have-nots in the world is still going to be a big problem. Probably, the treatment of animals is still going to be there. But if you're looking for new issues, I think our kids are going to have the possibility of choosing their offspring by genetic selection by taking their embryos, you know, using in-vitro fertilisation or something like it to get their embryos diagnosed - have several embryos, have them diagnosed - have some expert say, "Well, you know, this one is a boy and probably he's going to be pretty athletic but may not be too good at maths, and this one is a girl and could be very musical but..." so on and so forth. And...people may want to choose their children in that way. And I think one of the big dilemmas our society's going to have to face is are we going to let them or are we going to say, "No. You can do genetic diagnosis to discover serious diseases, but you can't do genetic diagnosis to pick the qualities of your child - the positive qualities that you would like your child to have."
Andrew Denton: You're talking about hot-housing kids in the womb, effectively. As somebody for whom the greater good is your preference, would you not support the idea of being able to select the right child?
Professor Peter Singer: I think...I mean, I don't think it's a black-and-white question. I wouldn't say that you ought to prohibit this necessarily but I'm... What really troubles me most about it, I guess, is that if it develops on a private basis... And in the US particularly that's what's most likely to happen because the US doesn't federally fund things that people disapprove of but it doesn't always stop them either. It has this great belief in the free market and that's why you can actually see in the Princeton University newspaper advertisements for eggs from female Princeton students who have very high SAT scores - that's the university admissions test. And sometimes you have other characteristics like being tall or athletic or whatever. And people are offering 25,000 dollars for eggs from a donor with these characteristics. Now, that's the free market. You're not allowed to do that in Australia. We don't allow people to have a market in eggs or sperm. But you can in the US. So they might well allow a market in it where people who are rich and can afford this genetic diagnosis can have 'superior' children by these tests, whatever they do, and those who can't afford it don't. And then what we have is a society where there's kind of a genetic aristocracy and the rest of it, you know? It's not that far from the film 'Gattaca', if you remember seeing that. So that's one of the big worries, I think. And I would rather, in a way, that this was regulated, controlled to some degree so it didn't get crazy, but made available on an equal basis for everyone than to see the rich being able to select however they like and those who can't afford it having to put up with the 'naturals', as they were called in 'Gattaca'.
Andrew Denton: If that free market guaranteed you a generation of children who were strictly vegetarian, would you be persuaded?
Professor Peter Singer: (Laughs) Well, that would be a big plus. I'd have to think about that one.
Andrew Denton: We'll put a camera on you when that happens. Peter Singer, fascinating to talk to you. Thank you very much.
Professor Peter Singer: Thank you, Andrew. Nice talking to you.