Peter Singer in the Spotlight
Peter Singer interviewed by Mark Franklin
Australian Jewish News, October 30, 2006
What provided the foundation for the direction your views as an ethicist have taken?
The foundation of my ethics is the idea of putting yourself in the position of those affected by your actions and asking how you would like it if someone acted that way. That stance leads to choices that prevent or reduce suffering and misery, and, in general, seeks to advance the interests of every sentient being.
What impact has your Jewish heritage had on you?
I’m not religious and I don’t have strong feelings of ethnic identity. I grew up in a family that was deeply affected by the Holocaust and so I had a vivid sense of the horrors of Nazism, antisemitism and authoritarian rule. The culture of my family home had a strong flavour of Jewish Vienna, but that was very much a mix of Austrian and Jewish culture, and the separate elements are not easy to disentangle. My family valued education and learning.
What was the most vital thing you learned through exploring the lives of your three grandparents who perished in the Holocaust?
In hindsight, we can see that none of them recognised early enough the danger that Nazism posed. Can we learn from that mistake? Obviously, we must oppose fascism, authoritarian government, racism and the use of force to suppress dissent.
But can we recognise the next dangers? They won’t come in the same uniforms as the previous ones.
What is your core reason for defending David Irving’s right to deny the Holocaust?
I’m a utilitarian, so I wouldn’t argue the issue in terms of rights. No purpose is served by sending David Irving to prison. If there are still people crazy enough to believe that the Holocaust is a myth, how will jailing Irving change their minds?
It will only make them suspect that there must be something in what he says, otherwise why wouldn’t those who disagree with him just refute his theories? And it gives him more publicity.
The rabbis say kosher slaughter is the most humane way to kill an animal. Why do you argue the reverse?
Kosher slaughter may have been relatively humane in the days before firearms and electric stunning, but today it is not the most humane way to kill animals.
I challenge anyone who thinks kosher slaughter is humane to go to this website: www.goveg.com/feat/agriprocessors, and watch the video shown there.
This is not taken at some out-of-the-way little kosher slaughterhouse – it’s the biggest kosher slaughterhouse in the United States, which must make it one of the biggest, if not the biggest, in the world.
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s War and Peace, Raskolnikov asks if it would be justified to torture and kill an innocent child to ensure human happiness for all time. What is your response? Why?
It’s hard to imagine how torturing an innocent child ever could ensure human happiness for all time, so it’s not surprising that our instinct is to answer with an emphatic, “No!”
But if we imagine that torturing that one child really would prevent all the suffering that, otherwise, billions of innocent children and adults will experience for centuries to come, I don’t think we should refuse to take that step, horrible as it would be to do it.
Was Israel’s justification of the recent war in southern Lebanon – that it was defending its own people – valid?
The issue isn’t whether Israel has a right to defend itself – of course it does. But was the scale of the attack on Lebanon, and the civilian casualties it caused, justified by what Hezbollah had done?
For an answer to that, you don’t have to go any further than Dan Gillerman, Israel’s United Nations ambassador. Referring to complaints that Israel was using disproportionate force, he told a rally of supporters in New York, “You’re damn right we are” (New York Times, July 19, 2006).
In your opinion how ethical was the foundation of the State of Israel?
I don’t think any fair-minded observer can deny that the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine – whatever reasons there may have been for it, given the tragedy that had just befallen European Jews – was a grave injustice to Palestinians.
In 19th- and early 20th-century Europe, there was a Zionist slogan: “A land without people for a people without land.” Many European Jews believed it. Only when they got to Palestine did they realise that there were people there already.
The history of Israel since its foundation can be seen as a series of repercussions from the injustice of its foundation. There were, at times, opportunities to overcome the injustice in a way that could have satisfied the core interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.
A Jewish right-wing extremist ended the best of these opportunities when he assassinated former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Why did you run as a Greens candidate in 1996?
I was a founding member of the Victorian Greens, and they asked me to run as a way of raising the party’s profile. In that, I think the campaign succeeded. I never expected to win, and I have no regrets about standing.
Do you consider yourself a part of the Jewish community? Are you a Jewish renegade?
I suppose I’m part of the worldwide Jewish community, in a loose sense that includes people who have some cultural affiliation with the Jewish heritage.
I’m not a “Jewish renegade” because that suggests that I’m actively engaged in rebelling against being Jewish. Honestly, my identity as a Jew, or not, just isn’t all that important to me.