“A man with plastic shoes and ironclad principles”
Peter Singer interviewed by Peter Thompson
Talking Heads, May 28, 2007

PETER THOMPSON: Peter Singer has been called "the most effective philosopher alive". His views on animal liberation, poverty and euthanasia have helped shape global debate on these subjects. And he's not afraid to leave the classroom and join the frontline of protest. These days Peter divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne universities. This week's Talking Head is Peter Singer.

PETER THOMPSON: Peter, it's great to meet you.

PETER SINGER: Good to meet you, Peter.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks for coming on Talking Heads.


PETER THOMPSON: A journalist once said you were "a man with plastic shoes and ironclad principles". How do you live out, in practical terms, what you believe in?

PETER SINGER: Well, I suppose you try to live in such a way that you're having the least harmful impact on others, that is, on other people, on other sentient beings, animals, and on the planet and, where possible, you go beyond that and you actually try and make things better, you actually try and help others who need it.

PETER THOMPSON: When it comes down to choices, what does that mean for the way you live, your personal way of life?

PETER SINGER: Well, for example, I am a vegetarian. I do wear...I'm wearing canvas shoes rather than plastic. But I try and avoid animal products, 'cause I think the animal industry, factory farming in particular, is an enormous source of unnecessary pain and suffering to animals, plus is not great for the planet either. I try and share some of the good fortune that I have financially with some of the world's poorest people by donating through organisations like Oxfam. And generally, I try and think about what I'm doing. I reflect on what I'm doing and try and work out what the consequences of what I'm doing are likely to be.

PETER THOMPSON: Does it bother you that the great majority of people don't live that way, or don't give much thought to it?

PETER SINGER: Yes, of course it bothers me. I mean, in a way, that's what my work is about, you know? I'm involved in ethics, teaching ethics to students, writing about ethical issues for the widest public that I can reach.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, do you feel the need to prick people's conscience, for example, when you're eating with them or when you're sitting on a leather couch as we are?

PETER SINGER: Well, you know, had you not bought this couch, I guess I would have advised you to buy a couch that was not supporting animal industries, but since you've got it, you might as well use it, so I'm not gonna worry about that. If I'm eating with other people, of course I'm not going to eat meat or battery eggs or things like that, but I'm not gonna rub it in their faces about my views unless they ask me, you know, why am I not eating this. Then, of course, I'm gonna tell them. I'm not gonna be shy about it. But I also, you know, don't want to be a kind of self-righteous prig who is always telling other people what to do.

PETER THOMPSON: So you're socially quite acceptable, are you, in company?

PETER SINGER: I think most of my friends, even the friends who are meat-eaters, do find me tolerable, yeah.

PETER THOMPSON: (Laughs) Let's see where the Peter Singer story began.

PETER SINGER: My family came from Vienna. My parents were Jewish so, when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, they wanted to leave as soon as they could. Unfortunately, my grandparents didn't leave in time, so they all got sent to camps. Three of them died there. My grandmother miraculously survived, and she came to Australia in the same month that I was born, in 1946. I grew up in a pleasant suburban home in Hawthorn. My father, by that time, had made a reasonable success of his business, which was importing coffee and tea. As well as his interest in business, he was an amateur filmmaker. But he always made it into a story. So, one of them, for example, called 'Quiet Weekend', Joan, my sister, and I go down to the Yarra. We leave a note for them, but it blows away, so they panic and they have to start searching for us, and that takes them to all these places in Victoria, which my father then fits into the movie. My parents were Jewish in terms of their background and their identity, but they were never really very religious, so as my 13th birthday approached, the year in which Jewish boys have this bar mitzvah, I decided that I didn't want to do that because I was not really a religious believer. It was kind of hypocritical. It kind of would have been fake for me. My parents left the decision up to me. They never thought of sending my sister or me to a Jewish school. We were both sent to, basically, schools that would give you the best education, so I went to Scotch College. I was interested in studying law, but I didn't want to just do law, so I thought I would do a combined law/arts course. I chose philosophy. I liked the idea that you could argue about these very basic issues on which there were no right or wrong answers, and gradually that became more interesting to me than law. When I was getting close to completing my master's degree at Melbourne University in philosophy, I was offered a scholarship to go to Oxford, and that was kind of the dream. Oxford was just THE centre of the philosophical universe in those days, so that was a wonderful opportunity. I first met the woman who was to be my wife, Renata, in a history tutorial. We got married in 1968, so when I was ready to go to Oxford, she was able to come with me, and it was really a marvellous place then. I started thinking about ethics as an undergraduate at Melbourne University, and I pursued that further when I was at Oxford, and I was interested in trying to apply ethics to the real world. But I'd never thought about the treatment of animals as a major ethical issue until I had lunch with a Canadian graduate student called Richard Keshen, who was a vegetarian, and he basically said that he didn't think we could justify the way animals were treated to turn them into food. So, that started me thinking about this whole issue. I decided, together with Renata, that we should become vegetarian, and that also got me interested in writing about that issue. In 1975 I published 'Animal Liberation', which I still think is probably the most important book that I've written because of the influence it had in starting off the modern animal movement. An example would be Henry Spira, who became a close friend of mine, who had a long career in the civil rights movement, and he came into the animal movement as a result of reading my writing, and then went on to become one of the most important activists in the American animal movement. He was really the first to get giant corporations like Revlon and Avon and eventually even McDonald's to change their practices in the way they treat animals.

PETER THOMPSON: Peter, your parents came to Australia as a result of the kindness of a stranger.

PETER SINGER: Yes, it was. They were desperate to get a visa to leave Austria when the Nazis marched in, and someone who'd met my mother, I think, just... They'd gone to some wine tavern in Vienna with a group of friends, and then he'd sent her a card afterwards to thank her for it, and she'd kept the card because it was so amazing to get a card from Australia, you know. It was, like, the other end of the world. So, when the Nazis came and they couldn't get a visa to the United States, she wrote to him and said was it possible that maybe he could help them to get a visa to Australia and, amazingly, he did.

PETER THOMPSON: This lunch you had that was the beginning, the stepping stone, if you like, to thinking about vegetarianism, tell us - how did that take place?

PETER SINGER: Well, I was attending lectures in Oxford. Starting talking with another student who'd asked a question in the lecture, and I was interested in what he'd said and whether he thought the answer was satisfactory and so on, and because the lecture finished just before lunch, he said, "Look, do you wanna keep talking about this? "We could go to my college for lunch." So we went to his college for lunch, and there was a choice. There were two things you could get for lunch. There was a plate of spaghetti with some sort of reddish-brown sauce over the top of it. And remember, this is England in the sort of late '60s or whatever. Cooking was not a great thing there. Or there was a salad plate, you know, some lettuce and tomato and a bit of cheese or bread or something, I guess. So, he asked whether there was meat in the sauce on the spaghetti, and he was told, "Yes, there is meat in it," so then he took the salad plate. So, I took the spaghetti and, you know, we went and sat down, went on with our discussion about free will, and when we came to the end of that I said, "What's your problem with meat? "Why did you ask that question and then take the salad?" And he said, "I don't really think that we're justified "in treating animals the way we treat them to turn them into food." And the idea that it was sort of an issue of the way animals were treated rather than the fact that they were killed or something like that, that intrigued me, and I guess I felt challenged to say, "Well, what IS it that ethically justifies us "to treat animals in this way," you know. I still, at first, thought, "There must be something and I have to find it," you know. I was intrigued to look for it. But I read various books about it and saw what the great philosophers of the past had written about why animals are different and don't have the rights or aren't to be treated in the way that we treat animals, and it seemed very unconvincing. It really seemed like special pleading by people who wanted to justify continuing to eat meat.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, plenty of other issues were soon attracting your attention. Let's see how.

PETER SINGER: I think I was fortunate to be appointed to a chair at Monash University in 1977 when I was 31, and it was an exciting place to be then because Monash had a medical school which was involved with the first so-called test-tube babies. There was a huge amount of controversy about that, and that enabled us to set up the Centre For Human Bioethics at Monash. In many areas of medical technology, we've got new technologies which leave us with questions that we haven't really thought about the ethical answers to. I was the first director of that centre and was there for something like 20 years. Because my academic work has been in ethics, I should try and put that into practice. I guess it has led me into some strange situations for a philosophy professor. One end of that has even led me into factory farms to protest against the way animals are treated. At the extreme, I was arrested for trespass. We had had inside reports that the pigs had open wounds on their necks from the chains. I'm certainly not ashamed of having been arrested in trying to stop that. The New South Wales government then later banned the use of those neck chains. When Bob Brown and others decided that there should be a national Greens Party, obviously one aspect of that was forming a Victorian Greens, so I was one of the founding members, but I never thought that I would do anything more than, you know, just be an ordinary rank and file member until there was a by-election in Kooyong. I was never going to win. I thought, "Yeah, it might be interesting." Because Labor decided not to stand a candidate, I ended up receiving 28% of the vote, so when the Senate election came up in 1996, the Greens again asked me if I would head the Senate ticket. I'm actually quite glad, in retrospect, that I didn't win. I think I've probably had a greater worldwide influence, if not an Australian influence, than I would have if I had become a senator. I was quite happy at Monash. I was enjoying my work there. But I got a letter from Princeton University saying that they'd been searching for a professor in bioethics. In 1999 Renata and I left Australia and went over to live in America. I had a fairly warm reception from the university itself, but the nasty side of it was that the news about my views then got onto a lot of right-wing and conservative Christian websites and both the president of the university and I started getting death threats, and in the United States you have to take that seriously because anybody can get a gun, so we did have some security. It's faded, fortunately, but it was a little nerve-racking for the first few months of the appointment. As a philosopher, I thrive on debate and discussion. That's what the field is about. And, of course, sometimes that criticism goes a little bit over the top, and that happened, for example, with a book review that I wrote which was a review of bestiality, and it was really, I thought, a fairly neutral review. I wasn't saying that this was OK or a good thing. Just the fact that I reviewed the book in that sort of reasonably neutral way provided another weapon for some of my conservative critics to attack me. I think it was a huge beat-up, really. Bioethics is a fascinating field because the biosciences keep moving forward and they keep giving us new possibilities and new choices. For example, as we learn more about genetics, we are going to be able to select our children, and that's going to be a huge ethical issue. We're already seeing, at universities like Princeton, that the student newspaper carries advertisements offering $20,000, $30,000 for eggs from a student who matches certain criteria.

PETER THOMPSON: Peter, what did your appointment to Princeton permit you to do which you couldn't do in Melbourne?

PETER SINGER: Well, for one thing, it gave me a platform in the United States. The United States is really very respectful of people at its elite universities, Harvard, Princeton and Yale, and if you have a chair there you're more likely to get invited to write articles for the 'New York Times', for example, which are seen then by many millions of readers. Whatever you say is likely to be, you know, given greater coverage, maybe even given greater weight because you have that position, you know. This may not be a good thing in itself, but since it exists, I feel that I have a duty to use it to try and get the kind of viewpoints that I think are important for Americans to listen to, to try and get them to listen to those and, hopefully, to contribute to that broader debate.

PETER THOMPSON: One of the differences in America is the attachment to religion, to formal religion, and you really took the bull by the horns in that regard, didn't you, with many of your views and the issues that you've been interested in canvassing.

PETER SINGER: Well, certainly the views that I hold are ones which particularly conservative Christians, the fundamentalist Christians who are so numerous in America, are implacably opposed to. I mean, there are many liberal Christians who do not disagree with the kinds of things that I say. But particularly with President Bush in office and the Republicans in control of Congress, these conservatives were having enormous political sway and still are, really, and so the issues that I wanted to discuss, issues about the sanctity of life, about abortion, about stem cells, for example, but also my views about the killing of civilians in Iraq which, of course, go towards protecting innocent human life, where the Bush Administration was NOT very careful about protecting innocent human life, all of those things are very much opposed by the Christian right in America generally.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, did you enjoy being at the centre of controversy?

PETER SINGER: It's probably true that if I'd not written about the ethics of how we ought to handle babies born with severe disabilities, I would not have had that trouble when I came to Princeton. And, you know, some people in the animal movement say it's a pity that I get tarred with this brush because, you know, my views on animals would be more widely respected and accepted if that were not the case. But, you know, I can't do that. I mean, I've got to write about issues in a way that I believe is sound and justifiable and defensible. And I'm not a politician. I'm not in a popularity poll. I'm not gonna change my views because that will avoid some flak or some opposition. So I think I've gotta be true to my thinking.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, to what extent do you need tremendous self-belief to have the confidence to take positions on the things that you do?

PETER SINGER: I don't think I feel that on the issues that I have, I need tremendous self-belief. I'm putting positions out there to be discussed. I know that there are other people who oppose these positions. I mean, it will vary with what I'm talking about. Perhaps a lot of people support me about the need for people in the rich countries to do something about global poverty. Rather fewer support me about animal liberation or about... And maybe it's in the middle somewhere with issues about voluntary euthanasia and euthanasia for disabled newborns too. So...I'm putting these positions out there. They're going to be debated. I'm not making the law or anything like that. And I think what I say, I think about carefully. I find reasons for it. I think it's a position that's worth being stated. If it doesn't survive in the cauldron of debate, OK, so be it.

PETER THOMPSON: As you get older, how have you reflected on your own ego and what part that plays in all of this?

PETER SINGER: Well, I've realised that... ..obviously it's very difficult to really act entirely on ethical principles, and I'm certainly not an example of that. I do fall short, and so that makes me, perhaps, fairly tolerant about other people who fall short in the same ways or in different ways, you know. Through my life I've met lots of people. There's very, very few who I could really say are living a completely ethical life, because I think the real, the truly ethical life is quite a demanding one.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, these days you divide your time between Princeton and Melbourne. Let's see how.

PETER SINGER: I've really enjoyed being at Princeton but, at the same time, Renata and I have missed Australia. We've particularly missed our family, being here in Melbourne, so I was very pleased when the University of Melbourne offered me a Laureate Professorship, which enables me to spend three months at least a year in Melbourne with the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.

BREE AHRENS, PRES. UNI. MELBOURNE STUDENT UNION: Most recently, Professor Singer published a book entitled 'The Ethics Of What We Eat', but he's here today to address issues regarding our obligations in relation to global poverty. It's obviously a popular one, having packed out two lecture theatres.

PETER SINGER: I've been writing about the question of global poverty and what citizens of wealthy nations like ours owe to the poor since the 1970s, and I think it's one of the crucial issues that the world faces now, now that we have so much affluence and we have a somewhat better understanding of how aid can be made more effective. A word on the size of the problem as a whole - the shortfall in income of the extremely poor is $124 billion a year. This is what the United States alone spends on alcohol each year, $116 billion. That's the US alone. Obviously this should be made up by all of the wealthy countries, including ours, and that would still leave people in the US enough for a drink or two occasionally and us as well, I guess. When I'm not working I like to get outside, so Renata and I like to go hiking. I've also always been keen on the beach - bodysurfing, bodyboard surfing, and more recently I've taken up surfing with a surfboard, and I've found that a lot of fun as well. I just love being out there in the waves. It's such a great feeling on a sunny day when the sky is blue and the sea is blue and the waves are crashing all around you. I think that there's something really special about watching your children grow up and become parents themselves and seeing the continuity of the next generation, so obviously we were delighted when our grandson Isaac was born, and it's one of the best things about coming back to Australia this year, that we've really been able to get to know him and I've been able to spend time with him and do things with him. So, I included a recipe for dhal in the first edition of 'Animal Liberation', 'cause that came out in 1975 when there weren't very many vegetarians. You know, a lot of people didn't know what you would cook if you stopped eating meat. And then more recently, when I collected some of my writings that cover the key ideas of my thought, I thought it would be good to have that recipe in it as well. So, very economical. The basic ingredient is red lentils, and it's very nutritious. I think it's really tasty. You serve it over rice. And, in fact, it's the staple food for hundreds of millions of people. About 10 minutes before it's ready, you put in a can of chopped tomatoes... ..and shortly before serving you put in some coconut cream, and you can also put in, squeeze in a bit of lemon juice at the end.

PETER THOMPSON: Well, Peter, that looks pretty delicious.

PETER SINGER: Oh, it was good. It was a very short cut of the dinner on the plate, wasn't it?

PETER THOMPSON: (Laughs) Was enjoyed by all.


PETER THOMPSON: What sort of place does emotion have in your life?

PETER SINGER: Well, sometimes our values are just emotionally based, you know. Sometimes people will say what do you think of something, what do you think of cloning, for example, and we react, "Oh, yuck," right, and that's kind of really an emotional response because you haven't thought about it. You haven't said, "Well, is there really a problem with cloning?" - what are the benefits, what are the costs, what harm could it do, and so on. And if you stop and think and say, "Well, I'm not just going to go with that 'yuck' response," if you stop and think, "I'm gonna think about this issue for a while, "and I'm gonna try and work out, really, "whether it will do harm or damage in the long run "or whether it will do more benefit." That's the kind of response that I would like to see.

PETER THOMPSON: What's coming for the world?

PETER SINGER: Oh, I don't have a crystal ball, really. I don't know. I'm very worried about climate change, that we may have got into a stage where it's really irreversible. That's the sort of real downside. I do think we're going to be able to take more seriously the problem of global poverty, and I'm hopeful that we're actually, you know, in 20 years there will be fewer people living in really extreme poverty than there are today. I think we can do that if we really make a bit more effort. And I also hope that we'll develop, generally, a more expansive ethic that embraces the whole planet, everyone in it, and all of the non-human animals who we are now inflicting so much suffering on.

PETER THOMPSON: Peter, it's been great sharing this time with you.

PETER SINGER: Good, thanks. 'Bye.

PETER THOMPSON: Thanks for coming on Talking Heads.

PETER THOMPSON: And that's Peter Singer. We'll be back with another program at the same time next week. In the meantime, you can look at our website at... ..and Peter's recipe for dhal will be on the website. See you soon.



1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves garlic (crushed/chopped)

1 medium onion (diced)

1- 2 tablespoons curry powder, to taste

Salt, to taste

1 cup small red lentils

3 cups water

2-3 bay leaves, to taste

1 cinnamon stick

1 tin tomatoes, (chopped)

1/4 cup coconut milk

2 tablespoons lemon juice


In a large saucepan, saute garlic til fragrant.

Add onions and cook until they begin to soften.

Add curry powder and salt, to taste, and cook over medium heat til mixture begins to brown.

Add lentils and stir for a minute or so before adding water, the bay leaves and cinnamon stick. Bring to boil, then turn heat down very low and simmer for 20minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add chopped tomatoes, and simmer a further 10minutes, until thick. The lentils should be soft and the consistency just liquid enough to pour.

Add cocount milk and lemon juice. Stir through, and remove from heat.

Serve over rice with lime pickle and mango chutney.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: '“A man with plastic shoes and ironclad principles”', interview with Peter Thompson