Peter Singer: living an ethical life

Claire Fogarty reviews Peter Singer's talk in St Andrews, and asks the world-renowned philosopher about what it means to live an ethical life.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a laureate professor in the centre for applied philosophy and public ethics at the University of Melbourne, the arguably world’s most famous living philosopher, Peter Singer, recently visited St Andrews to present a lecture on living an ethical life in the 21st century.

Mr Singer is famous for his expertise in: animal rights, global poverty, and abortion laws, and his opinions on such matters have been subject to extreme controversy. For instance, he coined the term “speciesism” in Animal Liberation, while simultaneously has been attacked for defending reproductive rights. As his main event was the “Ethics of Giving” conference here in St Andrews, Mr Singer focused on global poverty, and the following day, gave a talk on animal rights in Edinburgh.

If you once were or have known any first-year Philosophy students as of late, you might be aware of the compulsory logic module these first-years were subject to just this past semester. You may have heard complaints such as; “Is this even Philosophy?!” or “Thirty-five percent seems unreasonably high…” As the source of most said complaints, I can only begin to express what an enormous relief, and reinvigoration of hope in my studies it was, to be offered the chance to interview Peter Singer.

The day of Mr Singer’s talk re-enlivened what was a ghost town: the student-body seemed to resurrect itself, and the Buchanan theatre was full, buzzing with a shared Singer-fandom.

All throughout, Mr Singer skimmed heavy philosophical issues such as the objectivity of moral value and Utilitarian theory, keeping jargon to a minimum. A balance between intellectual thought and tangible content was achieved, ensuring a stimulating presentation that satisfied the knowledge of philosophy students, and everyone else in attendance. Through a simplified version of his principle for giving, a break down and detailed definitions within the principle, and a discussion on Effective Altruism, Mr Singer presented what proved to be an interesting and accessible talk for all.

According to Singer’s principle, if we can prevent something bad from happening without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, then we should do so. Suffering is bad, therefore, if we can prevent suffering without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance, then we should act to reduce that suffering. In an example, Mr Singer argued that poverty causes suffering, and those in affluent societies have the means to relieve it without sacrificing something of comparable moral significance (a small portion of our income). Consequently, we should act to reduce poverty.

Singer detailed the definition of poverty with sobering statistics. Not only did he reveal that there are around 17,000 daily child deaths globally, he also clarified the relative wealth of affluent societies such as the UK. Personally, I thought that his latter revelation was particularly relevant to St. Andrews, which hosts a notoriously largely affluent student body, as in certain environments it can be easy to begin to see this level of affluence as normal, and forget relational statistics that might show the opposite.

Singer went on to discuss Effective Altruism, which he defined as: using reason and evidence to do the most good. This suggests that people can take on a practical adaptation of the Utilitarian principle: generating the most good for the highest number of people, by rationally considering the numerous options to do good, and calculating the most effective one.

Singer spoke about how we can donate effectively, referring to the website “The Life You Can Save” (based on his 2009 book of the same title). Based on thorough research into their effectiveness, the website has chosen and recommends specific charities, including “Against Malaria Foundation,” “Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition,” and “Oxfam,” among others in a list online.

During the Q&A at the end of his presentation, questions varied from addressing the dilemma of people donating to causes closest to their personal experiences, such as donating to cancer charities after a loved one dies of cancer, and other issues such as earning to give, where people might enter high earning jobs to donate their income to charity. One attendee asked, “Should I go into a job that makes a lot of money, or should I become an academic?” prompting much laughter from the rest of the audience.

Considering that a great deal of Singer’s objections have been stooped in the point of over-demandingness, Singer was realistic about what people can and are willing to give. To the individual that was considering academia, Mr Singer suggested that he could make a difference in his academic career by lecturing on ethics as opposed to earning solely to give. Singer also admitted that fighting against instincts to give to causes closer to our hearts would be challenging.

Interviewing Peter Singer

Before meeting with Mr Singer, I was nervous. I assumed that a person of such high academic calibre would be difficult to talk to without making myself sound stupid. Yet Mr Singer was incredibly polite, kind, and in his own words “very happy to be here.” I felt that he made a concerted effort to recognise the intelligence of audience questioners and myself by expressing agreement, and not talking down.

“Why should we lead an ethical life?”

Smiling, Mr Singer said, “That is one of the very big questions in Philosophy, that I don’t suppose any philosopher has completely answered.” Mr Singer focused on the question of self-interest, which he does not believe to be conflictual with altruism. He said, “Very often, if you ask people what their purposes are, they say ‘well I want to be happy, I want to be satisfied with my life.’ There is a lot of psychological research that shows that people who are generous are happier with their lives.” He asserted that people should “take a broader view of self-interest, what you might call ‘Enlightened Self-Interest.’ This involves asking questions of leading a ‘fulfilling, meaningful life.’”

“What is your attitude towards the different causes that we can give to? Why are some causes higher priority than others? Why should we give to the global poor over the impoverished in our society?”

Mr Singer explained that the poverty of those “who are poor by World Bank Standard of Global Poverty” is much more extreme, noting that these people lack things that everyone in the United Kingdom is entitled to such as health care and safe drinking water. However, this also meant that it is easier to make a significant difference to their lives with fewer resources. “To make a difference in the wellbeing of the poor in this country takes quite a substantial effort and significant financial resources, whereas if somebody is living on, say $700 a year, it doesn’t take very much to make a significant difference to their lives,” he admitted. Mr Singer recommends the charity ‘Give Directly,’ which sets up a basic income scheme of $20 per month for low-income individuals in Rural Kenya. He further elaborated on the charity to help illustrate his point, “to give someone in the UK $20 a month, it’s not going to make a significant difference to their lives, but $20 in rural Kenya can make a big difference.”

“How does that (one’s attitude) affect the way that we should be dealing with other issues in affluent societies? For example: social inequality, or mental health?”

Mr Singer said, “I think we should be active citizens, we should be trying to get the government to do more on those things.”

Governmental systems do have the resources to deal with those issues, while individuals can try to get the government to “redirect their priorities.” Mr Singer saw no contradiction between this and Effective Altruism, however, noting that he would use one’s “personal charitable donations in a different way.”

“You have mentioned that in our society it has become normal to put ourselves to such an extent that we are causing harm to others at no great cost to ourselves. For example: we could sacrifice meat, or we could donate to charity rather than buy new clothes or a car. Why do you think society has become this way?”

“The tendency in human nature to think about ourselves, it’s explicable in evolutionary terms. Our ancestors had to do that, or else we wouldn’t be here,” Mr Singer stated.

Through sociological reinforcement, people are constantly trying to sell each other things, and, if successful, have more resources to promote the lifestyle that would thereby have them selling even more things. In terms of ideas like “you need to buy a new car,” Mr Singer suggests that these are hinted at to us by manufacturers. Within the meat industry, for instance, there is constant promotion of meat consumption, attempting to instill in us the idea that red meat consumption is normal, healthy, and does not harm the environment. In fact, according to Mr Singer, this society has been created by us for ourselves through market forces.

“How relevant do you think Philosophy is as a study today? Do you think it should be more encouraged?”

“I think that Philosophy is highly relevant and I see signs of that pretty much every day,” he replied, though quickly added, “not all of Philosophy is equally relevant, I see ethics as the cutting edge of Philosophy, the area where it engages most directly with the real world.” Mr Singer has had many students attend his classes and consequently changed aspects within their daily lives. “They might have changed what they eat, or changed where they donate to, or made different career plans,” he said. Indeed, reading articles about altruism and exposing oneself to philosophy can have a dramatic effect on people’s routine habits.

Apart from speaking at St Andrews, Mr Singer continues to work on several projects, including a written collaboration with Katarzyna de Lazri-Radek. Their Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, will be published with Oxford University Press series of Very Short Introductions, with an expected publishing date of this July. Visit for more information.


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