Peter Singer Is Still Interested in Controversial Ideas

Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, became a vegetarian in his mid-twenties, after a fellow Oxford graduate student told him, over a spaghetti lunch, about the brutality of factory farms. A few years later, in 1973, Singer proposed an essay called “Animal Liberation” to The New York Review of Books. Robert Silvers, the magazine’s longtime editor, not only published it; he became a vegetarian, too. In 1975, Singer expanded the essay into a book, which has been translated into dozens of languages and helped inspire the modern animal-rights movement.

Singer, who is seventy-four, is now the author of seventeen books and the editor or co-author of two dozen more. He has written about birth and death, Hegel and Marx, political philosophy and globalization, and many other topics. (He’s just edited a new version of Apuleius’ “The Golden Ass,” a second-century Roman novel which, he told me, can be read as a “kind of adventure fiction.” He explained, “The author clearly has some sympathy with animals.”) Singer calls himself a consequentialist: he believes that actions should be judged by their consequences. His ideas about our ethical obligation to help people in extreme poverty, first expressed in his essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” from 1972, and later in his book “The Life You Can Save,” from 2009, are foundational to the effective-altruism movement, which encourages people in wealthy countries to donate large sums to charities that measurably improve the most lives. They have also influenced the Giving Pledge, a philanthropic campaign launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Others have discovered Singer’s work because of the controversies he has ignited. In his book “Practical Ethics,” from 1979, he argued that parents should have the right to end the lives of newborns with severe disabilities. In the decades since, a number of his lectures have been disrupted by demonstrators or cancelled altogether. In 1999, the disability-rights group Not Dead Yet protested his appointment at Princeton, where he still teaches. That year, he was profiled in this magazine by Michael Specter; the piece was titled “The Dangerous Philosopher.” On Friday, Singer and two fellow-ethicists launched a peer-reviewed publication called the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Singer spent the past year at home in Melbourne with his wife of fifty-two years, Renata. He told me that he missed seeing his children and hugging his grandchildren but that he “probably got more work done than I would have in a normal year.” He also surfed, a hobby he picked up in his fifties. In our three conversations by video chat, he joined me from a spare white study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.

Have you been thinking about the philosophical implications of the pandemic?

There are specific issues that I’ve been interested in. How should we distribute the vaccine? How do we decide whether the lockdown is justified? If we’re short of intensive-care beds, of respirators, should we give preference to people who are younger and therefore will have longer to live, or other people who might have equal need but a much shorter life expectancy? I think the pandemic sharpens, and forces us to answer, a lot of questions that were lurking—it’s not as if, before the pandemic, there weren’t people dying from preventable diseases that we could have helped but didn’t. The pandemic has affected us greatly, but it hasn’t killed as many people as die every year from preventable, poverty-related causes.

I was surprised, going through some of your work, that you wrote about pandemics in 2015, in “The Most Good You Can Do.” You talk about the risk of a serious pandemic breaking out because of the way that we treat animals.

There are two public-health risks in factory farms. The one that’s well documented is the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria through the routine feeding of antibiotics to factory-farm animals. The pandemic stuff was a bit more speculative, but, in 2009, when we got the swine-flu pandemic, one that implicated factory pig farms pretty directly, I started talking about it occasionally.

When I started thinking about the treatment of animals and became a vegetarian, it was entirely because of concern for what we do to animals. Then along came climate change. And although, at first, that seemed to be about fossil-fuel burning, it turns out that meat production is a significant contributor. So then you get an additional reason for not eating meat or for being vegan. With the pandemic, we’ve got another major reason.

The vast majority of vaccines have been “reserved” by wealthy nations, and so hundreds of millions of doses go first to the U.S. and Europe. I’m wondering how much this bothers you and what should be done about it.

I think it’s disgraceful that the vaccines are being bought up by wealthy countries—some of which, I should say, have relatively low need. We have very few cases in Australia but have ordered more than enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in the country.

Where does responsibility lie for making the distribution more equitable?

We don’t have a world government, so we are a world of sovereign nations—and those governments should be getting together so that the burden is distributed equitably among affluent nations, just as we get together in the Paris agreement to try to distribute the burden of reducing greenhouse gases equitably. The World Health Organization, of course, is proposing a scheme for a more equitable distribution, and I think governments should be signing on to that.

The pharmaceutical companies can play a role, of course, in terms of making some vaccines available at cost, or allowing producers in low-income countries to produce generics. But you can’t expect pharmaceuticals to be charities. The system of patenting rewards companies for selling to wealthy people and doesn’t reward them for providing drugs for people who can’t afford them. An alternative scheme, called the Health Impact Fund, has been proposed, to which governments would contribute funds, and they would be allocated to the extent that a drug reduces the global burden of disease. Then the pharmaceutical companies would have an incentive to develop those products that would do the most to help people worldwide. That would be a much more rational system.

How did your family first come to live in Australia?

My parents were both living in Vienna in the nineteen-thirties. They were around thirty years old when Hitler marched into Austria, and they were both Jewish. They realized very rapidly that they had no future in Austria. Jews could not own businesses under Nazi laws, and my mother was just qualified as a physician. The Nazis said that Jewish doctors could only treat Jewish patients. I don’t think they actually, at that stage anyway, really thought that they could be murdered. But my father wrote to an uncle in America, and said, “Could you provide a sponsorship for me and my wife?” And the uncle wrote back, saying, “I’m very happy to sponsor you. But, unfortunately, as I’ve not had the opportunity to meet your wife, I can’t sponsor her.” So, obviously, that was a pretty devastating blow.

Source link

Leave a Comment