Interview with Dr. Peter Singer – Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Princeton University & Laureate Professor, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne

By Scott Douglas Jacobsen

With long-awaited and great pleasure, I am introducing or bringing one of the most well-known and controversial ethicists (and atheists) in the (current) modern world, Professor Peter Singer, to Canadian Atheist. Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University & Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies. He has been termed the “world’s most influential living philosopher” by some journalists. His work dealing with the ethics of the human treatment of animals has been credited with the foundations of the modern animal rights movement. His writing assisted in the development of Effective Altruism. He has made a controversial critique of the sanctity of life ethics in bioethics. He co-founded Animals Australia, formerly the Australian Federation of Animal Societies. Australia’s “largest and most effective animal organization.” He founded The Life You Can Save (see interview for ebook and audiobook options for a book by the same name as the organization). Other important writings include his 1972 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and books entitled The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015). He has done a TED talk entitled “The why and how of effective altruism” garnering nearly 2,000,000 views.

Here we talk about Effective Altruism and The Life You Can Save.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What is the development of the formal ethical system by you? How has this evolved over time into Effective Altruism?

Singer: My ethical system is utilitarianism: the right act is the one that will lead to the best consequences, for all affected. Utilitarianism leads to Effective Altruism, because EA is about doing the most good we can, and using reason and evidence to find out what choices will do the most good — choices like donating to the most effective charities and also your choice of career. But you don’t have to be a utilitarian to be an EA.

Jacobsen: Who do you consider the most significant intellectual precursors to the development of Effective Altruism? Who are some lesser-known names who deserve due credit for their contributions to this ethical system?

Singer: As I have said, utilitarian thinking is a kind of precursor to EA, so the founders of utilitarianism can be seen as precursors of EA — Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick, in particular. But with regard to the birth of EA itself, around 2008 and in the following years, young philosophy students like Toby Ord and Will MacAskill played a crucial role.

Jacobsen: What do you consider the most significant and powerful argument in favour of Effective Altruism?

Singer: It’s the simple idea of getting value for your money, or your time. We all want to do that when buying something for ourselves. Imagine impulsively buying a new laptop, and paying twice as much as your friend — who did some online research before deciding what to buy — paid for hers, and ending up with a laptop that isn’t even as good as hers! Wouldn’t you feel stupid? But that’s exactly what people do when they impulsively give to a charity that has an appealing picture of a child on its website. A little research could often show you that some charities do not just twice as much good per dollar spent as others, but 10 or 100 times as much good.

Jacobsen: What do you consider the most significant and powerful argument against Effective Altruism?

Singer: EA research points to the interventions that do measurable good, and this tends to mean that it encourages people to donate to charities that save lives cheaply, say by distributing bednets against malaria, or that restore sight in people with cataracts, or eliminate internal parasites. It’s much harder to measure bigger, long-term interventions, like attempts to eliminate agricultural subsidies in rich nations that hurt smallholder farmers in poor countries, because the subsidised crops undercut their ability to earn income on the global market. 

Jacobsen: What have been the most controversial positions following from the ethics of Effective Altruism for you? How has the general public reacted to them? How have the community of ethicists reacted to them? What do you consider the appropriate responses to said reactions from both the general public and the community of ethicists, professional moral theorists?

Singer: In some circles, it’s controversial to say that we should not donate to art museums or opera houses, because we can do so much more good by donating to charities helping people in extreme poverty in low-income countries. Most ethicists agree with that, but not people involved in the arts.

The most appropriate response is, in my view, just to state the obvious: for the cost of, say, a $500 million renovation of the main concert hall at the Lincoln Center in New York, it would have been possible to restore sight, or prevent blindness, in 5 million people. What’s more important? Giving wealthy concert-lovers a nicer venue, or enabling 5 million people, in countries where there is no support for people with disabilities, to see?

Jacobsen: What do you consider the most significant derivative from Effective Altruism?

Singer: Substantial amounts of money — billions of dollars — flowing to organizations that do a lot of good with it. 

Jacobsen: You are an atheist. How does this build into the system of Effective Altruism?

Singer: EA fits well with atheism because it’s not about obeying moral rules handed down by a divine being, nor about following sacred texts, or religious leaders. It encourages us to focus on what we all value for ourselves and those we care about — reducing pain and suffering, increasing happiness, giving people more fulfilling lives — and to recognize that just as these things are important for us, they are important for everyone else capable of experiencing them — and not only humans, but all sentient beings.

On the other hand, you don’t have to be an atheist to be an EA. In fact, Christians who believe that the gospels are true accounts of what Jesus said should all be EAs, because he told them, in many different passages, to help the poor. It’s surprising, really, how many rich Christians there are who just ignore all of that.

Jacobsen: Is traditional religion and fundamentalist religion a net negative or a net positive in this ethical system?

Singer: That’s a very big question, and not easy to answer. The major religions do emphasize obligations to give to the poor, and that’s good. But they do lots of other things that are bad — the terrorism perpetrated by some Islamic fundamentalists is the most obvious example, but opposing contraception, abortion, same-sex relationships, and medical aid in dying are other examples. 

Jacobsen: You debated on the purported resurrection of a supposed divine figure called Yeshua ben Josef or Jesus Christ. What place do supernatural, metaphysical, and naturalistic claims have in Ethical Altruism? Most atheists would probably dismiss the first, might consider the second, and would place much emphasis on the third category.

Singer: I think EAs would agree with the atheists you describe, except perhaps that as many of them are interested in philosophy, they would spend more time discussing metaphysics than non-philosophers might do.

Jacobsen: Any upcoming exciting projects, recommended authors/organizations/speakers?

Singer: I’ve recently completed a fully revised and updated 10th-anniversary edition of my book The Life You Can Save, and I’m delighted to tell all your followers that they can download a completely FREE eBook or audiobook from www.thelifeyoucansave.org. Print copies can be bought from online booksellers or your local bookstore.

Jacobsen: Any final feelings or thoughts in conclusion based on this long-awaited interview?

Singer: Sorry I kept you waiting so long! My final thought is: if you agree with me, please make it practical! Check out www.thelifeyoucansave.org and see what you can do.

Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Singer.

Singer: Thanks and all the best to you.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-booksfree or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.

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Image Credit: Alletta Vaandering.

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