In Conversation With… Peter Singer

Best known for his works Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, Peter Singer is one the greatest products of Australian Academia. Singer recently became a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) for services to philosophy and bioethics, currently serves as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, has previously served as the chair of philosophy at Monash University and is the founder the Monash University Centre for Human Bioethics. Duncan and Jamie stroked their chins and had a chat with the great ethicist.

Jamie Blaker (JB): As a philosopher, is it hard to keep conviction in your own ideas, particularly in an academic setting where so many reasonable minds disagree?

When you realise that very, very sharp people who have thought deeply about the same issues as you take a different view, I guess it does produce a certain kind of humility. But philosophy is about trying to defend your views, trying to argue for your views, so I guess that’s what you do. You put up the best arguments for them and see how those arguments go, and if other people find good rejections then you won’t be believed. And it’s fair enough – that’s the way it works.

Duncan Wallace (DW): I’ve got two questions about the public understanding of academic philosophy, both of which relate to a recently published article justifying ‘after-birth abortion’ in the Journal of Medical Ethics. Firstly, is public outrage over controversial philosophical arguments unfairly damaging to their ideas and authors? Secondly, does the media tend to simplify and misrepresent philosophical ideas? 

I know the article you’re referring to and I know its authors as well, and I wasn’t surprised that it provoked some outrage. I’ve had reactions like that myself when I’ve published things in the same general area. When you write an article like that for an academic journal, you’re writing mainly for the readers of that journal and your colleagues. But at the same time you have to appreciate that it is likely to be picked up by the outside media, and you have to develop a reasonably thick skin. It’s likely that these sorts of articles won’t just get coverage in mainstream media, but they’ll be picked up by pro-life, evangelical Christian websites that will run shock-horror stories and that’s obviously going to distort your message to some extent. And I think for the authors who were relatively new to this, it was a big shock – and certainly when you get death threats for expressing ideas, I think that’s an awful thing. I think people ought to believe in freedom of speech and, if you believe in freedom of speech, you don’t threaten to kill people whose views you don’t agree with. So I think that’s a fairly lamentable aspect of it. But criticism in the media is part of the game if you’re in applied ethics, and at least you’re getting coverage outside academia.

In terms of the other question you asked about over-simplification – yes, often views will be over-simplified. But what you have to hope is that when an article like this gets picked up by the media around the world – and even if its message is distorted – a small percentage of people will actually read the article and understand its argument properly, and that will dramatically increase the number of people who will have seen your work compared to if its coverage was limited to an academic journal and it never got mentioned anywhere else.

JB: The striking thing about your theories for me is that they’re very formulaic – and nonetheless convincing – but when ethics are determined through utilitarian calculations, is the integrity of that determination deteriorated when it is met by popular disagreement?

Presumably people are disagreeing with whether we should be deciding these issues on a utilitarian basis, although some people will have different views as to what produces the best consequences. Obviously it’s perfectly legitimate for people to say that we shouldn’t decide these issues purely on a utilitarian basis – it’s a very old question going back to the foundations of utilitarianism – so it’s fine to have those discussions. But I think it’s important to show that there is a clear and consistent utilitarian answer to lots of diverse issues, and then people can disagree if they don’t like it.

JB: Does the utilitarian conceptualisation of ethics remove it from its more human, emotional and intuitive source?

It removes doing ethics from its intuitive source – and that’s the whole issue. It offers an alternative to looking at things and saying ‘Oh, yuck’ or ‘Oh, great’ – if you want to do ethics that way, really all you’re saying is that you’ll go along with what your culture or what your biological nature has taught you to think is good or bad, and you’re not really reflecting on it and using your capacities to reason about these things. I think that’s a very poor way of doing ethics – I don’t think it’s likely to lead us to better answers and given that the world has developed in ways completely different from the circumstances in which our ancestors evolved, it’s very likely that we’ll have some pretty poor reactions to things like climate change, which historically was never a problem. We have no instinctive ‘yuck’ response to putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On the other hand, maybe we will have instinctive responses to things which we really shouldn’t respond to instinctively, like rejecting people who don’t look like us. I think it’s a disastrous way of doing ethics and a strong point of utilitarianism is that it doesn’t do ethics that way.

JB: I wanted to ask a question about the arbitrariness of the idea of ethics. I’m wondering if ethics can be conceived as a pre-modern concept, and how the idea of ethics and its universalist connotations are relevant in a modernity in which there is inevitable value fragmentation, particularly given the decline of religion.

I think your use of the term ‘modernity’ really just pays lip service to a pretty loose and not clearly thought-out view of the world, which takes this idea that somehow everything changed at some particular point. There have always been people with different values – I don’t think there is anything particularly modern about that – maybe cultures with different values are in closer contact with each other than they were previously, but that’s only partially true. You can go back to Herodotus and he talks about the different values between the Greeks and the Indians, so there’s nothing new about that really.

Also, I don’t think ethics has a strong foundation in religion at all. There are some cultures in which ethics has been closely associated with religion, but there are many cultures that aren’t particularly religious and still have strong ethical codes – you just have to look at China and Confucian traditions of ethics, you just have to read Greek ethics which generally has very few significant references to religion, and you can look at people like David Hume, and that goes on to the utilitarian tradition. I think humans have always been asking questions about what we ought to do, whether they were religious or not. It’s a distinctively Western perspective that poses the question whether, if religion collapses, will ethics collapse with it? I think if you had grown up in China, you wouldn’t ask that question.

JB: Well, I promised before the interview that I would get out of my depth, and I just did.


JB: *Looks to Duncan*

DW: Is there a conscious attempt among academic philosophers to separate ethics from religion as a discrete alternative? The publication of AC Grayling’s ‘The Good Book: A Secular Bible’ late last year might suggest that academic philosophy is to some extent concerned with translating otherwise religious values into secular, humanist perspectives. 

No, I don’t think so. Well, firstly there isn’t a single academia of ethics – there are a lot of academics in ethics, some of whom are religious, but some of them aren’t at all. I suppose that academics are typically less religious than non-academics, just because there is an inverse correlation between the amount of education people receive and how religious they are. So yes, there is generally a somewhat more secular atmosphere that prevails in universities than in the community as a whole, but there is plenty of room for religious philosophers and bioethicists to put forward their views, so I don’t think there’s any particular conscious movement by academia to exclude religious views.

JB: What’s next for Peter Singer? What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a book that’s about the foundations of ethics. It’s not an applied topic; it’s more about how we can defend objectivity in ethics. It links to some of your points given that a lot of people think that objectivity in ethics is linked to religion. So it will look back to one of the major figures in the history of utilitarian ethics, Henry Sidgwick, and will look forwards at some of the current debates in ethics.

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