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Public Theology: The Practical Ethics of Peter Singer: Taking the Place of the Other
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The Practical Ethics of Peter Singer: Taking the Place of the Other
The controversial philosopher is here interviewed. He talks about expensive shoes, animal rights, and even Thomas Aquinas on private property.

By Astra Taylor

Editor's Note: Peter Singer is an ethicist who has been regularly vilified by the political and religious right because he does his ethics without reliance on a belief in God. It may well be that he is closer to the historic teachings of Christianity than those who so easily claim to be speaking for God today.

I met Peter Singer near Central Park, at the giant cube that marks the location of the Apple Store. It struck us as a fitting monument given that we arranged to discuss ethics and consumerism while walking down Fifth Avenue, one of New York City's glitzy shopping districts, to Times Square, now a site of corporate seduction ablaze with giant television advertisements and three-dimensional billboards. It was a perfect summer day, and the streets were crowded with shoppers and tourists as we made our way downtown.

Astra Taylor: I want the ideas to bounce off the environment, so feel free to reference things you pass by or to pause and talk about things that have caught your eye.

Peter Singer: So we are here on Fifth Avenue in New York, which is obviously the shopping strip par excellence for all the top brands, for all the top designers -- Gucci, Hugo Boss, Escada, whoever that is.

They're here, they are selling stuff at incredible prices, thousands of dollars for a dress or a handbag or whatever it might be. And at the same time, of course, we are living in a world in which there are about a billion people who are struggling to survive on less than one U.S. dollar per day. With some more aid from the developed world, untold deaths could be prevented.

So obviously that raises an ethical issue. I mean, there are people who have the money to buy from these stores and who don't seem to see any moral problem about doing that. But what I want to ask is: Shouldn't they see some sort of moral problem about that? Isn't there a question about what we should be spending our money on?

And that's why the existence of stores like these raises a lot of serious ethical issues that I hope people will think about a little bit. All of us, even if we are not the type to shop at Gucci or Louis Vuitton, have some spare cash. All of us in the developed countries, in the affluent world, spend money on luxuries and frivolities that are really not things that we need. So the question is one that affects you as much as it affects someone who shops in these types of stores. What should I be spending my money on and what does that say about me, about my priorities, and about what I might take to be important?

[Singer notices some exorbitantly pricey shoes in a nearby window. It seems like a good place to pause for a moment.]

So we are outside Bergdorf Goodman, where they have got a display of Dolce & Gabbana shoes. It's kind of amusing to me because about thirty years ago I wrote an article called "Famine, Affluence and Morality" in which I ask you to imagine you are walking by a shallow pond, and as you walk past it, you notice there is a small child who has fallen into the pond and is in danger of drowning. You look around to see where the parents are, and there is no one in sight. And you realize, unless you wade into this pond and you pull the child out, the child is likely to drown. There is no danger to you because you know the pond is just a shallow one, but you are wearing a nice pair of shoes and they are probably going to get ruined if you wade into that shallow pond.

So of course when I ask people this, they say, well, of course forget about the shoes, you just have to save the child, that's clear. And then I stop and I say, OK, well, I agree with you about that, but for the price of a pair of shoes, if you were to give that money to Oxfam or UNICEF or one of those organizations, they could probably save the life of a child, maybe more than one child in a poor country where they can't get basic medical care to treat very basic diseases like diarrhea or whatever it might be.

So just looking at the shoes here at Dolce & Gabbana, they are probably going to be worth quite a bit more than just your basic kind of shoes, and it made me think, if you are wearing these kinds of shoes and you still want to wade into the pond, that's probably a large number of children's lives they could save.

And that's one of the reasons it's interesting to be here on Fifth Avenue talking about ethics, because ethics is about the basic choices that we all make in our lives. And one of those choices is how we spend our money, and as you walk past stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Gucci and Louis Vuitton, they are all around, they are calling to you -- spend your money here, buy these pricey designer items.

It is obscene that people are spending thousands of dollars on a handbag or a pair of shoes when there are a billion people in the world who are living on less than a dollar a day. As UNICEF tell us, there are 27,000 children who die every day from avoidable, poverty-related diseases and malnutrition. And clearly there is something we could be doing about that; there is something we could be doing to help them.

Taylor: Good start. You've given us a concrete example, so maybe our discussion can get more abstract. What does it mean to think ethically? How can we have ethical standards without some ultimate authority in the universe?

Singer: I look at all the people around who are strolling here -- of course, most of them are tourists who are not going to buy a lot. But nevertheless, this is the center of one of the world's richest countries and one of the most expensive places in it, and it does raise that ethical question: What should we be doing with our lives, what should we be spending our money on, have we got the right set of priorities? And that of course is what ethics is all about. Ethics is asking us to reflect on what is important to us, on what the ultimate questions are and trying to get standards that help us make decisions. That's what I have been thinking about for most of my life.

A lot of people think that you can only have ethical standards if you are religious, or you thought there was a god who handed down some commandments or inspired some scriptures that tell you what to do. I don't believe in any of that. I think ethics has to come from ourselves. But that doesn't mean that it's totally subjective, that doesn't mean you can think whatever you like about what's right and wrong, because we are reasoning beings, we are thinking beings. And because of that, we can reflect on our situation.

For me, ethics begins with the idea that we have certain needs, certain basic wants and desires. And when we think about our place in the world, we realize that there are lots of other people -- or, more precisely, lots of other sentient beings -- who have interests, and they care about their interests in similar ways to the way we care about our interests. And the point about ethics is that, rather than just thinking about our own interests, we have got to put ourselves in the position of others.

We have got to think, what would it be like for them? That is something that is in scriptures, though not only in scriptures -- the idea of asking myself how would I like it, if I'm going to do something to someone else, how would I like it if they were going to do that to me? That seems to be an almost universal moral principle that you find in all of the major ethical traditions. Not only in Christianity, not only in Judaism or Islam, but also in the Hindu traditions and the Confucian traditions. It's a thought that occurs to people independently at some stage when they want to justify their conduct, when they want to justify how they are going to act in terms that other people can accept. And that's where ethics gets going.

Taylor: Can you talk more about taking others' interests into account? How do we do it? I wonder if you could speak about the relationship between reason and empathy.

These are ethical issues because if you go right back to the start of the Western philosophical tradition, you nd Socrates saying, "Well, we are talking about how we ought to live. That's the most serious thing we can talk about." And for Socrates, of course, this was a matter of reasoning, of trying to understand. So ethical choices are not just something where you say, "This is what I feel" and "This is how you feel," as if it were all entirely subjective.

Of course emotion plays a role in ethics, in particular our sympathy to others, our capacity to empathize with those children who are dying or the families that are watching their children die in developing countries. We have to be able to empathize with them or we don't get to first base in terms of what we are doing. But then we actually want to involve our reason, we want to think about what is the best thing to do in these circumstances. What is right? What is wrong? And that means putting yourself in the position of others, taking on their interests and asking yourself, What would I choose if I were to be in their position, rather than my position?

Suppose that I was living both the life of a family with a child who was dying of diarrhea because they couldn't get even the most basic health care and my own life. Would I rather have a situation where I have the handbag and my child dies? Or would I rather have a situation where the child lives, but I don't get the handbag? Well, of course that choice is very easy.

And that's the basic idea in ethics: to put yourself in the position of others. And that means that you are taking into account their interests, that you are including everyone -- and in fact, I would say, every sentient being, because animals have to count too. As long as they are capable of feeling, of experiencing something, we shouldn't exclude them. So we take the interests of everyone into account, and then we try to decide what would be the best thing to do from that more universal perspective.

Taylor: I think an essential point for us here is that you're not just making the case for not shopping or refraining from spending money. You want people to use their money to do good. Not only that, you believe they have an ethical responsibility to do so.

Singer: Right. I should make that clear. One of the most obvious things that emerges when you put yourself in the position of others is the priority of reducing or preventing suffering. Because ethics is not only about what I actually do and the impact of that; it's also about what I omit to do, what I decide not to do. And that's why, given that we all have a limited amount of money, questions about what you spend your money on are also questions about what you don't spend your money on and what you don't use your money to achieve. And a lot of people forget that. They just say, "Oh well, I'm not harming anyone if I go and spend a thousand dollars on a new suit, "but, in fact, given the opportunities that they have to help and given the way the world is, quite often you actually are failing to benefit someone. And we have moral obligations to help, just as we have moral obligations not to harm.

Taylor: Could you expound on what you mean when you say "the way the world is"? How can your seemingly straightforward observation about shoes have such extreme consequences for how people should live their lives and spend their money? How is it that our ethical obligations extend around the globe?

Singer: It's to do with the way the world is today. Some simple ideas can have very radical impacts. If you didn't have much that was spare, much that was surplus, and if you lived in a community, let's say in the Middle Ages, where you couldn't travel to other places, it was hard to think about what you could do beyond the community that you live in. But now we live in a global world where we have these enormous contrasts between affluence and poverty. And that means we have different opportunities and obligations.

Consider quite simple ideas, like the idea that if you can prevent something really bad from happening at very small cost to yourself, then you ought to do it. That sounds pretty commonsensical. Most people would agree with that -- until they stop and think that in the world in which we live, at a very small cost to myself, I can actually save the lives of children who are starving in different parts of the world. So that makes the obligation much more demanding. And people get a bit surprised and they ask, "How can that be?"

I think the reason it can be is that we live in a strange world, in a world in which, in one sense, there is an ongoing emergency, an ongoing crisis:those 27,000 children dying every day from preventable diseases. And yet, we are insulated from that, we don't necessarily see it. We live in a world where there's affluence surrounding us, and so we don't always understand that our obligations extend far beyond what is in front of us.

Taylor: Some philosophers, including your colleague Anthony Appiah, whom I have also interviewed, argue we should each do our "fair share, "whatever that may be, to address global poverty -- no more, no less. What do you have to say to critics who say you place an unreasonable demand on people by making the case, as you have, that we should donate money to the point where, if we were to donate any more, we would be sacrificing something nearly as important as the lives we could save?

Singer: In brief, if others are not doing their fair share, and we can easily save lives by doing more than our fair share, we should do it. To refuse to do more than your fair share in these circumstances is to get your priorities wrong. Imagine, for instance, that there is not just one child drowning in that shallow pond, but ten. And coincidentally, there are ten adults near the pond, each able to rescue a child. You are one of them. So you wade into the pond, rescue a child, and assume everyone else will do the same. But once you have safely deposited your child on the grass, you are shocked to see that five of the other adults have not rescued a child at all. So there are still five children in danger of drowning in the pond. Should you and the other four adults who rescued a child say, "Well, we've done our fair share of rescuing, "and just walk away? No. Even though it may be unfair that you have to go twice into the cold water when others haven't done anything, it would still be wrong to leave a child to drown when you could easily rescue her.

Taylor: You're well known as a utilitarian thinker, a philosophy developed by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and others in which the morality of an action is determined by its outcome, the good should be maximized and the bad minimized. Thus you seek solutions for problems that have the best consequences for all affected and that minimize suffering. And best consequences, for you, means the ones that satisfy the most preferences. Does a person have to be a utilitarian to adopt your ethical views? That seems like something we should address.

Singer: Now, a lot of people ask, does this position I'm putting forward depend upon any particular ethical view or on some form of consequentialism or utilitarianism? Certainly the consequences are really important. We should constantly be considering the consequences of what we do. But I don't think that you have to be a utilitarian to take this view that there is something wrong with spending money on luxuries when other people are starving. You could, for example, defend a view of natural rights. The Catholic philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages said that we have a natural right to property to meet our needs, but if we have met all our needs, if we have what he called superabundance above and beyond our needs, and there is someone else who can't meet their needs, then we don't have a right to our property that trumps that person's right. So we have an obligation to use our wealth to help those who are in real need. And in fact, Aquinas said if they were to take our property, if they were to take our bread to feed their family, that's not theft because if we have more bread than we need and they can't feed their family, our natural right to property has disappeared. So you can get these radical conclusions from quite different sorts of perspectives, quite different kinds of ethical perspectives, and they become radical because of that state that we're in.

. . .

Taylor: Let's step back for a bit. What drew you to the subject of practical ethics? Can you give us some personal background?

Singer: I started thinking about these issues back in the 1970s, when, for one thing, there was the crisis in Bangladesh, where there were millions of people who were in danger of starving because of the repression of the Bangladeshis by the Pakistani army. And that made me think about our obligations to help people who were in danger of starvation.

Also around the same time I happened to meet an ethical vegetarian who got me asking myself, am I justified in continuing to eat meat? What is it that gives us the right or that justifies us in treating animals the way they get treated before they end up in our lunch or dinner? And I read about factory farming and intensive farms and the way they confine animals, which was something that was getting going at that time. And I thought that you can't justify this. We humans have simply taken it for granted that we have the right to use animals whichever way we want to. And that isn't defensible. The boundary between species is not something that is so morally significant that it entitles us to take another sentient being who can suffer or feel pain and do as we wish with that sentient being just because we happen to like the taste of its flesh.

So these two issues got me thinking about applied ethics, which at this time, the beginning of the 1970s, wasn't really a field. It wasn't something philosophers thought was proper philosophy. But it was a good time to start thinking about these issues because of the student movement, the radical movement of the '60s and early '70s, which had increased interest in these issues and raised the question, can we make our academic studies more relevant to the important questions of the day? Questions like the Vietnam War, for example, civil disobedience, the protest against that war. So I was interested in trying to bring these issues into philosophy, and there were a few other people at the time too who were developing the idea of applied ethics, which is really not new, it had been done by great philosophers of the past. But from the 1920s to the 1970s it was not something that was thought to be part of philosophy.

I think that it's important to engage philosophy in the world, and of course to do that, you have to bring in a certain amount of factual background to understand how things actually are. So, in order to raise questions on what we should be spending our money on, you need to know something about what aid can do in the world, about the prices of those items over there, what could be done if the money was given to organizations like Oxfam; you need to know about whether such organizations work, how they can be made effective. That becomes part of applied ethics. In the case of the treatment of animals -- [We're stopped by an inquisitive man working as a security guard for a Bank of America branch.]

Man: My question for you is how are you going to get your idea close to that 5 percent or 1 percent of Americans who holds the greatest wealth to distribute it?

Singer: Well, firstly, it's more than that, because most of us have got a little bit, so maybe we can't give away like [Bill] Gates or [Warren] Buffett, but we can still do something. Secondly, you know, some of those people are receptive. Obviously Gates and Buffett are the best examples, but since I had that article in the New York Times, "The Singer Solution to World Poverty, "which essentially argued that money spent on luxuries, not necessities, should be donated to overseas aid agencies, I've had a lot of people write to me who are giving away quite significant amounts of their wealth. So I am hopeful that it's spreading. How did you recognize me?

Man: I just like to know things. It's been a pleasure. Thank you for your response. I'll do my share also.

Singer: Nice to meet you. Great. Cheers.

Taylor: Wow, that was a very strange encounter. But he kind of seemed convinced. Now, if you can, please go back to the issue of animal rights. In fact, why don't you make the case to my camera assistant here, who likes to make fun of me for being vegetarian? Convince him, too! [Laughs. ]

Singer: When I was a graduate student at Oxford, I just happened to have lunch with another graduate student, a Canadian called Richard Keshen, who didn't eat the meal that was on offer because it had meat in it. So I started talking to him about why he wasn't eating meat, and that conversation challenged me to say, how is it that we can justify the way we treat animals in order to turn them into food? Of course this is against the background of knowing that we don't really need to eat meat; there are plenty of people who are vegetarian or vegans who live long and healthy lives, perhaps on average healthier than people who do eat a lot of meat. So eating meat is not a necessity; it's a luxury of some sort. Some people say they enjoy the taste of it. So how much weight should we give our enjoyment of that taste, our desire for a particular kind of dish, for chicken or ham or pork or whatever it might be, as compared to a vegetarian dish? How much suffering does that justify us inicting on animals? And, of course, killing them in the end in order to have that particular kind of taste.

And when you think about it, we do inflict a lot of suffering on animals, particularly as we have developed intensive farms where we crowd animals indoors, take them off the land. They never get to go outside. In some cases they are so crowded that they can't even move or turn around in their stalls, or, if they're the hens that lay our eggs, they can't even stretch their wings. They live there for pretty much their entire lives, for a year or more. So can we defend this treatment just to get our eggs or meat a little more cheaply than we would if the animals were allowed to go outside? It doesn't seem to me we can.

Of course, that question leads you to go back and to say, Well, what is it about animals that justifies us, or makes us think that we're justified, in treating them in this way? Not just in using them for food but also for research, in circuses for entertainment, or trapping them and killing them for their fur, or whatever else it might be. And when I started thinking about that, I began to realize that this is just another prejudice, this is just another example of that kind of prejudice that we are so familiar with, from looking at racial discrimination or discrimination on the basis of sex.

So when you think about the position of animals, it's really another prejudice like those that we're familiar with, like the prejudice that people had against people of another race that enabled them, in the eighteenth century, to go and capture them and enslave them and use them as tools for whatever they wanted to do with them. That's the same kind of relationship, really, that we have with animals: we just see them as a different group, an inferior group, and we develop an ideology that enables us to use them. Think about it: the boundary line of species is not something that in itself is of great moral significance. It's a biological difference, but it's not morally significant for that reason. If we say, well, just because they are not a member of the species Homo sapiens, that gives us a right to use them in whatever way we want to, are we going to defend the racist that says, well, because they are not Europeans and don't have white skin or because they come from Africa, we can use them in whatever way we want to? I think the two are similar phenomena.

They're not identical, but there is a certain parallel between them. Some people will say it's because we are more rational than animals are, or we can use language, or we have a higher level of self-awareness, and of course those things are typically true; there are differences between humans and nonhuman animals, but there are circumstances in which these differences do not hold. Not all humans are rational: human infants are not rational, humans with severe intellectual disabilities may be less rational, less self-aware, even less able to communicate than a chimpanzee or an orangutan. But we don't therefore think that these less rational humans have no rights. We don't think that we can use them as we wish, that we can experiment on them in ways that are painful or lethal because we want to find something out. Yet these are things that we do to animals, including chimpanzees. So it seems that it is the boundary of species that's making the moral difference -- it's not really these other characteristics like rationality or self-awareness that are determining how we treat a being.

Taylor: Can we go back to your student days, since we were interrupted? You brought up the fact that Socrates, through Plato, was concerned with the question of how ought we to live. So why did that sort of interrogation go out of style for a while there?

Singer: When I started studying philosophy, when I was an undergraduate in the mid-1960s, philosophy was mostly about analyzing the meaning of words. It was the period of linguistic analysis, so ethics was just about saying: What do the words "good"or "bad" mean? There was no substantive content about what we should be doing, and in fact some philosophers, leading philosophers, like A. J. Ayer and C. D. Broad, actually said philosophy doesn't tell you what you ought to do. It has nothing to do with that.

But, as I was saying, the '60s saw the movement against the Vietnam War, the black liberation movement, the student movement -- and as those things started happening, people started demanding more relevance in their studies. Some people started to think, well, the big issues of the day are at least in part ethical issues, and philosophy should have something to say about those. So I got interested in that area of philosophy, which developed into applied ethics. I wrote my thesis at Oxford on the question of whether there is an obligation to obey the law in a democracy, which, of course, was an issue that was very relevant during the Vietnam War when there were a lot of protests, acts of civil disobedience, and even violence as a protest against the war. So that was one issue of applied ethics that was clearly a philosophical issue -- the question of the obligation to obey the law is a traditional question in political philosophy. But I then got interested in some other questions that hadn't been discussed so much. One was the question of our obligation to help the poor.

Again, that became very relevant in the early 1970s because of the crisis in what's now Bangladesh. When Pakistani troops were engaged in the repression of the population of East Pakistan, millions of refugees ed across the border into India, and they were in danger of starving. India at that time did not have resources to feed them. So that was an occasion for one of my first articles in applied ethics, about the obligations of the rich to help. And finally, as I already mentioned, the other issue that I started working on was the question about the treatment of animals, which is also very much a practical question that shows how philosophy connects with everyday life because we are involved in the issue of how to treat animals every day; most people eat meat twice or three times a day. So this question is just there. It keeps coming up.

Questions about the ethical status of animals, the ethical standing of animals, are questions we should be thinking about because if we've got this wrong then we are doing something wrong every day when we buy the products of industrialized farming and thereby are giving our resources, our money, to people who are doing this to animals, effectively encouraging them to keep going, to keep putting more chickens in sheds with twenty thousand other chickens, to keep cramming more hens into cages to produce the cheapest possible eggs, or to put pigs in stalls where they can't even turn around. These are examples of ways in which ethics can be applied. It's important that philosophy should think about these issues, that it shouldn't just be a matter of analyzing the meaning of words or writing articles for academic journals that only other philosophers will read. These are important issues that we should all be thinking about, and philosophy has a role to play in helping us to think about those issues, raising the level of discussion, clarifying our ideas and concepts and putting the arguments out there for everyone to think about.

Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her latest film is Examined Life: Excursions With Contemporary Thinkers, now available with a companion book, published by The New Press. This article appeared at Alternet. 2009 The New Press All rights reserved.


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