The Consequential Philosopher

Browsing for facts on Peter Singer’s Wikipedia page the night before I’m to meet him, I discover that one of his grandparents was interned at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, where several of my relatives were too. ‘Ice-breaker’, I think, confidently sliding the fact into my mental back-pocket. In the end, it doesn’t break as much ice as planned. The disclosure becomes another obstacle in the room as we enter – I fumble around for the lights, rearrange the chairs.

Mercifully, there’s not much one can say or do to ruffle Mr Singer. He brings to bear on every subject a breezy antipodean coolness. In fact, this probably goes some way to explain why many find him and his positions so disquieting. He’s spent his career pitching his tent on some of applied ethics’ most unstable territory – abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, animal rights – and all the while his characteristic, methodical detachment forbids the intrusion of unhelpful emotions and the clamorous hysteria of the outside world.

Singer is the recipient of numerous philosophical superlatives, not all of them complimentary; he is the most famous living philosopher, the most influential, the most controversial, the most dangerous. In much of his work there’s a flavour of activism. Roger Scruton once complained that, for all their status as philosophic works, Singer’s books are vanishingly thin on philosophical argument. But one cannot help feel that criticisms like this misconceive Singer’s intentions somewhat.

‘I didn’t want to spend my life discussing problems that were only of interest to other philosophers’, he confesses. ‘“Do we know that we’re not dreaming now?” It’s an interesting philosophical question, but it’s not really something that is going to affect anyone’s life – it’s not a hypothesis that you can take very seriously in that sense.’

When considering his career, and whether he wanted to pursue philosophy, ‘the answer was always a conditional “yes”’ – conditional on his being able to escape the ‘narrow confines of academia and actually have some impact in the broader world.’ It’s an aspiration redolent of a line of Daniel Dennett’s, that philosophers who concern themselves only with the subject-matter of philosophy ‘consign themselves to a janitorial role’ in the whole enterprise.

It seems most of Singer’s career has been spent in refusing such janitorial work. Consequently, he seems to have evaded capture by the chief stereotype of contemporary analytic philosophy, which holds that it is overly fussy, pedantic and inward-looking. I wonder if Singer has some sympathy with this common complaint against the tradition, whether he is even bored by some of the field’s more esoteric concerns. ‘I don’t think [they’re] boring. Some of these problems are intrinsically intellectually interesting.’

Part of the explanation for the present condition of practised philosophy, no doubt, has something to do with its absorption into the academy, and the division of labour that results. As Singer says, ‘you’ve got to publish papers in order to get a tenured position, and so on. And therefore you’ve got to say something new, and therefore people tend to take on small, very small things.’

There is, assuredly, a pragmatic streak, an urgency, in Singer – one that repels him from the metaphysical parlour games practised by so many philosophers. ‘It’s not very likely that you’re going to make a great deal of progress on them when other great minds have been thinking about them for a long time.’ In applied ethics, however, there are certainly areas where one can ‘contribute more, whether or not you make huge philosophical breakthroughs. You may be able to contribute more in the sense of helping to make those issues comprehensible and salient to lots of people outside academic philosophy.’

As a utilitarian Singer holds that the morally right thing to do is act so that the consequences of one’s action maximise the aggregate amount of pleasure or happiness in the world. One could looks at Singer’s career as a sustained project of applying the utilitarian principle to various thorny or under-examined issues. Out of his examination fall some striking results, some of which turn on what we take to count as a ‘person’. Some non-human animals may qualify as persons, a fact which should be reflected in our treatment of them; on the other hand, some severely disabled individuals may not, suggesting to Singer that in certain exceptional circumstances, infanticide or euthanasia may be a morally permissible, or even recommended. It is characteristic of Singer’s view that various, superficially antagonistic, courses of action are licensed. Always, ticking away beneath such seeming tension, is his unfaltering utilitarian logic.

His first great success – the paper ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ – made the utilitarian case for a drastic increase in aid relief for starving Bangladeshi refugees, comparing, in a thought-experiment, the refusal to donate with the act of ignoring the death throes of a drowning child just meters away. Proximity shouldn’t matter. Distance is not morally relevant. There is, according to Singer, nothing rational about being willing to help in former situation and not the latter, and only irrationality says otherwise. It is today somewhat odd to consider the novelty of this paper when it was first published – a reflection that is doubtless a testament to the unobtrusive influence Singer’s brand of utilitarianism has exerted on our collective moral consciousness.

Similarly unignorable was Singer’s Animal Liberation, which, upon publication in 1975, became the founding treatise of the incipient animal rights movement. The book is an attack on the ‘speciesism’ involved in disregarding the interests and suffering of animals, particularly those farmed for their meat and produce. When we suffer, we suffer as equals, animals and humans alike; it is ‘speciesistic’ to hold otherwise. I ask him whether he regretted choosing this rather unchewable word for the prejudice he coined. He smiles. ‘A lot of people think that I should have chosen “specism” rather than “speciesism”. It’s a bit easier to say. Yeah, possibly, but it’s too late.’ He trails off, unexcited by the thought. Ever the utilitarian, regret seems an inefficient allocation of attention.

What of the frustratingly piecemeal progress of the animal liberation movement? He starts, then stops. ‘I think I’m probably, yes, somewhat disappointed that the movement has not made faster progress …on the other hand, as I say, it could have just completely disappeared without a trace… You just have to look around at how many more vegans there are now than there were when the book appeared. Nobody would understand what the word “vegan” meant then. So I’m pleased that the movement is there… even if I wish it had made faster gains than it has.’

Singer’s clear style, his hygienic, tight prose, all bespeak a desire that his conclusions be broadly accessible. Doesn’t this involve a displeasing compromise in which theoretic subtlety is filleted out of his positions so that they might be fit for general consumption? To some, this gives his whole position the unpalatable flavour of the government-house, with ethical conclusions being prescribed, rather than built from the ground up. ‘I think there’s another alternative’, Singer counters, ‘and that is to show people that their own intuitive judgements are not really consistent with each other… and that therefore they have to re-think what they’re doing. So that doesn’t have to be from the ground up… Take what I argued in “Famine, Affluence and Morality”. You would save the child in the pond, you’re not saving the child in Bangladesh. Why is that? There’s no ground-up stuff there, there’s no foundations there…’

Yet, even today, and in the developed world, where effective altruism or vegetarianism are vociferously defended, and eminently possible practices, there are many content to live in a state of cognitive dissonance – mindful, for example, of the arguments against harvesting meat, but unwilling to alter their habits. ‘[It] does say something about [an individual’s] indifference to the world…and the amount of suffering they create, which is, when you stop and think about it…distressing.’

Does Singer resent friends or family who continue to eat meat? ‘I suppose as far as family are concerned, I’ve just come to accept the way they are. I mean my immediate family is all vegetarian at least, but if we spread out to others – the non-nuclear family – then certainly there’re lots of people who eat meat’. He fidgets. ‘To some extent I just accept the way they are’. He is more annoyed by those professed ‘animal-lovers’ who nonetheless eat meat. ‘People will pat their dog or cat and stick a fork into another animal’, he muses, grimly. ‘Do you like animals?’ I ask him, quickly. ‘I’m not an animal lover’, he replies, ‘I mean… I don’t feel I want to live with an animal particularly.’

Surely, it is to Singer’s credit that his deep concern for animals stems not from a personal disposition of fondness, but rather is borne of pursuing his principles to their natural conclusions. Yet it is precisely this high-mindedness that, for some, represents utilitarianism’s greatest drawback. Bernard Williams notoriously attacked utilitarianism’s disregard for an individual’s basic integrity. The demandingness of utilitarianism, and its emphasis on the impartial ‘point of view of the universe’, render it inimical to the kind of human flourishing that is grounded in personal projects and deep commitments. To be a utilitarian, according to Williams, is profoundly alienating, if indeed it is even possible. He famously predicted that, come a day not too far off, no one would any longer discuss the doctrine seriously.

Singer has certainly been the protagonist in the thwarting of Williams’s lofty prediction, and not by explicitly confronting his challenges, but by making utilitarianism relevant to questions of public concern. Does he perceive Williams’ as the strongest challenge he faces? ‘No’, Singer decides, ‘Some of the things Williams says do not seem to me very powerful… I think [utilitarianism], in fact, is closer to the views of a lot of people than someone like Williams seems to think.’ Williams was, I agree, prone to a kind of mystique, which prioritised stylistic elegance over directness. ‘And there’s a certain attitude that I feel coming through’, Singer agrees, ‘which is that “this sort of view, [utilitarianism]… it’s really rather crude, and we more erudite people, can see what’s wrong with that in some way”… It’s a bit of an attitude that Oxford can engender I think’, he smiles knowingly.

To Singer, the more troubling challenges to utilitarianism are its more local threats: those ‘about whether utilitarianism is the right form of consequentialism.’ Perhaps, there are values other than happiness that are intrinsically good. ‘I’m someone who actually cares a lot about preserving nature, but I get into debates with some environmentalists, who think that biodiversity is an intrinsic good, not just an instrumental good… I’m somewhat troubled by those objections.’

Another tension, often ignored or unnoticed, at the heart of ethical dispute is over how far it is the role of moral theory to remold man, and make him anew, and how far any theory must accept him as he is found. This is a problem for Singer. As Alan Ryan once remarked, ‘Singer is an interesting and important fellow, but I am afraid that human beings just aren’t put together the way that he wishes they were.’ There seems a sense, still, in which to be a fully-fledged utilitarian involves an unacceptable kind of schizophrenia – dividing the individual against his sense of self by committing him to an impossibly demanding standard of impartiality. ‘Yes’, Singer admits, ‘there is this tension, and I just think that it’s probably true that we are somewhat divided in that way, because, if you understand our evolutionary origins it’s not surprising that we should be’. We are not evolved to ‘reason abstractly’; such a facility is rather layered ‘on top of our biological nature’, giving rise to inescapable ‘constraints.’

Singer’s professional conflicts, however, are as nothing to those he faces from public, less alive to the subtleties of his position. A letter published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly upon Singer’s appointment to the Bioethics chair puts the opposition view nicely. ‘Nothing I have seen or heard epitomises the decline of Western civilisation so much as the hiring of Peter Singer to teach in the university’s Center for Human Values.’ In Practical Ethics, however, he documents a sinister episode of challenge, embodied in a series of protests that followed him throughout a series of speaking engagements in Germany in the late 80s. Rights activists, weighed down by the heavy burden of a history only half understood, saw in Singer’s admittedly idiosyncratic views on euthanasia the long shadow of eugenics and the Third Reich. They agitated for Singer to be disinvited, and, on the occasions when he was allowed to speak, attempted to drown him out with noise, and even rushed the stage in attack, smashing his glasses.

I ask him whether he is feels academic freedom is similarly threatened thirty years on. ‘[The threats have] come back, actually. And, surprisingly, it’s spread to English-speaking countries. Of course I got protests for my views in the United States, for example. But the protests came from conservative anti-abortion people, and they did not try to prevent me speaking, they stood outside with placards of dismembered fetuses or something, and handed out leaflets, and said people shouldn’t go and listen to me.’

Academic philosophy is certainly under an obligation to challenge such ways of protesting, and do so vigorously. ‘And it’s disappointing’, Singer reflects, ‘that actually some philosophers seem to be embracing it in various ways… It’s contrary to basic philosophical idea that if somebody says something that you disagree with, you argue against them, and you show why they’re wrong, you make your objections. You don’t try to prevent them from getting their views either spoken on a platform, or…published in a journal.’

Of course, the comical aspect of such cases of attempted censorship is the self-effacing nature of their effect. ‘The whole thing is really counterproductive in terms of the aims of what people are trying to achieve. I became vividly aware of that myself with the protests in Germany. You could really very closely track the sales of the German translation of Practical Ethics, which had been negligible until 1989… The sales line sort of goes like this…’ Singer traces a flat line on the table. ‘Then 1989 comes up. I start getting in the papers because I’m being protested, and the sales hugely go up, and in one year it sells more copies than its sold in the previous five years.’ ‘You’d think people would understand that this is really counter-productive’, he concludes, wryly, smirking at his opponents lack of strategy, their ironic blindness to the true consequences of their actions.

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