Peter Singer: “Think strategically”

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“Don’t worry everyone, this is the last one on Singer”, our ethics professor announced last term. The introductory course was a broad sweep of moral philosophy, and yet Peter Singer became the focus of every lecture.

The Australian academic enjoys a sort of fame and influence unheard of for contemporary philosophers; his books on Practical Ethics, Animal Liberation and Famine, Affluence and Morality have sparked public debates on euthanasia, become the foundational text of the animal liberation movement, and popularised the principle of ‘effective altruism’ respectively.

Why so popular?

“I think there are three reasons”, says Singer, in a structure and tone familiar to his millions of readers. “First, my work … focuses on important ethical questions like global poverty that affect hundreds of millions of people, or, in the case of animals, hundreds of billions of sentient beings”.

“Second, it also focuses on issues that are not merely theoretical, but part of our daily life that we can do something about, like volunteering for, or donating to, effective charities, or ceasing to eat meat. And third, I always try to write in plain language, without the use of academic jargon that gets in the way of understanding what I am saying.”

Animals and the virus

The source of the recent coronavirus pandemic is said to be a wet market in China dealing in exotic animals. “There isn’t a national animal welfare law at all in China or any standards governing the vast number of factory farms”, explained Singer. “China is unfortunately notorious for that, despite its Buddhist traditions, that you think would make it more sympathetic”.

“I’ve been in China myself, and when you visit the popular places – the Great Wall near Beijing, for example – they have bears on exhibit in small enclosures. It wouldn’t be tolerated to have animals captive like that in any major tourist attraction in Europe or Australia or the United States”.

In an issue brought to light in a recent Netflix series, Singer clarified; “the United States has some pretty terrible places, I should say, but they tend to be small private zoos, not a major thing everyone knows about”.

With the pandemic bringing such wet markets to the fore, there could yet be hope that China’s animals could see better conditions. But Singer is sceptical. “There is still very little concern from enough people for the government to see the need to do anything about it”.

“I know a number of animal welfare advocates in China who’ve been trying to do something about it. They’ve been battling for years without very much progress, except a little for cats and dogs.”

How much for a life?

At the height of New York’s epidemic, while facing questions about re-opening the economy, Governor Andrew Cuomo stated clearly “we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life”. Singer, admittedly in the more fortunate position as philosopher not politician, warned that such an idea simply isn’t true.

“We have to think about not just what we want to achieve, but also the strategies to achieve them”

“It’s just a piece of rhetoric to suggest that the value of human life trumps everything else. Every government implicitly puts a dollar figure on saving human life. If it didn’t, it would spend every dollar of tax revenue it has directly on saving human lives, and obviously it doesn’t do that.

“New York state’s national parks aren’t directly life-saving, for example – they preserve wilderness and provide recreational opportunities … you could close off the park or sell it off to developers, but no-one wants to do that”.

Even then, “if you hash it out as lives versus lives, a lockdown has its own costs”. In the subsequent economic recovery, there will be “big debts to pay off, and they will be paid off by governments who will spend less on new hospitals and training medical staff”.

Suffering transcends borders

Singer’s book and organisation ‘The Life You Can Save’ argue that if you agree that jumping into a pond to save a drowning child is morally obligatory (even if you lose money in the process), then you should also agree to donate as much you reasonably can to save the life of children dying from avoidable causes everywhere.

But Singer knows that this ‘effective altruism’ is not how people largely behave now. We think “that a year of life is less valuable for someone in a low-income country than it is for someone in a high-income country … we always spend so much more on saving lives in our own countries”.

Living in the moment

In response to calls for international aid, the argument is that governments should be at the forefront rather than charities. But Singer says that this isn’t a good enough reason not to give.

“We can do a lot to reduce extreme poverty through charitable private action”. While eliminating it is “going to take governments’ action … I think that’s still some time off”.

International goals are helpful, but optimistic. “The UN has these Sustainable Development Goals which will eliminate poverty by 2030. I don’t really think that’s realistic”.

On the question of whether governments receiving aid become dependent and so never develop, “I don’t think the verdict is really in on that, and given that’s it not, I don’t think we’d be justified in sacrificing people in present need by saying ‘well, in the long run, this will help more people because the government will act more responsibly’”.

Ultimately, we have to save lives now. “I think we ought to be focusing on what we can do here and now, and we can do a lot in terms of reducing extreme poverty, and at the same time encourage our governments to do more”.

“We have to think about not just what we want to achieve, but also the strategies, and what is the probability we’ll achieve our goals by using these tactics. Helping some private charities – like those handing out bed-nets against malaria – is something that you can really do and be highly confident that it works”.

“Compare that to things like eliminating corruption in low-income countries. Fantastic goal, but it’s much harder to know how to achieve that”.

College meals and alt-burgers

Students at Durham and internationally are often the most vocal when it comes to animal cruelty and climate change. Singer is behind such calls, but as always, says that activists should choose paths carefully.

In University College, a motion banning meat in the servery was narrowly rejected, but before Singer endorses a moral obligation to institute the policy anyway, he wants to proceed with caution.

“You might want to be a little more precise. You could have a motion that says canteens should not serve factory-farmed animal products, and a separate motion saying the canteen should not serve any beef or lamb to cut greenhouse emissions”.

“And maybe you’d get support for both of those motions, and leave it to the canteen authorities to work out what sorts of meat they were going to serve and where it was going to come from”.

“If climate protestors want to block streets, I think that’s entirely defensible”

When asked whether he sees a trajectory towards a more vegetarian society, he saw the power of the market. “It will depend a bit on what products come on the market. If prices come down and good tasty products are available, then I think that will contribute to changing dietary patterns”.

In a welcome insight into Peter Singer’s own palate, he excitedly added “I actually just tried a new plant-based burger for dinner tonight that was new on the market, and my wife and I thought it was pretty good. Not that we eat a lot of burgers anyway, but it was worth a try”.

He was unsure whether the Aussie invention was yet available in the UK – perhaps the next edition of Practical Ethics can compare varieties internationally.  

To save the world, block but don’t bomb

When it comes to our democratic process, there is a fundamental flaw. “If you have an election in the UK, those in the poorest countries most seriously affected by greenhouse gases, as they don’t have the resources to buffer themselves against it, get no vote. And of course, future generations will suffer from it, and they don’t get to vote either”.

In this context, those protesting unjust laws are justified in breaking some in the process. “If climate protestors want to block streets, do sit-ins, get arrested; all of the classic civil disobedience tactics I think are entirely defensible, because they’re a way of demonstrating the importance of the issue, the sincerity of the convictions of those who are protesting, and trying to appeal to other people to see why they’re so concerned about this issue and to take that into account in their electoral choices”.

“I’m not a fan of mere gestures”

There is a very clear line, however, drawn at violence. “Partly”, says Singer, “because I don’t think it works, and is very likely to backfire. There was a time in the 1980s when radicals in the animal rights movement started to resort to violence”.

“There were a couple of bombs that were mailed to scientists, there were certainly a lot of threats made, damage to property, some of it quite extensive – setting fire to labs that were about to be built and so on”.

“Individually you could see why people were doing this, they were very frustrated by the lack of change. But the result was really bad for the movement – it meant those who were defending these practices on animals could brand the movement as terrorists”.

“That meant political leaders wouldn’t speak about it, they’d say they weren’t going to talk to terrorists. And it took quite a while to live that down. The movement has made better progress since then. The same might happen to the climate movement”.

There is a less instrumental reason, however, why Singer sees violent protest as unacceptable. “Peaceful decision-making processes are extremely valuable, and we want to protect them and preserve them, we don’t want to put them in danger, and if people on the left, or the greens, start to not respect peaceful ways of making decisions, there will be some on the right who will do the same, and they very often have more influence over the military in a country. It’s much more likely that that would work to the advantage of the right”.

Words of wisdom

Singer’s advice to students and activists of today – “think strategically about what you can achieve and what tactics will help you to achieve it. Don’t lose sight of those goals, but always think about practical ways of making progress towards them. I’m not a fan of mere gestures that don’t suggest a path to the kind of change that you want to see”.

From ethics lectures to street protests to billionaire donations, Peter Singer’s influence can be felt everywhere. As a world begins to rebuild, those campaigning for a better future can heed the word of the man who made the world care more.

Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save is available as a free audiobook here

Images: L214 / Les Parasites and HDR Trilobite via Creative Commons

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