Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. His contributions in thought and action to treatment of animals, extreme poverty, effective altruism, and bioethics have challenged and inspired people around the world.
What type(s) of civically engaged or public philosophy (CE/PP) work do you do?
Most of what I do falls into that category. I do a lot of writing and speaking aimed at a wider audience than faculty and students in philosophy. The topics range from the ethics of our treatment of animals to our obligations to help people in extreme poverty, and from abortion to physician assisted dying. I write a monthly column for Project Syndicate which is offered to newspapers in more than a hundred different countries. I am currently planning a book, to be co-authored with Frances Kissling, on whether there is a need to try to slow population growth. I’m also on advisory boards or similar bodies of various nonprofit organizations, involved with animals or with poverty.
Give an example of a successful project.
In 2009, I published The Life You Can Save, a book that ends by arguing that people who are middle-class or above in affluent countries ought to donate a percentage of their income (varying according to what their income is) to help people in extreme poverty elsewhere in the world. A friend offered to set up a website to promote that idea, and to enable people to pledge, online, to give the percentage corresponding to their income. The website became an organization, but initially there wasn’t much more to it than the website itself. Then I received a call from Charlie Bresler, who had had a successful career in retailing, and was now looking to do something more meaningful. Charlie offered to turn the website into a charity that would promote the ideas of the book and seek to direct donations towards highly effective charities working to reduce extreme poverty and its consequences. He’s done just that. In 2016 The Life You Can Save moved a conservatively estimated $2.7 million towards its recommended charities, while spending less than one-tenth of that on staff and other expenses. I’m no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the organization, but I am the board president.
What motivates you to do this work?
Ultimately, the thought that I am contributing to reducing unnecessary suffering, helping people to live better lives, and thereby doing my part in making the world a better place. There can’t be a better reason than that to get you going.
In what ways does the work inform your research (or vice-versa)?
Whether the work relates to animals, effective altruism, or issues in bioethics, it flows directly from my reasoning about what we ought to do. There is also some feedback from the work to the research, because by being involved in a practical way in trying to change things, I gain a better sense of what is possible, and what difference thinking about the ethical issues can make.
In what ways does the work inform your teaching (or vice-versa)?
When I discuss ethical issues with my students, they know that I am engaged with the issues in the real world. That makes a huge difference—it shows that philosophy is more than an intellectual exercise. It changes lives.
If someone wanted to take on CE/PP work like yours, what steps or resources would you recommend?
Start with effective altruism—it’s a terrific combination of serious philosophical questions and practical steps to change the world. Go to www.effectivealtruism.org and take it from there.
What’s the philosophical grounding of your CE/PP work?
My work is based on utilitarianism, an ethical view I’ve defended most recently in Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction, co-authored with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek. It will be published by Oxford University Press at the end of the summer.
What has been your biggest obstacle in doing CE/PP work?
My views are controversial, and those opposed to them often misrepresent them, making them look not just controversial, but horrendous.
How do you motivate yourself to do CE/PP work in times of political or personal struggle?
I look at the progress that has been made on the issues that are important to me. On the treatment of animals, and on global poverty, as well as physician-assisted dying—though not climate change, alas—things are moving in the right direction, even if too slowly.
Have you had a silly/unusual/interesting experience with students as a result of your CE/PP work?
Unusual, yes. Chris Croy (not one of my students, but a philosophy student at St. Louis Community College in Meramec, Missouri) emailed me to say that as the result of a discussion in class about my essay “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” he had donated one of his kidneys to a stranger. I tell the story in The Most Good You Can Do.
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