Peter Albert David Singer (born July 6, 1946 in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) is an Australian philosopher. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne. He specializes in practical ethics, approaching ethical issues from a preference utilitarian and atheistic perspective.
He has served, on two occasions, as chair of philosophy at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996, he ran unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004, he was recognized as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies.
Outside academic circles, Singer is best known for his book Animal Liberation, widely regarded as the touchstone of the animal liberation movement. Most members of the animal liberation movement disagree, and Singer himself has said the media overstates his status. His views on that and other issues in bioethics have attracted attention and a degree of controversy.
After spending two years as a Radcliffe lecturer at University College, Oxford, he was visiting professor at New York University for 16 months. He returned to Melbourne in 1977, where he spent most of his career, apart from many visiting positions internationally, until his move to Princeton in 1999.
In Animal Liberation, Singer argues against what he calls speciesism: discrimination on the grounds that a being belongs to a certain species. He holds the interests of all beings capable of suffering to be worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their having wings or fur is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color. In particular, he argues that while animals show lower intelligence than the average human, many severely retarded humans show equally diminished, if not lower, mental capacity, and intelligence therefore does not provide a basis for providing nonhuman animals any less consideration than such retarded humans. Likewise, pigs, birds, primates and cetaceans can rank as being as intelligent as children. Singer does not specifically contend that we ought not use animals for food insofar as they are raised and killed in a way that actively avoids the inflicting of pain, but as such farms are uncommon, he concludes that the most practical solution is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet. Singer also condemns vivisection except where the benefit (in terms of improved medical treatment, etc.) outweighs the harm done to the animals used.
Among the more important human interests are those in avoiding pain, in developing one's abilities, in satisfying basic needs for food and shelter, in enjoying warm personal relationships, in being free to pursue one's projects without interference, "and many others". The fundamental interest that entitles a being to equal consideration is the capacity for "suffering and/or enjoyment or happiness". He holds that a being's interests should always be weighed according to that being's concrete properties. He favors a 'journey' model of life, which measures the wrongness of taking a life by the degree to which doing so frustrates a life journey's goals. The journey model is tolerant of some frustrated desire and explains why persons who have embarked on their journeys are not replaceable. Only a personal interest in continuing to live brings the journey model into play. This model also explains the priority that Singer attaches to interests over trivial desires and pleasures.
He requires the idea of an impartial standpoint from which to compare interests. He has wavered about whether the precise aim is the total amount of satisfied interests or the most satisfied interests among those beings who already exist prior to the decision one is making. The second edition of Practical Ethics disavows the first edition's suggestion that the total and prior-existence views should be combined. The second edition asserts that preference-satisfaction utilitarianism, incorporating the 'journey' model, applies without invoking the first edition's suggestion about the total view. But the details are fuzzy and Singer admits that he is "not entirely satisfied" with his treatment.
Ethical conduct is justifiable by reasons that go beyond prudence to "something bigger than the individual," addressing a larger audience. Singer thinks this going-beyond identifies moral reasons as "somehow universal", specifically in the injunction to 'love thy neighbor as thyself', interpreted by him as demanding that one give the same weight to the interests of others as one gives to one's own interests. This universalizing step, which Singer traces from Kant to Hare, is crucial and sets him apart from moral theorists from Hobbes to David Gauthier, who tie reasons to prudence. Universalization leads directly to utilitarianism, Singer argues, on the strength of the thought that one's own interests cannot count for more than the interests of others. Taking these into account, one must weigh them up and adopt the course of action that is most likely to maximize the interests of those affected; utilitarianism has been arrived at. Singer's universalizing step applies to interests without reference to who has them, whereas a Kantian's applies to the judgments of rational agents (in Kant's kingdom of ends, or Rawls's Original Position, etc.). Singer regards Kantian universalization as unjust to animals. As for the Hobbesians, Singer attempts a response in the final chapter of Practical Ethics, arguing that self-interested reasons support adoption of the moral point of view, such as 'the paradox of hedonism', which counsels that happiness is best found by not looking for it, and the need most people feel to relate to something larger than their own concerns.
Practical Ethics includes a chapter arguing for the redistribution of wealth to ameliorate absolute poverty (Chapter 8, "Rich and Poor"), and another making a case for resettlement of refugees on a large scale in industrialized countries (Chapter 9, "Insiders and Outsiders"). Although the natural, non-sentient environment has no intrinsic value for a utilitarian like Singer, environmental degradation is a profound threat to sentient life, and for this reason environmentalists are right to speak of wilderness as a `world heritage'.
Consistent with his general ethical theory, Singer holds that the right to life is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to hold preferences, which in turn is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to feel pain and pleasure. In his view, the central argument against abortion is equivalent to the following logical syllogism:
First premise: It is wrong to take innocent human life.Second premise: From conception onwards, the embryo or fetus is innocent, human and alive.Conclusion: It is wrong to take the life of the embryo or fetus.
In his book Rethinking Life and Death Singer asserts that, if we take the premises at face value, the argument is deductively valid. Singer comments that those who do not generally think abortion is wrong attack the second premise, suggesting that the fetus becomes a 'human' or 'alive' at some point after conception; however, Singer remarks that human development is a gradual process, that it is nearly impossible to mark a particular moment in time as the moment at which human life begins.
Singer's argument for abortion differs from many other proponents of abortion; rather than attacking the second premise of the anti-abortion argument, Singer attacks the first premise, denying that it is wrong to take innocent human life:
[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life. (Rethinking Life and Death 105)
Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a mother against the preferences of the fetus. A preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus (up to around 18 weeks) has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for fetuses to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a mother's preferences to have an abortion, therefore abortion is morally permissible.
Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that infants similarly lack essential characteristics of personhood - "rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness" - and therefore "[s]imply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person..
Singer classifies euthanasia as voluntary, involuntary, or non-voluntary. Voluntary euthanasia is that with the consent of the subject.
Singer's book 'Rethinking Life and Death: The collapse of our Traditional Ethics' offers further examination of the ethical dilemmas concerning the advances of medicine. He covers the value of human life and quality of life ethics in addition to abortion and other controversial ethical dilemmas.
In an article for the online publication chinadialogue Singer called Western-style meat production cruel, unhealthy and damaging to the ecology. He rejected the idea that the method was necessary to meet the population’s increasing demand, explaining that animals in factory farms have to eat food grown explicitly for them, and they burn up most of the food’s energy just to breathe and keep their bodies warm. That loss of total energy has been verified in multiple studies, and the Nov. 2006 UN FAO Report states as much.
In Germany, his positions have been compared to Nazism and his lectures have been repeatedly disrupted. Some claim that Singer's utilitarian ideas lead to eugenics. American economist Steve Forbes ceased his donations to Princeton University in 1999 because of Singer's appointment to an honorable position. Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote to organizers of a Swedish book fair to which Singer was invited that "A professor of morals ... who justifies the right to kill handicapped newborns ... is in my opinion unacceptable for representation at your level. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, the leading organization for blind people in the United States, strongly criticized Singer's appointment to the Princeton Faculty in a banquet speech at the organization's national convention in July 2001, claiming that Singer's support for euthanizing disabled babies could lead to disabled older children and adults being valued less as well.
Some commentators expressed their disapproval at the publication of Singer's review essay in which he discusses zoophilia.
Proponents of other ethical systems like deontology or virtue ethics have found in Singer's work ammunition against utilitarianism and its consequentialism (that is, its assumption that the morality of an act is to be evaluated according to its consequences). They claim that his conclusions show that utilitarianism may lead to eugenics or infanticide in certain circumstances.
Singer has replied that many people judge him based on secondhand summaries and short quotations taken out of context, not his books or articles.
He is a favorite target of talk radio. Right wing commentators have naturally focused on Singer, such as a peculiar exchange between Glenn Beck and Ben Stein:
- Stein: Dr. Peter Singer is a …
- Beck: … nightmare …
- Stein: … very strange guy. I don't know where he comes from. I cannot imagine what his formative aspects were.
- Beck: You kind of wish that his mom would have harvested his body for organs before he was two.
- Beck (then laughs and says he doesn't mean it.)
Singer experienced the complexities of some of these questions in his own life. Singer's mother had Alzheimer's disease. He said, "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult". In an interview with Ronald Bailey published in December 2000 he explained that he is not the only person who is involved in making decisions about his mother (he has a sister). He did say that if he were solely responsible, his mother might not be alive today. (Singer's mother died shortly thereafter.) This incident has led to accusations of hypocrisy.
Though Singer focuses more than many philosophers on applied ethical questions, he has also written in depth on foundational issues in meta-ethics, including why one ethical system should be chosen over others. In The Expanding Circle, he argues that the evolution of human society provides support for the utilitarian point of view. On his account, ethical reasoning has existed from the time primitive foraging bands had to cooperate, compromise, and make group decisions to survive. He elaborates: "In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. Thus, consideration of others' interests has long been a necessary part of the human experience. Singer believes that contemplative analysis may now guide one to accept a broader utilitarianism:
"If I have seen that from an ethical point of view I am just one person among the many in my society, and my interests are no more important, from the point of view of the whole, than the similar interests of others within my society, I am ready to see that, from a still larger point of view, my society is just one among other societies, and the interests of members of my society are no more important, from that larger perspective, than the similar interests of members of other societies… Taking the impartial element in ethical reasoning to its logical conclusion means, first, accepting that we ought to have equal concern for all human beings.Singer elaborates that viewing oneself as equal to others in one's society and at the same time viewing one's society as fundamentally superior to other societies may cause an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. This is the sense in which he means that reason may push people to accept a broader utilitarian stance. Critics like Ken Binmore say that this cognitive dissonance is apparently not very strong, since people often knowingly ignore the interests of faraway societies quite similar to their own, and that the "ought" above only applies if one already accepts Singer's basic premises about the equality of various interests.
An alternative line taken by Singer about the need for ethics is that living the ethical life may be, on the whole, more satisfying than seeking only material gain. He invokes the hedonistic paradox, noting that those who pursue material gain seldom find the happiness they seek. Having a broader purpose in life may lead to more long-term happiness. On this account, impartial (self-sacrificing) behavior in particular matters may be motivated by self-interested considerations from a broader perspective.
Singer has also implicitly argued that a watertight defense of utilitarianism is not crucial to his work. In " Famine, Affluence, and Morality", he begins by saying that he would like to see how far a seemingly innocuous and widely endorsed principle can take us; the principle is that one is morally required to forgo a small pleasure to relieve someone else's immense pain. He then argues that this principle entails radical conclusions — for example, that affluent people are very immoral if they do not give up some luxury goods in order to donate the money for famine relief. If his reasoning is valid, he goes on to argue, either it is not very immoral to value small luxuries over saving many lives, or such affluent people are very immoral. As Singer argues in the same essay, regardless of the soundness of his fundamental defense of utilitarianism, his argument has value in that it exposes conflicts between many people's stated beliefs and their actions.