A short Forbes magazine interview with Peter Singer

May 24, 2023 • 1:00 pm

I’m posting this clip for two reasons. First, it’s a Forbes Magazine interview with a philosopher I much admire: Peter Singer. He’s admirable because he deals with philosophy’s original purpose: to figure out how to live a good life; because he deals with tough questions (one of them here: the euthanasia of terminally suffering newborns, which he discusses at 6:45); because, even when attacked he defends his ideas with tenacity; because he walks the walk, giving a lot of his income to others; and because does a lot of charitable work. Despite calls to get him fired because of his views on infant euthanasia, he maintains his equanimity and simply proffers a defense of his stand that I, for one, find convincing. And, of course, he spends a lot of time dealing with animal welfare, which a biologist has to admire (sadly, I’m too hypocritical to give up eating meat, but Singer abjures it).

Second, because he’s one of the founders of The Journal of Controversial Ideas, I was chuffed to hear that he talks about our paper recently published there, “In defense of merit in science” (between 9:30 and 13:00). I’m not sure who the interviewer is, but she seems to push on our merit thesis because in some ways it opposes racial diversity. Singer, in response, seems dubious about the idea of equity trumping merit.

They begin by discussing Singer’s new book (an update, actually): Animal Liberation Now: The Definitive Classic Renewed, which came out on Tuesday. I read the original book  (Animal Liberation), which was when he first came to my consciousness. I also admire his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress., which suggests how our evolved ethical system has been extended to all humanity.

p.s. Singer has compiled a list of charities where, he thinks, you can get the most relief of suffering for your dollar. I’ve used that list, which you can find here, to decide who will get my money when I die.

11 thoughts on “A short Forbes magazine interview with Peter Singer

  1. Thank you for posting this. Singer also has an article in TheAtlantic today. Animal Liberation had a big effect on me – like Singer I’m a Univ. of Melbourne grad as well. He’s one of the most valuable Australians. 🙂

  2. I’ve never read Animal Liberation, but I’ve heard that Singer thinks that it’s immoral to kill a shrimp, but okay to kill a handicapped human. Is there any truth to that?

    1. well.. sort of, though of course it’s always about the details. A lot of Singer’s philosophy deals with suffering. The shrimp is just going about its life, which in Singer’s view has enough value that you shouldn’t just extinguish for no reason. As for disabled humans, it depends on how disabled they are. The vast majority, no you shouldn’t kill them 🙂 But if they are in extreme agony or have extreme deformities, such as a baby born without a brain, then maybe. Though this is meant to be seen as dogma, but highly contextual.

    2. Something just occurred to me. The climate activists say we have to stop eating beef and get our animal protein by eating insects. Yet can it be morally permissible to kill thousands of mealworms instead of one cow? If each individual living thing has moral standing, then to kill the smallest number possible, we should eat blue whales until they are gone. Or maybe handicapped humans.

      1. I doubt that all living beings (be it mealworms or cows) have equal moral standing. After all, the lifespan of a mealworm is 3 to 12 months; the lifespan of an average cow (one not factory farmed) is about twenty years.

        1. Well, 12 months is one year, so that would mean 20 mealworms is an equal amount of lifetime to one cow. That would suggest killing the cow is better. But we can also be far more sure that a cow suffers than a mealworm does, so you’d probably weigh cows as more important. But you would need hundreds or thousands of mealworms to make up the same amount of mass as a cow, which again might push the calculation back in favour of killing the cow.

          But those all miss the bigger point, that all of that killing is unnecessary. We do not need to eat cows or mealworms or any animal protein, we can survive on just plants. And, given what we know, farming insects is too much of a risk for an unnecessary benefit. (also see https://aeon.co/essays/on-the-torment-of-insect-minds-and-our-moral-duty-not-to-farm-them)

          1. My own quantification of the morality of killing mealworms was jocular in the first place. I was deliberately missing the point with my own argument: I reject out of hand the view that we should not eat animals. We shouldn’t kill animals wastefully (just because we shouldn’t be wasteful in general) and we should kill them as humanely as possible while still making them affordable. How much extra will people pay in order to have free-range chicken? Not much, apparently, or it would all be raised that way.

            Jerry was ruing his hypocrisy in being unwilling to stop eating meat. The self-accusation evaporates if you don’t believe the act is not morally wrong in the first place. There is no moral reason not to eat meat that I (or Jerry, at the risk of putting words in his mouth) are willing to give uptake to. Therefore we continue to eat meat with a clear conscience. If only beef wasn’t so expensive.

            Those who don’t want to eat meat don’t have to.

    3. Pablo, I doubt you could answer that question here. A simple ‘ok’ to euthanize a newborn with no chance of survival goes nowhere near the heart, the fundamental arguments of the question you’ve asked. To do that you will have to deep dive into what he has written and get a sense of what Peter Singer is about.

      1. Peter Singer doesn’t limit euthanasia (with parental consent) to severely handicapped infants who are suffering and doomed to die soon. I’ve read his views and I am generally respectful of his argument. But if an infant is so severely deformed that it has no chance of survival, why kill it? Especially if it is born without a brain, it won’t suffer anyway and will live for only a few hours. I don’t know of any medical condition where an infant is born in severe pain but will die in a few hours or days, the kind of situation where immediate euthanasia (as opposed to sedation) would truncate suffering.

        Crucially, Singer’s support for euthanasia extends to the killing (with parental consent) of less severely damaged infants who will not reliably die quickly and need not be suffering, just unable to be sentient. These are the hard cases, the ones that disability-rights advocates slag him about. Claims that the child is intolerably suffering—for Singer it need not be; it might be comfortable and happy— always risk being contaminated by parents’ burnout over the often superhuman demands that these children impose on them. Their survival may require complex technology that parents have to manage around the clock and pay for, to the detriment of their healthy children and to their marriages and mental health. Should a child with no capacity to be sentient (as far as we can tell) be entitled to make such a moral claim on the lives and resources of others? Certainly in what are called “resource-limited” countries (as if any country has unlimited resources!), these children would be fed if there was food to spare and if they could swallow but that’s about it. (And they might not even be fed, depending on how that culture viewed severe birth defects.). Why does their moral claim vary depending on how much money is available to be spent on them and how much superstition has been dispelled?

        Parents of severely malformed and injured children have some latitude to refuse treatment that is recommended just because we can, and Singer acknowledges this in the interview. But the state is ever vigilant about going after parents who refuse “ordinary” medical treatment. And some burdens may be bearable for a newborn who has limited interaction anyway. But when the child is nine, or 16, or 22, and still bed-bound, feeding through a tube, and communicates only by wordless screaming? Is that what the parents bargained for? This is where Singer deserves a hearing even if you don’t agree that parents should be able give lethal injections to their infants with Down syndrome. (They can, of course, abort them.)

        Dr. Singer’s argument appeals on utilitarian grounds—rule utilitarianism in the case of the non-sentient being. Even if societies are uncomfortable with where utilitarianism sometimes takes them, they can’t stray too far from it for too long and still preserve the common good.

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