Peter Singer

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Peter Albert David Singer (born July 6, 1946) is an Australian philosopher. His thought focuses upon the application of utilitarianism to issues of practical ethics, such as abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, animal rights, class and global inequality. To the general public he is well-known for his book Animal Liberation, an important reference point for the movement that shares its name[1]. Singer's thoroughgoing preference utilitarianism has sometimes been controversial, with his most severe critics accusing him of devaluing human life. He is currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne.

Life

Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia. His parents were Viennese Jews (though neither were religious) who had fled from Austria 1938 and settled in Australia. Three of Singer's grandparents, however, were Holocaust victims. His paternal grandparents were taken by the Nazis to the Łódź ghetto, and were never heard from again, while his maternal grandfather died in Theresienstadt. Singer went to a "progressive private primary school called Preshil" in Melbourne, and then went to the Presbyterian Scotch College. Singer writes that the religious teaching at his secondary school "had an effect on me that was the opposite of what the school's founders presumably intended"[2]. Singer states that he was first exposed to philosophy in 1961 and read Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.

After completing his secondary schooling, Singer studied law, history and philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He gained his BA (Hons) in 1967 and obtained a further MA degree from the same institution in 1969. He was then able to obtain a scholarship to study at the University of Oxford under R.M. Hare, a prominent utilitarian philosopher who arguably influenced Singer's own thought. He completed his B.Phil thesis in 1971, which would later be published as Democracy and Disobedience in 1973. After working briefly at Oxford and New York, Singer published Animal Liberation and returned to Melbourne, initially as part of La Trobe University before settling into various long-term roles at Monash University. He unsuccessfully ran as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate in the 1996 Federal Election. He has been working at Princeton University since 1999, and since 2005 has divided his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne.

Thought

Animal Liberation

Singer has published extensively on our moral relationship with animals, most notably in Animal Liberation, which has been adopted as a central text of the current animal liberation movement. In general terms, Singer opposes an attitude which he terms “speciesism”, an irrational form of discrimination that serves to justify exploitative behavior against members of other species. The overall project of Singer's animal liberation philosophy is to show that membership of a particular species is inadequate grounds to claim moral superiority. Singer analyzes animal liberation from the perspective of preference utilitarianism, suggesting that an equal consideration of interests is the only reasonable moral approach to the issue. He argues that the fact that animals have demonstrable preferences in regard to avoiding pain, expressing natural behaviour and protecting their own life means that we should weigh these preferences equally alongside our own. Mere membership of a certain species is not a rational basis for the preferences of one organism as being more morally relevant than the preferences of another.

Singer focuses on what he sees as the two major abuses of animals; their use as food sources and their use in scientific experiments. In the first case, he argues that we ignore a number of animal interests in satisfying our taste for meat and dairy products. Farm animals endure great pain and are unable to express natural behaviour or live a happy life in a farm environment. Since Singer believes that meat is unnecessary for human nutrition, he suggests the only logical response to this situation is to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.

In the case of animal experimentation, Singer believes most animal experiments fall into one of two categories. In the first instance, they deal with trivial hypotheses that do not justify the harm or deprivation they cause to other species, or in the second instance they employ animals to test theorems which could be verified without their use. Singer also questions the scientific worth of animal testing and highlights a paradox that results from the advocacy of vivisection: it is scientifically sound to test animals because they are so similar to us, yet morally permissible to do so because of how different they are. As a utilitarian, Singer accepts that it is possible that to imagine experiments that could produce such great benefits that the use of animals would be justified. Regardless, he still maintains that such circumstances would be exceptional and that the scientific use of animals generally proceeds under a state of “conditioned ethical blindness” that encourages speciesism. [3]

Singer warns against accepting religious or intuitive arguments that justify animal oppression, and places the animal liberation within the same humane tradition as feminism and the civil rights movement. He cautions us that the relatively recent developments that have improved racial and gender equality should remind us that it is necessary look critically at our largely unexamined relationship with animals. Although he discusses rights in a historical sense, Singer does not believe they are an adequate basis for a moral attitudes. Intrinsic rights that are based on, for example, intelligence can always be challenged by exceptional cases. We might want to give humans more significant rights based on their rational capacity, but then how does one account for the mentally handicapped or infants? Singer argues that to dismiss these exceptions and retain a morality founded on inherent rights is irrational and requires a naïve abstraction, stating that “if the demand for equality was based on actual equality of all human beings, we would have to stop demanding equality.” [4] Through this, he implies that biological or psychological equality is not a prerequisite for equal moral consideration.

Famine and affluence

Singer describes as morally abhorrent a situation where people in the West spend money on excessively expensive luxury goods while those in the third world suffer for want of food. In an article for the New York Times, Singer described how a donation of $200 to an international aid charity like Oxfam or Unicef could save a child's life, and compared that to the amount spent by those in the West on needless luxuries: "The money you will spend at the restaurant could also help save the lives of children overseas! True, you weren't planning to blow $200 tonight, but if you were to give up dining out just for one month, you would easily save that amount. And what is one month's dining out, compared to a child's life? There's the rub. Since there are a lot of desperately needy children in the world, there will always be another child whose life you could save for another $200."[5]

Human Life

References

  1. Singer, a utilitarian, does not believe in 'animal rights' though, which makes him different from many in the animal liberation movement.
  2. Singer, "An Intellectual Autobiography" in Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics, ed. Schaler, p. 3
  3. Animal Liberation (2nd ed.), Peter Singer; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1990 ISBN 0224030183
  4. Animal Liberation (2nd ed.), Peter Singer; Jonathan Cape Ltd, 1990 ISBN 0224030183
  5. Peter Singer, "The Singer Solution to World Poverty", New York Times