is an Australian academic moral philosopher whose rigorous utilitarian ethics once earned him the sobriquet ‘Professor Death’.
He called on Nelson González in his office in Manhattan on 31 May 2002.
Photography: Fronteiras do Pensamento
You insist that you are not a relativist and have little time for postmodernism. How do you position yourself as a thinker?
I think that there’s a role for reason in ethics. I think we can argue about ethical positions and can show that some are not defensible, so to that extent I am not a relativist. I don’t think that anyone’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.
In terms of ethical foundations, actually, I think that Christians are all over the place. For example, most of what they actually say about moral issues doesn’t come out of scripture. You can’t find anything about genetic engineering in scripture, obviously, or in vitro fertilisation or research on embryos. You can’t really find anything about abortion. And things that you do find in scripture, like the idea that it’s extremely difficult for a rich person to go to heaven, most Christians ignore.
So, I think that Christians form their beliefs about ethics from something that is independent of scripture and is not based on divine revelation, and they have as much of a need to justify where they’re coming from ethically as anyone else.
OK, but we still look for absolute principles in our ethics – and I’m interested to see that you have said something similar, that ethics tends towards a kind of universal law.
Well, there are a number of different senses in which one can take this notion of universal law. One idea is that if you make a moral judgement you have to be prepared to accept that judgement yourself. And I think that is a core element of morality as we understand it – I think it’s a very worthwhile way to think about what we ought to do, to ask ourselves: ‘Would I be prepared to accept this judgement if I was affected by it in the way that others are?’
We share a common reason and we can all agree on simple truths that we reason our way to. I think that at a fundamental level ethics may be like that
So, that’s one sense in which I support the idea of morality as the universal law. Of course, it doesn’t mean it has to be the same in all circumstances. It doesn’t mean, for instance, that morality has to take the form of simple commandments like ‘Never tell a lie’ or ‘Don’t kill an innocent human being.’ It can be much more context-specific. But it’s still universal once you understand it in those terms.
Is it possible to assert that something is universal without appealing to a higher power which goes beyond our mere ability to reason?
I think that reason is enough here. We share a common reason, and we can all agree on simple truths of mathematics, for example – they’re cross-cultural and they’re things we reason our way to. I think that at a fundamental level ethics may be like that.
You have observed that many, very different ethical traditions seem genuinely to be converging.
The belief that you should put yourself in the place of others, and the idea that that’s somehow basic to morality, is something you can find in a wide range of cultures (though not every one). Christians will think of ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ and ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ But you can also find it in the thought of Confucius, in Buddhist teachings, in Hindu writings like the Mahabharata. I think that in any cultural tradition that has developed a tradition of thought and written it down, basically you can find something like that idea cropping up.
You have placed your own thought in the tradition of consequentialism. Can you explain that?
It means that my approach to ethics is not a matter of asking ‘What are the rules?’ in the belief that you can fulfil your obligations by obeying them. What I want to ask is: ‘What are the consequences of this action? What outcomes will it have? Are they better or worse than those of alternative actions that might be open to you?’ And that will be the test of whether an action is right or wrong, not whether it conforms to a rule.
Might there not be situations where you don’t have enough data to predict the outcomes of an action?
Well, yeah, you can never be sure of all of the consequences of your actions. You have to act on the basis of probability – that’s the way life is. And so I think there is a role for what some philosophers have called ‘rules of thumb’. If someone asks you the way to Broadway, you can’t think, ‘Are there better or worse consequences if I tell him the right way?’ – you don’t know why he wants to get there, after all – so you have a rule of thumb that says, ‘In general, the best thing is to tell people the truth.’
So, in circumstances where you can’t really calculate the consequences, you ought to follow these basic rules, which turn out (maybe not in every respect) to be fairly much like the rules of conventional morality. But if you are in unusual circumstances, where you realise that following the rules is not going to have the best consequences, you ought not to follow them.
We walk around with our moral baggage and we don’t think about it much. I guess I challenge people to think a little more rigorously
In your time, you have angered a lot of people. One reason that occurs to me is that you compel them to think through the issues philosophically.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I do sometimes confront people with the implications of things they believe. We walk around with our moral baggage and we don’t think about it much, and I guess I challenge people to think a little more rigorously.
Should we all be devoting more time to philosophy?
Yes, because the alternative is that either we live an unexamined life, as Socrates put it, or we get our ideas from bishops – or leader writers, who don’t really have a lot of time to reflect. Philosophy can help us to critically examine our own life, to go into things more deeply and, as a result, to reach better-grounded conclusions.
One of your more provocative conclusions is that to live our lives as we do in the rich North, ignoring the plight of the poor in the South, may in some ways be equivalent to murder. Can you explain that?
Someone who lives a typically comfortable lifestyle in the developed world knows that there are various agencies that can use more resources to save lives: to provide people with adequate nutrition (or, better still, help them provide it themselves), provide them with safe drinking water, get them very basic medical care, provide them with a little bit of education. And these things do save lives.
And so what are you to think of someone who knows this but says: ‘Nevertheless, I’d rather just enjoy my lifestyle, with all the luxuries and frivolities that it involves. I’d rather go to the theatre, I’d rather go on vacations, I’d rather buy new clothes, than do something to help to save human lives’? At the very least, I think you’d have to say it shows a callous indifference to the loss of human life.
You can say it’s not murder because it involves no specific act, but the distinction between allowing people to die by omissions of this kind and contributing to their death by some act is not one on which I would rest a huge amount of moral weight. There is some difference, but I don’t think they’re nearly as far apart morally as many people believe.
You have argued that, as it has been estimated that the average US household needs only $30,000 or so a year for necessities, we should give the rest of our income to the relief agencies. And you yourself give one-fifth of your income to such agencies – which, I guess, by your own principles isn’t quite enough…
It’s certainly not enough, no. No.
Thirty thousand a year clearly is a very demanding standard, and I’m not saying that anyone who doesn’t go that far is in some ways morally equivalent to a murderer; but I think there is an obligation at least to do something very substantial.
As individuals we have an obligation not to just say, ‘The Government ought to do this’ but to say, ‘What can I do?’ Even though I can’t solve the whole problem, I can make a difference
Are there implications too for public policy?
What governments ought to give I think is a totally different question. Indeed, if they were to give 2 or 3 per cent of gross national product to foreign aid it would be enough to deal with the worst of global poverty. So, the public-policy implications might be quite modest. The United States currently gives 0.1 per cent, so 2 per cent of gross national product would multiply 20 times the amount of foreign aid it gives. That would be an excellent thing.
But I think that as individuals we have a greater obligation, not to just say, ‘The Government ought to do this’ but to say, ‘What can I do, right now?’ Because even though I can’t solve the whole problem, if I write a cheque for $1,000 it can make a big difference to a lot of people – literally the difference between life and death.
Many people who applaud your radical compassion will wonder how the same tradition of ethics has led you to some hugely controversial conclusions about the non-sanctity of human life. You have stated that up to 28 days after birth a severely disabled child could be killed. How can these views be reconciled?
Let me put it the other way round, because I too am puzzled. Isn’t it rather odd that someone can say, ‘Even though I could give the price of my theatre tickets to Oxfam and almost certainly save the life of a child, nevertheless I am going to go to the theatre. But if a couple have a child born with severe disabilities that mean that its life is likely to be of a much lower quality than an ordinary life, it would be a terrible wrong to kill that child’?
The standard view says that such a couple may have to make huge sacrifices to look after that child and are not allowed to end its life; but I’m allowed to be so indifferent to human life that I can prefer going to the theatre to saving a child’s life. I don’t see that my position needs to be explained: I see the conventional stance as needing explanation.
My position on infanticide is motivated by the same thing that motivates my views about obligations to the poor: that is, a desire to avoid unnecessary suffering. The rule against taking human life is generally a very good rule because most people want to live, most parents want their children to live. It’s a terrible thing to kill someone who wants to live; it’s a terrible thing to kill a newborn infant against its parents’ wishes. But if they don’t want the child to live, if the child’s prospects are blighted and they think it’s better that it not live, then, I think, it’s not a terrible thing.
What for you determines the worth of a human life? Is it the fact of being rational, of being self-aware, of having certain relational ties?
Well, I think those things are plausible candidates for what makes a life worth living. But I don’t want to say it’s up to me to tell parents if their children’s lives are worth living or not. I think that’s a decision that they should reach in terms of their own values – and I think the community should support them, by and large, in that decision.
It makes sense to distinguish between a human being and a person – that is, a conscious being aware of itself as the same being in different times and places
If they say, ‘It’s enough for us if our child can enjoy some simple pleasures, even if they are not self-aware or rational or anything like that,’ that’s fine. It’s not for me to impose my views of the worth of life on them. It’s for them to reach their own decision and then to be allowed to act on it.
But if we leave it to the parents, or to the children of very elderly people, to decide what value to set on a life, surely that will destroy our social contract and erode our sense of mutual respect?
I don’t think there is a social contract, really – and if there were, it wouldn’t be one we had with infants, because they are obviously not able to take part in a social contract.
Where we are talking about infants (I think that elderly people are a different matter), I don’t think there is a real danger of erosion of a belief in the way we act towards each other. There are plenty of societies that have been permissive about infanticide and have still been respectful of older life. I think a lot of societies can see distinctions.
A lot of this hinges on the distinction you make between personhood and humanness. I think you have said that the relativisation of our notion of personhood began in part in the early church…
I think that in the church’s early discussion of the Trinity the concept of a person became separated from the idea of a human being. What does it mean to say that God the Father and the Holy Spirit are persons if they are not human beings? Well, Boethius said that they are a thinking, rational substance, and that is the notion of a person that I think has survived in various other forms. John Locke used it in the 17th century, for example.
I think it makes sense to distinguish between a human being (that is, a being that is biologically a member of the species Homo sapiens) and a person that is a rational substance, or (as John Locke said) a conscious being aware of itself as the same being in different times and places. Clearly, there are some human beings that are not aware of themselves in that way: newborn infants, those with severe intellectual disabilities and so on – they are not rational. Equally clearly, I believe, there are some non-human beings that are persons: chimpanzees, say, are fairly evidently self-aware and are able to think in a variety of ways, so I would count them as persons. So, the notion of ‘person’ does not coincide with the notion ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’.
With regard to the elderly or infirm or people whose brains are damaged, how do we know when we have enough data to decide whether somebody is a non-person? What if someone is indeed a person and desires to live but cannot communicate that? Is there not a moral duty to hold back just in case?
Why do people accept that the loss of all brain function means that it’s OK to kill someone but not accept that the same applies to the loss of cortical function?
To a certain extent I think there is, but there are a significant number of cases where I think we can be absolutely certain. Certainly, people may recover from what seems to be a persistent vegetative state, but we now have ways of getting images of what’s going on in the brain which we didn’t have a few years ago, and therefore there are some cases where we can say, ‘Here there really is no prospect of recovery, because the parts of the brain associated with consciousness have turned to fluid.’ As long as you are looking at the right image of the right person…
Some of your critics accuse you of what they have called ‘corticalism’…
Sure. If there’s no cortex, there is nothing worth – I mean, there’s no subject of experiences, right? I don’t think that is discrimination, any more than it is to say that there’s a difference between taking a knife and chopping a lettuce out of your garden and chopping off the head of your dog. The dog has experiences and will suffer if you cut off his head. The lettuce won’t. And the same is true if there’s no cortex. Without a cortex there can be no consciousness or experience. If you believe that, because the human being lying in a hospital bed without a cortex still looks like a human being, therefore they are somehow more like you than your dog is, I think that’s just a mistake.
Is someone who is under anaesthesia temporarily not a person?
Temporarily; but you ought to respect their personhood which exists in a latent form.
Most Christians accept the idea of brain death. Why do they accept that the loss of all brain function means that it’s OK to kill someone – to remove their heart and give it to someone else – but not accept [that the same applies to] the loss of cortical function? I think you have already moved away from the idea that every human life is sacrosanct, irrespective of its capacities, because to say that someone is dead just because their brain doesn’t function is really a bit of a fiction. The body is still breathing, it’s still warm – why say that that’s no longer a person?
I think that really the only justification for saying that is no longer a person is that there will never be recovery of consciousness. And whereas we used to be able to say that with certainty only when there was a loss of all brain function, now we can say it in some cases where there is just a loss of the cortex.
Have you ever yourself advised someone to pursue infanticide or euthanasia?
I have tried to help people to think clearly about the situation and what their choices are and what they want, and in some cases that may have led them to take decisions to end a life. I can’t say for sure.
I don’t think there is anything that can really work to separate humans from non-human animals in a way that justifies us treating all humans with more respect
What are the implications of this sort of thinking for the whole notion of human rights?
I think that what I said about moral rules of thumb applies here. It’s useful to have certain guarantees against the state, and we want to defend the ideas that there are things that no state should do to its citizens and that a state should protect its citizens if others threaten them. But that is not to say these things are absolutely inviolable, or apply to every human being in every circumstance. With all these things I think you have to ask, ‘What is the point of having this rule?’ – and in the case of someone (say) who no longer has a cortex, there isn’t any point.
It reminds me of a story about Gandhi, who saw a cow that was clearly in her death throes and suffering horribly and he went and killed her. Everyone threw up their hands in horror, because in India the rule is that you can’t kill cows. But Gandhi’s point was that the rule ought to be for the good of the cow and here was a cow who was suffering and was very soon going to be dead anyway, and so the very attitude behind the rule should lead you here to break it.
And the same can be true in some cases with human rights. The point of human rights is to benefit human beings, and if there are cases where they are clearly not for the benefit of human beings it can be right to go against a simplistic application.
That brings us to animal rights. You have said that ‘humans have no distinctive worth or inherent value that puts them above members of other species,’ and have posited that higher mammals are superior to infants and brain-damaged people – and that to think otherwise is speciesism.
Superior in their level of awareness or rationality or something of that sort? Yes – I don’t see how anyone who just observes the facts can deny that, really. A chimpanzee can solve a problem which some severely intellectually disabled humans will never be able to solve. The chimpanzee can relate to other humans, she may remember her mother, or other people who have come to visit over a long period of time. Some disabled humans can’t do that.
So, in such respects some non-human animals are superior to some humans. Now, what follows from that? Well, what follows is that it is problematic to say why humans should in general be superior to non-human animals. Most people want to rest the superiority of human beings on their cognitive capacities, but if there is this overlap between the cognitive capacities of human and non-human animals, that’s not going to work to preserve the traditional Judaeo-Christian ethic, which says (for example) that it’s always worse to kill a human being than it is to kill a non-human animal.
If it’s merely based on rationality.
The only equality I talk about is equal consideration of interests. We should not give less consideration to the interests of any being because of the species to which it belongs
If you don’t want to base it on rationality, of course the question is: What do you want to base it on? I don’t think there is anything that can really work to separate all humans from non-human animals in a way that justifies us treating all humans with more respect or greater privileges or greater rights than at least some non-humans.
Does this kind of thinking trace back to Darwin?
No, I don’t think so. Jeremy Bentham used this argument – what, 60 years before the publication of The Origin of Species? He says: What marks the difference between humans and non-human animals? People may say it is reason or the fact that we have discourse, but a horse is beyond question more reasonable and more conversible than an infant of a day or a week old. (I’m quoting from memory.) So, no, it doesn’t depend on Darwinian theories of evolution: it’s more a matter of moral reflection.
Can you explain your idea of equality between species, given that our capacity to reason and reflect is clearly very different from that of other species?
Certainly it is, and I don’t in any way deny the differences between typical, normal human beings and non-human animals. The only equality I talk about is equal consideration of interests. If you’re a being who has interests, who is sentient, whose life can go better or worse from a subjective point of view, then those interests ought to be taken into account. We should not give less consideration to the interests of any being because of the species to which it belongs.
That principle is based on giving similar weight to similar interests, so where you don’t have similar interests, then of course you don’t have to give similar weight. And in various ways the capacities of beings will affect their interests. Some may be adversely affected by not being allowed to travel outside their country of origin, for example. You or I might feel under hardship if we were told we had to remain within the United States; a squirrel in Central Park would not be harmed at all.
There are different interests, and they vary in all sorts of ways. Any human child has an interest in getting an education; a dog doesn’t have that sort of interest. And when it comes to questions of life and death, I think some beings have an interest in continuing to live, because they are aware of the possibility of having a future, and others live more moment by moment and are not aware of that possibility.
So, I certainly think it’s reasonable to say that it is worse to kill a normal human being, with all the hopes and desires for the future that a normal human being has, than it is to kill a mouse that may not have such desires. But that is not to say that there is a difference between humans and animals as such. If there is a human that is just as incapable as the mouse of having those desires, that is equally not a reason to prolong its life. So, it’s equal consideration for equal interests. It’s not saying that it’s equally bad to kill a mouse or a normal human being.
If we could recognise the status of the great apes as self-conscious, rational beings, we could make the first breach in the species barrier
When it comes to inflicting pain, again it’s equal consideration for equal interests. The interest in not feeling pain (insofar as we can compare it) between a pig and a human being may be similar or may not be, depending on the kind of pain being inflicted.
Can you talk a little bit about primate ethics?
I think our understanding of primates has helped us to understand where ethics comes from. What we see now when we study primates living in reasonably natural social groups is that they clearly have a kind of proto-morality at least, and in some ways it is similar to ours. It has, for example, strong kin connections – especially mother-child relationships, but other kinds of kin relationships matter as well. Reciprocity is very important, that if someone does a favour to you, you do a favour back, and if you don’t, they get particularly angry – we could say ‘indignant’ or ‘outraged’. And, of course, there are various ways of regulating sexual behaviour, too, which is another important part of human morality.
So, I think we can see that the kinds of rules we have got have their origin at least in our pre-human existence as primates in small social groups.
Your work with the Great Ape Project I think is one way in which you have tried to make real some of your ideas on animals generally.
Yeah, it’s one way, but it’s certainly not the only or even the most important way. The work I do for animals in factory farms perhaps is more important.
The Great Ape Project was intended to say that we could now extend some basic rights to at least our closest relatives, those non-human animals who are most evidently self-conscious, which would not disrupt our society. And we could recognise their status as self-conscious, rational beings and so we could make the first breach in the species barrier.
What kind of dialogue could you profitably have with Christians who take issue with some of your ideas?
We can have a dialogue in which they are prepared to put aside their religious beliefs and discuss issues on the basis of what is sometimes called ‘public reason’ – that is, ways of argument that can be acceptable to people whatever religious belief they hold, or even if they hold no religious beliefs.
Or we can have a discussion in which they say, ‘Well, I’m a Christian and I believe this.’ The only way that can go any further is if they are prepared to say why they’re a Christian and justify their belief. All of these things you need to try and justify.
I guess there is a third possibility: one can ask, ‘How should we resolve our differences in terms of public policy?’ There are certainly Christians who I would regard as reasonably enlightened who accept that within a pluralist society they can’t expect their views to determine the law.
I think that kind of dialogue can be useful. Debate about the justifiability of religious belief tends not to be. Up to a certain age I think people are still making up their minds, but after that…
A version of this interview was originally published in the August 2002 issue of Third Way.
To find out more about the agenda behind our interviews, read our manifesto. To read more interviews like this, browse our library. To access our entire archive of almost 250 interviews, take out a subscription – High Profiles is funded entirely by its readers.
Peter Singer was born in Melbourne in 1946 and educated at Scotch College. He studied philosophy first at Melbourne University and then at University College, Oxford, where he stayed on for two years as Radcliffe Lecturer.
After a year as visiting assistant professor of philosophy at New York University, he returned to Australia to take up a post as senior lecturer at La Trobe University.
In 1977, he was appointed professor of philosophy at Monash University. He was seconded to the university’s centre for human bioethics, as director from 1983 and then, from 1992 to 1999, as deputy director. From 1992 to 1995, he was also co-director of the university’s institute for ethics and public policy.
In 1999, he moved to the United States to become Ira W DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the Center for Human Values at Princeton University.
He has been a visiting professor at the Universities of British Columbia, Colorado, California, Rome and Canterbury, and gave the Times/Demos Millennium Lecture in London in 1995. In 1992, he was elected foundation president of the International Association of Bioethics.
Besides many articles in learned journals, his most notable books are Democracy and Disobedience (1973, 1994); Animal Liberation (1975, 1991), which has been published in 11 languages including Japanese and Hebrew; Practical Ethics (1979, 1993); The Expanding Circle: Ethics and sociobiology (1981); The Reproduction Revolution: New ways of making babies (1984) with Deane Wells; Should the Baby Live? (1985) with Helga Kuhse; How Are We to Live? (1993); Rethinking Life and Death (1994); Ethics into Action (1998); A Darwinian Left (1999); Writings on an Ethical Life (2000); and a collection of essays, Unsanctifying Human Life, and One World: The ethics of globalization (both 2002).
His appearances on British television include Great Philosophers (1987) and The Big Idea (1996) on BBC TV and, on Channel 4, The Great Ape Trial (1995).
He got married in 1968 and has three daughters.
Up-to-date as at 1 July 2002