Peter Singer on vegetarianism, altruism & an examined life

Speaker Key:

AL               Andrew Leigh

PS               Peter Singer

AL       Peter Singer is one of the world's most influential philosophers. Born in Melbourne and educated at the University of Melbourne and Oxford. He's taught at Oxford, La Trobe, Monash and for the past two decades or so at Princeton University. Peter has written or edited more than 40 books including ‘Animal Liberation,’ ‘The Life You Can Save,’ and most recently ‘Ethics and the Real World’ – 82 brief essays on things that matter. He has three daughters and when he's not writing philosophy or reading it, he hikes and surfs. Peter Singer, welcome to the Good Life podcast today.

PS       Thank you Andrew. It's good to be with you.

AL       You've written on a daunting range of topics. There's no hope that we'll cover more than a small fraction of them, but I wanted to start with the issue for which you are probably best known. Your work on Vegetarianism and the notion of Speciesism. What role do you think properly treating animals plays in living a good and ethical life?

PS       I think it plays an important role in living an ethical life because most people after all are eating animals every day, and I think you have to take responsibility for your actions. Most people don't even know how those animals were treated. Increasingly more of them do because of the work of the animal movement but I think if you don't know, you have a responsibility to find out. If you do know then certainly if you are just going down to the Super market and buying factory farm products, you are participating in one of the largest scale cruelties that’s ever existed on the planet and I don't think you ought to be doing that so, I think to live an ethical life, you have to think about what you're eating, make ethical choices and at the very minimum I think any minimally ethical person would be led to avoid buying factory farmed products. There is more of a debate that you could have about free-range animal products as to whether that is or is not defensible. But the vast majority of the products sold in Supermarkets do come out of factory farms.

AL        Have you always been a Vegetarian?

PS        No. I became a Vegetarian only when I myself became aware of where my food came from which was quite late by today's standard. I was actually a graduate student at the University of Oxford when I first heard about factory farming as a result of a chance meeting with a fellow student at lunch and it was much less well known then and that led me not only to thinking about factory farming but to think about what is the moral status of animals. What justifies us in treating animals the way that we do - that was my first question since I was eating meat. I thought well, yes, it's an interesting philosophical puzzle. Why is it that we think all humans are equal in some sense, all humans have a certain moral status that would make it wrong to do things to them like killing them for our interests, especially when they're relatively minor interests, not sort of survival interests of ours and yet we do this to animals so what justifies the difference? I looked into what other people had said about this, what philosophers of the past had said about this, and I really found there was no persuasive justification for the way we treat animals. So I decided that firstly I should stop participating in that practice and eventually, it took a bit of time, I thought maybe I should write something about this myself since there was a bit of a vacuum in that area.

AL       And with that thought, the founding of animal liberation became the founding text of the movement? Some people argue that because farmers have bred animals they wouldn't have existed but for us and therefore it’s ethical that we should choose how to end their lives. What's wrong with that argument?

PS       That argument is I think clearly wrong where you're referring to animals who don't have lives that on the whole are good. It's not just a question of how we end our lives, it's a question of what lives we bestow on them and just as you would think it would be wrong to bring into existence a child if you knew that child would have some horrible genetic condition so that they could only suffer, and die without relief from that. So if you're putting an animal into a factory farm where I think the quality of life is negative on balance, then you can only justify that by saying that animal wouldn't have existed if we hadn't done that. Now if you do think of animals in better condition and kept in a way that gives them what on balance is a positive life, the argument starts to carry a little more plausibility. I still think there are questions about the way in which we do treat them which still in any commercial system is far from ideal, even if on balance you think it's positive. There also of course, increasingly now questions being raised about the greenhouse gas footprint of meat production and that particularly applies to ruminant animals - cattle and sheep. As it happens, in terms of the animals that are ranging fairly freely, they are mostly cattle and sheep, you can perhaps get free range chicken or free range pig but it's a tiny percentage of the total market. So you could say that the argument from the idea that we give them good lives might justify some rather selective small-scale animal raising, but I don't think it justifies the vast majority of what we see.

AL       So it sounds, from what you just said, that either I'm hurting the animal or I'm hurting the planet. Those animals that range freely and perhaps have a better quality of life are those which tend to have the higher carbon emissions.

PS       That's mostly true. I mean, the exception would perhaps be maybe chicken, chicken doesn't have a high carbon emission and free range eggs for example, you might think the hens have a good life, although of course they are killed prematurely but still maybe a shorter life is better than no life and free-range meat chicken which is also obtainable although on a small-scale is a shorter life still, but you know I think you could defend that if you really pushed.

AL       We had backyard chickens growing up and I always felt as though their quality of life was probably as good as our pet dog's. The dog was always kept separate from the chickens. Do you think in decades to come, humans will eat a lot less meat? That our notion of a good and ethical life will involve lower levels of meat consumption that it does today?

PS       I believe that we will develop that ethical standard which makes us and future generations look back in horror in the way we are treating animals today. Yes, something like the way we look back in horror at the ownership of slaves and we think how could they possibly have done that? But of course, they accepted it as normal and right within their culture. The other thing that's making a difference here is technological change in terms of food production and we are already producing foods which resemble meat in terms of their taste and their math-feel as they are called in the industry and their nutritional content. They're plant-based or else they're in-vitro lab grown and they don't therefore involve suffering and greenhouse gas emissions are less than a tenth of what animals products are. So yes I think these products will increasingly replace animal products.

AL       So towards eating artificial meat rather than what we call real meat?

PS       Yes I mean I guess the real artificial meat would be the in-vitro cell-grown, which is grown from the animal cell which in some senses means it is really meat. The industry overall is preferring the term 'clean meat' for obvious reasons as opposed to artificial meat. But I think we're also getting plant-based products which are not exactly artificial meat although they have the texture of meat and the taste of meat.

AL       In my brief period of vegetarianism as a child, I remember eating a lot of nut meat which was the best substitute available at the time and not a very good one.

PS       That's right, yes.

AL       So one of the other major contributions which you're well known for in the field of philosophy is the notion of our obligation to give. I've used your drowning child analogy in half a dozen speeches at least on foreign aid and recently in a Ted talk you used the metaphor of Wang Yue the 2 year old child who was run over by a van in China and then run over by another vehicle and left by three passers-by for a period of 20 minutes. You show this and then you say "Ah but I bet you think you'd step in to help in that situation, but yet you don't give enough to foreign aid charities.” Have you found that metaphor is effective in encouraging people to give a larger share of their income?

PS       Well it's hard to say exactly what's effective because I use that metaphor - both the drowning child and the Wang Yue situation as part of a larger talk with other arguments, so it's hard to say specifically what's effective and I haven't compared the drowning child idea with the child being left on the street in China. The reason why I use that in the Ted talk is because there's video of it and it's pretty harrowing video, I don't show all of the video, but you just see these people walking past this small child clearly lying in the street and they're sort of studiously looking in the other direction. You can see that they can't have not noticed the child, but they're effectively saying "it's none of my business, I don't want to help" and I think that is the attitude that a lot of people have towards people in great need in extreme poverty in developing countries. They don't really want to know about it, they know that we are very fortunate here in Australia to have the economic security that we do. They probably know that they could do something to help some of these children through effective organisations but they'd rather not know about it.

AL       How has that effected your own giving? You give quite a significant share of your income to charity, I understand.

PS       Yes that's right. I'm currently giving something like 35-40% of my income at the moment. I'm sort of hoping to get to half. So yes, it has affected my own giving. Over more than 40 years now since I first started thinking about this issue. I wrote an article when the drowning child story first appeared here it was published in 1972 and we decided, I suppose the year before that, my wife and I decided that we would give 10% of our income to Oxfam. We were living in Oxford. We went and talked to the people of Oxfam which was headquartered there. So we've been giving a minimum of 10% for more than 40 years. Gradually as we became more comfortable and since our children have become more independent and so on, we've increased that amount.

AL        Do you find yourself consciously aware of the issue of effective altruism when you're contemplating a purchase you'd like to make? When considering whether to update your car or to go to a slightly nicer restaurant? Is altruism quite salient for you when you're making those choices?

PS       It's certainly salient on the big choices, so yes, if there were a purchase, I think the car I’m driving is 12 years old or something. If there were a purchase like that I would certainly not consider buying a Mercedes or something. I would consider buying something that is serviceable and reliable and presumably able to get me from A to B, and I’ve got a Prius which is efficient because you've got to focus on reducing greenhouse emissions as well, but not with smaller purchases. I'm not going to think "Oh I'm not going to buy an ice cream now because the money could go help some poor person. I think you go crazy if you do that. So you don't think about the small purchases but some of the larger ones you might.

AL        One of the other aspects of your work on altruism has been this notion of effective altruism - being much more rigorous in the way in which we rank charities. It's something which is dear to my heart as an economist and it would be wonderful if Australia had a site like GiveWell which I know you've been actively involved with and your own site,, is doing similar work focusing on impact evaluation. Talk to us about the movement to assessing the impact of charities and the impact that's having on the charities themselves. 

PS        Right. I think Effective Altruism is quite a recent movement; it's been within 10 years. The organisations you mention - GiveWell and The Life You Can Save are about 8 years old now. I think they're really important because when I used to talk about this I would go on Talkback radio and people would call up and say "Aha! How do you know that the money you're giving to these organisations goes to the people who need it and I've heard that a 90c in every dollar gets swallowed up in their administration and so on.” Well you know there may be a couple of organisations like that and quite fraudulent but the well-known ones, the Oxfams and SavetheChildren and UNICEF are nowhere near like that but I don't think we really had good evidence about the effectiveness of the particular interventions. It's not just about the amount of money that goes to administration but what about the rest of it? Is it really doing good? An organisation could cut back on its administrative costs but get rid of the staff who are monitoring the programs that they are running. It might not be doing any good. But GiveWell was the one that set the standard because it was started by a couple of young guys who were working at a hedge fund at the boom time before the Global Financial Crisis and they decided that they wanted to give some of their earnings to charity but they didn't know which charity to give them to and when they looked around and even wrote to some of the candidate charities they thought might be good they just couldn't get any hard data. They could not got evidence about what the interventions the charities were involved in were actually achieving and they were amazed because these were data nerds who worked for a hedge fund and were used to analysing data of companies for the hedge fund to invest in, they were amazed that this huge area in the United States which is now $350 billion a year given to charities seemed to just be working on hunches without real data. So they left the hedge fund, took a huge pay cut, and set up GiveWell and decided to start providing some of that information. TheLifeYouCanSave does it as well. So I think it is really important and it means that people can give with confidence that they know what they’re doing is doing what it’s supposed to do.

AL       Do you find it more satisfying as a donor to know that the charities to which you are now giving, do you give with greater confidence than you might have done a generation ago?

PS       Yes I think that's true and it's affected my giving. I still think Oxfam is a good organisation, I'm not saying that one shouldn't give to Oxfam, but I now also give to some of the other top-ranked charities from TheLifeYouCouldSave and GiveWell and I do feel a lot more confidant that I'm giving in the right place.

AL        My son and I did an exercise where we sat down to give a small amount of money to a charity which I would match. So we went to GiveWell, he chose the Against Malaria foundation, not surprisingly, because it comes at the top of their lists, but then it was that lovely experience too of tracking the purchase through and showing that he was purchasing a bed net, that this was where it was going to go, and this was the community it was going to go into. So it had that direct connection that has always been an appealing feature of child sponsorship but then for the economist side of me it had that notion that this is additionality that this is preventing a net which would otherwise be provided at a very low price.

PS       Yeah I think it's good. I think it's good when they can have that degree of traceability. Of course it doesn't work with everything that you do. But, another organisation that does that is GiveDirectly which you would like as an Economist because they're actually transferring money so that for every dollar you give, 90 cents goes to one of the poorest families in East Africa and you can track that as well. Obviously with the law of diminishing marginal utility, you would know that a family that's perhaps earning $500 a year total is going to make a lot better use of 90 cents of your dollar than you could make from the whole dollar if you're on $50,000 or $100,000 or whatever Australians are typically on.

AL       One of the other aspects of Effective Altruism that always fascinates me is this 80,000 hours movement. This notion that one should think carefully about the 80,000 hours which you'll be working in your life and use that in a way that most greatly benefits the world. Thinking about who would do the job if you didn't do it, and perhaps also thinking about your charitable donations as part of your job choice. I find it intriguing the suggestion that perhaps one of the best things you can do for the world is to become a merchant banker rather than an aid worker because the merchant banker's giving could fund five more aid workers. Do you find that that idea is catching on? Has it affected the way in which you live your life?

PS        It hasn't affected my choice of career. I guess it came to me a little late. I feel very lucky in the way things have worked in that I have been able to have a positive influence. Of course if I can influence other people to have good careers then that's probably better than me just going into merchant banking myself even if I could get a job there. But I certainly know a number of people who are doing this including most notably my ex-Princeton students and who are doing it, I think, very successfully. I know a student who has given half of his income for the last five or six years since he graduated and that's been a six figure sum each year. I think that's significant and he's enjoying his life. He's not someone who hates what he's doing and is doing it only to be able to give. He actually finds the work quite challenging, he is mathematically inclined and he's writing algorithms to try and predict whether commodities will go up or down. So he finds it intellectually challenging as well. But it's certainly not for everyone. Some people would not succeed in that world; some people would hate what they're doing. A lot of people when I speak about it ask the question "but isn't he also doing harm by working in merchant banking or in commodity trading? Isn't he somehow having a bad impact on corporate people?” And that will depend, of course. I've talked to him and I don't think what he's doing, apart from the profits to the company that he's working on [is having an overly bad impact]. But yeah, I suppose if you're working in merchant banking and they said "Look we need to put together this finance package to fund a big coal mine" - take an issue we have here in Australia, I think there might be a point in which you would say "I'm sorry, I can’t do that. That would be really harming the planet and make it possible to help another big coal mine start operating." A lot of what people do is either neutral or positively beneficial. I don't think we need to have this uniformly negative view of going into finance.

AL        You've written a lot of philosophy for public consumption. You're someone who writes crisply and clearly and clearly takes that question of engagement with the public very seriously. From the standpoint of a non-philosopher like myself, like our listener, where should they go for their philosophical sustenance? I suppose if we're looking 50 years back, many people would have got their ethical and moral teachings each Sunday from a Church service. These days our conception of philosophy is much more ad-hoc. How can we make it more systematic? How can we build it into a good life?

PS       Yes, I wish more of my colleagues did write for a broad audience. Certainly some of them do. I think it's partly a matter of scoring for yourself what you want to read. There's quite a lot now written on ethics which is readable to the general public. Otherwise the philosopher I read a lot as a teenager was Bertrand Russell. I try to write as clearly and lucidly as he did. He was a beautiful writer. But on ethics I think he was not very clear, that was not his strongest field. There's good work being done now and I suppose more popular books being written about ethics about for example, the famous trolley problem. About whether or not you should switch a run-away train to a track where there is only one person who will be hit as opposed to five. If you think it's ok to hit the switch to kill only one person rather than five, what if you're on a footbridge and your only way to stop the runaway train is to push a very heavy person off the bridge in front of it where that person will be killed.

AL       Since I've got you here, what is the answer to that?

PS       My answer because I'm a consequentialist, I judge the right action by its consequences; I think you ought to both flick the switch and throw the heavy person. The assumption is that you yourself are not heavy enough to stop the train; otherwise you've got to jump off and sacrifice yourself. But on the assumption that only pushing this other very heavy person will stop it then I think yes if it's just a case of one innocent person being killed or five innocent people being killed, it's always better that only one innocent person be killed.

AL       Preference utilitarianism.

PS       There's a book on that question called "Would you push the fat man?" by Dave Edmonds. He's one writer who writes for a larger audience and Nigel Warburton is another. There's been sort of a move in philosophy into a broader audience. There are magazines like 'Philosophy Now' written for a broader public and so I think that there is a body of literature that's starting to exist which is readable, enjoyable, and treats ethical issues in a reasonably serious fashion.

AL       What do you think about this view, I think I read it in an Alain de Botton book a couple of years back, that really what matters in living an ethical life is not pushing the boundaries of philosophical standing but honing to well-understood truths. Be nicer to your spouse; take your children to the park rather than plonking them in front of the TV. Spend time with your elderly relative, who might repeat a story that you've heard before. I think the Alain de Botton notion is that what you did is not stretch the bounds of your ethical understandings but just to keep reminding you of these things which are familiar but very hard to implement in practice.

PS       I think the problem with taking that more conventional view of how we ought to live is that it doesn't recognise the way in which the world has changed in the past century. So there was a time when it was very difficult to aid people on the other side of the world. We didn't really know what they needed or if we did, it was going to take a famine; it was going to take too long to send help to them. So at that time then the idea of being nice to your friends and family and elderly relatives and so on could be seen as being the sum total of what most people ought to do to live an ethical life. I don't think it's the total anymore. I'm not saying it's not the right thing to do, of course it is. You should live like that. But you should also be aware of your responsibilities to people on the other side of the world who just through accident of where they're born and where you're born are so much worse off than you are, you can make such a difference to their life. And of course that question we were talking about before. Our involvement in complicity of factory farming is basically a brutal system of turning animals into products is also something that that conventional morality does not cover because it just accepts that. There aren't really many questions. So I think we do need to rethink the boundaries of what we ought to do to live an ethical life.

AL       Are there areas where you find it hard to practice what you preach?

PS       Oh yes certainly. I don't find it hard to buy a Prius rather than a Mercedes but there are some things. Say, holidays with families that cost significant amounts but is something that's important to me and yet if I really stop and think about it and ask myself, "Should we really be doing this given the difference we could make to others?" there are those issues which come up.

AL       How do you, in so much of what you do, you're pushing the boundaries in two different directions. One is that you're often the first one publicly making a very controversial argument about you know the sort of work around euthanasia, severely disabled infants, and sexual relations between adult siblings. The other is that you're inviting pretty ferocious and personal attacks. How do you deal with the twin challenges there of maintaining an open mind to the possibility that you may be wrong and maintaining a sufficiently thick skin against public critiques that come at you?

PS       I think it's part of the role of philosophers to put arguments out there for consideration and of course we recognise that we might be wrong. But we'll only accept that we're wrong if somebody out there puts forward a good counterargument. We're not going to accept that we're wrong because somebody sends you a death threat. That's not a counterargument. So there are some cases where people do put up some good arguments that might change your mind and fine, I think you've still played a role in eliciting that argument and getting people to understand why some position is right and some position is wrong. In terms of the threats and abuse, I do think that you just have to develop a thick skin. If you are going to be in that field, you need to be prepared to wear that. Of course, you could say well I’ll go work in logic or metaphysics and I probably won’t get any of that abuse, but I always gravitated towards the ethics and political philosophy right from when I was an undergraduate because I didn’t want to spend my life doing something that was intellectually interesting but had no impact on the world – then maybe I would have become a chess player and solved chess puzzles. I always felt like I wanted to have that connection and wanted to make a difference in some way. As you know, I flirted with politics a little bit and didn’t have your success in getting elected when I stood for the Greens for federal parliament twice. That I guess is a reflection of the fact that I wanted to have impacts in various ways and writing for a broad public and trying to influence debates in a different direction and changing peoples’ lives is one way of doing that.

AL       On a personal level, what’s the most important thing you do to stay emotionally and physically healthy?

PS       I think probably having a sense of purpose is really important to me, feeling as though I’m doing some useful work. That encourages me to go on with what I’m doing and there is now significant medical evidence that people who have a purpose are more likely to be thriving physically as well. We know that when people work for a corporation all their lives and very busy and tired, it is more dangerous for suffering a heart attack in the years once they retire and essentially lose that purpose. So that’s important to me. I do think I eat a healthy diet. Although I became a vegetarian purely for animal regarding reasons, now having looked at the research on that, I certainly think that most Westerners eat far too much meat. I’m not saying that it would damage my health if I ate a small amount of meat twice a week but I think eating a Vegetarian or even a Vegan diet is a healthy thing to do. Finally, I keep physically active. My wife and I are both keen on hiking. I guess we’re slowing down a bit now that we’re older but we’re still doing it and over the summer when I’m in Australia, I’m in the water a lot. I swim and I surf and I think all of that helps as well.

AL       Thinking back to your teenage self, is there a piece of advice you would give now to teenage Peter Singer?

PS       I think to live by your values is a good bit of advice. To think about your values, and try to live in accordance with them. I think I did end up doing that but I can see that at some periods I was perhaps in doubt. When I went up to the University of Melbourne and went to enrol, I was going to enrol for law and I had an advisor who saw me and looked at my results for history and literature and so on in my final year of high school and said “Oh you’d probably find law a bit dull. Maybe you should probably consider doing a combined Arts/Law course.” I think that was outstanding advice because otherwise I might have ended up a Lawyer and who knows what kind of values I would have had. Rubbishing on as a lawyer all the time!

AL       Haha, you’re speaking about the course I did, of course - Arts/Law.

PS       So I think, keep your mind open to a wide range of ideas and having taught at Princeton University in the United States now for eighteen years, I really like the idea that things like Law and Medicine should be Postgraduate courses. That everybody should do a broad Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science or something as an undergraduate degree, to get a wider range of ideas.

AL       What person or experience has most influenced your view of living an ethical life?

PS       I think probably the experience of becoming a Vegetarian at a time when there were very few Vegetarians and also not much of an animal movement either, just a very conservative world, and therefore becoming a part of this group of people who were really committed to trying to change the world and change the treatment of animals. I greatly admire a lot of the people who I was working with and their commitment and I think that was an important experience to feel that there were other people who you could work with who were part of this movement that was really trying to reduce unnecessary suffering in the world.

AL       And finally, when you’re in ethical crisis, is there a thing that you think to yourself, a sentence that you say to yourself as a way of managing an ethical dilemma?

PS       No, there’s no single sentence that I say to myself. Talking to my wife about it is probably one of the good things to do. And again, trying to think about what your values are and what’s important in your life. You can so easily get carried away into obsessing about something, but really when you stop and reflect on something, it’s just not that important. That helps to overcome what appear to be, ethical crises, but when you think about them, aren’t really.

AL       Peter Singer thank you very much for taking the time to appear on the Good Life podcast today.

PS       Thank you Andrew. It’s been my pleasure.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.