Peter Singer is one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, whose ideas have motivated millions of people to change how they eat, how they give, and how they interact with each other and the natural world.
Peter joined Tyler to discuss whether utilitarianism is only tractable at the margin, how Peter thinks about the meat-eater problem, why he might side with aliens over humans, at what margins he would police nature, the utilitarian approach to secularism and abortion, what he’s learned producing the Journal of Controversial Ideas, what he’d change about the current Effective Altruism movement, where Derek Parfit went wrong, to what extent we should respect the wishes of the dead, why professional philosophy is so boring, his advice on how to enjoy our lives, what he’ll be doing after retiring from teaching, and more.
Watch the full conversation
Recorded May 25th, 2023
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Peter Singer of Princeton University. Peter is one of our most important and influential intellectuals. For our purposes, there is a new and very much revised edition of Peter’s classic book, Animal Liberation. It is now titled Animal Liberation Now: The Definitive Classic Renewed. By my estimate, it’s about two-thirds to three-quarters new material. Peter, welcome.
PETER SINGER: Thanks very much, Tyler. Good to be with you.
COWEN: When large language models make it possible for us to speak with dolphins, what will be the first question you ask?
SINGER: What do you think of humans, maybe. [laughs]
COWEN: What do you think they will say?
SINGER: Nothing very positive, that’s for sure, because a lot of dolphins have been caught in nets for catching tuna and impaled to stop them eating fish that people want in some parts of the world. I don’t think they’ll think too well of us.
COWEN: What do you expect the dolphin to ask you? We explain to the dolphin that you’re Peter Singer, right?
SINGER: Right, okay.
COWEN: What’s the question?
SINGER: Why have you failed? Why have you failed to stop humans treating animals so badly?
COWEN: I’ll ask you the dolphin question. Why have you failed?
SINGER: It’s harder than I thought it might be. That begins, I think, with the fact that humans eat animals, and it seems like we’re very conservative about what we eat. Relatively few people are prepared to really think ethically and openly about what they eat. They’re worried about having to change that, eat something different, maybe stand out from their friends and family by not eating meat and, therefore, implicitly criticizing those people when they do eat meat.
I think there are a whole lot of factors that just make it hard for people to make that fundamental change about what they eat. Without that, they’re not really going to fundamentally change what they think about animals.
COWEN: I have a general question about how totalizing ethics can be, or how totalizing utilitarianism can be. If someone says to me, as you likely would, “Well, at the margin, we should treat animals better, much better,” I would agree.
But if someone asks the question, say, “Do we wish that human beings had never settled the New World, and there would then be many more intelligent mammals alive in the New World today?” I simply think that question is intractable and that the limits of utilitarian reasoning are fairly tight around marginal changes, small events. So, I’ll ask you, do you wish that human beings had never settled the New World or New Zealand?
SINGER: No, I don’t wish that. I agree that the question is intractable. I’m not sure whether it’s intractable in a philosophical sense because we can’t sum up the values, or whether there’s just so much factual information that we don’t have, including how do we make comparisons between the well-being of the bison, let’s say, that were here more numerously, as compared with the well-being of the humans.
COWEN: If you think, say, about Earth’s current population — which is, what, about 8 billion human beings — can we conclude that it’s too many because it’s too much pressure on animals? Or is that also an intractable comparison in the same way?
SINGER: I don’t think you can say it’s too many or it’s too few unless you make assumptions about the kind of technology that we have available to live in a sustainable way on the planet and to allow nonhuman animals to live as well.
But also in that question, of course, there’s the issue of, how do we compare the value of human lives — let’s assume that they’re human lives that are lived positively, that they’re rich and fulfilling human lives — with the lives of nonhuman animals? I totally agree that they’re different.
I think it’s reasonable to argue that a rich and fulfilling human life contains more happiness than the life of, I don’t know, a cow or a sheep. I’m not going to deny that. I don’t think animals are equal in the sense that their lives contain equal value with that of humans.
COWEN: But you still think, in principle, we should be trying to do these total comparisons of one state of affairs against another? Or those are just big-picture questions that we need to set aside; we should be content with marginal comparisons? Because you’re sounding like more of a marginalist than what I was expecting.
SINGER: I see. Well, I’m certainly prepared to say that, clearly, the suffering we inflict on animals in factory farms is indefensible. We cause far more suffering than any good we do for humans. Arguably, actually, it’s a negative for humans as well. That’s what my focus is in Animal Liberation Now. In fact, a lot of my work has been aimed at that. It’s been aimed at what we should do about people in extreme poverty. It’s been aimed at things like, should we have the right to say we’ve had enough of life and we want to die if we’re terminally ill and in pain?
So, in a way, the big-picture questions that you’re asking — I find them interesting theoretical questions, and I can give you the answer that a utilitarian would give if you want that answer. But in practice, I do think that I can’t really make a lot of headway with that.
COWEN: How do you think about what is sometimes called the meat-eater problem? Most countries — probably all countries — as they become richer, they start eating more meat. At some point, they start treating the animals less well. If not factory farms, there’s just more mass production of animal meat. Do we need to calculate a tradeoff to wish for those countries to become wealthier, or do we just root for the wealth and figure we’ll sort it out later?
SINGER: My view over the long term has generally been that countries will have to pass through this stage where they’ve got wealthier, they can purchase more meat, they raise animals in factory farms to do that. But then eventually, they’ll go on to become more humane and more civilized, and they’ll see that that’s the wrong thing to do, and they’ll treat animals much better.
The outcome will be better on the whole than it was before they became prosperous, when there were a lot of people in extreme poverty and they also weren’t treating animals well, although they didn’t have the power to raise so many of them. But still, because they were using them for food and because if your own survival is at stake or that of your family, you need to eat more, that you’ll do anything to animals to do so, it was not a good situation.
In other words, what I’m saying is, I was prepared to swallow the short-term negatives for the long-term outcome. I have to admit that I’ve become less confident about the long-term outcome. I still hope that it’s there. But the fact that there’s been relatively little progress in terms of treating animals better over the 48 years since the first version of Animal Liberation appeared does make me concerned that we’re not going to be going in that right direction, or not for a long time.
COWEN: Let’s say you could peer ahead another 70 years, 80 years, and things basically didn’t get better compared to now. Would you then think the meat eater’s problem is a real dilemma, a moral dilemma if it seems it’s not a stage? People will just keep on eating meat through factory farms more or less forever.
SINGER: Then I would think, yes, there’s a real question as to whether it would’ve been better if people had not had the prosperity and the ability to raise animals in that way.
COWEN: You once wrote a book entitled A Darwinian Left. Do you think you’re becoming more or less Darwinian over time? My Darwinian intuition is people won’t ever get much better because they evolve to eat animals, not to have factory farms, but to kill them in painful ways and simply not worry about it. What’s your current view on how Darwinian you are?
SINGER: I’m still 100 percent Darwinian. I don’t think there’s an alternative explanation of how we exist and of the biological elements of our nature. But I also think it’s compatible with being a Darwinian to say we are a being who’s evolved the capacity to reason, and reason can lead us to conclusions which can influence our behavior. I don’t see that as being anti-Darwinian or non-Darwinian. I just see it as a realistic appreciation of the fact that we have evolved as rational beings and that that leads us to certain conclusions we wouldn’t have reached otherwise.
COWEN: But one might start seeing, in Darwinian fashion, that the evolution of rationality is just far more selective than what we might wish for. There are people who are very reasonable, and then, in another context, they’ll do terrible things. They could be a prison guard. It could be animals. You’ve written plenty about many, many other examples. Is there really this general faculty of reason that overrides those evolved intuitions?
SINGER: I think there certainly can be, and I think there is for some people some of the time. The question would be, is everybody capable of that? Or even if not everybody, are we capable of getting a dominant group who do follow reason in general, universal directions, who use it to develop a more universal ethic that applies to a wider group of beings than their own kin and family and those that they’re in cooperative relationships with? I think there’s evidence that that is possible, and we don’t yet know to what extent that can spread and start to dominate humans in future generations.
COWEN: I wonder sometimes how much we can have an ethics that truly separates morality from partiality. Here’s a question I gave to Sam Bankman-Fried. I said, “As a utilitarian, let’s say a super being offered you a gamble where we would, in essence, double the population on Earth, create a dual Earth somewhere, equally happy, with 51 percent; and 49 percent, we wipe out the Earth we have now. That would represent an increase in expected value.”
And furthermore, I asked Sam, “Would you keep on playing this game, double or nothing?” As Sam being Sam, he just said, “Yes.” Indeed, in his own life, he did continue playing the game, double or nothing.
SINGER: And he ended up with nothing or worse than nothing.
COWEN: Yes, but doesn’t a thought example like that mean we can’t really be utilitarians in the big picture of things? We need to be more loyal to the Earth we have and not consider gambling, in a way, for these extra Earths.
SINGER: I think it says more about gambling than it does about being utilitarian. I agree, it’s a paradox. You could say it’s a paradox particularly for maximizing utilitarians who normally will talk about maximizing expected utility. And this seems to be a case where you don’t want to maximize expected utility.
Although, of course, there are arguments that would say, well, your expected utility is actually low, given that you can’t infinitely long keep doubling utility, I assume. But you had a hypothesis where you have a twin Earth, and if you could just create a twin Earth, I guess you could. But for the real world, we can’t keep doubling utility, and so we shouldn’t do double or nothing.
I’m not claiming to solve this paradox, by the way. I think it is an interesting and somewhat baffling problem with maximizing expected utility.
COWEN: But does the question show not only that it’s some unusual paradox in a corner of the moral universe, but that in all our choices, that assessments of utility are within some framework that is pre-assuming a certain amount of partiality, and that there’s no escape from that partiality, no fully objective outside viewpoint?
SINGER: I don’t understand why you’re seeing this paradox as relating to partiality. It’s just as true if we’re completely impartial about universal good. I don’t understand why you think that it shows that we, inevitably, are going to be partial.
COWEN: Well, take the Bernard Williams question, which I think you’ve written about. Let’s say that aliens are coming to Earth, and they may do away with us, and we may have reason to believe they could be happier here on Earth than what we can do with Earth. I don’t think I know any utilitarians who would sign up to fight with the aliens, no matter what their moral theory would be.
SINGER: Okay, you’ve just met one.
COWEN: I’ve just met one. So, you would sign up to fight with the aliens?
SINGER: If the hypothesis is like that, that the aliens are wiser than we are, they know how to make the world a better place for everyone, they’re giving full weight to human interests, but they say, “Even though we’re giving full weight to human interests, not discounting your interests because you’re not a member of our species, as you do with animals, but unfortunately, it just works out that to produce a better world, you have to go,” I’ll say, “Okay, if your calculations are right, if that’s all right, I’m on your side.”
COWEN: You’re making them a little nicer. You’re calling them wise. They may or may not be wise. They’re just happier than we are. They have less stress, less depression. If they could rule over Earth, they would do a better go of it than we would. I would still side with the humans.
SINGER: I would not. What you’ve shown now is that their interest happens to coincide with the universal good. That’s the way to produce more happiness, full stop, not just more happiness for them. And if that’s the case, I’m on their side.
COWEN: How do we know there is a universal good? You’re selling out your fellow humans based on this belief in a universal good, which is quite abstract, right? The other smart humans you know mostly don’t agree with you, I think, I hope.
SINGER: But you’re using the kind of language that Bernard Williams used when he says, “Whose side are you on?” You said, “You’re selling out your fellow humans,” as if I owe loyalty to members of my species above loyalty to good in general, that is, to maximizing happiness and well-being for all of those affected by it. I don’t claim to have any particular loyalty for my species rather than the general good.
COWEN: If there’s not this common metric between us and the aliens, but you just measure — you hook people up to a scale, you measure. They have more of it than we do. Let them come in. If that doesn’t exist, what is the common good or universal good in this setting?
SINGER: I don’t know if that doesn’t exist, but you said they’re happier than we are, which suggests that there is a common metric of happiness, and that was the basis on which I answered your question. If there’s no common metric, I don’t really have an answer, or I would try to use the metric of overall happiness. I’m not sure why I wouldn’t be able to use that, but if we assume that I couldn’t, then I would just not know what to do.
COWEN: So you wouldn’t fight for our side. Even then, you’d throw up your hands or just not be sure what to do.
SINGER: No, this is not about a football team. You can give your loyalty to a football team and support them, even though you don’t really think that they’re somehow more morally worthy of winning than their opponents. But this is not a game like this. There’s everything at stake.
COWEN: To what extent for you is utilitarianism not only a good theory of outcomes but also a theory of obligation? I’m sure you know the Donald Regan literature, this “Oh, you prefer the outcome with more utility,” but “What should I do?” can still be a complex question.
SINGER: Well, it can be a complex question in the sense that it may be that we don’t want to directly aim at utility because we’re likely to get things wrong. If we can’t be confident in our calculations that we are doing the right thing, then I think the obligations that we have are to maximize utility. But it’s been argued that we’re more likely to make mistakes if we do that, and rather that our obligation should be to conform to certain principles or rules. I think that depends on how confident you are in your ability.
I certainly think we should follow rules of thumb sometimes, when we can’t be sure of what’s the right outcome, and we should do what generally is accepted. You go back to Sam Bankman-Fried. Obviously, I think that was his mistake. He was too confident that he could get things right and fix things and didn’t follow basic rules, or at least it’s alleged that he didn’t follow basic rules, like “Don’t steal your clients’ money.”
COWEN: Isn’t there a dilemma above and beyond the epistemic dilemma? Say, you, Peter Singer, you’re programming a driverless car and you’re in charge. Ideally, you would like to program the car to be a utilitarian and Benthamite car, that if it has to swerve, it would sooner kill one older person than two younger people, and so on.
Let’s say you also knew that if you programmed the driverless car to be Benthamite, basically, the law would shut it down, public opinion would rebel, you’d get in trouble, the automaker would get in trouble. How then would you program the car?
SINGER: Yes, I would program it to produce the best consequences that would not be prohibited by the government or the manufacturer. I’m all in favor of making compromises if you have to, to produce the most good that you possibly can in the circumstances in which you are.
COWEN: Doesn’t that then mean individuals should hold onto some moral theory that may be quite far from utilitarianism? It’s not just a compromise. You need to be very intuition driven, nonutilitarian just to get people to trust you, to work with you, to cooperate. In that sense, at the obligation level, you’re not so utilitarian at all.
SINGER: You may be. That will depend on your own nature, as to whether you think you’re going to be led astray if you’re not intuition driven. Or you may think that you can be self-aware about the risks that you’re going to go wrong. You’re not exactly intuition driven, but you’re driven by the thought that “I could be mistaken here, and it’s probably going to have more value if I don’t just directly think about how to produce the most utility.”
COWEN: Let me continue with a number of the easy questions. If you take current AI’s large language models, you would agree they’re not sentient, they’re not beings, right?
SINGER: I would agree with that.
COWEN: So they don’t count. I agree with that, too. There’s something about sentience that is essential for a being to count, but we actually know very little about consciousness. You can read philosophy of mind. You can look at neuroscience. It seems to me one of the most mysterious and baffling areas in all of human knowledge. We have introspection; I’m not sure how much to trust introspection.
Does it worry you to be erecting a moral theory based on sentience, some notion of utility happiness, when all of our scientific inroads toward that concept seem to be, at least for the moment, very, very badly flawed?
SINGER: They’re incomplete, certainly. Are they flawed in the sense that would lead us astray in terms of making those decisions based on sentience? I’m not convinced of that.
COWEN: But say you’re trying to compare human animal welfare to nonhuman animal welfare. We have a sense many of these other animals are sentient. That’s pretty much certain. They feel pain, but we don’t know how to compare them to us. We don’t really know even where in science to look for such a unit of comparison. How do we know they don’t just overwhelm our well-being Derek Parfit-like conclusions? Doesn’t one just become a radical agnostic if all of our judgments rely on this utility thing? Which, to me, is somewhat mysterious.
SINGER: I don’t think you have to be completely agnostic about all these issues. I think there are some cases — and again, I would instance factory farming — where we can be very confident that what we’re doing is causing more pain and suffering than it’s doing good to us. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of other questions, including that question you asked about — is it good that humans colonized North America — where it’s harder to make those decisions because they are involving comparisons.
Some of these decisions are quite practical, too. For example, even within the animal movement, if you say, should we focus on trying to get people not to eat chicken? Because chickens are so intensively farmed, and there’s so many of them, it takes less of a chicken to make a meal than it does of a cow. Should we do that? Then we’re trying to compare the suffering of more chickens with fewer cows or fewer pigs. I agree those questions are still ones that we can’t really get a grip on, but it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do that is based on sentience, happiness, suffering, and so on.
COWEN: If there are many intelligent and sentient space aliens, would that make the extinction of the human race less of a tragedy?
SINGER: If the idea is that then these intelligent and sentient aliens might populate our planet or take —
COWEN: No, they’re just out there.
SINGER: They’re just out there.
COWEN: Speed of light is too fast. We’ll never catch them, vice versa.
SINGER: Then the extinction of our species is still just the same loss. It’s a loss of a certain amount of happiness, and the fact that it’s less of a proportion of the happiness or well-being or sentience in the universe doesn’t mean that it isn’t the same loss.
COWEN: So, it’s linear and separable.
COWEN: So, the notion of a universe empty of sentient and intelligent life — there’s nothing special about the zero point?
SINGER: No. As you say, assuming that the existence of some sentient life isn’t going to regenerate and repopulate the universe, that’s a reason why extinction is worse than the loss of most of our species. But otherwise, no.
COWEN: What is the margin at which you wish to police nature? I’ve argued, for instance, we should not subsidize carnivores per se. There may be some other reason to do so, but the idea, “Oh, we’re going to introduce wolves back into this national park,” should not be an especially desirable prospect. What’s your view on that, and where should we stop?
SINGER: That was an interesting, pioneering article that you wrote, I think, “Policing Nature.” I tend to agree with it. I think it’s reasonable to raise a question about why we should reintroduce predators. As you said, there may be effects on other animals and plants in the area where we’re introducing them. But to do so just for its own sake, just because they were once here and were once part of the ecology, is not, to my view, a sufficient reason for introducing them if we know that is going to increase the suffering of some prey animals.
COWEN: How much should we spend trying to thwart predators?
SINGER: I think that’s difficult because, again, you would have to take into account the consequences of not having predators, and what are you going to do with a prey population? Are they going to overpopulate and maybe starve or destroy the environment for other sentient beings? So, it’s hard to say how much we should spend trying to thwart them.
I think there are questions about reducing the suffering of wild animals that are easier than that. That’s a question that maybe, at some stage, we’ll grapple with when we’ve reduced the amount of suffering we inflict on animals generally. It’s nowhere near the top of the list for how to reduce animal suffering.
COWEN: What do you think of the fairly common fear that if we mix the moralities of human beings and the moralities of nature, that the moralities of nature will win out? Nature is so large and numerous and populous and fierce. Human beings are relatively small in number and fragile. If the prevailing ethic becomes the ethic of nature, that the blending is itself dangerous, that human beings end up thinking, “Well, predation is just fine; it’s the way of nature.” Therefore, they do terrible things to each other.
SINGER: Is that what you meant by the moralities of nature? I wasn’t sure what the phrase meant. Do you mean the morality that we imply, that we attribute to nature?
COWEN: “Red in tooth and claw.” If we think that’s a matter that is our business, do we not end up with that morality? Trumping ours, we become subordinate to that morality. A lot of very nasty people in history have actually cited nature. “Well, nature works this way. I’m just doing that. It’s a part of nature. It’s more or less okay.” How do we avoid those series of moves?
SINGER: Right. It’s a bad argument, and we try and explain why it’s a bad argument, that we don’t want to follow nature. That the fact that nature does something is not something that we ought to imitate, but maybe, in fact, we ought to combat, and of course, we do combat nature in many ways. Maybe war between humans is part of nature, but nevertheless, we regret when wars break out. We try to have institutions to prevent wars breaking out. I think a lot of our activities are combating nature’s way of doing things rather than regarding it as a model to follow.
COWEN: But if humans are a part of nature flat out, and if our optimal policing of nature leaves 99.9999 percent of all predation in place — we just can’t stop most of it — is it then so irrational to conclude, “Well this predation must be okay. It’s the natural state of the world. Our optimal best outcome leaves 99.99999 percent of it in place.” How do we avoid that mindset?
SINGER: I think we can avoid that mindset because if we don’t have any option about leaving it in place, we just regret it. I do regret the way nature works. I think it’s a very powerful argument against the idea that this world was created by an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent creator. That just seems to be impossible because of the way nature works, but that’s the world we live in.
COWEN: Given low fertility rates in virtually every wealthy nation, is there something self-defeating about secularism as a philosophy?
SINGER: Is secularism responsible for the low fertility rates? I think Roman Catholic couples in some of these countries have birth rates that are as low as secular people or —
COWEN: Well, these countries have all secularized. Israel is somewhat an exception. They’re above replacement. I don’t know of any other wealthy countries. It’s not only secularism, but it’s secularism plus birth control, plus a number of other features of modernity. Does that mean this whole enterprise is just self-defeating?
SINGER: I hope that it’s not self-defeating, and I hope that birth rates will drop in less secular countries as well, or that those countries will become more secular. I think the project of secularism is sound and right. I certainly hope that we won’t see a world in which secular people have few children and religious people have more children, and therefore, secularism disappears. I accept that there’s a possibility that that could happen. I think that would be a very bad outcome.
COWEN: Why be so loyal to a project that is so poor at producing utility? Babies being utility, happiness, well-being, something.
SINGER: I think one reason for supporting secularism is that it seems to me to be true. I don’t think that there is a divine being. I can’t simply say, “Let’s adopt the idea of a divine being and fool ourselves that there is one.” I would rather say, “Given that there isn’t, let’s find ways of having enough children to produce good long-term outcomes.”
COWEN: You do have this piece, I think it’s titled “Secrecy in Consequentialism,” where you say a true consequentialist should be willing to entertain or even advocate ideas just because they will help the world. Why not move away from secularism, become a religious Straussian? The Amish have more kids. We all need to have more kids, and that would be one of the false ideas that you would, at least publicly, embrace.
SINGER: Yes. The article, “Secrecy in Consequentialism” — and I should acknowledge my co-author, Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek — is more about acting in certain ways that you keep secret, like when it might be right to lie but bad if your lie became known publicly, than it’s about fostering general ideas like becoming religious. I would think that there would be sufficient negative consequences to that particular idea that we wouldn’t want to do it anyway.
COWEN: Should abortion be legal or illegal, say, in Western countries?
SINGER: I think abortion should be legal.
COWEN: From a utilitarian point of view, which I would not myself apply to abortion, but why isn’t it just better to have the babies? The benefit to the baby-to-be seems to outweigh the costs to the family.
SINGER: Well, for a start, not all abortions reduce the number of children who will be born. Often, abortions terminate a pregnancy that is poorly timed, but the couple have a plan to have x children, and they will have x children.
COWEN: But truly, on average, the number of babies will go down if abortion is legal?
SINGER: Oh, possibly it will on average, but those babies would be born to mothers who did not want to have them at that particular time. Maybe their circumstances were ones that would’ve made it difficult for them to bring up the child well, and so the child might be a less happy child, and the mother or the parents might also be much more stressed because they had to rear a child at a time that wasn’t suitable for them. The fact that, yes, there’ll be an extra being in the world — and we can hope that being is going to have a positive life — still doesn’t mean that abortion actually is maximizing utility.
COWEN: That’s a lot of stress on the family to outweigh the value from a whole new life. Then that baby will become an adult, in turn, have other children. If the optimal discount rate is low or zero, it’s really a lot of future gain you’re forgoing, right?
SINGER: But you’re assuming that having more children in the world today is a net positive, which may be the case, but there are also negatives to it in terms of, that child and then adult will continue to use products that consume energy and produce more greenhouse gases and deprive wildlife of habitat. So there’s a whole lot more involved than just simply saying, having another child is a plus.
COWEN: Sure, but you don’t say, “Well, once population falls enough due to low total fertility rates, well, then the time will come to ban abortion.” I’ve never met a person who made that calculation. They’re either for or against abortion being legal. They don’t say, “Oh, at current population levels, but in 80 years, get back to me. I’ll change my mind,” which suggests to me it’s just not a utilitarian calculation.
SINGER: I do think it would make a difference if the world were underpopulated. One question is whether you would make it illegal. Another question is whether you would discourage it, or think that individual women who had abortions were doing something wrong. I think they are relevant factors, but if what you want . . . if population falls and you want to have more people, then I think there would be better ways of doing that than prohibiting abortion. You would give baby bonuses.
COWEN: Oh, but do both. You don’t have to do one or the other.
SINGER: Well, but you’re probably going to get enough of a population increase by doing the ones that involve more conception rather than more pregnancy termination.
COWEN: Now, you’re one of three co-editors of the Journal of Controversial Ideas, which I believe started in 2021. Is that correct?
SINGER: I think we produced our first issue then, yes.
COWEN: What have you learned doing that?
SINGER: I’ve learned that there is a need for our journal, actually. I suppose I thought that when we began, but I wasn’t really sure. But one of the interesting things is that we have published a number of interesting papers — I’m not necessarily saying I agree with them — but papers that have worthwhile ideas that should be out there, which would not have got published otherwise, which were being rejected.
That happened in the most recent issue, which we just published at the end of April this year, with an article called “Merit in Science,” which actually had 29 co-authors. I think two of them were Nobel laureates. And it was objecting to the fact that, as the authors claimed, positions, research jobs, and also research grants were not simply going to those with the best qualifications or the greatest merit in scientific terms, but were going also on the criteria of maximizing diversity and inclusion.
The authors of that paper — as I say, a distinguished group of scientists — submitted it to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and were told that they wouldn’t publish it because it might be harmful to some people. I think they shopped it around to another couple of journals before somebody suggested they send it to us. It was published in the Journal of Controversial Ideas. It was written about in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. We’ve had a hundred thousand views in the month since we published that issue, which for a peer-reviewed academic journal is pretty unusual.
COWEN: It’s open access, right?
SINGER: It is free, open access, that’s right. We are supported by donors. Anybody who would like to donate to us, please do so. But yes, we’re managing.
COWEN: If you look only at submissions and not acceptances, what’s the most common topic you see crossing the desk of the journal?
SINGER: At the moment, I would say it’s transgender issues.
COWEN: Because there are so few outlets where you can say your mind, or —
SINGER: There’s a lot of hostility about it.
So there are two things about a journal. One is, as I say, that we are prepared to publish controversial ideas that other places are not prepared to publish. The other is, we’re prepared to publish under a pseudonym if the authors don’t wish to be identified with the article. Roughly, I’d say about a third of the articles in each issue, authors prefer to publish under a pseudonym.
In the area of transgender studies, that’s because many academics have been severely abused and harassed and their lives made quite difficult if they have published things that were seen as transphobic, although I think that term is used far too broadly. We could simply say they were not accepting the idea that a person’s identification as a gender is necessarily the last word as to what their gender is.
COWEN: Do you worry that with AI, everyone will just be identified? “Oh, whose writing style is this?” And it will tell you?
SINGER: That’s a possibility. Actually, I must admit that’s one I hadn’t thought of. It could be a worry. I don’t know whether maybe we’ll get an AI that will be able to mix people’s writing styles so that they’re harder to identify.
COWEN: Do you ever reject good or potentially good pieces just because they’re not controversial enough?
SINGER: Yes. We say that in our call for papers, that articles must be controversial in some sense, and we tell our reviewers that. Occasionally, they write back and say, “Yes, this is a reasonable article, but I don’t see why it couldn’t get published in any other journal.” We don’t publish it then.
COWEN: Organizationally, institutionally — put aside philosophy — what do you think of the current Effective Altruist movement?
SINGER: I think it’s making progress. I think it’s a good forum for ideas, and I think it’s had significant influence. So, on the whole, I view it positively, which is not to say that I view every aspect of it positively.
COWEN: Let’s say you were called in to give advice, and probably you have been. What do you tell them they should do different?
SINGER: I’ve had concerns about the extent to which Effective Altruism has moved in the direction of very long-term thinking about the future, so thinking not just about the present or even the next century or two, but thinking about the next million years. William MacAskill, I think, has talked about the next billion years. I understand why he’s doing that. He’s talking about the possible loss that could exist if we become extinct and if, in fact, there is no other intelligent life in this corner of the universe, so we are not replaced by others.
I can understand why he wants to emphasize the importance of preventing extinction, but I think there are a number of concerns. One is uncertainty about whether we can actually make a positive difference in this direction and also whether, if you encourage people to ignore present suffering, you’re actually going have a long-term drawback in that people may become more callous, and that may actually contribute to making the world a worse place.
My advice is not to forget about the present and to continue to have a really major focus on things like reducing extreme poverty, reducing animal suffering, protecting the environment from climate change right now. I’d like to see Effective Altruism with more of a focus, not an exclusive focus, but more of a focus on those issues.
COWEN: Is there too much emphasis on existential risk from AGI in your opinion?
SINGER: I’m not an expert on that risk, but yes, I think there is too much of an emphasis. I think perhaps that has something to do with a lot of the people in AI are people who like these kinds of problems. How are you going to align super-intelligent AGI with human values? That’s a really interesting problem, and in some ways, it’s a more interesting problem than how are you going to reduce the suffering of animals in factory farms? Or even, how are you going to help people in extreme poverty?
I think that’s perhaps why there’s been more of a tendency to talk about that and focus on it than is really justified.
COWEN: Not everyone knows you’ve written a book on Hegel. What have you learned from Hegel, who is not a utilitarian, right? Not in a simple way.
SINGER: Definitely not a utilitarian. Let me just say, firstly, that book was written a long time ago, I think in the early 1980s. Secondly, it’s a very slim book. It’s a hundred-page book for what was then called the Past Masters series by Oxford University Press. It’s now called A Very Short Introduction.
COWEN: But it’s a good book. Let me just make a point of adding that.
SINGER: Thank you. Thank you. I’m glad you think it’s a good book.
I think what I learned from Hegel was that the nature of society at a time, including its economic interests, does influence people’s ideas. Of course, that’s an idea that a lot of people will associate with Marx, but Marx really, I think, took that from Hegel. I’m going to say that that’s an insight that I learned from Hegel rather than from Marx.
COWEN: If you, today, were to write a book about some other philosopher — you’re granted the free time to do it miraculously — who would that philosopher be?
SINGER: I did, again with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, write a book about Sidgwick.
COWEN: And Marx, too.
SINGER: I have written a very short book about Marx as well, yes. I’m interested in the English utilitarians, but I’m interested in the roots of utilitarianism as it goes back further. So, I’m not sure. David Hume is certainly a favorite philosopher and, in some sense, an early utilitarian. I suppose if I had free time to write, Hume would certainly be a candidate.
COWEN: Where did Parfit go wrong? The final two-volume set — to me, it seems like a mess. Intellectually, what happened there?
SINGER: It’s a three-volume set now, right?
COWEN: Three. Yes, yes.
SINGER: You think the whole three-volume set is a mess, or you think the third volume is a mess, or — ?
COWEN: It’s often interesting, but the whole thing, to me, seems a mess. The project is too hard. He’s not thinking marginally enough, and to make all of consequentialism, and maybe Kantianism, compatible — I just don’t think it can be done.
SINGER: I like the fact that you think the project is too hard and you started off by asking me about whether it was a good thing that humans settled North America. [laughs]
I see the project as making a case for the idea that there are objective values, that things matter objectively, and I think it makes a significant contribution to that project, so I don’t think of it as a failure. There are some parts of it that may be a failure, maybe the attempt to reconcile the three series — a form of consequentialism, a form of Kantianism, and a form of contractualism — maybe that’s a failure. Certainly, the proponents of those other theories or nonconsequentialist theories don’t really approve of it.
In fact, I don’t like the form of consequentialism that he ends up with as part of the triple theory, and I talked to him about that. The third volume, to some extent, grapples with that. I edited this collection of papers called Does Anything Really Matter? Originally, Parfit was going to reply to in the volume, but then his reply — characteristically for Parfit — grew so long that it had to be a third volume. That’s really why there’s a third volume.
I think that there are problems with what he says about consequentialism, and he doesn’t really address act consequentialism. It’s rule consequentialism that he’s reconciling with the others. I don’t think he succeeds in producing reconciliation between the major ethical theories. I think that part of it is a failure. Why did he fail? I would say he became so committed to the idea that he had to show that morality is objective — that otherwise nihilism is true, nothing matters, and his whole life would be a waste — that that influenced his acceptance of arguments that otherwise he would not have accepted.
COWEN: Who’s an underrated philosopher that we should be reading more, talking about more, thinking about more?
SINGER: I used to say that Sidgwick is an underrated philosopher because he’s the best of the utilitarians, of the 19th-century utilitarians. He certainly was neglected, and that’s why Katarzyna and I wrote The Point of View of the Universe, to try to show that he is a great philosopher and that his ethics is still relevant. But other people, like Parfit, have also praised him. I’m not sure to what extent he is still neglected.
COWEN: Say someone active today, whose work you admire — maybe not even in your areas.
SINGER: As a younger philosopher — and I must admit, he was one of my students — I greatly admire Richard Chappell. He’s somebody who has a fairly popular Substack blog now and has a little book on Parfit, in fact, we’re talking about. Does a lot of interesting work.
COWEN: I’m a big fan of your book, Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. A few questions in that direction. Should we respect the wishes of the dead?
SINGER: Yes, that’s a good question. I had that feeling in writing this book. For those who don’t know, this book is about my maternal grandfather, who was a victim of the Holocaust. I was born after the Second World War, so, of course, I never knew him. He left a lot of papers, a lot of writings, and I wanted to read them.
In a sense, I suppose I thought, in reading them, and then subsequently, when I decided to write about him, that I was bringing him back and undoing the terrible crime that the Nazis committed against him and so many others. But did I really think that I had an obligation to do that because he might have wished it? I toyed with that idea, but I never fully convinced myself of it.
COWEN: But never fully rejected it either, right?
SINGER: Yes, perhaps that’s true. I’ve held different forms of utilitarianism throughout my career, and for quite a long time, I was a preference utilitarian. A preference utilitarian thinks that the good you should maximize is the satisfaction of preferences. There’s a question, then, about whether the preferences of the dead count.
My supervisor at Oxford, R.M. Hare, thought that they did. He thought, in fact, that if there was some ancient Roman and you stumbled across his tombstone, and he engraved on it, “I want an oil lamp to be burning on my gravestone forever,” that gave you a reason — not necessarily an overriding reason — to put an oil lamp on his gravestone and to watch that it kept burning. I wasn’t totally convinced of that. I must admit that.
COWEN: If population shrinks and the past accumulates, we’re going to be in big trouble, right?
SINGER: Yes, that’s right because we’ll all have to be looking after the preferences of all of those in the past. Anyway, I’m now a hedonistic utilitarian, so on that view, no. The only reason to pay attention to the wishes of the dead is that the living will have more confidence that their wishes will be respected.
COWEN: Referring especially to early 20th-century Vienna, during times of great cultural achievement, are most thinkers utilitarians? I would say no, but I want to hear your view.
SINGER: I haven’t, in fact, thought about Vienna’s heyday. No, certainly, they were not utilitarians, but then, utilitarianism is a relatively new theory. I say, in terms of spreading to non-English-speaking cultures, that’s happened much later, too. It’s not surprising that people were not utilitarians in late 19th-century, early 20th-century Vienna.
COWEN: But they knew enough. They knew Bentham and Hume, and they knew consequentialism in some form. They could have been. It wasn’t some mysterious idea they’d never heard of. Isn’t this like the driverless car problem, where you actually want a society of nonutilitarians?
SINGER: I don’t know, do you? Again, yes, there were some wonderful works of culture and art produced, but the working class had a very rough life, and maybe they would’ve had a better life if there’d been more utilitarian thinking.
COWEN: If I try to think, today, which government in the world is most utilitarian — not globally, not for animals, but just for its own citizens — I would tend to think that’s Singapore. Does that make sense to you?
SINGER: It’s quite possible. I think the Australian governments are actually reasonably utilitarian, and I’m more familiar with them than I am with the governments of Singapore, but Singapore’s a strong candidate.
COWEN: If I think of Singapore, it’s a big success. People are quite well off. They have more freedom than a lot of outsiders like to admit, but it seems not that happy to me, relative to per capita income. Australia, relative to income, seems really quite happy to me. Are those consistent with your impressions?
SINGER: Maybe there are things that utilitarianism has no control over, like a better climate. It’s not hot and sticky and humid like it is in Singapore all the time. Australia has great beaches. Natural assets will play a role in how happy the population is.
COWEN: On your book about your grandfather, your ancestors — at the very last page of the book, you say that justice was done to the Nazi leaders, and I fully agree. But for a pure utilitarian, what does that mean?
SINGER: I think we want to punish people who do great evil as a way of indicating that it’s got an expressivist function, that this was a terrible thing that they did. This is an ultimate condemnation that people should learn from, be educated from. And also a deterrent function if other people think that they’re going to get away with that.
COWEN: In terms of just downright justice, flat-out right and wrong, I consider myself a two-thirds utilitarian, but not completely. You’re more than two-thirds. Can I pull you down to two-thirds and bring in justice for these extreme cases, where you can just point and say, “That was wrong”?
SINGER: I think we all have that intuition. It’s not that I don’t have any retributive intuitions.
COWEN: I don’t want retribution. I just want to be able to say it’s wrong without having to count up the utils.
SINGER: Sorry, to say that what they did is wrong and that they should be punished for it?
COWEN: Sure. It’s not that I want retribution per se. As you noted, there are other reasons to punish them.
SINGER: Yes. I’m happy to say that what they did was wrong and they should be punished for it, and that at a level that is compatible with utilitarianism but also compatible with a lot of other views. Is that enough for you?
COWEN: But is there some nonutilitarian reason that you’re willing to call your own and let in the door? If so, how do you stop that reason from growing?
SINGER: At a theoretical philosophical level, I’m going to say no, it’s all explicable in terms of the utility. But as I said, that doesn’t mean that I don’t have nonutilitarian intuitions about it.
COWEN: What do you think of Freud as a philosopher?
SINGER: I don’t think Freud was a great philosopher. I think that if he were a great philosopher, he would have been more open to different ideas. Clearly, he was highly authoritarian in his thinking. He had a set of ideas and wasn’t really prepared to brook opposition to them.
That’s why my grandfather broke with him, along with Alfred Adler. When the split between Freud and Adler occurred, my grandfather — this is what my mother and aunt told me — my grandfather acknowledged that Freud was, in some sense, the greater genius, but just really didn’t like the way he behaved and how authoritarian he was, and therefore sided with Adler. I think if Freud had been more open to ideas, he wouldn’t have treated dissent — whether Adlerian or other forms of dissent — in the way he did.
COWEN: Why does so much of professional philosophy today seem so boring? It’s my subjective opinion, but I meet many philosophers who, to me, don’t seem philosophical at all. Not at all the case with you or the other guests we’ve had on the show, but what has gone wrong? Or do you challenge my premise?
SINGER: No, I don’t really challenge your premise, although I do think there’s a lot of good work being done in philosophy.
SINGER: I think there’s, obviously, immense competition for jobs, and particularly for tenured jobs. You’re going to be reviewed. Your case for appointment or for tenure is going to be reviewed by your peers, other philosophers. They are going to look for work that is the kind of work that gets published in highly rated journals, which is going to tend to be work that reviews, criticizes, builds on work that is already going on in those journals.
I think it’s difficult for young people to break away and say, “Here’s a different area that I want to work in,” or “Here’s something that is broader and less narrow that I want to work in.”
We tend to get articles which say, “Well, here’s a theory that some philosopher holds. I’ve got an objection to one part of this theory, and maybe I’ve got an alternative to that.” In a sense, instead of aiming for, really, the lifeblood of the subject, it’s aiming for the capillaries of the subject, in a way. It’s the smaller things that you can get right and you can get articles published in good journals.
COWEN: How would you reform that?
SINGER: I think you would really have to change the system of making appointments and tenuring people. You would.
COWEN: What would you replace the status quo with? The dean does it all, the students vote, there’s no tenure whatsoever — a lot of options. Do you —
SINGER: Yes, there are a lot of options. I’m reluctant to get rid of tenure. It has been a protection for people to have different and controversial ideas.
COWEN: But it’s not so much anymore, given that you started this journal, which I’m glad you did. Surely, you must think tenure is not enough now.
SINGER: Yes, it’s not enough, but I worry that people with controversial ideas would simply get fired by deans when people on Twitter start criticizing. I’ve really been disappointed in some of these recent controversies where people have been criticized for saying things. The extent to which university administrations have not stood up to this Twitter storm and have instead suspended, or in some cases, people who were not on tenure, dismissed or not reappointed people for controversial ideas. I think tenure has provided protection for some people. That’s why I’m still reluctant to get rid of tenure.
I’m not sure. Maybe giving students more of a role in appointments would be a reasonable factor because they would be interested in things that the professional philosophers might not see as part of philosophy, but they would.
COWEN: For how many years have you taught at Princeton now?
SINGER: Oh, 23, 24.
COWEN: How have your students changed over that time? What do you notice?
SINGER: It’s actually got harder to get them to do the reading, I think. When I first came to Princeton, I was very pleasantly surprised that you could set students reading, and you would find that when you talk to them about it, they nearly all had read it. I think they’re reading less now, and that’s disappointing. That’s one difference.
Otherwise, I’ve always found there’s a reasonable level of idealism. I think that fluctuates. I find American students — again, this is particularly a Princeton experience — there are some of them who are just wanting to get through the course and get a decent grade and get on with the degree. But there are quite a few who come to philosophy courses, and particularly ethics courses like mine, really wanting to think about what they’re going to do with their lives. What are their ultimate values? How are they going to live?
I find that refreshing. I don’t think that’s changed dramatically in any direction, either up or down, over the 24 years I’ve been at Princeton.
COWEN: Last three questions. First, as a mental-state utilitarian, surely you’re concerned with happiness. What advice might you give us today to enjoy our own lives better?
SINGER: Oh, I am very concerned with happiness. The advice I would give is to think about making your life fulfilling and meaningful. Not to think that it’s just about earning more money, buying more consumer goods, having a richer lifestyle, but contributing to making the world a better place. This is obviously the goal of Effective Altruism. But there’s a lot of psychology research showing that people who are generous and are thinking of values, and their lives are in harmony with values, do actually find their lives more rewarding and more satisfying.
COWEN: In the spirit of your new book, Animal Liberation Now, what are three things we can do to help other sentient beings?
SINGER: Firstly, we can stop eating nonhuman animals, and particularly, I would say, stop eating animal products from factory farms. That seems really important. Secondly, we can support the organizations that are trying to combat factory farming. If you want to find the best ones, you can go to Animal Charity Evaluators, which is an effective altruism site for animal charities. Thirdly, you can get political about this. You can tell your political representatives at all levels of government that animals matter and that you’re going to be more likely to vote for people who have strong policies on animal welfare.
COWEN: Final question: After your book tour is over, what will you do next?
SINGER: I’m going to relax a little bit from what I’ve been doing. I’m going to be teaching my final semester at Princeton because I’m retiring from Princeton at the end of the fall semester. I’ll want to put some time into doing that.
Then I’m going to stop and think, are there still other things that I’m really keen to write and do? I’m sure I’m going to be speaking, doing short-form writing about the issues that are important to me. Do I still have a major book in me at this stage? I must admit, I’m not sure what that would be. But I’ve been working hard on Animal Liberation Now and, more recently, been trying to promote it and publicize it. So, I think I need to take a break and take stock and think.
COWEN: Peter Singer, thank you very much.
SINGER: Thank you, Tyler. It’s been terrific talking to you again.
Photo credit: Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek