February 26, 2024

Peter Singer interviewed about, well, everything

Excerpts from a great interview in the Journal of Practical Ethics

The Journal of Practical Ethics recently posed 20 hardball questions to Peter Singer about his philosophy. It is a terrific insight into his thinking as his long career draws to a close.

About utilitarianism: Why do many intelligent and sophisticated people reject utilitarianism? Some people give more weight to their intuitions than I do—and less weight to arguments for debunking intuitions. Does that reduce my confidence in utilitarianism? Yes, to some extent, but I still remain reasonably confident that it is the most defensible view of ethics. I don’t know if everyone will accept utilitarianism in 100 years, but I don’t find the prospect frightening. It would only be frightening if people misapplied it, and I do not assume that they will.

On critics: There have been many critics of my views about euthanasia for severely disabled infants. I had some good discussions with the late Harriet McBryde Johnson, who was not a philosopher but a lawyer who had a rich and full life despite being born with a very disabling condition. As long as she was alive, when I wrote anything on that topic, I wrote with her potentially critical response in mind.

The objective truth of morality: You could just say “these are my normative views, and I’m going to treat them as if they were true, without thinking about whether moral judgments really can be objectively true.” If you do that, then in practice your decisions will be the same whether or not moral judgments can be objectively true. But given that I think morality is highly demanding, it becomes easier to say that, since morality is so highly demanding, and there is nothing irrational about not doing what morality demands, I’m not going to bother doing what I know to be right. If there are objective reasons for doing what morality demands, it’s more troubling to go against them.

On absolute moral standards: There are still absolutists. Some are proponents of the “new natural law” tradition, which has its roots in Catholic moral theology, even though it is presented as a secular position. Others are Kantians, many of them outside English-speaking philosophy. In Germany, for example, you would find wide support for the idea that we should not torture a child, even if (as in Dostoevsky’s example in The Brothers Karamazov) that would produce peace on earth forever. To me it seems obvious that if by torturing one child you could prevent a vast number of children (and adults) suffering as much or more than the child you have to torture, it would be wrong not to torture that child. 

On inconsistency: The view that I take in Practical Ethics and some other writings is not that not aiding is the same as harming in all respects… [So why not donate a spare kidney?]  don’t think I’m weak-willed, but I do give greater weight to my own interests, and to those of my family and others close to me, than I should. Most people do that, in fact they do it to a greater extent than I do (because they do not give as much money to good causes as I do). That fact makes me feel less bad about my failure to give a kidney than I otherwise would. But I know that I am not doing what I ought to do.

On adopting out a [hypthetical] Down syndrome child: For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop.

On dogs, pigs, and disabled babies: Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.

On bestiality and infanticide: I don’t put forward provocative views for the sake of doing so. I put them forward where I think they have a basis in sound argument, and where it serves a purpose to have them discussed. I hope that other philosophers will do the same.

On the future:  I worry that if people who think a lot about others and act altruistically decide not to have children, while those who do not care about others continue to have children, the future isn’t going to be good.

On moral bioenhancement: I have some practical concerns: will it work? Will there be unexpected negative side-effects? But suppose that we can put aside those worries and can be highly confident that the proposed bioenhancement will reduce suffering and increase happiness for all affected—then I have no problem with human bioenhancement. Indeed, it would be a very positive thing. As for moral bioenhancement specifically, I doubt that it will happen quickly enough, or spread widely enough, to solve the global moral problems like climate change that we face right now. But once again, if we could do it, that would be very good.

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