Category Archives: Peter Singer

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer

Even if we think the prior existence view is more plausible than the total view, we should recognize that we could be mistaken about this and therefore give some value to the life of a possible future—let’s say, for example, 10 per cent of the value we give to the similar life of a presently existing being. The number of human beings who will come into existence only if we can avoid extinction is so huge that even with that relatively low value, reducing the risk of human extinction will often be a highly cost-effective strategy for maximizing utility, as long as we have some understanding of what will reduce that risk.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, Oxford, 2014, pp. 376-377

Peter Singer

[T]he evolution of superior intelligence in humans was bad for chimpanzees, but it was good for humans. Whether it was good or bad “from the point of view of the universe” is debatable, but if human life is sufficiently positive to offset the suffering we have inflicted on animals, and if we can be hopeful that in future life will get better both for humans and for animals, then perhaps it will turn out to have been good. Remember Bostrom’s definition of existential risk, which refers to the annihilation not of human beings, but of “Earth-originating intelligent life.” The replacement of our species by some other form of conscious intelligent life is not in itself, impartially considered, catastrophic. Even if the intelligent machines kill all existing humans, that would be, as we have seen, a very small part of the loss of value that Parfit and Bostrom believe would be brought about by the extinction of Earth-orginating intelligent life. The risk posed by the development of AI, therefore, is not so much whether it is friendly to us, but whether it is friendly to the idea of promoting wellbeing in general, for all sentient beings it encounters, itself included.

Peter Singer, Doing the Most Good: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically, New Haven, 2015, p. 176

Peter Singer

[T]he sums that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA have spent and are planning to spend on their extensions and renovations would have done more good if they had been used to restore or preserve the sight of people too poor to pay for such treatment themselves. I am not suggesting that these museums should have done that. They were set up for a different purpose, and to use their funds to help the global poor would presumably be a breach of their founding deeds or statutory obligations, and would invite litigation from past donors who could perceive it as a violation of the purposes for which they had donated. (Perhaps, though, the museums could justify, as part of their mission, restoring sight in people who would then be able to visit and appreciate the art they display?)

Peter Singer, The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas about Living Ethically, New Haven, 2015, chap. 11

Peter Singer

My students often ask me if I think their parents did wrong to pay the $44,000 per year that it costs to send them to Princeton. I respond that paying that much for a place at an elite university is not justified unless it is seen as an investment in the future that will benefit not only one’s child, but others as well. An outstanding education provides students with the skills, qualifications, and understanding to do more for the world than would otherwise be the case. It is good for the world as a whole if there are more people with these qualities. Even if going to Princeton does no more than open doors to jobs with higher salaries, that, too, is a benefit that can be spread to others, as long as after graduating you remain firm in the resolve to contribute a percentage of that salary to organizations working for the poor, and spread this idea among your highly paid colleagues. The danger, of course, is that your colleagues will instead persuade you that you can’t possibly drive anything less expensive than a BMW and that you absolutely must live in an impressively large apartment in one of the most expensive parts of town.

Peter Singer, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, London, 2009, pp. 138-139

Peter Singer

It is significant […] that whereas it is easy to find thinkers from different times and places to whom it is intuitively obvious that we have special obligations to those of our own religion, race, or ethnic affiliation, this does not seems so obvious to contemporary ethicists and political theorists. If the strength of intuitions favoring special obligations based on racial and religious affinity is not sufficient grounds for accepting them, then the strength of our intuitions about, say, special obligations based on fellow-citizenship, should also not be sufficient reason for accepting them. Instead, we need another test of whether they should be accepted.

Peter Singer, ‘Outsiders: Our Obligations to those beyond Our Borders’, in Deen K. Chatterjee (ed.), The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 13-14

Peter Singer

[John Rawls] nowhere suggests that wealthy nations ought to try to assist poor nations to meet the basic needs of their citizens, except in so far as this is part of a much broader project of helping those peoples to attain liberal or decent institutions. The probability that, in the real world in which we live, tens of millions will starve or die from easily preventable illnesses before such institutions are attained, is not something to which Rawls directs his attention.

Peter Singer, ‘Outsiders: Our Obligations to those beyond Our Borders’, in Deen K. Chatterjee (ed.), The Ethics of Assistance: Morality and the Distant Needy, Cambridge, 2004, p. 26

Peter Singer

As long as we continue to study and cite Hobbes, Rousseau, and Marx—none of whose views of human nature can today be ranked as scientific—it would be perversely backward-looking to refuse even to consider sociobiology and what follows from it.

Peter Singer, ‘Ethics and Sociobiology’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 11, no. 1 (Winter, 1982), pp. 40-64

Peter Singer

The clearest sign of a Christian, and more specifically evangelical, influence on Bush’s ethics is his repeated invocation of a conflict between good and evil. We have seen that Bush often talks of “the evil ones” and even occasionally of those who are “servants of evil.” He urges us to “call evil by its name,” to “fight evil” and tells us that out of evil will come good. This language comes straight out of apocalyptic Christianity. To understand the context in which Bush uses this language, we need to remember that tens of millions of Americans hold an apocalyptic view of the world. According to a poll taken by Time, 53 percent of adult Americans “expect the imminent return of Jesus Christ, accompanied by the fulfillment of biblical prophecies concerning the cataclysmic destruction of all that is wicked.” One of the signs of the apocalypse that will precede the Second Coming of Christ is the rise of the Antichrist, the ultimate enemy of Christ, who heads Satan’s forces in the battle that will culminate in the triumph of the forces of God, and the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth. Projecting this prophecy onto the world in which they live, many American Christians see their own nation as carrying out a divine mission. The nation’s enemies therefore are demonized. That is exactly what Bush does. When, during a discussion about the looming war with Iraq with Australian Prime Minister John Howard in February 2003, Bush said that liberty for the people of Iraq would not be a gift that the United States could provide, but rather, “God’s gift to every human being in the world,” he seemed to be suggesting that there was divine endorsement for a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein. David Frum, Bush’s speechwriter at the time of his “axis of evil” speech, says of Bush’s use of the term “evil ones” for the people behind 9/11: “In a country where almost two-thirds of the population believes in the devil, Bush was identifying Osama bin Laden and his gang as literally satanic.”

Peter Singer, The President of Good and Evil, New York, 2004, pp. 202-203

Peter Singer

Natural law ethicists are kept constantly squirming between the underlying idea that what is natural is good, and the need to make some ethical distinctions between different forms of behavior that are, in biological terms, natural to human beings. This wasn’t an insoluble problem for Aristotle, who believed that everything in the universe exists for a purpose, and has a nature conducive to that purpose. Just as the purpose of a knife is to cut, and so a good knife is a sharp one, so Aristotle seems to have thought that human beings exist for a purpose, and their nature accords with their purpose. But knives have creators, and, unless we assume a divine creation, human beings do not. For the substantial proportion of natural law theorists who work within the Roman Catholic tradition, the assumption of a divine creator poses no problem. But to the others, and indeed to anyone who has accepts a modern scientific view of our origins, the problem is insoluble, for evolutionary theory breaks the link between what is natural and what is good. Nature, understood in evolutionary terms, carries no moral value.

Peter Singer, ‘A Reply to Martha Nussbaum’, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, 2002

Peter Singer

[Henry] Spira has a knack for putting things plainly. When I asked him why he has spent more than half a century working for the causes I have mentioned, he said simply that he is on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider. And he talks of the vast quantity of pain and suffering that exists in our universe, and of his desire to do something to reduce it. That, I think, is what the left is all about. There are many ways of being on the left, and Spira’s is only one of them, but what motivates him is essential to any genuine left. If we shrug our shoulders at the avoidable suffering of the weak and the poor, of those who are getting exploited and ripped off, or who simply do not have enough to sustain life at a decent level, we are not of the left. If we say that that is just the way the world is, and always will be, and there is nothing we can do about it, we are not part of the left. The left wants to do something about this situation.

Peter Singer, A Darwinian Left, New Haven, 1999, pp. 8-9

Lori Gruen and Peter Singer

Experimental psychology raises, in an especially acute form, a central contradiction of much animal experimentation. For if the monkeys Harlow used do not crave affection like human infants, and if they do not experience loneliness, terror and despair like human infants, what is the point of the experiments? But if the monkeys do crave affection, and do feel loneliness, terror and despair in the way that humans do, how can the experiments possibly justified?

Lori Gruen and Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A Graphic Guide, London, 1987, p. 81

Peter Singer

She communicates in sign language, using a vocabulary of over 1000 words. She also understands spoken English, and often carries on ‘bilingual’ conversations, responding in sign to questions asked in English. She is learning the letters of the alphabet, and can read some printed words, including her own name. She has achieved scores between 85 and 95 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.

She demonstrates a clear self-awareness by engaging in self-directed behaviours in front of a mirror, such as making faces or examining her teeth, and by her appropriate use of self-descriptive language. She lies to avoid the consequences of her own misbehaviour, and anticipates others’ responses to her actions She engages in imaginary play, both alone and with others. She has produced paintings and drawings which are representational. She remembers and can talk about past events in her life. She understands and has used appropriately time-related words like ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘later’, and ‘yesterday’.
She laughs at her own jokes and those of others. She cries when hurt or left alone, screams when frightened or angered. She talks about her feelings, using words like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, ‘afraid’, ‘enjoy’, ‘eager’, ‘frustrate’, ‘made’ and, quite frequently, ‘love’. She grieves for those she has lost—a favourite cat who has died, a friend who has gone away. She can talk about what happens when one dies, but she becomes fidgety and uncomfortable when asked to discuss her own death or the death of her companions. She displays a wonderful gentleness with kittens and other small animals. She has even expresses empathy for others seen only in pictures.

Many people react with scepticism to such descriptions of a non human animal, but the abilities of the gorilla Koko described here are broadly similar to those reported quite independently by observers of other great apes, including chimpanzees and orang-utans.

Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, New York, 1994, pp. 181-182