Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is widely regarded as the world's most influential living philosopher.
JOSEPH WALKER: Peter Singer, welcome back to the show.
PETER SINGER: Thank you. It's great to be with you again.
WALKER: It's nice to see you again.
So, I want to start with whether there are moral truths. And I've been reading the new Derek Parfit biography by your friend, David Edmonds. And towards the end of the book, he describes a thought that kind of seizes Parfit.
And I'll quote from the book. The thought was this:
“Everything Parfit had written to date, every philosophical argument he had ever made, every conclusion he had ever reached, was pointless, worthless and illusory, unless moral reasoning could be moored to solid ground. The solid ground had to be moral objectivity. If morality was not objective, then it was a waste of time debating it. If morality was not objective, there was no reason to act in one way rather than another.”
“He went further. If morality was not objective, life was meaningless. His own life was meaningless, and every human and animal life was meaningless.”
So my first question is: must anti-realism — put simply, the view that there are no objective moral truths — entail nihilism?
SINGER: I don't think that moral relativity necessarily entails nihilism, as that term nihilism is usually understood and as Parfit was intending it in that passage you read. I think, if you like, there's a strong sense in which everything might be meaningless and there's a weaker sense.
So I think what Parfit was getting at there was the idea that, if there is no objective truth, then you can't say that it was good (good, period; good, all things considered) that something happened or didn't happen. And in that sense, Parfit is saying: you can't say that it was good that I made this contribution to philosophy, or anything else that anyone does. And if the contribution to philosophy seems a little bit esoteric, you also can't say that it was good that Hitler was defeated and that the Nazis and their descendants are not ruling the world today.
So there's a sense in which that is true that you need to think that there is an objective truth to really say, in a full sense, that's a better universe without the Nazis ruling this planet than it would have been if they had ruled it.
But nihilism as popularly understood would imply that it doesn't matter what anyone does, it doesn't matter what you do, it doesn't matter in any sense. And there clearly are senses in which it does matter. So, for example, from our own personal perspectives, we don't want to have miserable lives, in which, let's say, we're being tortured by ruthless, brutal Nazis or someone like that. So that matters to us.
And also, we may care about other people. We may feel sympathy for them. And we may hate the fact that we know that, somewhere in the world, lots of people are being tortured. So in that sense, you could say you don't need to be an objectivist about morality to have those feelings.
And you could say, “I care about these people, so it's not meaningless to me.” And I could bring you into that circle of concern and say, “Surely, you as a benevolent person care about people too. So, it matters to us, not just to me.” And we might say, “In general, it matters to most of the people that we know or to decent people in the world. And we care about that.” So, I think that's the sense in which you could avoid nihilism and say, “Things matter, even though there's no objective truth.” That's why I think Parfit is taking a very strong sense of “mattering”, and saying in that strong sense they don't matter if there's no objective truth.
But many of us would say things matter in a somewhat weaker sense; “They matter for me, for us, for some group, and therefore, I'm not a nihilist.”
WALKER: I see. So do you personally subscribe to the strong sense?
SINGER: I actually do think that there are objective truths, so I'm prepared to acknowledge that both senses exist. And I think that Parfit has a point about the stronger sense. But I think he stated it in a very dramatic fashion in the passage that you read. And he believed it. He believed it very deeply in that sense. But he was seeing things — and in a way, this is something about Parfit — he was seeing things from this universal, objective point of view. That was the way he viewed things. And that's why he said (that statement in there), “We don't have reasons for doing something unless there are objective truths.”
Now, that goes completely against the sense of having reasons for doing something that we associate with David Hume (the 18th century Scottish philosopher) and that, in fact, economists today use all the time, because they see reasons as being instrumental. If you want oranges, you have a reason to go to the supermarket, which has oranges, and buy them. For Parfit, we’d say, “Well, is it good for you to get oranges? Are you going to get pleasure from oranges? Maybe pleasure is one of the things that are objectively good, so then you have a reason for it.” But if it's just the fact that you happen to want an orange, that doesn't give you a reason for actually having oranges.
So, Parfit is taking this (as I say) universal side of the division between people who are objectivists about reasons for action — Kant was one, Henry Sidgwick, the 19th century utilitarian philosopher, whom Parfit greatly admired, was another — and against people like David Hume, and a long tradition of other philosophers who follow Hume — John Mackie, who was an Australian philosopher who I knew when he was at Oxford; A.J. Ayer, would be another who is very much in Humean tradition. So that's the issue that you would need to discuss, if you want to really say: is Parfit right when he says that if there's no objective truths about morality, we don't have any reasons for doing anything?
WALKER: Right. Let me come to that. So Bernard Williams contended that external reasons don't exist. What was Parfit’s response to that? And do you agree with Parfit’s response? And perhaps you could explain what internal and external reasons are?
SINGER: Right. So Bernard Williams is another I could have mentioned alongside Mackie and A.J. Ayer in that Humean tradition. And Williams says that we have reasons because we have projects. He used this term “project" for things that we want to do, basically, and they may be simple things. I just gave the example of wanting to eat an orange. So that could be, in some sense, a project. But we also may have life projects like “I want to write a book”, “I want to be a big wave surfer”, whatever those projects might be. They’re things that we aim at, that we choose. And they give us reasons, in one sense —and this is what Williams would emphasise — they give us reasons to start writing my book, think about what I'm going to write on, or practice on the smaller waves so I can work up to the bigger waves, whatever it is. I have reasons for doing those, because of my aims and projects. And those are internal reasons: internal to me, they don't give you a reason to do those things if you don't want to write a book or don't want to serve.
Whereas external reasons are reasons that exist for anyone. So I would say: you have a reason to reduce suffering, whether it's somebody that you love and care for, or whether it's the suffering of a complete stranger, or the suffering of a nonhuman animal. We all have reasons to reduce suffering, because suffering is a bad thing. The world is a better place if there's less suffering, other things being equal. And so that's an external reason. And obviously, there are a wide range of moral views, which would include other things that we have reasons to do or not to do.
So, Williams was saying all reasons are internal. And Parfit, who greatly admired Williams and recognized that he was a highly intelligent person and somebody who was very good at making philosophical arguments, he was really perplexed and baffled that Williams didn't see the external concept of a reason, that he couldn't understand that there are external reasons, there are facts about the world, which, whether you have this project or that project, whether you care about this or that, they give you reasons for action. Parfit would say this, he would say, “I don't understand how Williams cannot see this.” But that was the way it was. He never got him to see it.
WALKER: Why was he so obsessed with getting Williams, in particular, to see it, to the point where he’d literally cry about it?
SINGER: I think what underlaid that was the sense (which is very present in On What Matters) that, if people who are thoughtful and reflective and intelligent and knowledgeable about the subject think about basic questions in ethics and disagree fundamentally about those basic questions of ethics, that casts into doubt the claim that there are truths on these basic questions. And as your opening quote indicated, Parfit was very concerned that there shouldn't be doubt about the idea that there are basic truths in ethics.
And the idea of On What Matters was to show that people don't disagree as often or as fundamentally as many people think. The original working title for On What Matters was Climbing the Mountain. And the claim behind that title was that philosophers from three major and apparently disagreeing theories about what we ought to do ethically were actually like three mountain climbers climbing a mountain from different sides, who then meet at the summit and realise they've climbed the same mountain. So that's what Parfit was trying to do, to show that all of these different philosophers disagreeing about things are really climbing the same mountain, in the sense that they end up with a theory that is compatible with the other theories.
WALKER: I want to ask you about what Henry Sidgwick called “the profoundest problem in ethics”. And that problem is the dualism of practical reason — put very crudely, the idea that rational self-interest and utilitarian impartiality are both supported by reason, but can be in tension. So why is the dualism of practical reason the profoundest problem? And how do you differ from Parfit on this question?
SINGER: Let me say why Sidgwick thought it was the profoundness problem of ethics.
Sidgwick thought that the way to find truth in ethics is to look for self-evident axioms (as he called them), basic truths. And he found some axioms: an axiom of prudence, an axiom of justice, and an axiom of universal benevolence. And he thought that these were self-evident. And on the axiom of universal benevolence, he thought that that is a grounding for utilitarianism, that wanting the best for everyone —nd he actually did include non-human animals in that everyone, wanting them to have the best possible lives, the greatest possible surplus of happiness over misery —that when you reflect on these basic truths, you can see that they are self-evident, and that utilitarianism can be derived from them. And Sidgwick was trying to show that you can put ethics on a rational basis; that was the aim of his masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics.
But he couldn't reject the idea that egoism — the idea that what I should do is what is in my own interests, not the universal interests, but my own interest — that that also has some kind of self-evidence. He didn't actually say it was a self-evident axiom. But he found it hard to deny that I have reasons for doing what is in my interest (what will make me happier, or avoid suffering for me), that I have reasons to do that, which are different from the reasons that I have to increase the happiness and reduce the misery of strangers. That my interests, because they're mine, have some special weight for me.
Because he couldn't really reject that view, or he felt he couldn't reject that view, he ends up with this dualism of practical reason. So practical reason doesn't just tell us to do one thing; it tells us to do two different things. It tells us to promote the universal good (universal interest of everyone), and it tells me to promote my good. And that fact that he couldn't reconcile the two dismayed him. In the first edition of The Methods of Ethics, he had a very dramatic ending, saying that this shows that the attempt to put the cosmos of duty and rational basis had failed. And I think he talks about despair and so on.
By the time he got to the seventh edition of the book, he'd somewhat calmed down and the language was not quite as dramatic. But he still accepted that this meant that reason doesn't really give us clear directions as to how we ought to live our life.
And Parfit, to some extent, accepted that conclusion and did think that this is a profound problem. Although clearly, he was on the side of there being objective reasons, but the objective reasons are not necessarily just the universal reasons. So he thought, for example, that the most rational thing to do maybe normally would be to promote the greatest good of all. But suppose that you could produce just slightly more good in a stranger at some harm to yourself — more good to the stranger than the harm to you would outweigh —, but it was a significant harm to you, then he said, “Well, maybe it's not irrational to prefer to avoid your own harm in those circumstances.” So, you don't always have an obligation to maximise good, impartially considered, on Parfit’s view.
WALKER: Now, what is the evolutionary debunking argument? And how does Parfit avoid it?
SINGER: So let's talk about evolutionary debunking arguments in a simple case, and then we'll get onto its relevance to this particular question of the dualism of practical reason.
This is an example that comes from Jonathan Haidt. Suppose that there's an adult brother and sister, and they're staying somewhere by themselves in a cabin in a remote country place, and they think that it would be interesting to have sex. So they decide to have sex. They enjoy it. But they decide they won't do it again. And there are no further consequences from it. And by the way, in case you are worried that the sister would get pregnant, she was already on the pill. But just to be safe, the brother used a condom anyway. So there was no chance of any conceptions taking place.
Now, Jonathan Haidt put this example to a number of students. And the general reaction was that this was wrong.
But when you ask them why it was wrong, they couldn't give any clear answer. And often they gave answers, which actually were in conflict with the description of the example. Like, “Well, it's wrong because if siblings have sex, then the children might be disabled in some way.” But they were told that there was no offspring and there was no chance of any offspring.
So Haidt refers to this as moral dumbfounding. We have these moral intuitions that we can't really explain. And there might be an evolutionary explanation for this. The evolutionary explanation might be that for all of our past evolutionary history, even before we were humans perhaps, if siblings did have sex, then they would conceive, and then there was a higher probability of abnormalities. And that was therefore something that they developed an inhibition against, because that helped them to survive and have surviving offspring.
So Haidt’s explanation of this moral dumbfounding in this particular case is: it's a biologically evolved negative reaction, a yuck reaction, if you like. So it's not really that they're thinking about the rights and wrongs of what the brother and sister did in this case. It's rather that we are biologically programmed to say, “No, wrong, can't do that.”
And I think that that's a plausible story for what's going on in that particular example. But it's clear that there could be many other examples where you have something similar. And if we apply this now to the dualism of practical reason, then what we have is, on the one hand, a response — the axiom of universal benevolence —, a response that clearly would not be likely to have been selected by evolution, because to help unrelated strangers — even at some disadvantage to yourself where there's a greater benefit to the unrelated strangers — is not a trait that is likely to lead to your improved survival or the improved survival of your offspring. It's rather going to benefit these unrelated strangers who are therefore more likely to survive and whose offspring are more likely to survive. So that doesn't seem like it would have been selected for by evolution, which suggests that maybe it is a judgement of our reasoning capacities, in some way; we are seeing something through reason.
Now, if we compare that with the egoistic judgement that I have special reasons to prefer my own interests to those of strangers, it's more plausible to think that that would have been selected by evolution. Because, after all, that does give you preference for yourself and your offspring, if you love your offspring and care for them.
So if we have these two conflicting judgments, then maybe we can choose which one by saying: just as in the case of adult sibling incest, we debunk the intuition by saying, “Well, that's just something that evolved in our past and that doesn't really give us reasons for thinking the same thing today,” maybe we can say that also about the intuition behind egoism, but not about the intuition behind universal benevolence, which therefore gives us a reason (not a conclusive or overriding reason) for thinking that it's the axiom of universal benevolence that is the one that is most supported by reason.
WALKER: I see. So, you look for the reasons that may have evolved, or may have been the reasons that were selected upon. And those are eliminated. And then what's left, it's likely that that must be able to be supported by reason, because it's not something that could have evolved.
SINGER: Yes, that's right. I suppose you could say it puts the onus of proof on the person who wants to maintain that the judgement that is likely to have evolved is also a judgement that reason supports independently of its possible evolutionary history. Whereas, the person who's supporting a judgement that doesn't have a plausible evolutionary history doesn't have that burden of proof.
WALKER: So you have a paper with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek, in the collection of essays Does Anything Really Matter? where you claim to resolve the problem of dualism by using that argument that you've just outlined. I'd just like to test one objection on you, and get your reaction. I read this paper yesterday and this objection is highly sketchy. But this is a podcast.
SINGER: I should mention that that paper is somewhat related to a book that Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and I wrote called The Point of View of the Universe, which is a phrase from Sidgwick, and which is defending Sidgwickian ethics.
WALKER: Yep. So I'd like to basically take up the challenge of providing an evolutionary explanation for impartiality.
WALKER: So, evolution by natural selection applies not only to genes, as you know. It applies to any process that combines variation, selection and replication. And culture is such a process. And cultural evolution can occur at different scales, depending on the balance of selection pressures. It doesn't just have to occur on the level of tribes or nations. We could actually think of humanity as a superorganism, to the extent that selection pressures apply at the level of the whole planet. Maybe some examples of those might be existential risks, nuclear war, climate change — things that force humans to cooperate globally.
And in my view, universal altruism is a cultural innovation that spread because it helps us cooperate at a global level. So universal altruism is a cultural value, albeit one operating at a higher level than things we normally consider cultural values. And, indeed, for me, this is strongly implied in Josh Greene's book Moral Tribes, where he argues that utilitarianism provides a common currency for adjudicating and negotiating between parochial common sense moralities.
So, impartiality doesn't escape the evolutionary debunking argument, and we need to reject egoism on some other grounds.
SINGER: Okay, thanks for the objection.
WALKER: Slap it down.
SINGER: So I think the weakness of the objection is that evolution is only going to occur if beings, at the level that we're talking about — as you said, there's evolution at the gene level, and you can argue about whether there's evolution at the level of individual organisms, and you can argue about whether it's evolution at the level of larger groups, and how large those groups can be, and then you're going to the level of all of humanity — but evolution is only going to happen if these units, at whatever level you're talking about, get selected for and against. And basically, survive or don't survive. And that clearly happens with genes all the time. It happens with individuals. It happens with groups, but somewhat less frequently, because it depends on what groups you are talking about. If you're talking about ethnic groups, they may live for hundreds or thousands of years.
And if you're talking about the level of humanity, it hasn't happened. Where are the variants that disappeared here?
WALKER: Well, I guess like other possible civilisations on different planets. We haven't blown ourselves up. And perhaps the reason for that is that we have this sort of cultural innovation known as impartiality, known as utilitarianism more broadly.
SINGER: It's a very short time in which we've actually had the ability to blow ourselves up. I suppose, basically, since…well, not even in 1945, because although we had atomic bombs, they weren't powerful enough to blow. Maybe sometime in the ‘60s, there were enough nuclear weapons around for us to become extinct. But it's hard to be confident that we're not going to blow each other up, actually. And if you look at what goes on, much more frequently, at the level of conflict, you see non-impartial reasoning. It's not impartial reasoning that led Putin to invade Ukraine. And it's debatable whether it's impartial reasoning that leads the West to defend Ukraine. I would argue that it is somewhat more impartial reasoning to uphold the rule of law in terms of respecting national sovereignty and territorial boundaries and changing them only by negotiation and peaceful means. But there's an awful lot of conflict going on here. We're just seeing it right now as we're talking in Sudan, for example. There's no impartiality going on there. Lots of other conflicts.
So I'm not persuaded that the idea of impartial reasoning has actually taken hold throughout humanity. It seems to me extremely tenuous. I wish it wasn't so. But I don't see it as actually doing the kind of work as yet that would be necessary for us to say that this is something that has evolved and helped us to survive.
WALKER: I don't disagree that cultural selection happens on multiple levels. But I think it's no coincidence that if you look at all of human history, these kinds of ideas of impartiality and utilitarianism have kind of coincided with the era of globalisation and increased interconnectedness.
SINGER: I agree with that. I don't think that's a coincidence. I think that may have something to do with a greater understanding of other people and seeing them as more like ourselves. And I think that's a very good thing. But to say that, therefore, the impartial idea is as debunkable as the egoistic idea is still seems to me to be putting two very different things on the same footing.
WALKER: Okay, fair enough. I don't necessarily believe that argument myself either. But it's fun to play devil's advocate.
SINGER: Absolutely. It's a good try. And it's certainly something that needs to be thought about and answered.
WALKER: So let's move to normative ethics. And I have a bunch of different questions. But I also want to talk about esoteric morality. So before we get to that, a few miscellaneous questions:
From a consequentialist perspective, should Derek Parfit have lowered his standards for good work and published more and more often?
SINGER: I'm not sure that Derek Parfit was actually capable of publishing work that he didn't think was as close to perfect as he could possibly make it. He was notorious for actually not submitting work to publishers. And in his early life, he published extremely little. He published one very well known famous article on personal identity. But he probably would never have published Reasons and Persons had he not been told by All Souls College, where he was a fellow and which was the ideal environment for him, because he didn't have to do any teaching, he just spent all his time doing his research and writing… And he had one seven-year fellowship at All Souls that was then renewed. But he was told towards the end of that second seven-year fellowship that he would not be made a permanent fellow unless he published something more substantial than he had. So that was the pressure that led him to write Reasons and Persons.
And apparently, he was sort of constantly going back and pulling it out of the press, when he'd already submitted it to Oxford University Press, saying, “I need to change this, I need to change that, this is wrong.” So he was a somewhat obsessive personality. And therefore, I don't think it was possible for him to say, “I'll do more good by writing more things that will do good.”
But would he actually have had better consequences if he had? Maybe. I don't know. I think he saw that there were other philosophers writing things that were having an effect, who were being influenced by him in various ways. And perhaps I was one of them. Jonathan Glover would be another one, writing books that, if you like, were at a somewhat more popular level. They were still philosophical works, but they were not written only for other philosophers, as I think Parfit’s works generally were. Although it's great that now other people are reading them.
So, I think he saw himself as contributing to a larger field of discourse — philosophy, in general — and as making a distinctive contribution to that (which he very certainly did), and raising new questions and problems. And he was aware that there would be other philosophers who were not up to his level in terms of the original powerful arguments on new topics that he was producing, but who were still going to be able to do something that he might have done if he wanted to. But that he was perhaps better suited for doing what he was doing, which is to try to produce the closest to perfection in philosophy that he could.
WALKER: Yeah, I guess it's just an interesting question more broadly: empirically, when is perfectionism the right strategy?
SINGER: Yeah, it certainly is. And it's definitely not always the right strategy. And very often, given you're trying to influence human beings who are certainly not perfect, then it's often important that you shape what you're doing to suit them and to lead to the best consequences that they can bring out, rather than to produce perfection.
WALKER: Are there any aspects of Bernard Williams’ ethical approach that you find particularly valuable or useful? And what do you think his best critique of utilitarianism was?
SINGER: Williams did a lot of work on different topics, but clearly I have studied most of his critique of utilitarianism. In particular, in a little book Utilitarianism: For and Against, where he was responding to the Australian philosopher, J.J.C. Smart. That's a good work to give to students because it's fairly short, it's brief. Smart is a very plain writer; it’s a very straightforward defence of utilitarianism. And then you have Bernard Williams, whose critique often uses interesting examples. And I think that's one of the best things that Williams did.
So particularly in that, he has two quite famous examples where he's arguing against the idea that it's pretty straightforward that the right thing to do is the thing that will have the best consequences (produce the highest levels of welfare).
One of them is called Jim and the Indians. Jim is a botanist, who is looking for a rare species somewhere, you imagine, in the Amazon. And he then walks into a village where there's a clearing, and where he sees the 20 villages lined up against the wall, and there are men with rifles apparently about to shoot them all. And he walks into this clearing, the officer in charge says, “Who are you?” He explains who he is. It so happens that the officer is an admirer of botany and knows who he is, says, “Oh, such a famous botanist came to our region. You're very welcome.” And the botanist says, “What's going on here?” And the officer says, “We're about to shoot these people who are subversives and we're going to shoot all 20 of them. But in honour of your visit to this area, if you would like to take up this gun and just shoot one of them, we’ll let the other 19 go.”
So for a utilitarian, this is a clear case, right? We assume that there's no possibility of doing anything else, you can't use the rifle to shoot the officer, because there's lots of other men who will then shoot you, maybe immediately. And everybody will get shot, including the villages. So the only thing you can do is to shoot one person and save 19. Or to say, “No, I cannot stain my hands by shooting a man who may well be innocent, so go ahead and shoot the 20.”
So as I say, the utilitarian will say, “You are to take this offer and save 19 lives.”
Williams says, “Well, not so fast. There is still something wrong with participating in this terrible act that is going on. You'll be complicit in some way.” So, Williams doesn't say that you shouldn't shoot one. But he does say it's not as simple as the utilitarian says.
And then his other example is about George, who is a chemist (let's say) who's looking for employment and needs a job, sees a job advertised at a factory that is making chemical weapons, or a research lab that is making chemical weapons. George is opposed to chemical weapons. But he learns that if he doesn't take the job, then somebody who's very zealous about actually promoting bigger and more deadly chemical weapons will take the job.
So again, the utilitarian would say, “Well, it's pretty tough for George, he’s gonna have to do this work that he doesn't like. But he can slow down the process of making chemical weapons. He can pretend to be designing or researching new weapons without doing very much. And that will prevent the great harm that would come from more deadly chemical weapons being developed, which will certainly happen if he doesn't take the job, and this other person does.”
And that's actually — we talked about Bernard Williams and his sense of projects — that one is clearly a project, if you like, because George's project has nothing to do with producing chemical weapons, just the opposite. He'd, let's say, rather produce fertilisers that you can grow better crops with, or (who knows) do something good anyway. So, Williams seems to think that George actually shouldn't take the job in this case, and that he has more reasons against taking it than taking it. Whereas for the utilitarian, George has most reasons for taking the job. And those are challenging examples that students like to argue about. So I think there’s a good point that Williams has introduced us into that debate.
WALKER: But they don't keep you up at night as a utilitarian?
SINGER: No, they don't. Certainly not anymore. When did that book come out? ‘73, I think. So, probably, already then I was a sufficiently committed utilitarian to not be kept up at night. Maybe if I'd come across them at an earlier stage, when I was less confident about utilitarianism, it would have troubled me more.
WALKER: If Everett’s interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, and each time the universe is faced with a quantum choice, it splits into different worlds, how do you aggregate the branches under a utilitarian calculus? Have you thought about the implications of the many worlds theory for utilitarianism and ethics in general?
SINGER: I have to admit I have not. I don't know how one would know whether that hypothesis is true. And I suppose, if you asked me now, just off the top of my head, somehow you have to know what's going on in all of these worlds, and whether the consequences of choices that you make are better or worse in all of these worlds. And I don't know how you could possibly do that, since you're only going to be in one of them. So, no. I think the answer is that I don't know what utilitarianism — or really any ethical view — would tell you to do in those circumstances.
[44:09] WALKER: Fair enough. Okay, some questions about esoteric morality.
So you have this really interesting paper with de Lazari-Radek called 'Secrecy in Consequentialism: A Defence of Esoteric Morality', which actually Bryan Caplan brought to my attention after you had a recent debate with him.
SINGER: But you're not promoting our book, The Point of View of the Universe. Because, again, that's a paper that we developed, and it has an entire chapter in that book.
WALKER: Yeah, of course.
SINGER: So those who want to read all of these interesting things you are talking about, please order The Point of View of the Universe.
WALKER: Yeah, exactly. Great book for anyone interested in these issues!
SINGER: Thank you, thank you [laughs].
WALKER: Could you briefly outline the broad argument of the paper, and then I'll ask some specific questions.
SINGER: Sure. And this also takes its lead from something that Sidgwick wrote in The Methods of Ethics. And the question here is: to what extent should a utilitarian follow generally accepted moral rules?
That's a large debate that's been going on for some time between utilitarians and opponents who say that there are moral rules that we ought to keep. And utilitarians like Sidgwick want to say, “No, you shouldn't stick to a moral rule no matter what the circumstances. There could be cases where you should break even generally accepted moral rules.” But moral rules do, in general, tend to lead us to make sound decisions. So utilitarians don't think that in absolutely every decision you make, you should always try and calculate the consequences from scratch. They would say, let's say, you're walking down the street near your home, and a stranger comes up to you and says, “Can you tell me where the nearest train station is?” And you know this very well, so you should tell the stranger where the nearest train station is. That will normally be a good thing to do. You could, of course, lie. And you could say the train station is thataway, when you know that's the opposite direction. But why would you do that? Generally speaking, helping strangers who ask for information does good. So you don't have to try and do those calculations.
But there are some circumstances in which you might produce better consequences by not following a rule. The problem with saying to a utilitarian, “Don't follow the rule” in these circumstances is that it might weaken trust in the rule or it might weaken respect for the rule. So if other people know that utilitarians are going around breaking rules all the time, then maybe that will lead to a worse state overall, because people will break rules when they really shouldn't be breaking rules, or break rules for their own convenience, or because of some irrelevant emotion that they have at the time. And that won't be a good thing.
So Sidgwick then raises the question: what should utilitarians do in circumstances where you could do more good if you break the rule, except for the fact that you will weaken support for the rule, and that will be a larger bad consequence than the good consequence that you'd achieve by breaking the rule?
And Sidgwick then says, “Well, sometimes it may be the case that you can only do good if you can keep what you're doing secret.” So this is what's known as esoteric morality: the idea that sometimes you should do something, and the fact that it's the right thing to do will be true if you can keep it secret, but if you can't keep it a secret it won't be the right thing to do. So that's essentially the sense of keeping morality esoteric.
And that's been a controversial doctrine for Sidgwick. And it’s another point in which utilitarians, and Sidgwick in particular, were attacked by Bernard Williams, because Bernard Williams refers to this as “government house morality.” What he means by that is: government house in the heyday, let's say, of the British Empire, where the British colonised various peoples in other parts of the world. And you imagine them living in their nice white-painted Victorian-style government house building, making rules for the betterment of the “natives” of those people and saying, “Well, of course, they're rather simple people, they don't really know what's the best thing to do. So we need to make some rules which apply to them. And we’ll educate them or bring them up, if you like, indoctrinate them into believing that these are the right thing to do. But of course, for us sophisticated government bureaucrats, we will know that, actually, it's not always the right thing to do. And we will sometimes break those rules ourselves in the general good, where we wouldn't actually tell the local people that we're breaking those rules, because then they would not keep the rules that would be best if they do keep.”
So essentially, Williams is saying, this idea of esoteric morality divides people into the uneducated masses, who have to be brought up with simple rules, and the more powerful elites, who think that the rules don't apply to them. And that's obviously an unpleasant way to view morality.
In the article that you mentioned, and then also in the chapter in The Point of View of the Universe, Katarzyna and I defend Sidgwick and say that of course, the whole attitude that Williams is talking about — of the idea that our nation (white people, presumably) have the right to rule over others, and are wiser than they are, and know more about their situation than they do — is objectionable. But that is not an inherent part of esoteric morality. There may be many circumstances in which you don't have those assumptions. But it's still the case that, generally, you ought to breach some rule where it would still be better if other people did not know about the breach of the rule. And therefore the confidence in the rule was weakened.
WALKER: Thank you. So some specific questions.
In the paper, you consider the standard originally proposed in your famous paper 'Famine, Affluence, and Morality' — the standard that people should give everything they can spare to the global poor. But you and Katarzyna write:
“Perhaps advocating so demanding a standard will just make people cynical about morality as a whole. If that is what it takes to live ethically, they may say, “Let's just forget about ethics and just have fun.” If, however, we were to promote the idea that living ethically involves donating, say, 10% of your income to the poor, we may get better results.”
So, am I correct in thinking that the 10% recommendation is just a straight up example of esoteric morality? And because this is only audio and we're not doing video, if you want to imply the opposite meaning of your verbal answer, just give me a wink.
SINGER: [laughs] Okay, no winks. I don't need to get winks here. And because this has been a fairly sophisticated philosophical discussion, I'm going to assume that the people who have listened to this point — and I'm relying on you not to put this upfront as the very first thing in the program — I'm assuming that people who listen to this point can follow the idea that, yes, we may want to promote a standard in general that is a reasonably simple standard, that is one that's easy to remember, that also picks up various religious traditions about the tithe (10% of your income donated to the poor), and that encourages people to do that, rather than produce a more demanding standard, which will (as in the quote you read) mean that fewer people actually follow it. And even though there are some people who then give significantly more than 10%, the total amount raised for people in extreme need is less than it would be if we'd promoted the 10% standard.
So if that is the case — and obviously it's a factual assumption whether it is the case — then I do think that that's an example of esoteric morality that, yeah, we will say, “Give 10%,” and many people will do that. But if people really want to inquire and think about this and challenge us and say, “Well, why 10%? I could give 20%, and that would do more good. I could give 40% and that would do still more good.” Then we'll be prepared to say, “Alright, so since you have thought through this and not just accepted the 10% guideline, then we'll acknowledge to you that this guideline was done for general acceptance to produce the most good, but if you understand the situation, and you are prepared to do more than 10%, great. Then you should do more than 10%.”
Let me say, by the way, that I haven't myself — certainly not in the last few years — endorsed the 10% guideline. I did talk about it, I think, at one stage many years ago. But in the book, The Life You Can Save (which your listeners can download free from the website of thelifeyoucansave.org), at the back of the book, I have a kind of a progressive table, that's more like an income tax table, that starts with something much lower than 10% for people who are really on fairly low incomes but still have a little bit more than they need, and goes up to 33.3% (a third of your income) for people who are really earning a lot. And essentially, even that 33.3%, I think people who are very wealthy ought to be giving more than that. But what I'm doing is, anyway, a step towards what I think people should really be doing; a step closer to that than just the 10% figure.
WALKER: So my next question is an empirical question. I see a possible tension between your approach to giving to the global poor and your approach to the treatment of animals. So with respect to animals, one could argue that the meat boycott you called for in Animal Liberation was a very demanding standard. And maybe it was better to just encourage people into pescetarianism, or something else, to avoid the greater evil of intensive farming. But instead, you went pretty hard in calling for a meat boycott. So why does giving to the global poor fall into the more esoteric bucket? Because I can see plenty of reasons why you might actually get better outcomes by publicly and consistently calling for the more demanding standard. I can also think of historical examples where that has been successful. For example, maybe you could view the abolition of slavery, as an example of where people kind of radically self-sacrificed over quite a short period of time.
SINGER: It's an interesting question. Because one difference between these is that with giving to the poor, there just is a continuum right? There's no reason why you should use 10% rather than 11%, or 11% rather than 12%. It's a constant continuum. Whereas with slavery, to take that example, freeing the slaves is a demand that you can make, and that ends the evil you're trying to combat. Whereas reducing slavery, while it would do some good, still leaves this problem, essentially, as it was. And the other thing you have to remember about the abolition of the slave trade, or of slavery in general, is that there was never universal support for slavery. And this is a difference from… getting now to the animal issue.
For example, when British ships were transporting slaves from Africa to the United States, slavery was not legal in Britain. And if somebody who was a slave landed in Britain, they were free. And in the United States, where the slaves were going, slavery was, of course, not universally accepted in the United States. It was accepted in the southern states, basically. And the northern states opposed it. So I think the demand to end slavery was a demand that always had a good prospect of success. The demand to give enough money to end poverty is much more difficult. And as I said, there are endless degrees. And in some sense there will no doubt always be some people who have less resources than others.
With animals, the differences go both ways. Because as I said, there is certainly a very clear majority, and even overwhelming majority, accepting the consumption of animals, of meat. And that makes a particular problem.
There is something like, you could imagine, the abolition of slavery, the ending of this problem. But because we're always going to be interacting with animals, there’ll always be questions of conflicts of our interests and their interests, so it's hard to imagine that we're ever going to get completely to a situation that resembles the abolition of slavery. Although we could certainly get a lot closer to it.
You also raise the question of how demanding it is to ask people not to eat meat. At the time I wrote Animal Liberation, I had stopped eating meat, as had my wife. We made this a joint decision. And we didn't find it particularly difficult, I have to say. Or in a way, the main difficulty was that you had to keep explaining this to people and justifying what you're doing. And some of your friends would look at you, as if you'd become a crank. There were kind of those social difficulties. But in terms of having enjoyable meals, cuisines that we love to cook, and feeling good on a vegetarian diet, feeling perfectly healthy, and zestful, all the rest of it, there was no problem at all. So to me, that's actually not so demanding an ask. Maybe it's a more demanding ask than asking reasonably comfortably off people to give 10% of their income to the poor. But it's not much more demanding than that. And it's certainly less demanding than giving a larger sum.
WALKER: But within a consequentialist framework, you might get better results just arguing for pescetarianism or something like that.
SINGER: Well, pescetarian, I don't think is a good example. Because I think…
WALKER: Fish suffer greatly.
SINGER: Fish definitely suffer. And because they tend to be small, there are more of them suffering. You're going to eat more of them. In a way, I think you could argue that, just from the animal welfare point of view — let's put climate change reasons for being vegetarian aside for the moment — from an animal welfare point of view, it's better to eat cows than fish, because one cow can feed quite a few people, and especially if the cows have reasonably good lives. Whereas with fish, either they're coming out of aquaculture, which is just factory farming for fish, and I think they have pretty terrible lives. Or they're scooped out of the oceans, in which case, their lives were good, their deaths were horrible, and there's a lot of overfishing going on, and we're running down a sustainable fish stock.
WALKER: Okay, interesting. I accept that. So let me ask you a few more questions about esoteric morality. So if esoteric morality is a necessary part of a consequentialist theory, that implies that there must be some cap on the optimal proportion of consequentialists in the population, correct, that would be short of 100%? Because if everyone was a consequentialist, and therefore knew that everyone else would practise esoteric morality, that would potentially lead to a degradation in trust, which would be a bad outcome. So in light of esoteric morality, there is an optimal number of consequentialists.
SINGER: I think the point about esoteric morality works in a society where not everyone is a consequentialist and some people believe in certain moral rules and follow those rules because they think that they are kind of right. And you don't want to weaken that trust. Because if you did, they might just become egoists, for example. They might just think about their own interests.
If, on the other hand, you accept the possibility that everyone is a utilitarian, I don't think the situation is the same. Because if you really believe that everybody — or even virtually everybody, so if you meet a stranger, it's overwhelmingly probable that they're utilitarian — then there's a sense in which you can trust them; you can trust them to do the most good. Now, if you ask them to promise that they will meet you at a certain place at noon tomorrow, it's true that you can't trust that they will turn up there because if there is a greater utility and them doing something else, then they will do something else. That's true. But you will want them to do something else because you are a utilitarian. Now that we all have mobile phones, of course, you would expect them to call you up and say, “Sorry, I can't meet you as we arranged because I've got to drive a sick person to hospital,” or whatever else it might be. But I don't think that there is a limit if you assume that everybody could function well as a utilitarian.
WALKER: Okay, interesting. So there's like this valley, where as the proportion of utilitarians increases, trust diminishes. But then at a certain point, trust starts to increase again.
SINGER: Yes, and the benefits then overcome the disadvantages.
WALKER: Okay. So, this is kind of an empirical question, but at what point would you start to worry about trends like the spread of atheism and “WEIRDness”, to use Joe Henrich’s acronym, that kind of potentially drive consequentialism?
SINGER: I don't accept the acronym that consequentialism is weird.
WALKER: But you know that it means Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic?
WALKER: The Western kind of psychology, isn't that correlated with utilitarianism in a way?
SINGER: I don't think so, actually. I think utilitarianism is a more universal tendency. There's a little book that, again, Katarzyna and I wrote in the Oxford University Press’ Very Short Introductions series, A Very Short Introduction to Utilitarianism, in which we regard Mozi, the Chinese philosopher from the Warring States, as likely to be a utilitarian, although we don't have a lot of extant writings of his. But there seems to be a utilitarian tendency in his thinking. Among the Greeks, there were some people with a utilitarian tendency. Certainly, Epicurus was a hedonist (not necessarily a universal hedonist), but hedonism was about maximising pleasure and minimising pain and has been around for a long time. There's some tendencies in Buddhist thinking, I think, towards reducing suffering and improving happiness. So I think there are utilitarian tendencies that are non-western.
WALKER: Your paper got me wondering whether the Effective Altruism movement is not being consequentialist enough in light of esoteric morality. So to explain what I mean, I think that a lot of scientific and intellectual breakthroughs come about through irrational optimism — people just irrationally persisting and solving a problem that doesn't seem obvious to their contemporaries. Many such cases of this. And one concern I have about the EA movement is that if it uses base rates to give people career advice, it might persuade some people not to work on things that could turn out to be really important. So here, my claim is that EA gives advice that's rational for the individual, but collectively could result in worse outcomes. So, perhaps from the perspective of esoteric morality, there may be cases where EA should not push “the outside view" (to use Daniel Kahneman’s term) when giving career advice. Do you have a reaction to that?
SINGER: You might be right. I don't really know how you would calculate how often you will get those extraordinary benefits from people pursuing these strange obsessions. But yeah, it is an empirical question. And it's possible that you're right. And if you're right, then, yes, effective altruists should not be persuading people to go for what has the best strike average.
WALKER: So esoteric morality is related to this idea of Straussianism (if we think about Strauss' book Persecution and the Art of Writing), where philosophers write very cryptically for an audience. Their work may be published more broadly, but only a very select few can actually understand and interpret what they're trying to say, in order to avoid persecution by sort of conveying and discussing uncomfortable truths throughout history.
When I think of examples of noble lies, I can really only call to mind examples of where the noble lie kind of blows up in the face of the liar. Things like at the beginning of the pandemic, when the US Surgeon General told people that masks aren't effective in preventing the spread, because, potentially, they wanted to reserve the supplies of masks for medical professionals. And then that's just seemed to diminish trust in institutions even further in the US. Maybe the only reason I can think of bad examples of noble lies blowing up is because the good ones, by definition, stay hidden. But I'm curious whether you are aware of any historical examples of where Straussianism has worked successfully, on the part of philosophers or anyone else — someone who's tried to be esoteric in their circumstances, they were successful, and now with the benefit of hindsight, we can recognise what they were trying to do.
SINGER: Oh, that's a very good question. I'm not sure that I can think of that off the top of my head. So when you start talking about Straussians, then what I think about actually is the group around George W. Bush, who acknowledged the influence of Strauss. And I think that led them into the catastrophic invasion of Iraq. I think some of them at least knew that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, but they thought that they could create a democracy in the Middle East, and that that would be a good thing and would increase American influence. So that certainly is not what you're looking for. That's an example of it coming very badly unstuck. There surely are examples of noble lies that have worked.
WALKER: Well let me, potentially, suggest an example. How likely is it that Apuleius was a Straussian, and that his book, The Golden Ass was a challenge to the prevailing stoic thought and Roman mistreatment of animals? That he was kind of deliberately trying to make a point about animal rights in a Straussian way?
SINGER: But why in the Straussian way? To me, it seems fairly obvious that The Golden Ass shows a lot of empathy for an animal. This is why I edited a version of The Golden Ass, because I was attracted to it because of that remarkably early sympathetic portrait of the life of a donkey. And that seems to me to be on the surface, rather than hidden.
WALKER: Yeah, but I guess you could argue that he's making the point in kind of a discreet way, that maybe not all the audience will understand. Because he's not outright criticising anyone. Maybe he's using allegory to make his point. But yeah, I suppose by the standards of what we'd normally consider Straussian, maybe it falls short.
SINGER: I think there are passages where he clearly is criticising someone. For example, (so for those who don't know) at one point, that donkey gets sold to a miller and is harnessed to turn the mill wheel. And the picture of that mill and the suffering of the donkey or horses who are there, and also of human slaves who are also doing this work, and essentially, being worked to death — does condemn that quite strongly. It reminded me of descriptions of factory farms, and the effect of them on both animals and on the workers who live there, that we have today.
WALKER: Okay, so that brings me to Animal Liberation. You have a new revised edition of Animal Liberation that came out in June, I believe.
SINGER: Yes, June the 13th is the Australian publication date. And it's called Animal Liberation Now to indicate that it is really not just an update, but a bit of a very significantly revised and changed book.
WALKER: Since it was first published in 1975, how have animals fared on the whole and how do you assess the impact of Animal Liberation?
SINGER: Let me start with the impact of Animal Liberation.
I think it contributed to the start of the modern animal rights movement. How big the contribution was, is really hard to estimate. Some people refer to it as the bible of the modern movement, and as having triggered it. But there were a lot of people really who were necessary and working for change. But it did clearly inspire some of those leaders — Ingrid Newkirk, who founded People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the largest, radical animal group in terms of its numbers of supporters, certainly has said that reading it changed her views and her life. A number of other people have said that. So I think it certainly had an influence in sparking that movement, and different ways of thinking about animals, and a whole debate that went on.
But if you asked me to assess what has happened to animals since 1975, that's a very different story. Because even if there was an animal movement that was active in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and also in Europe (roughly in the nations of the European Union today), and has had a positive influence on animals there, and there have, to varying degrees, been improvements, more in the European Union than either Australia or the United States, I think, there have been improvements there. But, firstly, they're fairly small improvements, and there's still a long way to go. Some of the worst forms of confinement of animals in factory farms got prohibited, but there’s still vast numbers of animals living in totally unsatisfactory conditions.
And secondly, the animal rights movement has had virtually no influence in places like China. And since 1975, China has become a lot more prosperous. And so, hundreds of millions of Chinese have used the extra disposable income that they have to buy more meat. And China has supplied that need by building larger and larger factory farms. So there are far more animals living miserable lives in factory farms today, in 2023, than they were in 1975. In that sense, the movement hasn't had the effect that it wanted to have, and that I wanted to have.
WALKER: Some of these farms are like literally skyscrapers.
SINGER: Yes. China is building a 26-storey pig farm, for example, filled with vast numbers of pigs, who will never, of course, get to go outside in any way. They're all living indoors in these very barren conditions. And it's all sort of maximised for greater productivity and lower cost, not for animal welfare.
WALKER: I guess the question of China leads me to my next question. Because adjacent to China is India. I was in India at the end of last year. And I asked this question to many of my local companions, and none of them seemed very impressed with the question. But it still bugs me, so I'll try it with you.
So the question is this: not only is India the most vegetarian country in the world, it's also the home of Jainism, perhaps the most extreme religion in terms of its respect for animals. At the same time, India is also the world's largest producer and consumer of spices. The vegetarian food there is absolutely delicious. Is that just a coincidence? Or if not, which way does the causation flow? Have you thought about this?
SINGER: I have never thought about the connection between spices and vegetarianism, no. That's an interesting point. My understanding is that India has a lot of spices because it's a hot country, and spices preserve food — hot spices, anyway; chillies — from spoiling.
WALKER: So then maybe you want to say then that the spices are like the independent variable.
WALKER: And then vegetarianism flows from that.
SINGER: Possibly. I see, so that it was easier for people to exactly take out vegetarianism because they could have very flavoursome vegetables? It's certainly true that when we were living in England, which is when we became vegetarian, at that time in the early 1970s they did not cook vegetables well, and by not eating meat, you were losing something that was tastier than what you got if you just had the three boiled vegetables that were often served on the plate. But of course, what we did — and this, in a way, supports your point — what my wife and I did when we became vegetarian, was to start cooking from non-western cuisines. And Indian was probably the first cuisine that I learned to cook tasty vegetarian food. But Chinese food also has a lot of dishes that are, or can be, vegetarian or vegan. And some of those also like Sichuan Chinese cooking are quite highly spiced.
WALKER: Yeah, I guess it gets to a broader question which is about the role of contingency. If you look at human history, how contingent is it that most of humanity is meat-eating? Is it just an accident of history that more cultures with prohibitions on meat-eating, like Hinduism, didn't develop? Or is meat-eating kind of inevitable for most cultures?
SINGER: I think there's an evolutionary story here again, and that is that if you are short of food, then being able to consume foods that have high nutrient density gives you a survival advantage. And so meat is one of those foods. If you can obtain it, and if you can digest it, then you will have an advantage over those who don't, and therefore have to spend more time gathering food and eating food and preparing food than you do if you have something that meets your nutritional needs quickly.
So, I think we developed a taste for it for those reasons. Now, none of that is relevant today, in the sense of at least certainly people are affluent enough to walk into supermarkets and buy anything from the wide range of foods that they provide, don't need to eat meat and don't get any kind of survival advantage by doing so. In fact, by eating as much meat as people eat in the United States and in Australia, you probably have a disadvantage in health terms. But nevertheless, we have that taste for it. And I think that's why most cultures do eat meat, and it's the rarities that say, “Eating meat is wrong.”
WALKER: If we bite the utilitarian bullet, why limit your concern to animals in human captivity? So Brian Tomasik argues that we should abolish wild animal suffering too. Do you agree with him?
SINGER: Abolish is a strong term. I agree to the extent that we should make efforts to reduce wild animal suffering. And that's, again, one of the differences between Animal Liberation Now and the original Animal Liberation, because I didn't talk about wild animal suffering then. I thought that's really far-fetched and bizarre to even talk about that when we're doing all of these horrendous things to animals in factory farms, in laboratories, in fur farms, so many circuses, so many other places.
But because of people like Brian and Oscar Horta, and now Catia Faria, there's a number of philosophers who are writing about wild animals, and what we might do to reduce their suffering, and whether we ought to do that. And it's become a significant subfield of animal ethics. So I felt I should say something about it. And what I'm saying is that there are many things that we can do to reduce wild animal suffering which are relatively simple and not controversial in the way that, for example, saying, “Well, predators cause suffering. So we should eliminate predators, because then there'll be less animal suffering…” and obviously, that's highly controversial. First, because the consequences might not be better — it might be that you eliminate the wolves and the deer will starve to death after overgrazing their habitat.
But also because you would run up against those environmentalists who want to preserve ecosystems, and the ecosystems depend on predators, and they don't want to see any species eliminated, and certainly not the iconic predators like wolves or tigers or lions. So I certainly don't think the animal movement should get into a sort of situation where it's in head-on conflict with those environmentalists because both environmentalists and the animal movement are minorities. They're not really powerful. And I think we have a lot of common ground. For example, opposition to factory farming is clearly something that environmentalists and animal people support. So I think we shouldn't go into those areas. But there's still quite a few things that we can do.
WALKER: What's the single highest-leverage policy we could implement to reduce wild animal suffering?
SINGER: Well, the single thing is actually to stop eating fish because the vast majority of the fish we eat are wild animals. And if we eat carnivorous farmed fish, like salmon, then we're responsible for even more wild animal deaths because the trawling fleets go out to catch the low value fish to grind them up and feed them to the salmon. So you're not just killing one fish when you buy a salmon raised in aquaculture and eat it. You’re killing, I think, something like maybe 90 fish, I read. I may not be correctly remembering the figure, but it's a surprisingly large number of fish who have been killed to feed that one salmon.
WALKER: What other policies, apart from catching wild fish?
SINGER: There are a number of different things that we can do then. And again, some of them are exactly what environmentalists would want. Cats kill a large number of wild animals. Again, people who say, “Oh, no, my little moggs would never go out and kill animals.” But when you put tiny cameras on them and let them out at night, you find that the sweetest cats will go out and kill something. So keeping your cats indoors at night is a pretty simple thing to do, at least, if not permanently indoors. And doing something about feral cat problems is another thing as well, trying to prevent there being feral cats is going to reduce animal suffering and preserve more species.
WALKER: So I assume you're familiar with the Shrimp Welfare Project. This has become somewhat of a meme in the EA community. But if the shrimp welfare project goes well, perhaps we can cheaply sustain trillions of blissful shrimp. Is there some margin where we should do that instead of spending on human welfare?
SINGER: Well, first, we have to assume that shrimps can be blissful. That is, that they are sentient beings. And the term shrimp, actually, when you look at it does not refer to any natural biological order. It crosses completely different species. Some species of which may be conscious and sentient beings. So the United Kingdom recently passed an animal sentience law, which extended beyond vertebrates and included cephalopods, so octopus — and I think those who have seen My Octopus Teacher will all agree that an octopus is sentient — but also decapod crustaceans, which includes lobster and crabs, and I think some species of shrimp, but not all. So yeah, maybe some shrimp are sentient and some aren’t. So if we're going to carry out the shrimp project, we better find the ones that are.
But of course, being sentient is one thing. That means, you are capable of feeling pain. Does it also mean you're capable of experiencing bliss? I don't know. And I don't know how we would know that shrimp are capable of being blissful at all.
But you can turn this into a hypothetical example, I suppose. Let's assume that there are shrimps who are capable of experiencing bliss. Should we raise vast numbers of them at the cost of not improving the lives of humans, at some level? And yeah, I'm gonna bite the bullet on that and say, yes, if we have reason to believe that they are capable of blissful existence, then that would be a good thing to do.
WALKER: If AI causes human extinction, but we’re replaced with artificial beings, perhaps brain emulations, like in Robin Hansen's book, The Age of Em, and these beings live radically better lives than any human, is that a bad thing? Or should we just kind of wish them luck and fade into history?
SINGER: I think we should wish them luck. This is another disagreement I have with Bernard Williams. You know that article called ‘The Human Prejudice’, where he defends the idea that we're right to favour human interests even over similar or greater interest of nonhumans. And his sort of closing argument in that is to say that if superintelligent aliens come to earth and decide that everyone will be better off if humans get eliminated, Williams says that the question to ask then is: whose side are you on? “So we, humans, we’ve got to be on the side of humans,” is his impression, which I find a very strange remark. Because this idea of “whose side you’re on,” you can exactly think of Russians who support the war in Ukraine, for example, saying that to other Russians who dare to express some dissent, or say, “Well, why should we be attacking Ukrainians? We used to get on very well with Ukrainians.” And that “whose side you’re on” just says, “You're a Russian, you've got to be on the Russian side against the Ukrainians.”
And in a way Williams is saying something remarkably similar to that, which I find a completely indefensible way of arguing for being on the side of humans against animals. But also, in your example, if in fact things will be much better without humans, and these will be replaced by these minds which can experience much greater, richer, wonderful lives than we can, okay, good luck to them.
WALKER: It’d sort of be another form of speciesism to not wish them well.
WALKER: I liked his paper. I find it kind of intuitively very appealing. But when I actually read it, there's no strong philosophical principle that I can kind of grasp onto apart from just the, “Well, surely you should be on the side of humans” vibe.
SINGER: Yeah, I think if you really wanted to construct it as a philosophical argument, it would go back to what we talked about earlier. The idea that we're humans, we have human projects, and there is no impartial point of view. We can't take the point of view of the universe because we're humans.
WALKER: Yeah. To accuse him of saying that nonhuman interest didn't matter — it isn't actually the claim he's making.
SINGER: Exactly. He's not saying that there's a universal point of view from which nonhuman interests don't matter. He's saying, “We inevitably take the human point of view.” And so, for us, we have reason to defend humans even against these superior aliens, in his case, and artificial intelligence in yours. Whereas I'm taking the universal point of view and saying, “No. You're just saying we have reasons to defend humans and the aliens have reasons to support aliens.” I'm saying no, there's got to be something more than that. To that extent, I go back to what Parfit was saying right at the very beginning of this conversation: there are objective reasons for action, and Williams is ignoring them.
WALKER: So obviously, in recent years, Effective Altruism as a movement has taken a turn from the kind of original global health and development focus to a greater concern about existential risks and preventing those risks. You're not entirely persuaded by the kind of longtermism project, if I can use that term. What are the reasons for your scepticism?
SINGER: So I'm not sceptical about the value of taking a long-term view. I think there is considerable value in doing that. And ultimately, and again this goes back to one of Sidgwick’s axioms, I think all moments of existence of sentient beings are equally important. So I'm not a presentist, just in the sense of saying, “The present is what matters, or that in the near-term future is what matters and the long-term future doesn't matter.”
What I'm sceptical about is the idea that we should be putting most of the resources of the Effective Altruism movement towards long-term goals, particularly really long-term goals. So Will MacAskill talks about thinking about the next billion years. Except for saying, “Yes, it would be good if there are still humans around in a billion years,” I find it pretty inconceivable to think how you can make any difference that far in the future. So I think that there are just so much in the way of uncertainties, as compared with the good that we can be reasonably confident about doing in the near-term future, that it's a mistake to focus the Effective Altruism movement primarily on longtermist goals.
WALKER: Talking specifically about the cause priority of mitigating existential risks. And within that, again, specifically, being concerned about artificial general intelligence. I was actually inspired to think of this while I was reading (I think it must have been) some of Boccaccio’s letters during the Italian Renaissance. I think one of them to Petrarch. But the reason I was reading it is he was describing the plague, the black death. And there was this line to the effect of, “All human wisdom and know-how were futile in the face of a plague.” But it made me think, well, they weren't, the people, at that time, just didn't have the right knowledge to prevent the plague. And that's sort of a tragedy. And I guess there's a risk in not having the right knowledge, sort of waiting for the proverbial asteroid.
And so the critique would be that some members of the EA movement underestimate the risks of not developing technologies that could protect us from existential threats. And by attempting to slow down risky technological advances, they might inadvertently increase those risks of omission, since it's impossible to know ex ante how technologies will develop. Why do they tend to focus on the dangers of commission rather than omission here? It's impossible to predict which approach is more likely to cause harm, but loss aversion would make you focus on the risks of commission over the risks of omission.
SINGER: Yes, that's an interesting point to make. And I think it does emphasise the uncertainties that come into long-term thinking and even —this is not very long-term — thinking about AI and superintelligence is probably this century rather than several centuries in the future.
But what your point shows is the difficulties of working out what the circumstances will be, and what we might regret not having done at some point in the future.
WALKER: Yeah. If we decide to slow down progress in AI, and then in 50 years, Earth gets wiped out by an asteroid, and in the counterfactual, if we'd had AI in time, and it helped us design some kind of system to protect against that... I think there's a bias that leads us to focus more on the risk of AI killing us all, than on the risk of not developing technologies quick enough that can save us.
SINGER: Yes. Although, I don't think it's true that EAs think about commission more than omission in general.
WALKER: I agree with that.
SINGER: Think about this article by Nick Bostrom about The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where he was actually talking about death and the fact that we don't try to overcome death. And that means that this vast number of people die when they maybe wouldn't have to die if we did more research in terms of overcoming mortality. So it's not a general point. But maybe your point is on this specific issue of the harms of AI they do. I'm not sure. I'd be interested to know what they would say. They may say, “Look, we're not against developing the kind of AI that would predict when asteroids are going to crash into our planet, or work out what we could do to prevent asteroids crashing into our planet. But it's some larger, more general kind of super intelligence that we're trying to warn against.”
WALKER: I guess my response to that, in turn, would be, I'm not sure that you can…
SINGER: Separate those?
WALKER: Yeah, exactly.
So not every moral philosophical article or book sparks a movement. In fact, very few do. But you've separately created so, or sparked social movements, with Animal Liberation and with ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’. Obviously, there's some overlap between those two movements, but it's not a complete overlap. Do you have a sense of what makes those two works so charismatic, and what separates them from works that have attempted to be but have failed to be successful in sparking world-changing social movements?
SINGER: I think one thing that they have in common is that they were both written early in the development of applied ethics, in the modern sense of applied ethics, right? Obviously, philosophers have done applied ethics for a very long time in different ways through ancient Greece and mediaeval times.
But there was a period in the 20th century when philosophers didn't do applied ethics, and in fact hardly did any normative ethics, because mostly they were concerned with metaethics. Some of them thought that ethics wasn't really a subject — people like A.J. Ayer thought that there's no scope for argument in ethics and reasoning, really. So I started doing philosophy at a time when that had been the dominant movement, but it was just starting to break up.
So in the ‘60s, the radical student movement against the Vietnam War and against racism in the south of the United States, students were demanding relevance in their courses. And some of them were doing philosophy and we're saying, “Hey, philosophers, don't you have a view about what makes a war a just war? And don't you have views about equality and why it's justified?” and so on. So there was this sort of crack in what had been fairly monolithic, at least in the English speaking world, for saying ethics doesn't tell us how to live.
And so I was able to write both of these works that you mentioned, and for them to be regarded as part of philosophy, because of the time when I was writing, in the early ‘70s. If I had been a decade earlier, probably I would have had to choose between leaving philosophy as a profession and as a discipline and writing that kind of work, or not writing it at all and sticking to what philosophy was doing, which was basically the analysis of moral language.
So I think I was just lucky, really, to some extent in being there at that time. And then I picked two issues that are really relevant to pretty much everybody who is likely to be reading philosophy texts. So I'm thinking of students, but also, of course, the academic professional philosophers. But students were obviously eating. And so, Animal Liberation challenged them to think about the ethics of eating animal foods. And that was something that every student in every class would think about.
And ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ challenged them to think about what they're spending their money on. And even though students don't have a lot of money, most students do have some that they spend on pretty frivolous kinds of things. And so that was another question that was raised to them.
And so, as I say, first, I was lucky to be in this position to do this kind of philosophy. But secondly, I then used that to write about very everyday questions that were going to affect pretty much everybody who was going to be a philosophy student. And for that reason, I think, philosophers took them up. They were reprinted in anthologies, or extracts of the book and the article were reprinted in lots of anthologies. And lots of people read them. And I think that really helped.
‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ is a little bit different from Animal Liberation, because for Animal Liberation, the very first piece I wrote was for the New York Review of Books, which is not a philosophy journal, it is more widely read. And then the book was published. And that was also not just a philosophy text — that reached a wider audience. Whereas ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’ was published as an article in a philosophy journal, and then started to reach a larger audience by being anthologised in these readers that publishers were putting out for the then relatively new courses in applied or practical ethics. And so, lots of generations of students read ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’.
And insofar as it had an influence on sparking the Effective Altruism movement, it was because philosophy students much younger than me, people like Toby Ord and Will MacAskill, read ‘Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, as so many students did, as part of their undergraduate philosophy training. And then they remembered it and they thought about it. And they started to think, “Mmm, maybe there is something here that's important that I should be doing something about.”
WALKER: That all makes sense. I think there's another factor at play here as well. And that is that movements need charismatic figures — even Bitcoin.
SINGER: You think I'm a charismatic figure? I don't think so.
WALKER: [laughs] I think you are, and I'll explain why in a moment.
But even, say, Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto is like an anonymous figure, but he's still a figure. He's still charismatic, even if he is a group of people, whoever he is. You can have different types of charismatic figures, but one clear type is people who self-sacrifice for their beliefs. So famous examples: Jesus, Gandhi. And I guess it goes to this concept of “skin in the game.”
And I think the sort of philosophy that you have done has the virtue of having clear practical implications, which then gives you the opportunity to be a charismatic figure insofar as you actually adhere to those recommendations yourself —because you don't eat meat, because you give such a significant portion of your income, you win a million dollar prize and you donate it to charity. That kind of gives you the opportunity to be a charismatic figure, in a way that many other philosophers don't have the opportunity (a) because their philosophy doesn't have clear practical implications, and then (b) you also need to then take that step of actually having skin in the game.
SINGER: Well, thanks. I certainly don't claim to be the Messiah or a Jesus comparison, or somebody as self-sacrificing as Gandhi was either. I do think it's important to show that you live your values. I agree with that. And that has probably been important, as you're suggesting. Whether it's made me charismatic, I'm still not prepared to accept that. But I think setting some kind of example… I never claimed to be a saint or to live 100% morally, but doing something substantial in that direction, I think is important.
[1:43:52] WALKER: So we discussed by email a few months ago the interesting fact that a higher proportion of Australian philosophers are utilitarians or consequentialists than in most other countries. What is your explanation for this?
SINGER: One explanation is that Australia is more secular than certainly compared with the United States. And that's almost the first thing I noticed when I went to live in the United States, when I first went to Princeton in 1999. It's really a much more religious country, and not just in these conservative southern states, but in many ways. People would assume religious belief in me. I remember I gave a talk somewhere about animals. And there was a little social gathering afterwards, and a woman came up to me and without any sort of preamble said to me, “Professor Singer, I've always wanted to know, and I'd like to know your view, do you think the animals will be with us in heaven?” I can't imagine an Australian just going up to a professor who’s given a lecture about animals without saying anything about god or an afterlife (which I don't believe in) and ask that question which just seemed to assume that I thought there was a heaven. So I think that's part of it. Obviously — well maybe it's not obvious — because you can be a Christian and a utilitarian, and there have been examples of that, but generally, religions teach sets of rules, which are contrary to utilitarianism. So I think being a relatively secular country is part of it.
Judith Brett, a professor of history, wrote this book about Australian democracy and why we do elections better than some other countries.
SINGER: Yes, that was it. So she's comparing us with the United States and many ways in which we do elections much better than the United States, in which we have different underlying philosophies. Her point is the United States was founded by people… many people had left Britain and some other countries to escape tyranny, and then they founded the nation in rebellion against George III, and they have this Declaration of Rights. And so they're really very concerned about tyrannical government. That's a dominant thing for them. And so they are very strong on erecting individual rights and safeguards of those rights against tyrannical governments.
Whereas Australia was settled later, and at least some of the people who came to Australia — and perhaps the ones who were most politically active in Australia in the relatively early days of the settlement of Australia — were political radicals, including people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs who'd been struggling for democracy in Britain and were imprisoned for it and sent out to Australia. And they were actually influenced by Jeremy Bentham. So whereas the Americans were influenced by doctrines like John Locke and the limits on government and the rights of humans in nature, influential people in Australia were influenced by more utilitarian thinking. And maybe some of that stuck. And we still are influenced by the fact that the British government deported these political radicals to Australia.
WALKER: Have you heard of this book, The Founding of New Societies? Not sure whether it's quoted in Brett’s book, but it makes that argument that it's like a shard kind of splintered off mainland Europe at the time of the founding of the US colonies and then Australia. And that kind of preserved whatever was the dominant political ideology at the time of the splitting. And yeah, so for America, they're thinking more about Locke when they're drafting their constitution. Australians were thinking more about Bentham when they're drafting theirs.
Keith Hancock also had some words to say about this in his book Australia, in the 1930s (or whenever it was published) about how… You know the line about “Australians view their government as a vast public utility”?
SINGER: Yeah, yeah.
WALKER: For me this raises another question, which is… So, I think most people are deontologists at an individual level, but then they kind of expect their government to be utilitarian. Not sure whether you agree with that claim?
SINGER: Right. Bob Goodin wrote something along those lines: Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy.
WALKER: Yeah, exactly. So, maybe Australians expect their government to be especially utilitarian for these historical, contingent reasons that you've outlined. But then, I guess, that still leaves the question of: what's the channel or the mechanism from that political ideology to then so many individuals being utilitarians in a totalising sense?
SINGER: I really don't know the answer to that. I guess there’s something in the water that leads that way. It's hard to say. But at least we're not pushing against this rights view.
But certainly, again, another thing I noticed when I came to the United States and to philosophy in the United States, was that utilitarianism was thought of by quite a lot of people as something of historical influence. But surely, we've moved beyond that, because we understand the importance of human rights. And so you're always, in a sense, having an uphill battle to be taken seriously as a utilitarian.
And I never felt that in Australia, even though the first class in ethics I took was taken by H.J. McCloskey, who was a deontologist and was an opponent of utilitarianism. But he was certainly open to people defending utilitarianism and never tried to ridicule it or anything like that. He just took it very seriously as did other philosophers.
WALKER: Funny, it struck me. You almost see the difference in the two cultures reflected in the architecture as well. When you walk through Washington, all the national monuments are in a beautiful classical design. You walk through Canberra, it's all like brutalist architecture. Much more utilitarian.
SINGER: Yes, that may be true. Although, those are period things, right? It depends when things get built or replaced.
WALKER: Yeah maybe. Just like ideas.
To the extent that secularism is a factor underpinning Australian utilitarianism, reflecting on your personal journey, do you feel like that is a better explanation of your origins as a utilitarian than Tyler Cowen's explanation of Peter Singer as a Jewish moralist? Remember the 2009 BloggingHeads interview you did with him and he put this idea to?
SINGER: Yes, I think the secular explanation is much better. I have a Jewish family background, but certainly I've never been a religious Jew. And I've also never really been part of Jewish cultural institutions. I didn't attend a Jewish school. My parents were very assimilationist. They sent me to Scotch College, a Presbyterian private school, because they thought that would be best for me. And many people ask me whether the Holocaust background in my family — because three of my four grandparents were murdered by the Nazis — has some inputs. Maybe that does, but that's still not the same as being a Jewish moralist, I don't think. I think it's much more of a secularism.
WALKER: Last two questions. If we look back at the history of life on Earth through a hedonistic lens, has it been good, on the whole?
SINGER: No, I don't think it has been good, on the whole. I think there's probably been more suffering. Or the amount of suffering and the severity of the suffering probably outweighs the good in the past. I think the balance is changing. I think the balance has changed over the centuries. And particularly, I would say the balance changed, let's say, from the second half of the 20th century — things seem to get significantly better. And I think, despite the fact that we've now got a major war going on in Europe and climate change is still an uncontrolled threat, I think that there's grounds to be more optimistic today than they have been in earlier parts of human history.
WALKER: And what are those grounds? What are the best reasons to think that the future will be good overall?
SINGER: Much wider education. Literacy is 90% or something like that — never was that sort of level previously. Science and technology have made huge advances and enable us to feed ourselves without too much problem for most of the world. The proportion of the world's population that is hungry is smaller than it ever was. And of course, there's a lot of health innovations. We talked about the plague not that long ago. We deal much better with COVID than people were able to deal with bubonic plague. I think there's a lot of things like that.
WALKER: Peter Singer, thank you for joining me.
SINGER: Thank you. It's really been a very engaging and stimulating conversation.
WALKER: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.