The philosopher Peter Singer, who regularly tops lists of the most influential people worldwide, is known for his controversial, yet highly convincing, utilitarian outlook. Utilitarian ethicists believe that the consequences of an action determine whether or not it’s moral. Grounded in this discipline, Singer has argued, among other things, that:
- Failing to donate excess wealth to those in need is morally equivalent to walking past a fallen child in a pond and allowing them to drown.
- It’s acceptable to kill newborn babies with severe disabilities.
- Bestiality that involves cruelty to animals is immoral, but perfectly ok where it involves “mutually satisfying activities.”
- Refusing to treat animal rights as morally significant to human rights is “speciesism.”
Singer has been hugely influential in shaping the effective altruism movement, which advocates donating 10% of your salary to specific charities that have significant practical impact. He’s also had a major impact in debates around factory farming, veganism, and climate change. He’s recently published a book, Ethics in the Real World, which consists of 82 brief essays written for a non-academic audience. The essays cover whether people who weigh more should pay more on planes, whether adult incest should be illegal, and why donating to batkid was a poor use of money.
Singer is a realist who grapples with some of the most challenging questions facing humanity. He’s also very much an optimist. Though he says political discourse in the US has reached “a new low,” Brexit was a disappointing win for xenophobia, and far-right governments have growing influence, Singer simply doesn’t believe that we’re in a worse situation today than 10, 20, or 40 years ago.
“I’ve always had a reasonably optimistic view of where we’re going, and I’ve tended to look at the positive, in terms of progress that we’re making,” he says. “Globally, the world’s in a much better situation than it’s been in past periods, despite the headlines on the war in Syria and other places where bad things are happening. There have been fewer people killed in wars, or genocides, or other forms of violence in the last decade or two than there have been in any other decade. We ought to take consolation in that.”
Though it’s understandable to be concerned about terrorism, Singer points out that it’s not much of a practical threat—after all, the number of people killed by terrorists is “small compared to the numbers of people killed in car accidents.”
And while the current refugee crisis is the worst since the Second World War, Singer points out that the tens of millions of people currently displaced worldwide are outweighed by the hundreds of millions who have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past 50 years. On balance, he says, the world is getting better.
That’s not to say he’s unconcerned about the current refugee crisis. But Singer suggests that there may now be more refugees in part because it’s become easier to flee disaster and, in previous decades “those who were not displaced were suffering more by staying put.” Though the civil war in Syria is an undeniably terrible humanitarian crisis, Singer says it should not obscure the fact that the world is slowly improving overall.
This doesn’t absolve us of our moral responsibility, of course. Singer believes we have as much of a duty to those overseas as we do to those within our own country. But he recognizes that xenophobia is prevalent, including on the left (he’s disappointed, he adds, that Bernie Sanders “appealed in a somewhat similar way to Trump” to concerns that American jobs are going overseas). And so, given that accepting large numbers of refugees tends to result in surges in harmful far-right sentiment, Singer believes that the most practical solution is to fund the largest refugee camps in less-affluent nations closest to the conflict.
The humanitarian crises worldwide are not only a concern for governments. Singer calls on individuals to gradually increase the amount they give to charity every year (he donated 40% of his salary last year). Similarly, he believes everyone has a moral responsibility to avoid eating meat products or, at the very least, factory-farmed animals.
On the animal rights cause, too, Singer sees reasons for optimism. “Over the last 15 years or so, there’s been legislation that’s really changed the way animals can legally be kept in factory farms in Europe,” he says. “When I started out thinking about animals in the early 1970s, people laughed and said you’ll never change that, you’re trying to fight a huge industry. But actually the animal movement has changed it.”
And, as a leading figure in the animal rights movement, Singer has been a major force behind that change. Given the positive effects Singer’s achieved throughout his own life, it’s not hard to understand his optimistic insistence that we’ll continue to grow and improve in the future. True, there are many tragic events unfolding today, but from a global historical perspective, says Singer, “we can easily get things out of proportion.”