Peter Singer: The World’s Most Dangerous Philosopher

LUKE ILOTT speaks to Peter Singer, the philosopher once labelled “the most dangerous man on earth”.

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I’ll admit: I was a little anxious to hear that I would be interviewing Peter Singer. An Australian moral philosopher once labelled “the most dangerous man on earth” and who Cambridge’s Jenny Teichman said proposed an ethical system “resembl[ing] Nazism in some ways,” Singer has argued for euthanasia at birth for the severely handicapped, for the legalisation of bestiality, and for placing higher moral value on great apes over humans with extreme mental disabilities.

Is the current concept of charity misguided?

“What I think is misguided is the idea of charity not being obligatory. I’m trying to get people to see it as essential to an ethical life. Assuming they have adequate income – some to spare – I’m trying to get people to see altruism as essential to an ethical life, like not violating ‘thou shalt not murder’ and all of those other things.”

What’s wrong with conventional ideas of morality?

“People tend to determine right or wrong by looking at what they do, and neglect what they omit to do. When we allow preventable things to happen, the consequences of that might be far more serious than infractions to other moral rules that people take quite seriously.”


How much is ‘enough’ altruism?

“I think there’s an ideal level beyond which you wouldn’t want to go. It’s an extreme level, as we have so much when there are people in such need. But I don’t think that’s the standard to advocate in a society where people give so little anyway. It’s good to take a more achievable benchmark. Giving What We Can has the 10% standard as part of the pledge. In my book “The Life You Can Save” there’s a different standard starting lower and ending up higher, dependent on what income you earn. Hopefully, once people begin something significant, they find it’s not difficult, even rewarding, in fact, and work their way up.”

How do you define an effective career?

“An effective career is one where you benefit the world as much as possible. Your career is something you spend a large amount of time and energy on – 80,000 hours – and therefore one should consciously choose to make a significant difference, and expect to get some satisfaction and well-being, from their career. But that’s very general advice; the decision is going to depend on individual talent and character.”

Is pursuing effective altruism as, say, an investment banker, fundamentally contradictory?

“In a way you have to grasp the argument that Will Crouch has put forward: if you don’t become an aid worker, someone almost as good as you will, and they will have almost the same impact as you. If you don’t become an investment banker someone else will and will probably do pretty much the same bad – or let’s just say morally dubious – things as you, but they won’t have given a significant portion of their income to charity, which you would have.”

Banking: a “morally dubious” profession

Effective altruism emphasises rationality. What are the potential dangers of over-emphasising rationality?

“Logically following my position, you might say: “It’s wrong to spend more on yourself or your children or a sick relative, rather than giving to where it’s most effective”. But what I suggest is that we should try and get people to do something altruistic, and not be too critical of them if they don’t go the whole way.”

Are effective altruism and solving global poverty the least objectionable of your perspectives?

“I think lots of people object to my views on bioethics and sanctity of life issues from a religious kind of perspective. There are Christians who take seriously what Jesus is reported to have said, and do go very far in helping the poor. To them, effective altruism is the least controversial of my views. For others – I’m thinking of the Ayn Rand type of person– who think that everybody just ought to make money, selfishness is good, the market rewards them for meeting the needs of their customers and so on, effective altruism is very controversial.

Ayn Rand: every man for himself

“They think it undermines both the incentive for hard work–  I think they’re confused about this – and the right to keep what you’ve earned. I’m not saying there isn’t a right to property. There may be a right, but it may still remain that to be ethical, you ought to give much of it away.”

Without religious commandments or a categorical imperative, is there is enough impetus for people to follow utilitarian ethics?

“An interesting thing about the effective altruism movement is how both religious and secular people agree on the goals. On the evidence so far, I would say, yes, plenty of people are motivated sufficiently by knowing what difference they can make without religious backing to do it. I don’t know whether a limit will be reached.

“I think the movement will continue to grow but maybe at some point it will begin to plateau. That may be because there’s still people who aren’t motivated by the difference they can make. But I don’t want to identify effective altruism with utilitarianism.”

I breathe a sigh of relief – but then quickly lurch forward and gulp it back up open-mouthed when I realise that no amount of huffing, puffing and loudly condemning a ‘Nazi-like’ philosophical position will enable me to shrug the duty of effective altruism off my shoulders.

“What was that?” Singer asks, smiling. “You looked like a goldfish. If only you were one – we could have had a conversation as equals.”

If you are looking for an effective career: 80,000 Hours: Cambridge Chapter.
If you are hoping to give effectively: Giving What We Can: Cambridge Chapter.