June 2, 2021 - 3:30pm

Any decent list of the most influential living philosophers will include Peter Singer. For nearly 50 years, the Australian ethicist has been at the forefront of progressive politics — his ideas about animal rights and effective altruism have shaped those debates ever since the 80s and his brand of utilitarian progressive thought continues to dominate.

More controversially, his writing against the sanctity of life and in favour of the morality of ending the lives of highly disabled infants have angered the Conservative Right as much as the disability lobby on the Left. He has been “cancelled” before the term even existed, with invitations to speak retracted multiple times over the years.

Now he is co-Editor of a new “Journal of Controversial Ideas” which seeks to provide anonymity and safe publication for philosophical essays that touch on topics that might otherwise get the authors “cancelled.”

I wanted to know whether the brand of ultra-utilitarian, universalist, progressive thought of which he is such a famous proponent has somehow got out of hand and come back to haunt him? Does he feel that defining virtue by our ability to overrule the natural order of things and care as much for faraway people as we do our loved ones in any way led to the populist backlash of 2016? Now that he is founding publications to protect against cancel culture, is he running from a monster that he helped create?

I put these questions to him, and and more (including a discussion about his new book ‘The Golden Ass‘), in a highly enjoyable conversation. Many thanks to Peter for sparing the time.

On the contemporary Left:

They see themselves as defending people who are underprivileged, marginalised, disadvantaged. They want to extend that defence, not just to improving their social and economic position and preventing discrimination against them, but also making sure that they’re not offended by remarks that are made. And that brings it into conflict with ideas of freedom of speech because if merely the fact that you might offend somebody is a grounds for preventing you speaking, there’s not a lot of freedom of speech.
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

Does he feel hoisted on his own petard?

No, I don’t think that because I’ve always been an advocate of freedom of speech. And in fact I think freedom of speech has been something that the Left traditionally has championed. 
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On identity politics:

The idea that if you’re a white male, that somehow this discredits you
 doesn’t seem to me at all a defensible view. I think we should look at what people say in terms of how well argued is this? Do the ideas hold up to critical scrutiny? Not in terms of what’s the race or ethnicity or sex of the person who was saying it?
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On critical race theory:

People who describe themselves as proponents of critical race theory make racism just so all-encompassing as an explanation and don’t really recognise the genuine and helpful efforts that have been made to make society less racist and to provide more opportunities for people, irrespective of their race.
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On open borders:

I’ve never been an advocate of open borders. Although in theory, I think a world with open borders would be great. But as a matter of political pragmatism, I’ve never thought we were ready for that. 
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

Is the failure to accept open borders a moral shortcoming or a fact of human nature?

It is both the fact of human nature and a moral shortcoming. I think it’s a fact of human nature that we should not celebrate, because it shows that we have an element of xenophobia: fear or hatred of strangers in our nature. And I accept that it’s part of our biological nature, I don’t deny that. And reason and ethical argument is not always powerful enough to overcome some of these facts of our nature. 
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On pragmatic idealism:

In a democracy, you can’t get too far ahead of where people are, you have to bring people along with you. Sometimes people and political leaders should do more than they are doing to bring people along with them.
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On why he started the Journal of Controversial ideas:

We were worried about the fact that people, particularly more junior untenured, academics, would be intimidated against publishing something controversial, for fear that this could do harm to their career, or personally that they would get such abuse that they would not be able to handle it.
- Peter Singer, UnHerd

On his new book, ‘The Golden Ass’:

It’s a Roman novel…which was written in the second century of the Common Era. Apuleius was born in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and died probably in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. So it’s about a man who gets turned into a donkey because he dabbles in magic rather foolishly and has a bit of bad luck, and becomes a donkey and can’t get out of it for some time.

Apuleius had enough empathy with a donkey to describe various forms of cruel treatment that donkeys were enduring in the Roman Empire…There’s a lot of empathy with animals. And that was certainly what first attracted me to it.

- Peter Singer, UnHerd


Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.