by Freddie Sayers
Wednesday, 2
June 2021
Video
15:30

Peter Singer: Despite everything, I’m still a cosmopolitan

The moral philosopher discusses whether his progressive worldview has come back to haunt him
by Freddie Sayers

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.


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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

 

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
1 year ago

One would be challenged to find a more amoral philosophy than utilitarianism. Give him some credit for recognizing that the left today sees no boundaries; the idea of helping the disadvantaged has shifted to infantilizing them, which has the polar opposite effect of the original intent. Maybe that intent was not so genuine, after all; increasingly, grievance serves as an industry rather than a cause and for some causes, it has degenerated into a racket.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The real problem with “utility” is “useful to whom?” or “to what?” A majority? Since Singer attempts to dignify animals with a quasi-human moral status, his “majority” must refer to “living beings”, which leaves “utility” as a mere chaos, rather than a criterion.

Dennis
Dennis
1 year ago
Reply to  Simon Denis

“Usefulness to whom” doesn’t pose a problem to utilitarianism because there isn’t a philosopher king deciding what utility *is* and how to maximize it. No person matters more than another. And each person has different values. Therefore, each person decides what utility is for themself.
People will generally tell you what makes them happy and what doesn’t. And even when they don’t (or they’re mistaken), they reveal their preferences by the choices they make. The same is true of animals. He doesn’t dignify animals with human moral status, because his moral framework was never human to begin with.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by chaos because that word means different things to different people. But I get the impression that you think the absence of moral central planning will lead to problems.
The western legal system is based on Jeremy Bentham’s conception of utilitarianism. When people make choices that increase their utility at the expense of another, we have legal systems to settle disputes. The system works quite well compared to the alternatives and despite the “chaotic” variation in individual utility.

Dennis
Dennis
1 year ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

What do you find amoral about it?

Kremlington Swan
Kremlington Swan
1 year ago

A failure to accept open borders is not a failure at all, it is a success. There are good, practical reasons for having borders in a world where there is such desperate inequality. Open borders mean the end of order. Open borders are effectively an invitation to loot.
Open borders mean those who have more will soon have nothing at all, because they will be completely displaced. For evidence of that look at any wholly colonised country.

Open borders would lead to an influx so overwhelming that the very infrastructure of the open bordered country would collapse, because so many would come who have no capacity to contribute to the level required to sustain it.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kremlington Swan
Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago

“And in fact I think freedom of speech has been something that the Left traditionally has championed. “
This doesn’t much matter since the left no longer champions free speech, in fact, the left stifles free speech in any case in which someone disagrees.
We have to live in the world as it is today. This is the problem with philosophers, they often want to pretend we can live in the past. Where is the evidence that the left can ever get to champion free speech? While philosophers are nice and all looking back, what the left needs is someone who will actually fight for free speech, someone brave enough to go against the leftist tide of squelching free speech, which is a right that must be continually re-won. Where is that brave progressive or leftie? No sign of them yet.

Last edited 1 year ago by Annette Kralendijk
Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

It all depends who is in the ascendent and who is in power. Whoever is in power will seek to protect their position, whoever is in the ascendant will aim to subvert them to gain power for themselves. Right now the left are in power and the right are the counter-culture. Which seems weird to those of us who have never know anything but the other way around.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

You must be about 150 years old, because (at least in a cultural sense) the Left has been ascendant since the 1950s, across the West.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

When I grew up the right were most definitely in charge but the left were in the ascendant. All the ‘cool kids’ were lefties fighting the implacably conservative establishment. The left has now entirely won the culture war and become the establishment – it just doesn’t realise it.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Cheryl Jones

“It all depends who is in the ascendent and who is in power”
absolutely not. Regardless of who is in political office, the left needs a free speech champion, someone unafraid to buck the leftist tide of squelching speech.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
1 year ago

This is why I miss The Hitch so much

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
1 year ago

If by ‘the Left’ you mean the currently dominant voices on the left then I have to agree with you. But those of us lefties of the libertarian persuasion are still around, and our day may yet return, who knows? I’m proud to be a socialist, free speech advocate and lockdown sceptic, but I admit it can be lonely at times.

Annette Kralendijk
Annette Kralendijk
1 year ago
Reply to  Jerry Smith

I’m a libertarian myself. Libertarians are not, in my view, leftists due to their distaste for authoritarian government. Progressives and the left are both in favor of authoritarianism.
Socialism, due to its dependence on government control of most facets of people’s lives are also not libertarian. they are diametrically opposed in fact.

Stainy
Stainy
1 year ago

Be warned. Singer’s Golden Ass is abridged and has a modern conclusion. There are lots of good translations of the text that has survived. Apuleius included details if the Isis cult in this work. It is of interest in its own right, not as a modern tale of human morality applied to animals.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

People like Singer have a lot to answer for, such as the fact that Sweden now has the highest murder rate in Europe, a fact that even the Swedish media is now acknowledging. (They will still blame middle class white men, but at least they are acknowledging the facts).