Ethics for the rich

Peter Singer asks un­com­fort­able ques­tions about our ul­ti­mate re­spon­si­bil­ity for other peo­ple, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

PETER Singer doesn’t just ir­ri­tate peo­ple, he en­rages them. When he ar­rived at Prince­ton Uni­ver­sity, where he is pro­fes­sor of bioethics, a decade ago, demon­stra­tors against him pick­eted so ag­gres­sively 14 of them were ar­rested. Dis­abled peo­ple be­lieve he wants them dead. Hobby hun­ters and feed­lot op­er­a­tors in the US prob­a­bly want dead, and even or­di­nary meat-eaters may think his an­i­mal rights agenda kind of kooky.

Yet Aus­tralia’s most out-there philoso­pher couldn’t be more agree­able in per­son. Sit­ting at a pic­nic ta­ble re­cently, near his hol­i­day house at An­gle­sea on Vic­to­ria’s Great Ocean Road, he smiled a lot and pref­aced many of his points with a ten­ta­tive ‘‘ I think’’. Ve­gan-thin, tanned and fit-looking for his 62 years, he treats con­ver­sa­tion as a two-way street, pass­ing ideas back and forth.

Singer has al­ways asked a lot from his fel­low hu­man be­ings: that we give till it hurts, re­spect an­i­mals as we re­spect our­selves, con­sider coolly such flint-hearted ar­gu­ments as the needs of strangers and the drain on so­cial re­sources in de­ci­sions about life and death.

His very pub­lic philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tions on abor­tion, vol­un­tary euthana­sia, in­fan­ti­cide, stem-cell re­search, an­i­mal rights and char­ity have got him into trou­ble with all sides of pol­i­tics, from re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives to freemar­ket cap­i­tal­ists to dis­abil­ity ac­tivists. Much of his ten­ure at Prince­ton has co­in­cided with the Bush pres­i­dency — he ar­rived there 18 months be­fore Ge­orge W. Bush was elected — dur­ing which time the evan­gel­i­cal Right, which must con­sider him an agent of the devil, has set much of the po­lit­i­cal and eth­i­cal agenda in the US.

‘‘ I think it made me feel needed,’’ Singer says mildly.

It didn’t change agenda. That has re­mained much the same since his days as a stu­dent at the Uni­ver­sity of Mel­bourne in the 1960s, when the times rad­i­calised him ( his num­ber came up in the draft bal­lot, but he was never called up to serve in Viet­nam) and his teach­ers in the phi­los­o­phy depart­ment honed his abil­ity to rea­son.

In­deed, Singer’s lat­est book,

I was more

, is an elab­o­ra­tion of an ar­ti­cle, called

, pub­lished in 1972 in a new jour­nal of ap­plied ethics.

‘‘ I’ve never aban­doned the topic,’’ he says, re­fer­ring to the ar­ti­cle’s reap­pear­ance in an­tholo­gies; to the chap­ter in his book,

, first pub­lished in 1979 and re­vived in the 1990s; and to lengthy pieces he wrote for mag­a­zine, most re­cently in 2006.

In the new book, he ar­gues for a rad­i­cal ex­ten­sion of our no­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity for oth­ers: well be­yond the min­i­mum tax re­quired by law to a hefty per­cent­age of dis­cre­tionary in­come; and well be­yond our shores, since poverty in the West is rel­a­tive, to the truly mis­er­able who live in dis­tant parts of the world.

To do so, he agrees, we have to sur­mount ap­a­thy, dis­taste, self-in­ter­est and some in­nate psy­cho­log­i­cal pre­dis­po­si­tions. Not to do so not only goes against the teach­ing of most re­li­gions but, from his athe­ist point of view, against ar­gu­ments that are, philo­soph­i­cally speak­ing, a lay-down mis­ere.

He starts by set­ting com­pelling ex­er­cises. If you were pass­ing a pond and saw a child drown­ing, would you jump in to save her? Of course you would. If by do­ing so, you couldn’t avoid spoil­ing a lovely pair of ex­pen­sive new shoes, would you still do it? Of course you would: what are shoes com­pared with a life?

If some­one with a leg blood­ily man­gled in an ac­ci­dent stopped you on the road and asked to be taken to hospi­tal, would you do it? Of course you would. Would you do it if you’d just had your car re-uphol­stered at great ex­pense with fine white leather? Would you do it de­spite the up­hol­stery if the man was in dan­ger of los­ing his leg? Of course you would: what’s up­hol­stery com­pared with a leg?

If you had an ex­pen­sive vin­tage car, which not only gave you great plea­sure but was your re­tire­ment nest egg, and by throw­ing a switch at a sid­ing you could save a child play­ing on a rail­way track by di­vert­ing a ru­n­away train to­wards the car, would you throw that switch?

If you said yes to th­ese ques­tions, the next one is: Do you give to aid agen­cies that save lives and limbs in poor coun­tries? And if you do, do you give se­ri­ously, not just in to­ken quan­ti­ties? What is the new car, the ren­o­va­tion, the pricey hand­bag, when peo­ple are dy­ing mis­er­ably of dis­eases long erad­i­cated in the West?

Singer makes a bravura ar­gu­ment. Be­ing a good philoso­pher and not a politi­cian, he can­vasses ev­ery counter-ar­gu­ment.

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