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