Peter Singer: The Pursuit of Happiness

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  • Created on: 31-05-12 13:08


Peter Singer: The Pursuit of Happiness

Read the interview between Peter Singer and Ronald Bailey for Reason magazine to find out more about Singer’s philosophical theories.

The Pursuit of Happiness, Peter Singer interviewed by Ronald Bailey

The New Yorker calls him ‘the most influential living philosopher’. His critics call him ‘the most dangerous man in the world’. Peter Singer, the De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, is most widely and controversially known for his view that animals have the same moral status as humans. He is the author of many books, including Practical Ethics (1979), Rethinking Life and Death (1995), and Animal Liberation (1975), which has sold more than 450,000 copies. This year he published Writings on an Ethical Life (Ecco Press) and A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution, and Cooperation (Yale University Press), which argues that the left must replace Marx with Darwin if it is to remain a viable force.

Singer is perhaps the most thoroughgoing philosophical utilitarian since Jeremy Bentham. As such, he believes animals have rights because the relevant moral consideration is not whether a being can reason or talk but whether it can suffer. Jettisoning the traditional distinction between humans and nonhumans, Singer distinguishes instead between persons and non-persons. Persons are beings that feel, reason, have self-awareness, and look forward to a future. Thus, fetuses and some very impaired human beings are not persons in his view and have a lesser moral status than, say, adult gorillas and chimpanzees.

Given such views, it was no surprise that anti-abortion activists and disability rights advocates loudly decried the Australian-born Singer's appointment at Princeton last year. Indeed, his language regarding the treatment of disabled human beings is at times appallingly similar to the eugenic arguments used by Nazi theorists concerning "life unworthy of life." Singer, however, believes that only parents, not the state, should have the power to make decisions about the fates of disabled infants.

Singer has made similarly controversial plunges into social policy. In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, he argued that the affluent in developed countries are killing people by not giving away to the poor all of their wealth in excess of their needs. How did he come to this conclusion? ‘If…allowing someone to die is not intrinsically different from killing someone, it would seem that we are all murderers’, he explains in Practical Ethics. He calculates that the average American household needs $30,000 per year; to avoid murder, anything over that should be given away to the poor. ‘So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000’, he wrote in the Times.

Rigorous adherence to a single principle has a way of hoisting one by one's own petard. Singer's mother suffers from severe Alzheimer's disease, and so she no longer qualifies as a person by his own standards, yet he spends considerable sums on her care. This apparent contradiction of his principles has not gone unnoticed by the media. When I asked