The Life You Can Save: Peter Singer at The Cambridge Union

Paul Norris 25 June 2020
Image Credits: The Life You Can Save

It is often seen as a puzzle that Peter Singer should be so compassionate to animal life while disregarding human life. It is a tension summed up in a newspaper headline from two decades ago: ‘Professor Pleasure—Or Professor Death?’[1] Another calls him ‘The most dangerous man in the world’.[2] His utilitarian philosophy attempts to bring precision into the muddy world of our ethical lives, assessing actions based only on their consequences. The best act is the one which maximises living beings’ pleasure and flourishing and minimises their pain. This produces conclusions which are anathema to our conventional thinking about life and death.

Despite his reputation for being a heartless moral calculator, Singer recognises the limits of his striving for precision (the Latin praecīsiō, which gives us ‘precision’, means ‘cutting off’ or ‘overreaching’). When discussing the extent of the difference in value between humans and animals in Practical Ethics, Singer notes: ‘Precision is not essential’.[3] We treat animals so badly that even if we always prioritised human preferences over animals’, recognising animals’ suffering as of any moral worth would require a radical change in our behaviour.

Many of the radical changes Singer proposes are uncomfortable, even repulsive. The most controversial is his defence of parents’ right to kill their children shortly after birth, and his belief that a child’s disability is a valid reason for making this decision.

Singer’s philosophy is radically impersonal. He downplays our usual moral preoccupations: duty to family and those closest to us, even our duties to members of our own species, which he labels ‘speciesism’. Perhaps his most famous insight comes in the widely-anthologised 1975 essay ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’. His argument is uncompromising and his language cuttingly austere. Take his thought experiment of a passer-by seeing a child drowning in a pool:

if I am walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning in it, I ought to wade in and pull the child out. This will mean getting my clothes muddy, but this is insignificant, while the death of the child would presumably be a very bad thing.[4]

Singer extends the obligation to save lives, even at personal inconvenience, to everyone in a position of relative affluence: we ought to spend our money altruistically, not on unnecessary luxuries. The force of his prose is difficult to resist.

Singer extends the obligation to save lives, even at personal inconvenience, to everyone in a position of relative affluence: we ought to spend our money altruistically, not on unnecessary luxuries.

I was nervous to interview a figure who loomed large over my A-level Philosophy course and spent the morning recalling objections to his arguments and arranging my camera to maximise the number of books in the background. True to form, Singer had clearly not wasted his money on an expensive webcam, but though his appearance lacked clarity, his answers did not.

Aware of his preference for efficiency, I skipped the small talk about how he is managing under lockdown and went straight into asking him how we can incorporate utilitarianism into our lives when our psychology is so resistant to it, preferring to help those who are close to us, both geographically and (more sinisterly) in appearance and behaviour. It emerged over our brief conversation that he is pragmatic about the means people use to motivate themselves to do good, which is one of the appealing things about his ethical system: existing moral priorities can be slotted into it.

But rather than seeing traditional moral imperatives (chiefly the cultivation of virtues or obedience to laws) as ends in themselves, for Singer, they are means which serve his overarching normative theory. Guilt, for instance, is in a utilitarian sense ‘bad’ as it is a negative emotion. Bernard Williams accuses Singer of creating ‘a sense of indeterminate guilt’ in his readers, a tactic which ‘is likely to be counterproductive and to lead to a defensive and resentful contraction of concern’.[5] But for Singer, guilt can be ‘a useful motivator, but where it’s not a useful motivator then it’s purely negative’.[6]

But for Singer, guilt can be ‘a useful motivator, but where it’s not a useful motivator then it’s purely negative’.

Given how ingrained our speciesism is, I wondered what Singer thought were the most effective ways of making people change the way they regard animals. He said the conventional wisdom is that people are more swayed by feelings than arguments, but that in a recent study he found there was no statistically significant difference between a rational and an emotional appeal. Combining facts and emotive imagery is probably the best way of ‘expanding the circle’, as Singer termed the extension of our moral horizons in his eponymous 1981 book.

In his Union talk Singer listed animals which we might consider worthy of moral consideration from most to least domesticated: ‘a dog or a cat, or a pig or a chicken’. I asked if he thought household pets were useful to the environmental movement despite their carbon footprint. He agreed that they could be ‘a gateway’ for people, as they realise their pets desire and suffer as we do and that other animals are ‘just as smart or just as capable of feeling’. Singer cited the activist Henry Spira, who first confronted animals’ feelings while taking care of a friend’s cat.

This is a perfect example of Singer’s pragmatism. A more absolutist environmentalist might object to pets as wasteful, or the subjugation of animals to human use. But Singer can see the good they do. His ethics are forward-looking not only in the sense of being at the vanguard of social changes like animal rights and fighting poverty, but also in the more profound sense that present action is less important than its future results.

In his Union talk Singer even applied this approach to dismantling capitalism, an undertaking he does not explicitly support. This is not out of a political commitment to capitalism, but the knowledge that creating an alternative would take a long time (he can’t see it happening in the near future) and there are lives we can save immediately by redistributing capital.

Singer’s philosophy is not based on grand political ambitions, but the belief that science (in the broadest sense) can resolve human problems, both material and conceptual. Faced with the problem of how to use consequentialist ethics in our day-to-day lives, where constantly pausing to calculate each action’s utility would be impossible, Singer suggests we can use ‘prima facie rules’ but with a willingness to break them in ‘unusual circumstances’. Faced with objections to the coldness of utilitarian philosophy, Singer turns to moral psychology to find ways of integrating his ethics into an individual life-narrative or sense of self. Singer suggests that our feeling that it is wrong to kill one person to save twenty is an evolutionary hangover from when humans lived in small groups, one which hinders our ability to think about problems on the scale posed by modern life.

This is only a partial response to the critique of Singer posed by Williams, that utilitarianism is too impersonal, divorced from actual life experience. Williams accepts that an evolutionary genealogy of morality, like any truthful history, would reveal ‘a radical contingency in our current ethical conceptions’.[7] Such a history would show that our ethical conceptions developed to serve a particular function. It would not show that this function is no longer valuable. Williams points out that not all genealogies of morality are as hostile as Nietzsche’s: Hume’s genealogy of justice vindicates the concept it historicises. So even if we have merely evolutionary reasons for being the kind of species that revolts at killing one person for the sake of twenty, we can’t alter the fact that we are this kind of species. For Williams, morality is best-placed accepting this.

In this sense, the utilitarian seems like Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’ Bleak House, who neglects her family for the sake of her philanthropic comments. The narrator surmises that if Mrs. Jellyby ‘had discharged her own natural duties and obligations before she swept the horizon with a telescope in search of others, she would have taken the best precautions against becoming absurd’.[8] For Singer, the harsh judgement of Mrs. Jellyby should, if anything, reveal our own prejudice towards helping those close to us, rather than any grave moral deficiency in the woman herself, as Williams might believe.

Singer is not afraid of being considered absurd, but his disinterested approach leads him to conclusions which seem palpably inhumane. He unquestionably has the courage of his convictions. But disability activists, particularly in Western countries, have condemned his alleged willingness to sacrifice the lives of the disabled on the altar of efficiency. To such assertions, he responds that anyone who reads his work would know that his concern is with avoiding needless suffering, not with ‘efficiency’.

CUSU’s Disabled Student Campaign objected to Singer’s appearance at the Union on the grounds of his ‘abhorrent and violently ableist beliefs’ which have ‘caused disabled people so much trauma’. Their statement is powerful and emotive, centred on the principle that ‘disabled people’s right to live is not up for debate’. In Singer’s own terms, this is not something he would disagree with. Once anyone is an adult with autonomy and preferences for their future, they unquestionably have the right to live. Singer suggests, however, that parents’ right to decide whether or not to bring up a child should not end after the child is born. And, more controversially still, that a child’s disability is a valid reason for ending their life, even outside the womb.

Among the readings CUSU DSC proposes as an alternative to hearing Singer speak is a long and beautiful article by the late Harriet McBryde Johnson.[9] It concludes with an impassioned dialogue between Harriet and her sister Beth. Harriet ultimately defends Singer’s role in ethical discourse, despite finding his views abhorrent:

He stirs the pot, brings things out into the open. But ultimately we’ll make a world that’s fit to live in, a society that has room for all its flawed creatures. History will remember Singer as a curious example of the bizarre things that can happen when paradigms collide.

Harriet writes without complete certainty. The dialogue didn’t really happen: she dropped the conversation after Beth called Singer a ‘monster’. So the voice of ‘Beth’ is really the voice of Harriet, uncertain whether she was right to give Singer a hearing, or if his beliefs are shared by most people, though generally less clearly articulated:

If I define Singer’s kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value.

This would mean, unfortunately, that as many people are monsters as not.

I don’t agree with Singer on infanticide, nor on the relative prospective value of a disabled child’s life versus a non-disabled child. I don’t agree with him that emotions are a moral irrelevance. But I am glad that he spoke at the Union and glad that I had a chance to speak to him. If we refuse to accede to Singer’s view of the world, we have learned something about ourselves, both good and bad. The good might be our value for all lives regardless of their physical or mental ability. The bad might be our inability to extend this consideration to animals and people whom we can’t see.

If we refuse to accede to Singer’s view of the world, we have learned something about ourselves, both good and bad. The good might be our value for all lives regardless of their physical or mental ability. The bad might be our inability to extend this consideration to animals and people whom we can’t see.

In another CUSU-endorsed critique of Singer, Katie Booth wonders, ‘if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities’.[10] This doesn’t stop her hating the ideas, and in some ways, she is right to. But listening to him revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have a tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life.

So, although Booth is critical of Singer, she is also critical of the ‘intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside’, without listening to his case at all. This is the kind of righteous anger that stops potentially productive, albeit often painful, conversations before they have a chance to develop.

Recent political conversation has dwelled on how we should commemorate our past. Singer applies the scrutiny to flesh and blood conventions that we more readily apply to statues of the dead. He forces us to recognise that if our descendants last long enough to look back, our age will be defined as much by animal suffering and global inequality as by our cultural and technological achievements. Philosophers like Singer are violently uncomfortable because, as Nietzsche suggests, they create and destroy in the same gesture:

With a creative hand they reach for the future, and all that is and has been becomes a means for them, an instrument, a hammer.[11]

Having glimpsed Singer’s future, I hope we can recover what he discards. Yet there is value in seeing the world through Singer’s eyes, not only in making us recognise the lacunae of globalised capitalism, but also in making us realise how much we value the ethical imperatives he excludes. Ignoring Singer completely would leave the world immeasurably poorer and (for Singer, perhaps more importantly) measurably poorer too.

Peter Singer is the founder of The Life You Can Save, an organisation dedicated to exploring ways we can best improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty. 

[1] Naomi Schaefer, ‘Professor Pleasure—Or Professor Death?’, Wall Street Journal, 25 September 1998 <> [accessed 16 June 2020].
[2] Kevin Toolis, ‘The Most Dangerous Man in the World’, The Guardian, 6 November 1999, section Life and style <> [accessed 12 June 2020].
[3] Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 52–53.
[4] Ibid, p. 231.
[5] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, ed. by A.W. Moore (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006), p. 234.
[6] Mark Linsenmayer, ‘Peter Singer on Famine, Affluence, and Morality’, Partially Examined Life <> [accessed 16 June 2020].
[7] Bernard Williams, Truth & Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004), p. 20.
[8] Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ed. by Nicola Bradbury (London; New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 610.
[9] Harriet McBryde Johnson, ‘Unspeakable Conversations’, The New York Times, 16 February 2003, section Magazine <> [accessed 12 June 2020].
[10] Katie Booth, ‘What I Learned about Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer’, Aeon, 2018 <> [accessed 12 June 2020].
[11] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. by Walter Arnold Kaufmann, A Modern Library Giant, Modern library ed (New York: Modern Library, 1992), p. 326.