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One of the world’s most controversial philosophers explains himself

The moral philosopher Peter Singer on animal welfare, the ethics of euthanasia, and more.

Peter Singer seen from a low angle with trees in the background.
Peter Singer, Princeton University professor of ethics.
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

When I was in seventh grade, our social studies teacher had us make a poster describing a serious problem in the world. Most people chose poverty, or hunger, or HIV/AIDS. But one friend of mine chose “the philosophy of Peter Singer.”

At the time, I didn’t know that Singer was a big-time professor of bioethics at Princeton, and perhaps the most famous living philosopher in the world. I just saw that this 12-year-old put him on a poster as the most dangerous man in the world, with ideas about abortion and infanticide that posed threats to human life as we know it.

And at age 12, I was kind of a dick, so naturally I responded by going to my nearest bookstore, picking up Singer’s book Writings on an Ethical Life, and reading it performatively in front of my friend as often as possible.

To my great surprise, I found the book pretty compelling. I stopped eating meat because of Singer’s arguments against factory farming. I was moved by his argument that people in rich countries like the US have a moral duty to donate to poorer countries to prevent needless death. I was 12 and had no money, but I started donating when I did.

I wound up studying philosophy in college, and writing about these issues as a journalist, in no small part thanks to Peter Singer. And his ideas are no less controversial now than they were back in 2002 when I was trolling my buddy.

Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation has been credited as the start of the modern animal rights movement. He just released a heavily revised new edition, titled Animal Liberation Now. It covers the dramatic expansion of factory farming since the book’s initial publication, but also the growth in animal activism, plant-based foods, and resistance to “speciesism,” a term he coined. Singer is also on a “world tour” now giving talks in the US, the UK, and Australia.

I wanted to talk to Singer about this book and its legacy, but I didn’t want to just talk about animals. I was also curious about Singer’s writing on euthanasia, specifically of infants with severe disabilities, which has led to furious protests from disability rights activists around the world. (Note that this transcript discusses Singer’s views on those topics, which may be disturbing to some readers.)

You can hear the full conversation, including much more discussion about animals and a long talk about the disgraced Singer-inspired former billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, on Vox’s podcast The Gray Area. Here are a few excerpts, edited for length and clarity.

Dylan Matthews

Fifty years ago, you were laying out the ideological principles behind the animal welfare movement. Now we’re able to look back at the movement’s concrete attempts to help animals and see what worked and what didn’t.

How would you characterize the lessons you’ve learned from that track record? Were there some false starts, or some particularly promising actions from the vantage point of animal liberation?

Peter Singer

The first lesson is, it’s harder than I thought. I thought that there was a really clear argument against the way we were treating animals. I had never considered myself an animal lover, and yet I was appalled to learn about the details of what we do to animals in factory farms and in labs.

I wasn’t certain of it by any means, but I thought there was a reasonable chance that this book would, as we would say today, go viral, that people would say, “Oh, this is terrible. I’m gonna stop eating factory-farmed products.” That would spread, they would tell their friends, and it would become sort of a taboo to eat an animal who had been reared in that way.

But eating habits turned out to be more deeply entrenched. Even people who were persuaded by the argument, some of them continued to eat meat, even factory-farmed meat. That’s still the case today.

Another lesson learned is that the use of violence on behalf of animals doesn’t work. That was a period when some people took the lessons of animal liberation to say, “We have this exploited group, the exploitation is continuing, we are justified in using whatever means we can to stop it.” Although it was a tiny group of people, there were letter bombs sent to experimenters.

It really backfired quite badly, because it enabled our opponents to brand us as terrorists. I think the movement lost influence for a time and took some years to recover from that.

As to what works and what doesn’t, it depends where you are. In parliamentary democracies, like the United Kingdom and the European Union, it was possible to get change. I’m not talking about the kind of change I wanted, of course, but significant reforms and improvements in some of the conditions for animals. It was possible to get that through conventional political channels by showing that it mattered to voters what policy you had on animals.

In the United States, that hasn’t been true, except in those states that have the possibility of citizen-initiated referendums. There, it’s worked. California is the best example. California has twice passed propositions for farm animals, including Proposition 12, which was just upheld by the Supreme Court. But otherwise, you have to go through trying to influence the big corporations, and that’s what the movement has done in the United States, targeting corporations from McDonald’s to the supermarket chains, getting them to improve their treatment of animals.

That’s made progress, but less progress than in the European Union. To give one example, if you take the cages that egg-laying hens are standardly kept in, those are now banned across the United Kingdom and the European Union. The majority of laying hens in the United States are still kept that way, although, as I said, they’re not allowed in California and several other states. The same is true for keeping sows and veal calves in individual crates so narrow that they can’t turn around.

Dylan Matthews

My sense is that some of your work on issues of life and death in humans, especially as relates to disability, came out partially out of your work on animals, out of an attempt on your part to try to think through what makes life for humans and animals valuable.

Could you say a little bit about that and how that research project of yours came about?

Peter Singer

That’s partly correct. The aspect in which it’s not correct is that when I was a student at the University of Melbourne, which is obviously before I went to do my graduate work at Oxford, and therefore before I started thinking about animals, I was active in the abortion law reform movement.

But what is correct about what you said was that when I started thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals, I started asking questions about, well, is it only inflicting suffering on animals that is bad, preventing them from having enjoyable lives? Or is it the fact that we kill them?

That led me to think, well, what is it that makes killing wrong? And because I’m not religious, I was not going to say “because we have an immortal soul,” or “because God forbids it.” I started thinking, well, maybe it’s something to do with our intellect, the fact that we want to plan for the future and that if we are killed, we can’t.

So I thought about that and that made me think, well, okay, so maybe the humane killing of a non-human animal is not as bad as the humane killing of a normal human being. I still think that.

But suppose that you have a human who lacks the cognitive capacities that enable normal humans to think about their future. That could be an infant. None of us were born with those capacities. Or it could be someone with a severe intellectual disability that was not treatable. For that matter, it could be somebody who didn’t really have much of a future to look forward to because they were terminally ill and they were expecting to die within weeks or months, and their quality of life had fallen to a level where they didn’t think it was worth going on.

Dylan Matthews

These ideas are, of course, immensely controversial, and you’ve faced protests about them. It’s been an interesting thing for me personally — I admire your work a great deal. It has changed my life in important ways. But I also have friends in the disability rights movement who view your work as incredibly dangerous and as a threat to them.

I’m curious what you have made of that pushback and if there are points where you’ve changed your mind. My sense is that you haven’t changed your mind on the overall framework, but are there empirical questions about what life is like for specific kinds of disabled people where you have?

Peter Singer

You’re right to say that in terms of the underlying ethical arguments, that’s not changed. I still think there are cases where parents should have the option of ending the life of their severely disabled infant.

Let me just say a couple of things why I think that’s not as radical as some people might think. It’s standard practice in neonatal intensive care units pretty much everywhere, that if a child is born with a very severe disability, doctors will ask parents whether they want to put the child on life support or not — or if the child is on life support when the disability is discovered, whether they wish to remove life support.

If you have, let’s say, a premature infant who’s had a massive brain bleeding, a hemorrhage in the brain, which does happen with very premature infants, and the doctors say, “Would you like to take your child off life support? This is the prognosis. Your child will never be able to live independently, will never be able to recognize the child’s mother or father, will basically be needing complete care. Would you like to take this child off life support?” That’s a decision to ask: “Would you like the child to die?” There’s no other way of glossing that.

That happens all the time. Parents very frequently say yes, and the child dies. So the difference between what I’m suggesting and what is happening is that, if the child is not on life support, when the disability is discovered, the brain hemorrhage or whatever it might be, and therefore you can’t end the child’s life by taking the child off life support, parents should still have the option of saying, we think that it’s better that the child should not live, and doctors should be able to make sure that happens, to give the child a drug so that the child dies without suffering.

I continue to think that it’s okay for doctors to offer to take the child off life support, and it’s okay for parents to accept that offer. And I continue to think there’s no real ethical difference between bringing about a child’s death by turning off life support than by giving the child a lethal injection.

I’m not sure which of those elements people think I should change, but I don’t think that I should change any of them.

What is true is that on the range of disabilities where I think parents may properly say, “We want our child to live” … I’ve broadened my views somewhat on that.

I’ve talked to people in the disability community, and I accept that there are all kinds of worthwhile lives. I used to say the parents should discuss it with the doctors, if there’s some uncertainty about the condition. I now say parents should discuss it with the doctors and with representatives of people who have the disability that their child has. Depending on the nature of the disability, that may be people with a disability themselves who’ve grown up and lived that life, or it may be the parents who are living with a child.

But I certainly accept the point that doctors themselves may have a prejudice against people with disabilities, and that therefore it’s good to get a wider range of advice.

Dylan Matthews

In preparing for this conversation, I went back and reread a piece by your late friend and argumentative antagonist Harriet McBryde Johnson, about your correspondence. [Johnson was a lawyer and disability rights activist who sharply criticized Singer and other bioethicists for devaluing disabled people’s lives.]

Part of what I take her to be saying is that there’s a kind of speech harm in making these kinds of arguments about disabled people. You may be making a specific argument about a particular case in the NICU of some hospital involving parents facing a brutal situation. But when you’re making that argument, adult disabled people or adolescent disabled people who did live with similar disabilities are hearing it, and there’s something harmful to their status as equals in society about that.

You’re also involved with the Journal of Controversial Ideas [an interdisciplinary academic outlet where scholars are allowed to present incendiary arguments and findings pseudonymously, without fear of damaging their reputation]. You’re a big defender of academic freedom. Part of what’s interesting about Johnson’s argument to me is that it’s somewhat utilitarian — it’s about consequences. It’s suggesting that we should judge actions by their consequences as opposed to their intent, or even their truth value.

I’m curious what you make of that idea that there are argumentative paths you don’t want to go down because of their potential to hurt groups of people.

Peter Singer

I do consider the consequences of our actions as the way to determine which actions are right or wrong, and if I were persuaded that the harms are really so serious that it is better not to talk about these issues, then I wouldn’t talk about them. But I haven’t been persuaded by that. And, of course, we have to balance it against the consequences of parents thinking about the issue in a way that doesn’t leave them tortured with guilt for making what many people would think of as a morally wrong decision.

I’m interested in social reform. For example, I think switching to voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted dying, that movement has made very significant progress in the last 40 years, and I think has greatly reduced the amount of unnecessary suffering. But some people with disabilities are opposed to that as well, because they think pressure will be put on people with disabilities to end their lives.

That would be a serious consideration if there were clear evidence that that’s the case. But I really haven’t seen the evidence, either about the speech harms that you’re referring to or about pressure on people with disabilities to end their lives. So I continue to advocate for physician-assisted dying.

In general, I think that freedom of thought and expression is really important. I think that people have become, perhaps, overly sensitive in the last couple of decades about speech harm. It’s often said but rarely backed up with firm evidence about how serious it is. So that’s why I haven’t stopped talking about these issues.

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