Peter Singer on Ethical Politics

By Wendy Plump

It turns out that surfers and philosophers have a lot in common. To be any good at what they do, they have to be hard-core realists. Good surf or bad, decent people or vile, the approach is the same: if you don’t want to be mullered, then deal effectively with conditions as you find them. As both a surfer and a philosopher, this is practically Peter Singer’s calling card.

When he is at home in his native Australia, Singer’s close personal relationship with Things As They Are has led to many a fine morning surfing a point break off the coast of Victoria, regardless of whether the waves are good or not. He just likes being out there. He enjoys the “splendor” of the ocean environment, he says, not as an escape from a bruised world so much as a way to decompress so that he can keep on dealing with it.

Frequently described as the planet’s most influential philosopher, Singer has spent a lifetime dealing with it while simultaneously motivating others to live more ethical lives. His latest book, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter, published last year by Princeton University Press, emphasizes his commitment to setting our moral compass. He writes about matters for which the first solution seems to be an ability to think deeply—environmental ethics, animal abuse, elder care, abortion, the refugee crisis, and the moral conduct of individuals within the body politic. Whether writing books about what he calls “effective altruism” or presenting a TED Talk on same, Singer often operates in that gray area that can make readers wince when they encounter a particularly disturbing scenario. Most of us would have no sure or comforting answer to the moral dilemmas he discusses. That’s where he takes a deep dive. That’s why he is a pragmatist. Singer goes there.

Now that the United States is riven to the point of 24-7 tumult, Singer’s imploring, utilitarian, compassionate take on human conduct seems more essential than ever. “We must make policies for the real world, not an ideal one,” Singer writes in Ethics. And then he walks the walk.

Singer has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University since 1999. He teaches the fall semester course, “Practical Ethics,” one of the university’s most popular. He also serves as visiting professor for half the year at the University of Melbourne in Australia where he teaches a course called “Big Questions.”

Of the 10 essays in the “Politics” section of Ethics, only two were written as recently as 2015. The majority, though timelessly relevant, were written years before the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Singer could likely produce a hearty volume on the exigencies of protest in the current political climate. Regardless, this proponent of effective altruism has a few things to say about what we are up against now in an email interview conducted from the other side of the world.

Effective Dissent

Singer has a long history with dissent. In fact, his career could be categorized as a broad and relentless attack on injustice as he sees it. He is best-known for writing about our relationship with animals, questions about life and death and human dignity, the obligations of the affluent, and the severely deformed or terminally ill. Ethics covers these subjects and many others equally daunting, while hewing close to the theme that invigorates everything he does.

“What is most important, in my view, is ensuring that everyone, irrespective of income, has the basic necessities for meeting their physical needs and to enable them to participate in society,” he says. “Those necessities include, but are not necessarily limited to, sufficient food, decent shelter, sanitation, education, and health care.” He sees social democracy, in this sense, as the best way to mitigate against the extremes of capitalism while also retaining its virtues.

As a student in Australia in the 1960s, Singer participated in protests against the Vietnam War, the longest conflict in which Australians fought in the 20th century. Later, while pursuing a higher degree in philosophy at Oxford University in England, Singer organized a protest in London against factory farming. The issue did not yet have the traction then that it does today, but Singer knew early on it was a worthy fight.

His books urge readers to donate at least a portion of their yearly incomes to help the planet’s poorest. So does his website, which he co-founded after writing The Life You Can Save in 2009. His essays are published in newspapers throughout the world. His May 2013 TED Talk, which to date has 1.4 million views, drastically increased donations to the non-profit group he endorsed in the talk, the Against Malaria Foundation. In fact, the Foundation attributed some $64,000 in donations to him.

Singer doesn’t hesitate to point out the ironies of our occasional sanctimonious behaviors, either. For example, he writes that organic beef produces more methane per pound of beef than “less well-treated brothers and sisters,” and that at least one screening of Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, took place in a theater so frozen with air-conditioning that Singer longed for a blanket.
Through it all, and despite considerable controversy raised by some of his views, Singer has remained a staunch advocate of effective dissent through non-violent protest.

“There is no obligation on citizens to oppose governments that they merely find ‘objectionable.’ But in a democracy, we should exercise our right of dissent whenever we feel that the issue is sufficiently important for us to take a stand,” he says.

“In a democracy—and the U.S. is still near enough to being a democracy for this to apply—disobedience should always be nonviolent. Those using civil disobedience as a means of protest should be prepared to accept the penalty of the law and use any trial that they may face as a means of demonstrating the strength and sincerity of their convictions.”

Issues of Substance

Singer highlighted two recent developments as “sufficiently important”: President Trump’s executive order barring immigrants from seven countries from entering the United States, and the “even more weighty” matter of America’s potential withdrawal from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

That withdrawal, Singer adds, would imperil the lives of hundreds of millions, “perhaps billions,” of individuals far into the future. So Singer leans on the example of the Rev. Martin Luther King to remind us that civil disobedience is more than justifiable when the stakes are high and the outcomes of passivity are potentially catastrophic.

In emphasizing that leaders have an obligation to make decisions not just for their constituents but for the common good – which he defines as extending beyond our borders and beyond our species -- Singer proves himself the pragmatist once again.
“I know that some people will deny that any politicians are ethical,” he says. “But we should not forget that if you are instituting ethical ends, such as promoting peace and reducing poverty, you can only implement those policies if you do retain power.
“You can’t do much good without it.”

In the end, Singer admits that his philosophical toolkit is unlikely to do much for citizens in the “sad and potentially tragic situation” of a bitterly divided nation. Instead, he urges those who wish to conduct themselves in an ethical manner to, quite simply, “do the most good you can. Think of it as an opportunity to make your own life more meaningful and rewarding.

“My hope is that we, and the world as a whole, will survive the Trump administration and slowly emerge from this period of hostility as we emerged from the hostility of the Vietnam war years,” Singer adds. “That’s not based on anything solid other than the knowledge that the nation has been polarized before.”

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