He’s been picketed by the disabled, vilified by the right-to-lifers, and ridiculed by meat-eaters. But in exploring his own past, Peter Singer might just have found a way to speak to us in a voice we’re willing to hear. Karen Kissane reports.
Even smart people have their dumb moments. Just ask Peter Singer. There he was, a great man of ideas, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, the father of animal liberation. And then he went and wrote a review of a book on bestiality for the online sex magazine Nerve.com.
In his piece, Singer wrote about the history of sex between people and animals (men prefer horses and calves, apparently; women favour dogs) and told us more than we ever needed to know about human congress with poultry. He said sex across species was not normal but it did not offend human dignity because we are animals too. The story’s headline was “Heavy Petting” and the photo was of a dog with a lolling tongue.
Singer loves throwing intellectual firecrackers, preferably at smug moral certainties. But this one backfired. “The love that dared not bark its name,” sneered one American critic. Another website announced Singer’s engagement to an orangutan which, it said, came in the wake of a marriage to a chicken that had ended tragically on their wedding night.
Hearing that story, Singer winces and smiles weakly. “People got some laughs out of it, anyway. That review was maybe something that, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done. It was probably one taboo I should have left covered up. It gives another cudgel to beat me with to all my opponents. As well as reading that ‘Singer is the man who wants to kill babies, and who thinks chimpanzees have more rights than humans, and who thinks we should give all our money to dictators in Africa who transfer it to their Swiss bank accounts’, there’s now, ‘And he thinks it’s OK to have sex with animals’.”
But not, of course, to eat them. Singer – who first hit the headlines with his 1975 book Animal Liberation – remains one of the world’s most famously committed vegetarians.
The “controversial” Peter Singer, as he is often known, is more used to outraging people than amusing them. He wants to expand the rights available to animals and shrink those available to humans. He says it is sometimes ethical to kill babies and other people who are sick or disabled; that the tyranny of humans over animals causes suffering that is as morally significant as the misery caused by the tyranny of white people over black; that it would sometimes be as ethical to conduct experiments on disabled humans as it would on apes.
Philosophically, Singer is a utilitarian. Utilitarians are like the utterly rational Mr Spock in Star Trek; they believe moral decisions should be made by calculating what choice would produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Singer’s version is called “preference” utilitarianism: the goal is to be achieved by trying to satisfy individual preferences.
His logic allows little room for human love. Singer insists that ideas be separated from emotion. As a result, his work sometimes reads as if he lacks imagination (can he really believe that parents are incapable of loving a child with Down syndrome?) or has a dead spot in his emotional motor (would you see your mother as a “non-person” if she developed dementia?)
This is the riddle of Peter Singer: he is an ethicist whose preoccupation is minimising suffering but who sometimes seems without compassion. Is the man as cold as the philosopher sounds? Does Singer’s heart always follow his uncompromising head or, in real life, does impartial theory sometimes give way to softer, messier human values?
Singer is a career academic. He studied philosophy at Melbourne University and in 1977, aged 31, was appointed to a chair of philosophy at Monash. Later, he was a founding director of the university’s Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1999 he moved to New York to become the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Centre for Human Values.
He has taken research leave from Princeton for 12 months and is back in Melbourne to see friends and family and promote One World: The Ethics of Globalisation, the first of two new books due in the next few months.
He is 56 but doesn’t look it. His forehead is lined and his grey hair wispy, but he is lean and rangy and moves like a much younger man. He dresses for his conscience, leather-free: woven belt, plastic watch, black running shoes. He does not smile often but has a habit of raising his eyebrows to reveal a wry gleam of amusement behind his glasses. He chooses lemon-ginger herbal tea and a banana muffin to sustain him through our interview, which starts in a coffee shop in Richmond.
Singer has three adult daughters – a linguist, a would-be film maker and a community development graduate – with his wife Renata Diamond. Diamond, who is now writing her second novel, previously worked as a history teacher and as an editor with Community Aid Abroad.
The two met in a history tutorial at Melbourne University and married in 1968, when Singer was only 22. Wasn’t that young?
“I didn’t really see getting married as a totally irrevocable commitment,” he says coolly. “Deciding to have children was more of a commitment. Until we decided to have children together, this was something we could just end if we wanted to.”
Does his wife agree with all his philosophical ideas? “Certainly not all of them. That would be boring. But I would say a lot of our ideas were formed together. It’s not a question of her agreeing with my views.”
His children sound less respectful. “None of them would do philosophy. They all thought that what I did was stupid, just all of this academic stuff. None of them wanted that.”
Some of the language swirling around Singer is hot – he’s been called a “prophet of death” and “Himmler in academic tweeds” – but the man is cool. Mild-mannered but immoveable, he talks calmly, pausing to choose his words, and rarely concedes a point. He has a quiet charm and delivers his sometimes-brutal arguments in a tone of sweet reason; it is probably why he gets gentler treatment from journalists who meet him in person than from those who criticise his work from a distance.
In One World, Singer examines the ethics of world politics and how the selfishness of the West deprives millions. He argues that the momentum of international politics is towards world government, and that this is a good thing because it would prevent an egocentric America from turning globalisation to its own ends.
His vision of nations uniting to provide economic and legal justice will irritate big corporations and conservative politicians. It might even anger some in his heartland of the left because he concludes that free trade has helped many poor people. “But it has still left out the very poorest, perhaps 600 million people, who it hasn’t helped at all,” he says.
Singer criticises the World Trade Organisation for allowing economic issues to override all other values, including environmental questions, the rights of workers and animal welfare. “I am not against globalisation in itself, (but) I am arguing for a very different form of globalisation.”
He is a mix of romantic and cynic. He wants a better, kinder world, but his view of human nature is grim. One World argues that humans are hard-wired for genocide. Singer cites an obscure Biblical text about God telling Israelites to slaughter a neighbouring tribe as evidence that massacres are not due to social conditions such as poverty, or personal histories of child abuse. Centuries of mass killings have combined with genetic selection to ensure that now
“a significant number of human males have the potential to be perpetrators of genocide”.
He would include terrorists in that group. “That’s why it’s possible for organisations with a terrorist ideology to recruit people to do these things. There have always been people willing to do that, to kill innocent people. But what we have now are changes in technology that make it possible for those people to kill far larger numbers than they did before, flying jets filled with aviation fuel into buildings.”
Still, he thinks Australia should try to restrain America’s hawks as they push for war with Iraq, wants Israel out of the West Bank, and is no harder on Muslim fundamentalism than on any other kind. “I’m pretty hostile to any kind of religious fundamentalism. It means that people don’t really think independently, and take their views from some source without question, and I think that’s very dangerous.”
Singer was not even in his teens when he decided the central tenet of his philosophy: that there is no God. When his parents offered him a bar mitzvah at 13 he declined because of his atheism. He has since written that the degree of suffering in the world suggests that, if there is a God, he’s not worth worshipping.
Singer’s father went to temple on the high holy days but his mother was sceptical about religion. Singer did his own questioning. “I went to Scotch College and every morning we had religious assembly and it was pretty boring. And I used to read the Old Testament, quite often. There was much more sex; there was a lot of bloodshed, including a lot of bloodshed carried out by the ‘goodies’, the Israelites, with God’s approval.
“Also in the New Testament there were puzzling things that Jesus did, like cursing the fig tree and making it wither because it didn’t have any figs on it. Really petulant. And you had to wonder why no one ever talked about these passages, and how they were supposed to be reconciled with the idea that Jesus was God or everything he did was wonderful.”
Other central strands in his thinking can be traced back to the Holocaust and its effect on his family. Singer’s parents, who were Austrian Jews, escaped the Nazis in 1938. His grandparents were not so lucky and three of them died in concentration camps.
His mother, a doctor, and his father, who owned a small import business, arrived in Australia in 1938. Although German was their first language, they refused to speak it in the Hawthorn home in which Singer and his older sister Joan, now a lawyer, grew up. “I think they wanted me to be a proper dinki-di Australian, and they felt that if they spoke German to me I might be more of a foreigner. Perhaps also, after the war, they didn’t want to be speaking German in public.”
Their values were more conventional than Singer’s, he says, “but one thing I clearly took from them was a strong opposition to anything really racist or highly nationalist, because that was what had driven them out of their country. Appeal to irrational things like ‘the blood’, and so on”.
Organised religion, he says, “leads to close-minded sectarianism; you can see how much killing there is in the world as a result of people saying, ‘I’m Catholic; you’re Protestant. I’m Christian; you’re Muslim’.” Or I’m Aryan, you’re Jewish? “Yeah.”
What he is trying to do is develop a secular ethic – a principled way of living that does not rely on ideas of God or human sacredness – that acknowledges today’s realities. That includes, he insists, facing the truth about decisions we already make about life and death, such as illicit euthanasia of hopelessly suffering patients, or withdrawing food and water from severely disabled babies.
At the core of Singer’s philosophy is the idea of “sentience”, which he defines as the capacity to suffer or to experience enjoyment. He has argued that sick or disabled people who lack sentience are “non-persons”. Parents of severely disabled babies should, he says, have the option of killing them within 28 days of birth. “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,” he has written. “Very often it is not wrong at all.” It is a position that has caused outrage in modern Germany, where he has been accused of echoing the Nazi doctrine of eugenics, “life unworthy of life”.
Singer also argues that we should be morally impartial, giving to those in greatest need or those who can benefit others rather than giving priority to those closest to us. So, who would he save if two people were drowning in a pond – the three-year-old daughter who loves and trusts him, or the scientist with the cure for AIDS in his head? “Well, that’s really where you ought to save the guy with the formula to cure AIDS,” he says.
Is that what he would do? “I don’t know. Perhaps not. But I think it’s what you ought to do.”
Singer has never been one for questions about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. He has won his place in the limelight through a kind of journalistic savvy: a nose for controversy, meticulous research and a blunt writing style that makes his views accessible to millions. Like our other famous intellectual export, Germaine Greer, he sometimes seems to take an almost adolescent pleasure in using his erudition to shock.
Singer does seem to love attention. He says he abandoned his original master’s topic in history because it made people’s eyes glaze over at parties. He switched to philosophy because he knew he could always get people talking about the big questions.
He is entirely at home with the media. The day we meet, we have to race to get him to a radio interview. He strides down busy Swan Street, Richmond, holding my tape recorder at chest height and talking into it without a trace of embarrassment. At the ABC studios he sits behind the mike, dons headphones and starts fiddling with switches like a pilot in his cockpit. He’s not quite a media junkie, perhaps, but someone who enjoys the hit and is expert with a fit. And no media gig is likely to hold terrors for someone who has already featured in America’s 60 Minutes and New Yorker magazine.
His books have included one titled Practical Ethics, but aspects of his own life suggest that some of his ethics are not as practical as he would like them to be. More than once, the man and the philosopher have parted company, and now even the philosopher wants to moderate some of his pronouncements.
“Some of my early stuff was perhaps insensitive to people with disabilities,” he admits of his 1985 book with Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? “I would like to be able to start afresh so that this preconception that I am this monster who hates people with disabilities and thinks they all ought to be killed would be avoided. I would write differently now about Down syndrome than I did in 1985. I guess I’m more open to the idea that parents might well think that having a child with Down syndrome is a blessing for them.”
He has softened partly because of his acquaintance with a disabled woman, Anne McDonald, whom he has known for more than 16 years. McDonald has severe cerebral palsy and it was assumed, wrongly, that she also had an intellectual disability. In 1979 she became a cause celebre when she was rescued from a Melbourne institution by one of its staff, Rosemary Crossley. McDonald has said that she likes Singer, “but he doesn’t think about individuals. We are all just a category to him.”
Singer still thinks he was fundamentally right. “Anne said to me at one stage she thinks it would have been better if she’d been killed,” Singer says. “She supports that view because what she had to go through at
St Nicholas was so awful that it would have been better for her to be killed at birth.”
After some prodding, though, he does admit that, “She doesn’t feel like that now. Rosemary is able to give her lots of love and care and quality of life … (Anne) thinks that (I was) too quick to accept that some lives are not worth living.” Isn’t it true that McDonald’s story could be read not as a justification for euthanasia but as a warning about misdiagnosis and the need for proper care for disabled people? “Sure,” he says. “But you sometimes have to think what you will do given the world the way it is.”
In discussions like these Singer ties himself in knots. He wants to move away from the severity of an earlier position but he’s damned if he’ll give up the general principle that underpinned it. Take his suggestion that strangers should have just as big a call on your generosity as your loved ones. Doesn’t this empty human relationships of all meaning?
Again, Singer equivocates. He says it is still true, “in a sense”, that we should not favour those close to us above other people. “But I guess I now think it’s only one side of the picture. I still think if someone can do that, and is prepared to look for what produces the best consequences, we should admire such a person. But we would also inevitably think that’s a pretty odd person.”
Does that mean he was an odd person when he was espousing it? “I never really did that to the ultimate degree. I never really did treat the children of strangers as well as I did my own children.”
Life offered Singer another lesson in seeing things differently when his mother, who has since died, developed severe Alzheimer’s disease. Critics pointed out that he was helping keep alive someone who lacked “personhood”. He was also supporting her with money that, according to his theories, would be better spent saving Third World lives. “Perhaps it’s more difficult than I thought before,” he admitted in one interview, “because it is different when it’s your mother.”
Richard John Neuhaus, a prominent American Catholic priest, journal editor and critic of Singer, crowed that, “It is a cockeyed theory that is embarrassed by a son’s caring for his elderly mother.”
Singer says his theories were not at all embarrassed. He dissects the issue with forensic chill. “I certainly think (people with severe Alzheimer’s) are not persons. That means they don’t have the same right to life, intrinsically, that a person does. But that doesn’t answer the question as to whether you should or shouldn’t end their lives. There are many non-human animals that are not persons either, but that doesn’t mean you should kill them. It all depends on the particular quality of the life that’s being lived; whether their lives have pain and distress and suffering, or whether they have certain pleasures in them.”
He says the more serious objection was that he spent money on his mother that could have saved the lives of people in developing countries. “I don’t always do what I think is the right thing. So there are some sacrifices I ought to make about money I spend on myself, and others (related to spending) on my mother. I wouldn’t attempt to argue that it was morally better to spend the money on my mother than on helping strangers.”
What sort of relationship did this man have with his mother?
A close one, according to fellow bio-ethicist Nick Tonti-Filippini, whose master’s thesis was supervised by Singer. Tonti-Filippini is Catholic, with very different views from Singer’s, but he speaks of Singer with great warmth. “Peter has a great sense of humour. He’s quite unlike his public image, where he’s always looking for an argument. I knew his mother and his mother was like that, too. She worked with him for a while. There was a kind of love of a verbal stoush in both of them.”
Tonti-Filippini believes much of what Singer advocates is evil, but says Singer himself leads a moral life. Don’t confuse the man with his pronouncements, he advises. “Peter’s principles don’t touch Peter’s emotions. They are two separate things.”
Singer’s views on animals, for example, are intellectual and not related to feelings about them. Tonti-Filippini tells the story of a passionately vegan uni student who found meat-eating sickening. Singer organised a regular lift for her, with a rendezvous point that caused much amusement in the Monash philosophy department. “Peter arranged to pick her up outside a butcher’s shop, which didn’t mean anything to Peter but meant a huge amount to her.”
But the Singer of practice is not always at odds with the Singer of theory. In 1992 he was charged with trespassing on then prime minister Paul Keating’s piggery after chaining himself to the stalls of sows he claimed were tethered so tightly that the chains were cutting into their flesh.
In Victoria, he has been a driving force behind upgraded animal welfare legislation. “He was instrumental in changing the culture and then the law,” says Glenys Oogjes, executive director of Animals Australia. “He’s got real vision for the movement and he’s very generous, too, financially.”
Singer also donates one-fifth of his income to international charities. Still, it is less than he recommends; he told the readers of The New York Times that their affluent self-indulgence was killing Third World people. Westerners, he wrote, should keep only the $US30,000 a year they required to live simply and give all other income away.
He has also been central to the acceptance of in-vitro fertilisation in Victoria. Says IVF specialist Professor Alan Trounson, “He was one of the pioneers in liberal thinking about when life begins. He had very strong views that a ball of cells that had no sentience (an embryo) was not worth the consideration that a sentient animal was.”
Tonti-Filippini also thinks Singer was influential, though for quite different reasons. “Repeatedly, through debates about IVF and the Medical Treatment Act, there were politicians who dissociated themselves from Peter Singer’s views. He helped show them where that extreme view went.”
More light might be thrown on the man behind the ideas when Singer’s next book comes out in February. Pushing Time Away is the story of his maternal grandfather, who died in a concentration camp. The title comes from a sentence in a letter his grandfather wrote to his wife: “What binds us pushes time away.”
Yes, he admits reluctantly (he hates questions about his private self), writing this book changed him. “I know a lot more about my family. I’ve become a lot more interested in connections; I see quite distant relatives in New York, for example, who I probably wouldn’t have bothered with before.”
Will this change in his life have an impact on his ideas? In How Are We to Live? Singer wrote about a real case of the altruism of strangers towards his own family. In 1938, his parents needed a sponsor abroad if they were to escape the Nazis. An uncle in America refused their request. In desperation, Singer’s mother turned to an Australian acquaintance, a man she had met only once. He agreed to sponsor the family. There’s a real chance that Singer is alive today only because of that generosity. Little wonder he values altruism towards strangers so highly.
Midway through our interview, life gave me a lesson in how to see it his way. Trying to grab a taxi to ferry us to his next appointment, I dashed into the middle of a busy road and found myself caught between lanes of traffic. “We’re going to get killed here,” I called out nervously.
“No we won’t,” he said confidently (as well he might, given his position of safety on the footpath). “And anyway, I’d rescue you.” — One World: The Ethics of Globalisation (Text, $28) is out now.
First published in The Age.