Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, became a vegetarian in his mid-twenties after a doctoral student from Oxford told him about the brutality of factory farms over a spaghetti lunch. A few years later, in 1973, Singer proposed an essay entitled “Animal liberation“To the New York Review of Books. Robert Silvers, the magazine’s longtime editor, didn’t just publish it; He also became a vegetarian. In 1975, Singer expanded the essay into a book that was translated into dozens of languages and inspired the modern animal rights movement.
The seventy-four year old singer is now the author of seventeen books and the editor or co-author of two dozen others. He has written about birth and death, Hegel and Marx, political philosophy and globalization, and many other topics. (He has just finished a new version of Apuleius’ “The golden donkey“A second-century Roman novel that he told me can be read as” some kind of adventure fiction. “He stated,” The author clearly has some compassion for animals. “) Singer calls himself a consequentialist: he believes that actions should be measured by their consequences. His ideas about our ethical obligation to help people in extreme poverty were first discussed in his essay, “Famine, Prosperity and Morality, “From 1972 and later in his book”The life you can save, ”As of 2009, are the foundation of the Effective Altruism Movement, which encourages people in rich countries to donate large sums to charities that measurably improve most lives. They also influenced the Giving Pledge, a philanthropic campaign launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Others discovered Singer’s work because of the controversy it sparked. In his book “Practical ethics“Starting in 1979, he argued that parents should have the right to end the life of newborn babies with severe disabilities. In the decades since, some of his lectures have been interrupted or canceled by protesters. In 1999, the disability rights group Not Dead Yet protested his appointment at Princeton , where he still teaches. This year he was featured in this magazine by Michael Specter; the piece was titled “The dangerous philosopher. “On Friday, Singer and two other ethicists released a peer-reviewed publication called The Journal of Controversial Ideas.
Singer spent the past year at home in Melbourne with his fifty-two-year-old wife, Renata. He told me that he missed seeing his children and hugging his grandchildren, but that he “probably got more work done than I would have in a normal year”. He also surfed, a hobby he took up in his fifties. In our three video chat conversations, he came to me from a white study with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Our conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Have you thought about the philosophical implications of the pandemic?
There are certain topics that interested me. How should we distribute the vaccine? How do we decide if the ban is justified? If we lack intensive care beds or respirators, should we give preference to people who are younger and therefore have to live longer, or other people who may have the same need but have a much shorter life expectancy? I think the pandemic sharpens and forces us to answer many of the questions that lurked – it’s not like people didn’t die of preventable diseases that we could have helped but not before the pandemic. The pandemic hit us very hard, but it did not kill as many people as die each year from preventable, poverty-related causes.
I was surprised, as you went through some of your work, that you wrote about pandemics in 2015, in “The best you can do. “You talk about the risk of a major pandemic outbreak because of the way we treat animals.
There are two public health risks on factory farms. The development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria through routine feeding of antibiotics to livestock is well documented. The pandemic was a bit more speculative, but when we got the 2009 swine flu pandemic, which pretty much directly affected pig farms in factories, I started talking about it on occasion.
When I started thinking about treating animals and becoming a vegetarian, it was utterly worrying about what we do to animals. Then came climate change. And although it initially appeared to be about burning fossil fuels, it turns out that meat production is making a significant contribution. Then you get an extra reason not to eat meat or be vegan. With the pandemic, we have another important reason.
The vast majority of vaccines have been “reserved” by wealthy nations, and hundreds of millions of doses go to the US and Europe first. I wonder how much this bothers you and what you should do about it.
I find it shameful that the vaccines are being bought up by rich countries – some of which, I should say, have relatively little need. We have very few cases in Australia but we have ordered more than enough vaccines to vaccinate everyone in the country.
Where is the responsibility for a fairer distribution?
We don’t have a world government, so we are a world of sovereign nations – and those governments should come together so that the burden is fairly shared among the wealthy nations, just as we come together in the Paris Agreement to try to distribute the burden through equitable reduction of greenhouse gases. The World Health Organization is of course proposing a system for fairer distribution, and I think governments should go along with that.
The pharmaceutical companies can of course play a role in making some vaccines available at cost or in enabling manufacturers in low-income countries to produce generic drugs. But you can’t expect pharmaceuticals to be charities. The patenting system rewards companies for selling to wealthy people, rather than rewarding them for providing drugs to people who cannot afford them. An alternative system called the Health Impact Fund was proposed, to which governments would contribute and allocate as a drug reduced the global burden of disease. Then the pharmaceutical companies would have an incentive to develop the products that would help people around the world the most. That would be a much more rational system.
How did your family first come to Australia?
Both of my parents lived in Vienna in the 1930s. They were about thirty years old when Hitler marched into Austria, and both were Jews. They realized very quickly that they had no future in Austria. According to National Socialist law, Jews could not own any businesses, and my mother was only qualified as a doctor. The Nazis said that Jewish doctors could only treat Jewish patients. I don’t think they really thought they could be murdered at the time. But my father wrote to an uncle in America and said, “Could you sponsor me and my wife?” And the uncle wrote back and said, “I’m very excited to sponsor you. Unfortunately, since I did not get to know your wife, I am unfortunately unable to sponsor her. “That was a pretty devastating blow, of course.