In this exclusive interview with the Institute of Art and Ideas, in the run up to HowTheLightGetsIn London 2022, groundbreaking ethicist and philosopher Peter Singer clarifies his stance on moral objectivity, the role of intuitions in ethics and where we draw the line for holding people responsible for inaction.
In various interviews you have stated that you have moved from moral anti-realism - the view that there are no objective moral values - to moral realism - the view that there are objective moral truths. What initiated this shift?
For many years, after studying at Oxford, I considered myself a universal prescriptivist – the position taken by R.M. Hare, who was my supervisor for much of my time at Oxford. Hare always insisted that, even for prescriptivists, reason had an important role to play in reaching moral judgment. But the problem was for Hare, reason only had this role because of what he argued was the logic of moral concepts. So if you don’t use moral language – in other words, become an amoralist – it seems that you have no reason, other than self-interest, to avoid, say, gratuitously punching someone in the face.
I tried for many years to find ways of avoiding this conclusion, within the prescriptivist framework, but eventually had to admit that I could not do so. Around this time, I read an early draft of Parfit’s On What Matters, and that showed me that ethical objectivism – a term both Parfit and I prefer to “moral realism” – is a viable alternative that explains why we have reasons not to gratuitously inflict harm on others. To summarise, moral objectivism/or moral realism means that moral judgments can be true or false, and that in principle all rational beings would agree about them.
So if you don’t use moral language – in other words, become an amoralist – it seems that you have no reason, other than self-interest, to avoid, say, gratuitously punching someone in the face
Does your shift to moral realism have anything to do with the argument that you made in 'Ethics and Intuitions' in 2005, that intuitions are not a good basis for grounding moral judgements?
It has more to do with the idea that we can distinguish between some intuitions, and that we have grounds for rejecting some, but not all of them, depending on what we know of how those intuitions arose.
‘The "intuition" that tells us that the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five is not like the intuitions that tell us we may throw the switch [that drops one person from a trapdoor to stop a trolley that will kill five], but not push the stranger off the footbridge [to save five]. It may be closer to the truth to say that it is a rational intuition, something like the three "ethical axioms" or "intuitive propositions of real clearness and certainty" to which Henry Sidgwick appeals in his defence of utilitarianism in The Methods of Ethics. The third of these axioms is "the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other."
So when Michael Huemer writes about you that in Famine, Affluence and Morality, you count on the intuition that 'physical proximity [in deciding whose life to save] is morally irrelevant' and that your arguments do not 'impugn the reliability of intuition in general' but you simply 'want to argue for preferring certain intuitions over others'. Is he right to say this?
Yes, that’s what I’m saying.
And when you say in 'Famine, Affluence and Morality', 'I begin with the assumption that suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad. I think most people will agree about this'. Is this broadly an appeal to people's moral intuitions or something else?
No, it’s not necessarily an appeal to intuition, more an appeal to moral views people hold, for various reasons, perhaps some as a result of intuition, but some may not be.
I don’t have any special love for animals and have no companion animals. I just think that it is wrong to make any sentient being live a miserable life
You are known for saying that failing to give life-saving aid to reduce poverty in the developing word is morally equivalent to letting a child drown at the cost of ruining one's shoes. Travis Timmerman has criticised your view by saying that the strength of your obligation depends on how many children need to be saved. If the number is large, then this would compel you to spend your entire life saving children which many would see as untenable. Is this true?
The statement you refer to says “failing to give life-saving aid” without specifying how much you have to give. It’s true that the stronger of the two principles I outlined in “Famine, Affluence and Morality” does state that we ought to keep giving until the cost to the person giving is as great as the benefit to the person receiving, but that was written 50 years ago, and I now offer an analysis of when we should praise or blame people that is much less demanding that the strong principle I espoused in that article. But even if it is not appropriate to blame people who give a lot, but not as much as the strong principle requires, it is still true that it would be better if they gave more.
‘We use praise and blame to influence behaviour, and the appropriate standard is relative to what we can reasonably expect most people to do. Hence praise and blame, at least when they are given publicly, should follow the standard that we publicly advocate—that is, the standard which can be expected to have the best consequences—rather than the higher standard that we might apply to our own conduct. We should praise people for doing significantly better than most people in their circumstances do, and blame them for doing significantly worse. If you have done more than your fair share, that must at least lessen the blame you deserve. If you have gone beyond the usual moral standards, we should praise you for doing so, rather than blame you for not doing even more.’
‘Asking people to give more than almost anyone else gives risks turning them off. It might cause some to question the point of striving to live an ethical life at all. Daunted by what it takes to do the right thing, they may ask themselves why they are bothering to try. To avoid that danger, we should advocate a level of giving that will lead to the greatest possible positive response.’ …
‘Hence…I propose a much easier target: roughly 5% of annual income for those who are financially comfortable, with less for those below that level, and significantly more for the very rich.’
What is the greatest misconception people have about your philosophy?
Some people think that because I wrote Animal Liberation, and am opposed to factory farming and a good deal of the research done on animals, I must be an “animal lover.” That’s not true. I don’t have any special love for animals and have no companion animals. I just think that it is wrong to make any sentient being live a miserable life, and yet we do that to tens of billions of animals each year, entirely unnecessarily.
What are the most common mistakes you see philosophers making nowadays?
I referred earlier to Derek Parfit’s book On What Matters. I wish more philosophers would work on things that matter. I regret the fact that so many very bright and hard-working philosophers spend their time on issues that are of interest only to other philosophers, and will never have any impact on anyone outside philosophy.