…more people started reading Practical Ethics, who probably would not have been reading it before. So that’s why I say I think [that controversy] has probably helped rather than hindered.
In 1989, the professor of moral philosophy Peter Singer was all over the news for his inflammatory opinions about abortion. But the controversy stemmed from Practical Ethics — a book he’d actually released way back in 1979. It took a German translation ten years on for protests to kick off.
According to Singer, he honestly didn’t expect this view to be as provocative as it became, and he certainly wasn’t aiming to stir up trouble and get attention.
But after the protests and the increasing coverage of his work in German media, the previously flat sales of Practical Ethics shot up. And the negative attention he received ultimately led him to a weekly opinion column in The New York Times.
Singer points out that as a result of this increased attention, many more people also read the rest of the book — which includes chapters with a real ability to do good, covering global poverty, animal ethics, and other important topics. So should people actively try to court controversy with one view, in order to gain attention for another more important one?
Perhaps sometimes, but controversy can also just have bad consequences. His critics may view him as someone who says whatever he thinks, hang the consequences. But as Singer tells it, he gives public relations considerations plenty of thought.
One example is that Singer opposes efforts to advocate for open borders. Not because he thinks a world with freedom of movement is a bad idea per se, but rather because it may help elect leaders like Mr Trump.
Another is the focus of the effective altruism (EA) community. Singer certainly respects those who are focused on improving the long-term future of humanity, and thinks this is important work that should continue. But he’s troubled by the possibility of extinction risks becoming the public face of the movement.
He suspects there’s a much narrower group of people who are likely to respond to that kind of appeal, compared to those who are drawn to work on global poverty or preventing animal suffering. And that to really transform philanthropy and culture more generally, the effective altruism community needs to focus on smaller donors with more conventional concerns.
Rob is joined in this interview by Arden Koehler, the newest addition to the 80,000 Hours team, both for the interview and a post-episode discussion. They only had an hour with Peter, but also cover:
- What does he think are the most plausible alternatives to consequentialism?
- Is it more humane to eat wild caught animals than farmed animals?
- The re-release of The Life You Can Save
- Whether it’s good to polarize people in favour and against your views
- His active opposition to the Vietnam war and conscription
- Should we make it easier for people to express unpopular opinions?
- His most and least strategic career decisions
- What does he think are the effective altruism community’s biggest mistakes?
- Population ethics and arguments for and against prioritising the long-term future
- What led to his changing his mind on significant questions in moral philosophy?
- What is at the heart of making moral mistakes?
- What should we do when we are morally uncertain?
- And more.
In the post-episode discussion, Rob and Arden continue talking about:
- The pros and cons of keeping EA as one big movement
- Singer’s thoughts on immigration
- And consequentialism with side constraints
Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.
Producer: Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
Transcriptions: Zakee Ulhaq.
Illustration of Singer: Matthias Seifarth.