…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.

Peter Singer

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?

Singer’s book The Life You Can Save has just been re-released as a 10th anniversary edition, available as a free ebook and audiobook, read by a range of celebrities. Get it here.

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.

Highlights

Sometimes people support my views about global poverty, or perhaps they support my views about animals, or maybe both, but they don’t support my views about allowing parents to opt for euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants.

And they say, “Look, wouldn’t it have been better if you’d never said that? Because you get all this flack for that and some people think that you’re, you know, an evil person because of that.” So two things that I want to say. Firstly, this may sound surprising now, but when I wrote that, I didn’t really expect it to be as controversial or provocative as it has become.

That came out in English in 1979 and there wasn’t really, you know, serious protest against that for 10 years. And those protests then arose when I went to speak in Germany where the book had been translated into German. And by that time there was a strong disability movement in Germany, and they pulled some quotes out of the book and circulated leaflets and things, and that led to a lot of protests and that basically started it off.

But the fact that there weren’t these protests for 10 years suggests that I wasn’t really deliberately trying to, or knowingly trying to stir something up. So that’s the first point. The second point is, was that a bad thing or not? Well, if you look at the German sales of Practical Ethics, until 1989 when those protests occurred, it had been, I can’t remember, four or five years in German, the sales were tiny. They were really small and they were flat. They were not increasing. And then in 1989, because of those protests, suddenly there was a lot of media about me and my views. You know full page, front page of the kind of magazine section of the newspaper on each side. I was on TV with various other people. In Der Spiegel, which is the equivalent of Time or Newsweek in Germany and then the sales really shot up.

And the important point about this is not that therefore more people read about my views about people with disabilities, which you might say, well, that’s a small issue, you know, but, that Practical Ethics has chapters on the treatment of animals, it has a chapter on global poverty, has chapters on other important issues.

And so I think more people started reading Practical Ethics who probably would not have been reading it before. So that’s why I say I think it has probably helped rather than hindered.

I think that the effective altruism (EA) community has made mistakes in having too narrow a focus. There is this discussion in the EA community about should we just focus on a small number of very sophisticated, high net worth individuals, or should we try to go for a broader audience. And although I understand the reasons for going for the high net worth sophisticated individuals, I think that’s a mistake.

I think that EA has the potential to really transform philanthropy generally, and although there are certainly some high net worth individuals who give disproportionally a large amount of course, but still, when you look at philanthropy, say here in the United States or other countries too, the bulk of it is not just the huge donors.

It’s a lot of people who give modest amounts and then other people who give significant but not enormous, you know, not billionaire type amounts. And I think it’s important that the movement should go after them.

I do think that actually there’s benefits for the longtermists too in having a successful and broad effective altruism (EA) movement. I’ve seen this in the animal movement; when I first got into it was focused on cats and dogs and people who were attracted to that.

And I clearly criticized that, but at the same time, I have to recognize that there are people who come into the animal movement because of their concern for cats and dogs who later move on to understand that the number of farm animals suffering is vastly greater than the number of cats and dogs suffering and that typically the farm animals suffer more than the cats and dogs, and so they’ve added to the strength of the broader, and as I see more important, animal welfare organizations or animal rights organizations that are working for farm animals. So I think it’s possible that something similar can happen in the EA movement. That is that people can get attracted to EA through the idea of helping people in extreme poverty.

And then they’re part of a community that will hear arguments about long-termism. And maybe you’ll be able to recruit more talented people to do that research that needs to be done if there’s a broad and successful EA movement.

You just have to look at the effect, not of open borders, but of small increases in immigration on the political situation in the United States.

In almost every country in Europe, it’s been a disaster, right? It’s led to the election of Donald Trump, which is not only bad for immigrants trying to get into the United States, it’s catastrophic for climate change efforts. It’s catastrophic for the whole landscape of politics in a myriad of ways.

You look at it in the UK where you are. Clearly the Brexit vote would not have passed without concern about immigration, even at the rather modest level that it was into the UK. And I think, you know, I’m very much opposed to Brexit. I think we have to support international institutions. And this is happening in so many other countries now.

So the Polish government was elected and now re-elected with support on the immigration issue. And you know, there are also pro-coal, so that’s also very bad for climate change. We’re getting these right wing parties in pretty much every European country now. So I think that to fail to take account of the political effect of advocating open borders is extremely naive.

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About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths — from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected].

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