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…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 e-book 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.

Key points

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.

Articles, books and blog posts discussed in the show

Peter’s work

Everything else

Transcript

Rob’s intro [0:00:00]

Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where each week we have an unusually in-depth conversation about one of the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve it. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.

Peter Singer is one of the most influential philosophers of recent times, and one of the biggest influences on 80,000 Hours, so we’ve had to get him on at some point! We made it to 3 main topics — firstly, the strategy he has used to approach advocacy during his life, secondly, his views of the effective altruism community today, and what it’s doing right and wrong, and finally, where his philosophical positions have changed over the last ten years.

A few months ago philosopher Arden Koehler moved to London to join the 80,000 Hours research team. She joined me for this interview, and had a lot of thoughts about the topics we covered which we barely got to touch on, as we only had Peter for a bit over an hour.

So at the end of the episode we keep talking for another hour about how broad the effective altruism community ought to be, how demanding morality is, and what’s most counterintuitive about utilitarianism.

Before all that though, 3 quick things.

First, this is our second episode using chapters which allow you to skip between sections. Last time it seemed to work fine, but if you ever have a technical problem with the show, email [email protected] or [email protected] right away, and we’ll fix it as quickly as we can.

Secondly, my guest last time was Bonnie Jenkins, who I interviewed at Effective Altruism Global: London in October, where she was a speaker.

Applications for EA Global: San Francisco in 2020 just opened this week. It will be on a few months earlier this year, on the weekend of March 20-22. The deadline for early bird applications is December 18. You can apply to attend at eaglobal.org.

If you’re serious about changing your career in order to have a bigger impact, and have never been before, it’s a conference that’s well worth attending, at least so long as coming to San Francisco for a few days isn’t a big inconvenience.

Thirdly, as Peter says in this episode, the 10th anniversary edition of his classic The Life You Can Save has just been released as a free e-book and audiobook. You can access it at thelifeyoucansave.org or through the link in the show notes.

Alright, here’s Peter Singer.

The interview begins [0:02:29]

Robert Wiblin: Today’s guest is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer. Peter is an Australian moral philosopher known for developing the theory of utilitarianism, and is widely viewed as one of the most influential philosophers of modern times.

He is particularly famous for his 1975 book Animal Liberation in which he argued that animal agriculture was unconscionable, and his 1971 essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” in which he argued that middle-class people in rich countries have a moral obligation to donate to help the global poor or other important causes.

His writings have helped inspire the creation of the intellectual movement known as effective altruism, and in 2009 he helped found The Life You Can Save, an organisation which encourages people to donate to effective charities that reduce extreme poverty in the developing world.

And indeed I don’t think there’s much chance I’d be working at 80,000 Hours if not for his work.

So thanks for coming on the show Peter.

Peter Singer: Ah, very happy to be chatting with you both.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. And today, I’m also joined by my colleague, Arden Koehler, a researcher at 80,000 Hours who’s completing her PhD in philosophy at NYU.

Arden Koehler: I’m excited to be here.

Robert Wiblin: All right. So we hope to talk a bit about moral philosophy, a bit about your work doing advocacy, and then some more nuts and bolts questions.

What is Peter working on at the moment? [0:03:31]

But first, what are you working on at the moment and why do you think it’s really important?

Peter Singer: Well, I’m in the midst of the Princeton teaching semester and it’s really hard for me to do much serious research and writing during that period. One thing that I do keep up is my monthly columns for Project Syndicate, and one has just gone up on the Project Syndicate website and it’s actually quite relevant to 80,000 Hours and effective altruism.

Because it’s about the ethics of randomized controlled trials in the antipoverty sector. This was triggered by the award of a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics to Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer, and that interestingly sparked some discussion online. And even Angus Deaton himself a Nobel Prize for Economics winner, and a Princeton colleague wrote something critical about randomized trials.

So together with Johannes Haushofer who’s done these trials, particularly trials of GiveDirectly in Africa and Arthur Baker, we coauthored a response to that and a defense of the use of randomized trials in the antipoverty sector.

Re-release of The Life You Can Save [0:04:37]

Robert Wiblin: Nice. So obviously people have been requesting for you to come on the show, or at least were requesting that we interview you since it started about two and a half years ago.

But the reason we decided to do the interview this month is that you’re re-releasing the book, “The Life You Can Save”, which originally came out in 2009 and I think there’s actually going to be a free audio book and ebook download at “thelifeyoucansave.org”. What’s changed in the 10th anniversary edition and why re-release it?

Peter Singer: Okay, so why re-release it is, I mean, partly that things have changed and it needed some updating and I’ll get into that in a moment. But also that Charlie Bresler, who’s the Executive Director of the The Life You Can Save, had the idea of getting back the rights from the publishers and making it free. Putting it online so that more people would read it basically.

The book had a great influence on him. Led him to contact me and to volunteer to sort of take over The Life You Can Save. It existed as an organization, but it had some volunteers, students doing some work on it, but it wasn’t really very effective ’cause you can’t really run something like that without somebody full-time committed to it and Charlie volunteered to do that and has done it.

And the book influenced him to do that, and he thought more people should read this book. It’ll mean that more people will give to effective charities. So he did manage to get all of the English language rights back, and that’s why it will now be available online as you say, both as an ebook and as an audio book. And the audiobook incidentally has chapters read by a variety of celebrities, so we’re hoping for a big impact and a lot of people to read it.

Arden Koehler: What do you think out of the book, people haven’t appreciated as much as the other arguments? It seems like it’s been very popular, but is there anything in the book that’s underappreciated that you’d like to see people thinking about more?

Peter Singer: I want people to think more about giving effectively. That clearly was always the message of the book, but there’s always some pushback about people who have pet projects that they have some personal connection with, that they’re attached to. I was recently emailing with someone who spent time in Guatemala and got to know a poor family there and started helping them and they had a child who was ill and so she got medical help and then she started thinking, “Yeah, I’m actually putting a lot of money into this one family and one child. Is that the most effective thing to do?”

So she’s a good example of somebody, I mean, she was aware of the effective giving argument, but she was torn emotionally by the personal connection with the family. And you know, my view is that obviously what she was doing with the family was great, but she should be, as well as that saying, “Yes, this is something I want to do. This is something personal, but I do want to do something that is targeted at being as effective as possible, reaching and helping the most people in the most effective way”. And I think that’s a reasonable sort of compromise that most people can live with.

Advocacy [0:07:20]

Robert Wiblin: All right. Let’s move on and talk a bit about your advocacy work over the years, which has had a pretty big impact. I guess, as many listeners will know, you’ve sometimes gone out and made kind of very provocative or controversial arguments, I guess, seemingly as a way of kind of getting attention for maybe other ideas that matter more.

Do you think moral advocates should in general kind of court more controversy than they do, or is that kind of just an approach that you think has worked for you in particular, or maybe it hasn’t worked out quite as you planned?

Peter Singer: So I don’t think I’ve ever deliberately set out to be provocative by saying something that I didn’t feel was right.

Robert Wiblin: Oh no. Yeah, I wouldn’t… But I guess there’s a lot of different arguments you can make and then sometimes, you choose the one that might get a lot of attention because it’s of greater interest to people.

Peter Singer: Yes. But I think you have to feel that it’s at least as strong as any other argument that you could be out there making that it’s at least as plausible.

And often, of course, the provocative arguments don’t get expressed because I think most people are somewhat timid about sticking their neck out for something that other people are likely to jump on. So I think that idea of putting out an argument for discussion, if it might be the right argument, and even if it has, I say, as good a chance of being the right view as any other view around in that area, just to give it a run and see what happens.

I think there’s, there’s value in that. Now, you know, has that worked for me? I think probably it has. Sometimes people say to me, people who, let’s say 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 euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants or allowing parents to opt for euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants is the view that I hold.

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.

And perhaps that’s because at the time there wasn’t really this disability movement in the sense of people with disabilities as a discriminated against minority. So, you know, I wrote that in, well, I guess I wrote the English edition of Practical Ethics, which certainly contains it. I think there were a couple of articles earlier, but 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, and I know a lot of German students 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.

Robert Wiblin: I guess it sounds like the outcome there might’ve been that more people found out about a bunch of your views and probably came to agree with them cause they hadn’t heard that perspective before, whereas another group of people kind of heard about them and maybe ended up kind of condemning all of them across the board because they’re all associated with ideas that they don’t like, which I guess is like, it’s a bit ambiguous whether that’s good or not, whether it’s good to polarize people in favor and against your views.

It depends on whether you want to produce a small core of people who are going to really act on them or do you want to get a broad acceptance across society?

Peter Singer: Yes, but I’m not sure that, you know, you’re suggesting that everybody took my views on block and I don’t think that’s true.

I think there were people who said, “Well, I read your views and I still disagree with you about euthanasia and those issues, but I agree with what you say about global poverty and support that”.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I guess, I’m in that group that kind of disagrees about that specific point, but then agrees with a lot of the other stuff.

But I do worry that people, maybe it’s like there’s a lot of kind of bleeding over, where it’s like if they think that you have like bad views on one issue, then they’re much less inclined to believe the other stuff. Or they, they might then condemn the underlying philosophy cause it has this like undesirable consequence they think and so then they’d be like, “Well utilitarianism must be wrong because of this implication it has about infanticide and so therefore like maybe I don’t have to give to the developing world”.

Peter Singer: Yeah, and there may be some people who say that. I don’t have a way of really saying whether that’s, you know, a lot of people or a small number of people who think that.

Arden Koehler: Related to this, when you’re thinking about making an argument or pursuing a certain research project, do you think a lot about basically the benefits that would happen if people are persuaded that you’re right? Do you think, “This is going to produce a certain amount of utility if everyone changes their views on euthanasia”, and that is the case for making this argument versus the case for making an argument on like global poverty. One might think there’s a lot more sort of utility at stake. Do you weigh up those sorts of considerations before making these kinds of arguments or not? Do just go with like “Say what’s true”?

Peter Singer: No, I am affected by the consequences of the projects that I work on, and interestingly, this goes right back to, I guess the first major public thing that I did which was writing Animal Liberation. And it’s interesting looking back on it now because I realized that I was affected by the idea of the neglectedness of that cause, which is something of course that effective altruists talk about, the neglectedness of an issue and is one of the major reasons for working on it.

So this was at the time of the Vietnam war. So that was an issue. You know, as a undergraduate at the University of Melbourne, I was involved, actively involved in opposition to the war and opposition to conscription for the war. So that was an ongoing issue. Later when, you know, the time we’re talking about now is when I was a graduate student at Oxford, it was also around the time I wrote Famine, Affluence, and Morality.

So I had gotten interested in that issue, and clearly I was interested in that issue because this is a big issue with potentially very good consequences. But when I became aware of the way animals are treated and started thinking about the lack of moral status that they have, and the idea that this is unjustifiable, that this is speciesism, which is a prejudice, so something like racism and sexism that leads us to disregard the interest of animals. And then I thought, well, should I do more with this? Should I make this one of my major research things? And I think the reason I chose to do that rather than to do more research on global poverty at the time, or for that matter, to do something about the war, I actually wrote my Oxford thesis on civil disobedience in the context of the war, so it wasn’t that I hadn’t done something about that. But would I go on with that? I thought, well, the people who are working on animal welfare issues at this time, which is the early 1970s, are not philosophers, basically, and they approach it in a rather sentimental way.

So you know, they put out leaflets with pictures of cute puppies and kittens and they say, “Stop animal experimentation”. And this obviously comes over to people like me as a rather sentimental approach. And then somebody else, some researcher will say, “Well, 90% of the animals used in research are not dogs or cats, but rats or mice or something of that sort”.

And then, a lot of people will say, “Oh, well then it doesn’t matter”. And I thought there’s a need for philosophers to put arguments here that this is not a matter of just loving animals and being sentimental about dogs or cats, but there is really something seriously wrong happening.

There is a lot of unnecessary suffering being inflicted for no good reason. And perhaps I can make that argument where, generally speaking, it’s not out there in the public domain. That kind of discussion is not really being had. So I did feel that not only was this a really important issue, because of course there are billions of animals suffering, but it was an issue where maybe I had some skills that would add significantly to the state of the debate.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So one reason that people might think it’s a good idea to just say things that you think are true on the basis of the philosophy, even if they’re very provocative to people, is that you might be able to have a very outsized impact that way. And kind of the model that Cass Sunstein has put forward on the show in a previous interview that you might’ve heard, is that you need first movers who are willing to just say the thing that people think is very objectionable in order to create cover for like other people to come out of the woodwork admitting that actually they kind of do agree, even though this is maybe a kind of slightly taboo opinion and then you kind of create this cascade of more and more people expressing this view that previously no one was advocating.

I guess, yeah, does that fit with your experience and does that, in part, motivate you to say things that otherwise other people might be unwilling to say?

Peter Singer: I think it has for, you know, at least some time in my career, maybe not early on, but once I had a tenured academic position and had some standing, then I felt I was safe, you know, or at least there was less risk for me; I wouldn’t say it was completely safe but, there was less risk for me in saying things that might lead to some reaction then for more junior academics who perhaps didn’t have tenure. So yeah, I think Cass Sunstein is right about that. There’s sometimes a need for people to get out there, and then other people may come through with agreement on those things.

Arden Koehler: You might think that this implies that, you know, we should be trying to make it easier for these sort of first-movers to express these unpopular opinions, but like probably most unpopular opinions are bad or are false. And so like, do you think overall we should be trying to make it easier for people to express these unpopular views or not?

Peter Singer: Yes, provided that they’re not only, you know, not just unpopular views, but are unpopular views that have good arguments or good evidence in support of them. So I don’t want to encourage any kind of crank or someone to say something that is unpopular where there’s nothing much to be said in support of it.

But if people have worked out arguments or reasons or evidence for believing something that is going to be unpopular, I think it’s in general, it’s probably good to get that out there. I’m sure you could think of exceptions where you wouldn’t want that, but in general, I’m a believer in freedom of speech and I think that’s a way to try to work out what are defensible, justifiable positions and which are not.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. An objection that people might raise is that you can’t really cherrypick and like just have people you know, express and get credit for good arguments because the general public maybe isn’t very good at evaluating what arguments are sound and which ones aren’t.

So if we loosen the taboos on what people can say, then that will allow kind of bad ideas potentially to spread. Ideas that appeal to maybe our baser instincts, even if they’re not well founded in philosophy. And so maybe it’s actually just like good in general to have strong speech taboos so that we don’t end up allowing really bad views to have a foothold.

Peter Singer: Well, the trouble with that is that if you do have these taboos and if they do appeal, as you say to our baser instincts, somebody is going to break those taboos anyway, and is going to take advantage of the fact that they are tabooed and is going to attack those who are trying to enforce that taboo.

And I think that’s exactly what’s happened in politics recently. I think the Trump phenomenon is an example of that. That Trump was prepared to say things that other people were not saying. And certainly they have encouraged white supremacists and racists and antisemites and so on to to be more open and I think there has been a rise in the incidence of those quite wrong and objectionable views. But I don’t think, you know, in a reasonably free society, I don’t think you can actually stop that. I think that to really try to enforce those taboos in some way, it would start to lead away from liberal democracy altogether to some more repressive society, and I’d be very reluctant to give up the freedoms that liberal democracies have at their core in order to achieve that.

Arden Koehler: You’ve been doing advocacy on the basis of moral philosophy for almost 50 years now. Are there any strategic mistakes that you’ve made that you can talk about that people could learn from? Do you have a sense of what some of the best strategic decisions that you made that weren’t obvious at the time?

Peter Singer: Obviously I do think that writing Animal Liberation was one of the best strategic decisions that I made because it has had a big impact and it was a strategic decision in terms of being a neglected but important area. In terms of mistakes that I’ve made, I’ve occasionally given my opponents, you know, more of a opportunity to attack me than I needed to.

Now, one of those we’ve already talked about: that’s the question about euthanasia for disabled infants. But in a way, that would have been hard for me to avoid if I was working in bioethics in general. For example, if I wanted to write about abortion as I did, again, in Practical Ethics, it obviously raises the question, “Well, what’s the dividing line”?

You know, you’re saying it’s okay to terminate the life of a fetus, where exactly does that stop? And then you have to think what’s the dividing line? And I don’t think dividing lines like, you know, viability or whatever are really very well grounded and you know, then what is it?

Well maybe it’s the development of some kind of awareness in the fetus and what kind of awareness and at least given, especially given the preference utilitarian position I was holding then, that would have been hard for me to avoid getting drawn into the idea of is birth, the crucial dividing line and if not, why not? But later on, somewhat more recently, though not that recently anymore, I was asked to review a book on bestiality, on sex with animals, which I did, and I ended up saying that obviously people who have sex with animals in ways that doesn’t respect the interest of the animals are doing something clearly wrong and should be prosecuted on standard anti cruelty grounds.

But there are a group of people who call themselves zoophiles, who have, you know, loving, but also sexual relations with an individual animal. And looking at that, I had to say, I couldn’t really see that that was something that ought to be criminal anyway, right? Maybe you were thinking there’s some sense in which that’s wrong or I don’t know.

I’m not even sure of that, but I do think that, I can’t see a reason why the criminal law should get involved if there’s no harm to the animal or to the person or to anyone else. So I wrote that in the review and that’s, even in a way, an even smaller issue than euthanasia for disabled newborns.

It’s not a totally insignificant issue, but it’s a very minor issue. And you know, I then got attacked for that and that continues to resound over the years. You know, maybe just reminding people of it now on your interviews is even not a good strategy, I don’t know. But I think it probably would have been wiser to turn down that invitation to review the book.

There’s one offsetting thing that I’ll just say there and that is that I have been contacted by some people. In fact, I was contacted by a psychotherapist who was working with people who are zoophiles and who are very troubled by this and are very conflicted over it. And it was bad for the man and he gave them my review and it helped some of them to get over this and to see that, well, maybe they shouldn’t be so depressed or even potentially suicidal because of the sexual attraction to nonhuman animals in a loving way. So, you know, it’s not that it hasn’t done any good, I think, but it’s probably done, at least me, it may have done more harm than good.

Robert Wiblin: So, yeah. In terms of philosophical arguments that really do matter, are there any, I mean, you’ve written tons of stuff over the years.

Is there anything that you think really was very important that in the end didn’t actually get that much attention?

Peter Singer: Oh, I’m pretty happy with the attention and, you know, the two most important areas are the animal liberation stuff and the global poverty issue, and they’ve had a lot of attention. The animal stuff from 1975 when the book was published, the global poverty issue didn’t get that much attention for quite a long time. Famine, Affluence, and Morality got anthologized in variety of readers. So quite a lot of philosophy students read it during courses in practical ethics, but it didn’t really get out in the general public until after I came to Princeton. And actually this is another interesting example of the benefits of the controversy about my views about euthanasia because when I was appointed to Princeton almost exactly 20 years ago now, there was a lot of controversy about that, and you know, the Right to Life people protested my appointment and came to Princeton and staged protests at Princeton.

Steve Forbes, who was running then for the Republican nomination for President and was a trustee at Princeton, protested about it and the New York times wrote it up and they said this is the most controversy over philosophy appointments since Bertrand Russell’s appointment to the City University of New York back in 1940s I think that was. So I’d got a lot of attention. And as a result of that attention, I got an invitation from an editor at the New York Times magazine, the thing that comes out on Sundays, to write something for them. And they said, you know, “We think more people should know what your views are”. And I chose not to write about what was making my appointment controversial. But you’re right about global poverty. And that was an article which they entitled, it wasn’t my title, “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”.

That in a way started to bring my views on global poverty to the attention of a much wider audience. And I followed that up with another article for the New York Times a few years later called “How much should a billionaire give and how much should you?” And that in turn led to my writing The Life You Can Save. The responses to those articles led me to think that now there is an audience for all of this, a public audience, and the way to do that is to write a book, a trade book, not an academic book about it. So maybe that’s another example of where having said something that was controversial led me to get an audience that I wouldn’t have otherwise got.

And so now I think those two areas, to go back to your original question, those two areas have had the due attention that they should have. And I do think that they are the areas that are most important that I’ve worked on. Third area that’s obviously very important is climate change. But in a way, what I’ve said there is less distinctive.

That’s not been a neglected area, not even by philosophers, and so there are other good philosophers. My friend and colleague Dale Jamieson, who, if you’re at NYU I guess you would know has been working very well on that for a long time. So I think that probably the areas where I’ve had something distinctive to say and that are also important, have had adequate coverage.

Effective altruism [0:26:19]

Robert Wiblin: All right, let’s move on and talk about some specific things that people are doing to improve the world in hopefully a big way. I guess, obviously, you’ve been a big influence on the creation and direction of the effective altruism community, but I’m curious to know what do you think are the EA community’s kind of biggest mistakes in your view?

Peter Singer: So I think that the 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. And to do that, I think that the global poverty issue is, perhaps together with the animal issue, but I would say, you know, first and foremost, global poverty is the issue to attract more people into the movement, to get them seeing that yes, it’s a good thing to help people in extreme poverty.

Yes, you can be more effective by helping people in low income countries than by helping people in your own community. If you live in an affluent country, as most of these donors do, and yes, there is research which will show which organizations will make the best use of your money. I think those are really important things to do.

Obviously the organization, The Life You Can Save that I helped found is aiming at that, and I think that, you know, while I certainly respect those who are working on the long-term future, and existential risk and so on, and I think that is important work, it should continue. But, I’m troubled by the idea that that becomes or is close to becoming the public face of the EA movement.

Because I do think that there’s only this much narrower group of people who are likely to respond to that kind of appeal.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So there is this interesting strategic challenge for effective altruism where it seems like if you’re someone who wants to prioritize or thinks that work on global poverty or animal welfare is particularly effective, then it seems like you probably want a pretty broad based movement cause like many, many people can contribute in some useful way to that.

Whereas if you’re more like me, who’s focused on long-termism on reducing existential risks, then strategically it seems like you probably want to have a more narrow movement cause you want to focus on people who are going to be particularly influential in policy and like in international relations maybe on donors who are gonna, you know, do tons of research and be like very, very sophisticated in their actions.

And so you end up with like these different clusters of people who have different cause focuses and then want kind of a different style of movement. I think people can’t have it, but everyone can have their way and everyone’s position kind of is internally coherent. It all makes sense. And it makes me wonder like sometimes whether one of these groups should like use the term EA and the other group should maybe use something else?

Like perhaps the people who are focused on the long-term should mostly talk about themselves as long-termists, and then they can have the kind of the internal culture that makes sense given that focus.

Peter Singer: That’s a possibility. And that might help the other groups that you’re referring to make their views clear.

So that certainly could help. I do think that actually there’s benefits for the longtermists too in having a successful and broad EA movement. Because just as you know, I’ve seen this in the animal movement. I spoke earlier about how the animal welfare 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.

Arden Koehler: Yeah. So speaking of long-termism, we’ve had a couple of moral philosophers on the podcast give arguments for why focusing on the long-term future is really important.

Just very briefly, those are basically just because it has such enormous potential to be good or bad. So setting aside for a minute, strategic questions about the effective altruism movement or practical challenges about influencing the long-term future, what do you think about the arguments for and against long-termism?

Peter Singer: I think that there is a strong argument for long-termism taking in itself. How strong the argument is clearly does depend on this population issue question. So, how great a loss it is if you think that vast numbers of people will never be born and will never experience good lives because of an extinction event that occurs before they’re born. So if you hold the total view, which I’m sympathetic to in the sense that it’s a coherent and consistent view, and I don’t have a better alternative, then you do take account of that loss of good lives, at least good lives, again, we have to assume that life is or will continue to be or will become positive on the whole over this long-term future.

But I think that’s a reasonable assumption. So then you do have to take into account that this is a vast loss, not merely as the loss of the 7.7 billion people living on the planet now if an extinction event were to occur today, but the loss of these futures that will never be lived. And even if I’m somewhat uncertain about the total view as against some other view, I certainly think that this is one of those cases where I should take account of the idea that if I’m uncertain, and if I say no, let’s not worry so much about the long-termist view, because it might be the case that really it’s not such a bad thing if people who never come into existence don’t have good lives. I would have to say, yeah, but I’m, I’m quite uncertain about that, so I have to give it significant weight.

And of course, if you give it some weight really, then the number of lives that will be lived, assuming you know the species survives for a billion years is so vast that the expected utility becomes very great. So I accept that argument. I think that there are good reasons for thinking that long-term consequences are tremendously important and justify trying to make sure that there is a good long-term future.

Robert Wiblin: Okay. So it sounds like you think long-termism is kind of on strong philosophical grounds, but you’re also maybe worried that effective altruism, like too large a fraction of effective altruism or people associated with the community are now focused on long-termism. I guess so that’s on kind of strategic grounds cause you’re were worried that it could limit like the full potential of this kind of school of thought or maybe you have practical concerns about whether we can actually find things that are predictably good for the long-term future.

Peter Singer: Yeah, both of those. Yeah. And we’ve already talked about the first of them and its effect on the movement as a whole and even on getting new people to come into the movement. But I do have concerns about knowing what we can do to reduce extinction risk. And obviously those concerns vary with the nature of the risks.

So if you have quite a concrete risk, like asteroid collision, then I think we can, you know, we can estimate this risk. We can know what might reduce the risk. You know, NASA is already tracking large bodies that might collide with our planet and they should continue to do that. We should also develop technology that would be able to deflect an asteroid or comet if it was on course to collide with our planet.

That’s something where it’s, it’s pretty clear that there is some risk, even if it’s a very small one, and secondly that we could know what would help to reduce that risk. When you get to some of the other things, I think it’s much harder, and I think with the sort of superintelligent artificial general intelligence taking us over, I think that’s in that category.

That is, it’s hard to be confident that anything that we do now is really going to be effective in reducing that risk.

Robert Wiblin: Do you think, so for like specific individuals who are, let’s say, well placed to work on those issues, like let’s say that you’re at the cutting edge of machine learning research and, you could like focus a bit more on the robustness and reliability of those algorithms, or maybe you’re involved in kind of setting US nuclear policy or you’re involved in the Biological Weapons Convention, it seems like, at least for some people possibly involved in those areas, that there could be things that they could do that seem certainly better than 50-50 guesses at things that would make a catastrophe less likely.

Peter Singer: Yes, that’s certainly true. And again, it varies for some of those things. So the nuclear weapons stuff, that’s a risk. Also, you know, a bit like the asteroid one that is here and now and where I think we can have quite a good idea of what will reduce that risk. Maybe the pandemic one as well, with the person who’s at the cutting edge of machine learning.

Yes, so some of the people that I’ve talked to who are in that situation still think that artificial general intelligence is far off and so they themselves think that you know, if it’s going to take sort of another 50 years anyway, then we’ll know more about it and how likely it is and also how you could align the values of the general intelligence with ours, we’ll know more about that in 20 or 30 years when we have a better sense of how it’s going to come about than we do today.

Robert Wiblin: I guess it seems like the machine learning researchers at the frontier are kind of just all over the place in their forecasts. Like some of them think it might be 10 years, some of them think it might be a hundred years. So I guess I’m kind of, I’m keen to have at least like some people working on it now as kind of an insurance policy in case things do advance maybe faster than we think is the most likely scenario. And then I guess those people who think it’s coming soon also tend to have like more concrete ideas about what they can do to make it more safe now cause they like they have a particular vision for how things might play out in the nearer term.

Peter Singer: Yeah and certainly I’m definitely not in a position to say that they’re wrong about that, I’m only in a position to say that other people think that it’s, as you say, it’s much longer.

So yeah, I certainly don’t object at all to trying to get people in that area who think that it’s coming relatively sooner to do work on trying to avoid bad consequences coming from it. That seems perfectly reasonable. But, that’s a relatively modest kind of investment and I don’t think that should be kind of the public face of EA and that’s what worries me again for those strategic reasons.

Arden Koehler: What do you think would be sort of the appropriate share of the resources of the effective altruism community to go to basically long-termist focused causes.

Peter Singer: So if you’re including all long-termist causes, I think that could be quite significant.

I’d be happy for there to be significant resources going into the risks that are here and now. Asteroid collision and perhaps even more nuclear war and nuclear weapons and so on and pandemics. I’d be happy for quite a lot to go to those areas. I certainly think a lot should go into climate change, whether that’s actually an extinction risk or not is obviously controversial, but I do think that trying to mitigate climate change and help adaptation to it is very important for the global poverty side as well.

So insofar as that is an existential risk, I think a lot of resources should go into that. I’m not going to put a percentage figure on it, but I think it’s quite reasonable for those causes to have very significant proportion of resources.

Moral philosophy [0:38:05]

Arden Koehler: You mentioned that you’re still writing columns for Project Syndicate. It seems like you have a lot going on. Do you have time for lots of original research these days, and if so, you know, what is it on?

Peter Singer: So when I’m at Princeton as I am this fall semester, I don’t really have time for significant amounts of original research. I’m teaching a big undergraduate course in practical ethics. I organize a visiting speaker seminar series, and I do some of this smaller pieces of writing usually for the general public. But I do have time for writing and research in the other semester because then I’m on leave from Princeton.

I go back to Australia where I’m originally from and where my children and grandchildren are, so my wife and I get to spend time with them. And although I have a kind of a loose attachment with the University of Melbourne, it’s not very demanding. I give some lectures in other people’s courses, but I don’t run a course myself and that gives me more time for research and writing.

There’s a couple of projects that are sort of moving along. One that’s been around for a while but hasn’t got very far, is looking at global population. Of course you and other listeners will be familiar with population issues in ethics that Derek Parfit pioneered and that have been very extensively discussed about whether it’s better to have a larger population with a lower average happiness, but a greater total amount of, of happiness or some other principal that doesn’t lead to that maximizing total.

Clearly that’s gotta be relevant in any discussion of population, but what I and the coauthor, or possibly it’ll be co authors we haven’t sorted that out quite yet want to talk about is much more the current question of, is there a population problem and if so, what is an ethical approach to it? And we’re particularly focusing on Sub-Saharan Africa as a place where population is growing fastest, and is growing fastest in some of the world’s poorest countries. And we’re looking at whether that is a problem, both in terms of reducing poverty overall, in terms of environmental questions as well obviously, and some of those related issues.

And we are discussing with, I probably shouldn’t mention names yet, we’re discussing with someone who comes from Nigeria, to be a coauthor of this because we don’t want to just have kind of Westerners talking about Africa from a distance.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So speaking of population ethics, it seems like over the last 10 or 15 years you’ve had some significant changes in your views on moral philosophy. You’ve moved from preference utilitarianism to being more interested in hedonistic utilitarianism. Maybe you’ve also like maybe shifted your view on population ethics from something that was somewhat more person effecting towards being more sympathetic to the total view.

Perhaps also a bit of a shift from moral antirealism to being more sympathetic to moral realism. Do want to lay out what you think those shifts are and maybe whether they were connected in some way and why are they related?

Peter Singer: You’re right about the first and the third of those. That is, I have moved from preference utilitarianism to hedonistic utilitarianism, and that’s related to the move from, well, you can call it antirealism to realism or, you know, when I was doing this, it was usually referred to as non-cognitivism to a form of cognitivist or objectivist moral theory. Let me talk about those in a moment. But I don’t think my position on population has really changed very much recently.

If you go way back, one of the first pieces I wrote for a book called Ethics and Population edited by Michael Bayles in the 70s was trying to defend something like a person affecting view anyway, definitely an alternative to the total view. That was subject to a devastating criticism from Derek Parfit in the same book and I really didn’t feel that I could adequately respond to that criticism. So I more or less dropped that. And from then on, I would say I’ve been just uncertain about this issue. I’m somewhat sympathetic to the total view. The total view has the great virtue of being a coherent and consistent position.

But of course, many people find its implication of what Parfit called The Repugnant Conclusion, to be just that, repugnant and therefore they don’t want to accept the total view. I’m somewhat inclined to say maybe we just have to swallow The Repugnant Conclusion and not trust our intuitions in these rather strange sorts of choices that we are forced to make.

But going back to the other point, I think the significant change there was the move away from what you could call an antirealist view anyway of you that was based originally on Hare’s universal prescriptivism. That is the idea that moral judgments prescriptions and prescriptions come out of the same language family as commands. So commands are not true or false. They’re prescriptions for action. And in that sense, this is a non-cognitivist theory.

But Hare was always interested in trying to get an element of reason into his prescriptivism. He disagreed with the standard emotivists like A.J. Ayer or C.L. Stevenson who thought that moral judgments are just expressions of emotions and there’s not really much basis for reasoning how bad moral judgements, you know, you just favor this or you don’t favor it, except of course, maybe in terms of understanding the consequences and implications of certain principles there’s role for reason there, but not in the fundamental moral judgments. And I tried to pursue that, and I tried for many years in various articles. I wrote about it to strengthen the basis for reason in that which, which for Hare was always linguistic. For Hare it was the fact that using moral language required you to universalize and universalizability brought an element of reason into your judgments.

But the problem with that was that somebody could always say, “Okay, so I’m just not going to use words like, ought or good”, which, you know, carry this universalizability. And you haven’t shown me that there’s anything irrational in acting on judgments that I don’t universalize. And I wanted to argue that there is, and I tried to do that in various ways within Hare’s model and eventually decided that that didn’t work.

It was maybe 15 years ago or something like that. I came to abandon that and that led me to shift towards some kind of moral realism, I suppose, influenced by again Derek Parfit in “On What Matters”. And to some extent by Tom Nagel who also talked about this and that shift, you know, so within Hare’s framework, more or less the preference utilitarianism fell out of the idea that you’re prescribing universally. That you have to put yourself in everyone’s positions.

And that means you have to take account of their preferences. And that means that the right thing to do, or the thing that you can prescribe universally is something that takes account of everybody’s preferences and sums them up and that leads you to a preference utilitarianism. Once you are not within that framework, you are much more open to think of things as objectively good, independently of whether people prefer them or not.

And that plus criticisms about preferences and you know, is it really good to satisfy preferences if they are somewhat crazy preferences? Those sorts of questions led me to think that maybe really preference utilitarianism wasn’t the most defensible position and that something like the classical utilitarianism view that pleasure or let’s say, states of consciousness, okay. Mental states, really where value lies, that if there were no conscious beings, there wouldn’t be value in the Universe. And so, given that we have conscious beings, then positive states of consciousness, pleasure, happiness, you know, whatever you want to call it, positive values and negative, pain, suffering, misery, are negative values.

And that, you know, I re-read Sidgwick and I’ve co-authored a book with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek called “The Point of View of the Universe” about Sidgwick and trying to restate Sedgwick in the most plausible way and taking into account modern discussions of ethics. And part of that process led me to say, “Look, I now do think that hedonistic utilitarianism is more defensible than preference utilitarianism”, which is not to say that I’m 100% convinced that it’s the truth, but I think it’s the most defensible, ethical, normative view that I see it as present.

Arden Koehler: Okay. Just to check to make sure that I understand what the relationship between these two shifts were for you. Are you saying like, so you were an antirealist or a non-cognitivist and then for various reasons decided that that couldn’t work and then that sort of just freed you up to like start considering anew what was good for people, whether it was the satisfaction of preferences or whether it was just sort of happiness, broadly construed. And then once you were sort of just considering that on the merits, you ended up going with the latter?

Peter Singer: Yeah, so I think that’s a good summary of the process that I went through.

Robert Wiblin: Is there some kind of connection maybe between thinking that conscious states are what really matters, which then leads people to think that, well, because like conscious states are some real thing about the universe, then maybe there’s some like naturalist foundation for ethics, which causes you to then be like more sympathetic to realism?

Peter Singer: No, I don’t think that’s quite right. Firstly, I don’t, I’m not a naturalist. I still accept the idea that there is this gap, as Hume said, between is and ought. That we can’t move from is statements to ought statements. So I’m a non-naturalist realist or non-naturalist objectivist, whichever of those terms you want to use.

And that’s I think also Sidgwick’s view, that the sense in which these are truths are somewhat similar to the sense in which mathematical truths are truths. So, you know, at least on one defensible view of the philosophy of mathematics, these are substantive truths that any rational being would come to and similarly, I think Sidgwick argued that he came up with three axioms of ethics. And arguedthat they are things which also, you know, if we’re thinking rationally, we should be able to agree on them. Of those, the most important is that the good of any being is equally important as the similar good of any other being.

So it’s a kind of equality although because it similar good, if there’s some beings who can experience great good, and other beings who aren’t capable of that, then you would give more weight to the interest of the beings who can experience greater good, or you would get more, you’d get more good out of that, more value out of that.

But you don’t discount it because that being is, you know, not you, not someone you know, someone distant from you, somebody living maybe in a future century. You can discount that for uncertainty of course, but not otherwise. Or a matter of another race or even a matter of another species.

Arden Koehler: All of these options that we’ve been discussing are sort of within the consequentialist framework. If you were to find out somehow that the right moral theory was not within consequentialism, what do you think would be the next most plausible view and how likely do you think it would be to be true?

Peter Singer: Ah, okay. So I find it hard to imagine that consequentialism is not true, or at least is not true to some extent, right? Put it this way. Suppose that I believe, came to believe that there are some rules that you should never violate. There’s some moral rules. You know, let’s, let’s say the rule might be, you should never torture an innocent human being.

Lots of people would say that’s an absolute rule. Yeah. As a consequentialist, I can imagine scenarios in which you would do that. So you know the ticking bomb scenario where the terrorist has planted this nuclear bomb, you’ve caught the terrorist, but the terrorist is, you know, even if you torture the terrorist, he won’t tell you.

But you also have the terrorist’s five year old daughter, and if you torture her, then the terrorist will tell you, you have some psychological profile that leads you to have confidence in this and then you’ll be able to save millions of people. So I would torture the five year old girl in those circumstances. But let’s assume that I were convinced that that was wrong and that that was a mistake.

I would still think that when you’re not violating that rule, you ought to do the most good you can. So, in that sense, I would be consequentialist for every case other than those that involve torturing innocent people, which fortunately in all of my years of life as a consequentialist, I’ve never had a situation where it would have produced good consequences to torture some innocent person.

So it wouldn’t really change my day-to-day living very much. And then I suppose you can imagine, well, suppose I became convinced of a lot of other rules that were absolute. It would reduce the scope of doing the most good you can, but I think any plausible view is going to have to say once you’re not violating any absolute moral rules, or once you’ve met all your duties, whatever they might be, right?

They might be specific, they might be the view that you have particular duties to your family or something like that. But once you’ve done all of that, then if you have the opportunity to do more good or not to do more good, to do less good, it’s better to do more good. So I can’t really imagine myself abandoning consequentialism even, you know, all of the way if you like and not thinking that that’s important.

Robert Wiblin: So it sounds like you think the most plausible alternative option is kind of consequentialism plus some kind of like side constraints, like around rights or autonomy or justice that you couldn’t violate.

Peter Singer: That’s right. I think that’s the only plausible option to me.

Arden Koehler: Okay. So if moral realism is true, then there are sort of facts of the matter about what’s right and wrong and people are making moral mistakes periodically. What do you think is the heart of making moral mistakes? Is it following your intuitions wherever they lead?

Is it resisting your intuitions in favor of following a theory down some sort of crazy path? Like how problematic do you think these different kinds of moral mistakes are?

Peter Singer: I think both of those are true actually. Both of those occur and it’s hard for me to say which are the more important ones.

I’ve certainly written more about people mistakenly following moral intuitions. And so for example, cause I’ve done a lot of work about ethics and animals, and people just intuitively think that animals don’t count. Clearly, I guess that’s something that is a sort of evolved response that we care about others and particularly others close to us, we don’t care about those who are more distant and animals are even more distant than other humans. But also the intuition that I don’t have obligations to help people who are in great need on the other side of the world. People I can’t see. Statistical lives, if you like, rather than an identifiable child that I can see.

I think our intuitions mislead us a lot in those cases. But there are some cases where you wish people had followed their intuitions. There’s a speech that Heinrich Himmler gave in Poznań to the SS in which, you know, I think they’ve just cleared out a ghetto of Jewish people or something, and they’ve all murdered them or sent them off to be murdered.

And he says something to them ,”What we’re doing today can never be written and recorded as history, but it’s an honorable thing to do despite the fact that any decent person must find some repulsion or some”… I don’t remember exactly what, but basically saying that this is repulsive to most decent people, but it’s the right thing to do because it purifies the Aryan race or whatever.

So you wish that Himmler had listened to that intuition that this is a repulsive thing to do, of course. So it does go both ways. There are cases where we have decent intuitions and ideologies lead us to ignore them. And there are other cases where we have intuitions that lead us astray.

Robert Wiblin: So I guess some people who are sympathetic to hedonistic or classical utilitarianism think that we should mostly ignore kind of our moral intuitions about specific cases and instead kind of go with this one intuition or this thing that they think we have direct access to, which is the kind of our personal experience of pleasure is good and our personal experience of like negative, you know, conscious states is bad. And yeah, how we apprehend like various different cases that people can give in thought experiments just like isn’t reliable evidence at all.

Do you have any reaction to that?

Peter Singer: Yeah. That’s a view that I’m strongly sympathetic to. So in the case of pleasure or pain, not even sure it’s quite right to call it an intuition. We have direct experience of pleasure and I think directly experiences it as something good in itself and pain as something bad.

Whereas I think the more specific intuitions about particular cases do get to be more subject to, in some cases, cultural influences. And in some cases, they’re evolved influences. Intuitions that helped us or our group to survive in other conditions, but are no longer relevant for today’s conditions.

Arden Koehler: So a lot of people that you know and that we know have taken an interest in the question of like, “Okay. What should we do when we are morally uncertain?” Not just uncertain about the facts in the world, but also about say whether consequentialism or some other moral theory is true or you know what, even just what variety of consequentialism is true, whether hedonistic utilitarianism or some other version is true.

How do you think we should go about approaching sort of moral questions in the real world when we’re uncertain about these things?

Peter Singer: I think that we should take that uncertainty into account and in some way, I don’t think we should be overly confident or overly dogmatic that we know what is right.

Clearly, we have, I guess, stronger convictions on some things than others as I just said earlier, I have a very strong conviction that consequentialism. is either the entirely right theory or that it’s with some side constraints, it’s the right theory. And if you like, I have a strong conviction, particular cases say that Kant was wrong when he said it was always wrong to tell a lie, no matter what the consequences would be.

So those things I find it really hard to imagine that I’m wrong about that, but still, I guess you can’t be 100% certain, and then there are other things as what you mentioned, as to whether hedonistic utilitarianism or some other form of consequentialism is right, where I certainly admit a much more significant degree of uncertainty.

And also we talked earlier about the population issue. I mean, I guess that’s not a terribly practical issue in terms of everyday decisions, but where it is relevant, then I agree there’s quite a substantial amount of uncertainty about whether the total view is the right view or there is some kind of theory X as Parfit called it and was always looking for, but never really came up with a satisfactory theory X that would be an alternative to the total view.

So I think we should try to take into account the possibility that we’re mistaken and people like Toby Ord and William MacAskill have written about this and say that you should take into account that possibility and maybe it should affect your choices so that you don’t do the thing that if you are wrong, will be much worse. That does seem to me to be relevant in some choices that we make.

Immigration [0:56:34]

Robert Wiblin: All right, let’s push on to some audience questions, yeah. So I said I was gonna interview on Twitter and Facebook and there was a couple of topics that came up just again and again from listeners. So the first one was, what are your kind of views on immigration?

I guess there’s a lot of people who think that potentially promoting freedom of people to move from very poor countries to rich countries could be among the very best things that we could do for global development, which is perhaps more a question for kind of economist and sociologist than a philosopher.

But yeah, do you have a view on whether that’s something that maybe people focused on global development should think about more.

Peter Singer: The answer to that is really no. Because even though in theory that might be true, 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.

Robert Wiblin: Yeah, I actually think that’s the top explanation or like people’s fears about migration probably is the single best explanation or the single biggest predictor for them supporting Trump or Brexit. But the interesting thing is that people’s fears about rates of migration are surprisingly like in the long-term seem surprisingly unrelated to the actual rate of legal migration. So I think actually that might’ve been more driven by the Syrian refugee crisis in the sense of kind of, there was like a breakdown of like lawful migration on borders and kind of maybe perceptions matter more than reality here.

Peter Singer: Well, it’s not numbers, I agree it’s not numbers. But it is the sense of losing control of the borders. I think that’s the common thing. And the Syrian refugee crisis has had an effect in Europe. It had no effect on the United States. It was minuscule numbers. And it wasn’t the focus. The focus there was people coming across the Mexican border, and that’s why Trump wants to build a wall, et cetera.

And it was the sense that we are losing control of our nation. And going back to a little earlier, Australia went through this as well with the boat people, the so called ‘asylum seekers’ coming across in small boats from Indonesia, which again helped to elect a conservative government in the 90s, the Howard government, rather than labor governments during that era, and maybe even contributed to the re-election of the Morrison government just recently which is also a very bad government on climate change.

So you’re right that it’s perceptions and the perceptions don’t depend on numbers, but they do depend on, do we have control of our borders, right? That’s the issue. And of course, if you really advocate open borders, you’re saying there should be no control of the borders, and that’s going to frighten people.

Wild animal suffering [0:59:49]

Arden Koehler: Some people have this sense that it is more humane to eat wild caught animals than farmed animals because they don’t suffer harms from factory farming.

Do you think that’s broadly right or wrong or are there differences depending on the animals and the circumstances that are worth highlighting.

Peter Singer: Clearly it does depend on the animals and circumstances, but broadly speaking, yes, it’s right. And I’ve written this too, that, you know, there’s a lot of people who oppose deer hunting, right?

Here I am in Princeton, where we’ve eliminated all the predators for deer, it used to be wolves and then it was indigenous Americans. They’re gone. The major predator of the deer at the moment is the motor vehicle because people hit them in their cars at night and you know, obviously they damage their car, they can injure themselves and they kill a deer.

So you know, should you be opposed to a hunter in Princeton who hunts deer and who’s a really good shot and takes care to make sure that he only shoots the deer when he knows that he can kill it with a single bullet? Well, you know, I mean, you can oppose it clearly, but I think compared to going down to the supermarket and buying a piece of pork that comes from a factory farmed pig, it’s doing negligible harm. So I certainly agree that if you take those comparisons, hunting is less something that’s worth opposing than factory farming.

Robert Wiblin: Does that extend to kind of fish caught in the open ocean?

Peter Singer: I mean, again, you know, it’s better to eat fish caught in the open ocean. I think than to eat fish that are farmed. And the main problem with that is that there isn’t the equivalent of dropping the deer with a single bullet.

There’s no real humane slaughter for fish. So they are going to suffocate and die slowly depending on how they’re caught. They might be hauled up in nets where they’re really compressed together in this net. If they’re deep sea fish, they might be dying of decompression as they come up from the depths, which would be a very painful death as well.

And the other question about fishing in the ocean is that there’s a sustainability question that we’re overfishing the oceans. But of course, buying fish from aquaculture doesn’t help if you’re buying carnivorous species of fish like salmon, because you have to get two kilos of other fish to feed the salmon to produce one kilo of salmon.

So yeah, to some extent it’s somewhat better. Let’s say you’re an angler and you go down and you throw your line in the ocean and you pull out fish, and as soon as you get them on the hook, you make sure that you kill them. That’s definitely better than buying either aquaculture fish or fish from a commercial trawler.

Robert Wiblin: I guess it seems like we would need to know how bad their death would be otherwise if they weren’t caught through fishing. Cause they might like die very gradually of old age or ill health or parasites or starve to death possibly or be caught by predators and then we don’t know how kind of how quickly they’d die in that situation. So we’ve got to kind of consider the counterfactual death as well.

Peter Singer: I suppose that’s true, although of course, yes, we’re killing them earlier than they would’ve otherwise been killed because they were alive when you killed them.

And so the number of fish deaths increases I guess. You get more young fish surviving because you’ve reduced the competition and then they get killed as well. It’s not an easy calculation to make, but yeah, you’re basically right.

Robert Wiblin: I guess maybe one final one might be, “What do you think is the biggest positive, practical impact you’ve had in your career that listeners might be able to learn from? I suppose is there anything other than writing Animal Liberation which I’m guessing might be the answer?

Peter Singer: I think writing Animal Liberation probably is the answer, but I’m hoping that the reaction we get to the new release of the updated version of The Life You Can Save, you know, making it free will mean that it gets a big readership and perhaps ultimately then the impact of my work on global poverty will come to equal the impact of my work on animals, if not surpass it.

Robert Wiblin: Maybe your biggest impacts are still ahead of you.

Peter Singer: That would be very fortunate.

Robert Wiblin: All right. Our guest today has been Peter Singer. Thanks so much for coming on the show, Peter.

Peter Singer: Thanks. Been great talking to you both.

Post-episode chat with Arden and Rob [1:03:44]

Arden and Rob talk about the pros and cons of keeping EA as one big movement, Singer’s thoughts on immigration, and consequentialism and side constraints.

Rob’s outro [2:01:19]

Just a reminder that if you want to get a text or audio copy of The Life You Can Save you can do that at thelifeyoucansave.org or via the link in the show notes.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced by Keiran Harris. Audio mastering by Ben Cordell, and transcriptions by Zakee Ulhaq.

Thanks for joining, talk to you in a week or two.

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 working on different issues, and provide concrete ways to help.

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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