by Anthony Skelton

In the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star, an article entitled, “Are Peter Singer’s ideas too dangerous to hear?”, details some of the controversy around Singer’s ideas, and includes me as an interviewee.

Peter Singer is one of the most important practical moralists of our time. In a career spanning more than four decades, he has challenged our common-sense moral attitudes to a range of practical moral issues.

Since the publication in 1972 of the article “Famine, Affluence and Morality”, he has been arguing against the attitude that while we have strong obligations to those who are near and dear to us we have at best only very weak obligations to strangers, including those who, through not fault of their own, are in desperate need. Singer thinks that if we can alleviate suffering due to desperate need without sacrificing anything nearly as important as this suffering, we ought morally to do it. He thinks that this entails making serious changes to the way in which we live in affluent countries, where conspicuous consumption is the norm.

Forty years ago, he wrote “Animal Liberation”, in which he argues that the treatment of non-human animals, in factory farming and in scientific research, is speciesist, because it involves discounting the interests of animals on the grounds that they are not members of the species Homo sapiens. He thinks that this is as unreasonable as discounting someone’s interests on the grounds that they are of a different race or sex. He thinks that the practical upshot of his argument is that we ought to end factory farming and that medical research involving the imposition of suffering or death on non-human animals is justified only when it furnishes serious health and other benefits to humans and non-human animals.

In his writings on medical ethics, including “Practical Ethics” and “Rethinking Life and Death”, Singer has waged a philosophical campaign against one version of the sanctity of life principle, according to which each human life has equal intrinsic value. He argues that not all human lives are equally valuable and that some human lives lack value. On the basis of this, he advocates liberal views of abortion, of infanticide, of euthanasia, and of the use of human embryos in medical research, among others. His defense of infanticide, especially of disabled newborns, has been highly controversial.

If you’d like more information about Singer’s views, see PhilPapers and wikipedia.

Peter Singer will participate in three events at the Rotman Institute of Philosophy this week. For details and registration, please see the following event pages:

Sep 17 – The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically

Sep 18 – Animal Liberation, Forty Years On

Sep 19 – Katarzyna de Lazai-Radek and Peter Singer: Author-Meets-Critics: The Point of View of The Universe

Image credit: Andrew Wilkinson