How To Do Good: A Conversation With The World’s Leading Ethicist

03/17/2017 05:47 pm ET

Summary: Peter Singer reflects upon Derek Parfit’s death, and talks about moral objectivity, malaria, climate change, existential risks, and doing your “personal best” when it comes to helping others.

Peter Singer is often considered one of the world’s most influential and controversial practical ethicists. He has published many books and papers with extremely lucid but stark arguments about concern for farmed animal welfare, theories of personhood, and our moral obligation to those in extreme poverty. Recently he has also become one of the leading voices of the effective altruism movement, arguing that we should put much greater emphasis on evidence in our charitable and other altruistic endeavors. Singer is an early member of Giving What We Can, a secular pledge that members take to give 10% or more of their income to whatever organizations that will help others the most. His own organization, The Life You Can Save, is responsible for disseminating information about effective giving and moving millions of dollars to organizations that are most effective at combating the ills of extreme poverty.

He is also a good friend of famed philosopher Derek Parfit, whose recent passing in January has the entire philosophy world mourning.

I recently had the honor to interview Professor Singer about his interactions with Derek Parfit, his views on what is the right thing to do, and what his favorite trolley problems are.

<em>“The unifying theme of all my work is preventing unnecessary suffering.”</em>
Photo by Barbara Oehring
“The unifying theme of all my work is preventing unnecessary suffering.”

Linch: I guess the most timely thing to talk about now is Professor Derek Parfit’s recent passing, if that is okay with you. I am truly very sorry for your loss. My understanding is that Derek Parfit was not just a great philosopher, but a good friend of yours. What do you think are Derek Parfit’s greatest contributions to philosophy?

Singer: I wasn’t as close to him as some people I know, but I have known him for a very long time -- since I was a graduate student and then a junior lecturer at Oxford, in the early 1970s -- and we kept in touch over the years. We became closer again recently, because I became very interested in his arguments for objectivism in ethics, and that led to my editing Does Anything Really Matter: Essays on Parfit on Objectivity, which in turn led to Parfit publishing his response to these essays in On What Matters, Volume Three, which has also just appeared.

Linch: How has Professor Parfit influenced your ideas/writings?

Singer: Oh, in many ways. Initially, it was through his discussion of the problem of what is an optimum population [size]. I first became aware of this issue through seminars he gave at Oxford when I was a student there. It baffled me then, and despite some attempts to solve it, it baffles me still. And I’m not the only one. I don’t know anyone who has been able to come up with a solution that doesn’t have some deeply troubling implications.

Parfit also had a direct influence in encouraging me to write one of my first publications. He heard me give a paper responding to an argument in D.H. Hodgson’s Consequences of Utilitarianism. Hodgson claimed that utilitarianism is self-defeating, and this was, at the time, thought to be a powerful objection. Parfit liked my response, and encouraged me to develop it into an essay that subsequently appeared in the Philosophical Review as “Is Act-Utilitarianism Self-Defeating?”

There are too many other aspects of Parfit’s thought and writing that have influenced me to mention them all, but I should say that for most of my philosophical career I have accepted David Hume’s view that reasons for action have to start from a desire. I became increasingly uncomfortable with that view, but struggled to find strong enough grounds for rejecting it. Then I read a draft of On What Matters (volumes one and two), and exchanged some emails with Parfit briefly, at a time when I was rethinking my views on whether normative judgments can be objectively true. That persuaded me that I had been wrong all along. There are objective reasons for action, and so there can also be objective ethical truths.

<em>“I read a draft of </em>On What Matters <em>(volumes one and two), and exchanged some emails with Parfit briefly, at a ti
“I read a draft of On What Matters (volumes one and two), and exchanged some emails with Parfit briefly, at a time when I was rethinking my views on whether normative judgments can be objectively true. That persuaded me that I had been wrong all along. There are objective reasons for action, and so there can also be objective ethical truths.”

Linch: Whoa. This is actually surprising to me, that this is a relatively recent change for you. You (and I think, most moral philosophers) say that you believe that right and wrong are objective facts about the world, aka moral realism. Whereas many of my friends (including people very concerned about doing the right thing, including people in the effective altruism movement), believe that morality is more subjective from culture to culture and individual to individual, and is closer to an expression of preferences. Can you give a short argument for moral realism that will be understandable to people without a background in the academic literature?

Singer: No, that’s too difficult a task. Those interested should look at Parfit’s On What Matters, or at Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe.

Linch: You are one of the earliest members of Giving What We Can, a voluntary pledge where members commit to donating 10% or more of their income to the organizations that help others the most. (GWWC now has over 2700 members). You’ve also founded The Life You Can Save, which has a more complicated formula for how much people in the developed world should donate to alleviate global poverty, based on a sliding scale. How do you compare and contrast the two pledges? If somebody is trying to decide between taking one of the pledges or the other, what core considerations should they think about?

Singer: Both organizations want to do as much as possible to help others, but they use somewhat different tactics to get there. TLYCS is focused only on helping people in extreme poverty, whereas GWWC is now more open about what causes people should support. On the other hand, TLYCS is seeking a broader audience than GWWC, and so is less demanding. In fact TLYCS has now de-emphasized the pledge aspect of its work. It just asks people to make a start, by giving something significant, and then to try to do better next year – it is the psychology of “personal best” – whether it is running or giving, try to beat your own previous record.

Linch: One criticism of pledges like Giving What We Can is that it strictly decreases future flexibility (for example, donating might mean less money to let me launch independent projects, or working directly at an effective nonprofit). How do I balance the clear commitment benefits to publicly commit myself to future actions that I think are morally good (but my short-term focused ego might come up with excuses to avoid) against the disadvantages of constricting the options my better-informed future self has?

Singer: As I said, neither I, nor TLYCS, are really committed to the idea of a specific pledge, and what you suggest is one of the reasons for this. The most important reason for our putting less emphasis on pledging, however, is to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved with helping people in extreme poverty. Our hunch is that this will have the biggest impact in the long run.

<em>“[The Life You Can Save] asks people to make a start, by giving something significant, and then to try to do better next
Photo by Denise Applewhite
“[The Life You Can Save] asks people to make a start, by giving something significant, and then to try to do better next year -- it is the psychology of “personal best” -- whether it is running or giving, try to beat your own previous record.”

Linch: Suppose that I buy into the argument that there’s a clear argument for both making commitments for socially positive things, and for doing so publicly. But why should I (or a hypothetical HuffPost reader) take a shared pledge, instead of something that is more tailored to my individual wants and circumstances?

Singer: Because taking a pledge may make you more likely to give something significant, and to keep giving it, and knowing that many people have pledged will make it more likely that others will give too.

Linch: You recently quoted the last page of Derek Parfit’s (not yet published) On What Matters, Volume Three, of which an excerpt is below:

“What now matters most is how we respond to various risks to the survival of humanity. We are creating some of these risks, and discovering how we could respond to these and other risks. If we reduce these risks, and humanity survives the next few centuries, our descendants or successors could end these risks by spreading through this galaxy.
Life can be wonderful as well as terrible, and we shall increasingly have the power to make life good. Since human history may be only just beginning, we can expect that future humans, or supra-humans, may achieve some great goods that we cannot now even imagine. In Nietzsche’s words, there has never been such a new dawn and clear horizon, and such an open sea.”

What do you think are the most important causes to work on? Do you agree with Parfit that the most important things to work on are now existential and catastrophic risks to humanity? Or do you believe that there are other issues that matter more?

Singer: Whether we should give the highest priority to reducing existential risks depends on how likely it is that we can reduce those risks, and on how much weight we give to the well-being of possible future people who may never exist. I think it is good to work on reducing existential risk, but I am not prepared to say that it is the most important thing to work on right now.

Linch: One of your largest focuses as a public figure is emphasizing the harms of climate change and the need to do something about it. I’m guessing this is probably not a question you ever get outside of effective altruism(EA) circles, but what is the rationale for emphasizing climate change? As a sanity check, depending on various estimates, climate change kills between 150,000 and 400,000 people a year, and is projected to approach 600,000 in 2030. This is no doubt extremely horrifying. But at the same time, roughly the same number of people die from malaria every year, while climate change gets far more attention, and seems harder to solve. At the margins, why should a concerned aspiring effective altruist or a HuffPost reader focus on mitigating climate change instead of malaria or other highly neglected problems?

Singer: The number of people dying from malaria is, fortunately, declining, while the number dying from climate change is, unfortunately, increasing. And it could get much worse after 2030, so that within decades, the numbers dying or becoming refugees could reach the tens or even hundreds of millions. That’s the most important reason to pay attention to climate change.

Linch: One of my favorite papers in 2015 was Evan G. Williams’ “The Possibility of An Ongoing Moral Catastrophe”, which argued convincingly to me that (at least if moral realism is correct), we’re almost certainly currently committing major moral faults that we are not aware of. What do you think are some likely candidates for Ongoing Moral Catastrophes that we’re not currently aware of?

Singer:

  1. The neglect, by affluent people, of the needs of people in extreme poverty.
  2. The continuing adherence to a lifestyle that, by burning fossil fuel and eating the meat of ruminant animals, contributes to climate change.
  3. Factory farming, which inflicts misery on 65 billion animals every year.

Linch: What are some important cause areas, strategies, or interventions that you think the general effective altruism movement is missing or not paying enough attention to?

Singer: :) If I knew them I would be paying more attention to them, through the charity The Life You Can Save, which I co-founded.

<em>Current Moral Catastrophes include: “</em>
<em>1.The neglect, by affluent people, of the needs of people in extreme pover
Photo by Tony Phillips
Current Moral Catastrophes include: “ 1.The neglect, by affluent people, of the needs of people in extreme poverty. 2. The continuing adherence to a lifestyle that, by burning fossil fuel and eating the meat of ruminant animals, contributes to climate change. 3. Factory farming, which inflicts misery on 65 billion animals every year.”

Linch: On a lighter note, what’s your favorite variation of the trolley problem?

Singer: Loop, because it shows that most people’s preference for Switch over Footbridge is not based on the distinction between killing someone as a means or killing someone as an unintended side-effect.

Linch: What’s one book, paper, or argument that you wished you had been aware of 10 years ago?

Singer: I’m not sure. Parfit’s On What Matters would be a strong candidate, although I probably had already seen a draft of it 10 years ago.

Linch: What’s one piece of specific, nontrivial advice that you would like to give to people interested in understanding your thoughts on practical ethics (or perhaps to develop thoughts of their own)?

Singer: The unifying theme of all my work is preventing unnecessary suffering. Maybe people can think about other ways of doing this that I have not thought about.

Linch: Do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

Singer: Do the most good you can; the world will be better for it, and your life will be more rewarding for you as well.

Get  <a rel="nofollow" href="http://buff.ly/2nuiYCW" target="_blank">Ethics for the Real World </a>on Amazon!

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The author would like to thank Isaac Murtha, JP Addison, and especially Aaron Thoma for help on earlier versions of this interview.

Peter Singer is one of the world’s most prominent philosophers. If you like this interview, you can buy one of his books on Amazon, or read this online compilation of his essays.

If you are interested in taking practical action on improving the world with your donations, consider looking into Giving What We Can, or Peter Singer’s own organization, The Life You Can Save.

All hyperlinks are added by the author and may not necessarily be endorsed by Professor Singer.

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