It’s not every day that you get to interview a major public intellectual, but a certain warm June afternoon in Bristol proved itself to be an exception to that rule.
Professor Peter Singer is a man who does not hide the fact that he has an enviably large brain, but his cheerful demeanour grants him an inviting tone. After a brief discussion about the rather absurd price of rail travel, we launch into the interview, opening with a question as to why he has devoted such a significant part of his life to animal rights activism.
“The most important factor”, he begins, “is that, to me, animals are commonly regarded as things for us to be used, to be exploited, in a way that doesn’t take into account their own interests in living ‘good lives’. As such, I don’t want to take part in an industry that supports this, and if I were to buy and consume meat, it’d mean that I’d be supporting such an industry, and through that, the means of treating animals in that way.”
“However”, he clarifies, “it’s not the consumption of meat itself that I’m against, but the suffering of animals. If you were to have a method of eating meat that was ethical, that was environmentally sustainable and did not contribute to the suffering of conscious animals, then I wouldn’t have a problem with that. If you had found some roadkill and cooked it up, I wouldn’t have a problem with it, although I would worry about your health!”
His landmark text, Animal Liberation, which is seen by many as the founding text of the eponymous movement, turns 40 this year. Over those decades, Singer notes that there has been a “huge shift in attitudes in taking animal rights more seriously. More people are willing to support animal rights, and indeed there is a far greater amount of support for vegetarians and vegans. That in itself has been a very momentous shift.”
“Additionally, we could look at it from a legal aspct. Just look at the changes in the way we confine animals, and the changes that exist in the EU and the United Kingdom that affect the breeding of, say, Veal Calves and Sows. New legislation has created somewhat better conditions, and has thus relieved them of yet more unnecessary suffering. Although these changes are by no means adequate, the fact that they affect hundreds of millions of animals is hugely significant.”
A major advocate of Veganism, Singer has a variety of ways of convincing his friends and students to forego meat. “You could tell them more facts about how animals are treated, you could discuss the environmental factors concerning battery farmings, or you could tell them about the alternatives to eating meat.”
“The last few decades has seen a radical improvement in the quality of vegetarian alternatives. Quorn has taken off, and in the United States, a company called Hampton Creek Foods has started a chain of products that offers alternatives to egg-based products.”
However, Singer is not just the poster-philosopher of the Animal Rights Activist. His current primary interest is that of ‘Effective Altruism’, which he defines as “making the world a better place.” However, this would not be, in his words, “a somewhat better place. Instead, I want to see a definitively better place.”
“We need to focus on what gives us the biggest bang for the buck. It requires analysis and our capacity for reason to try to make the biggest possible positive difference to the world.”
The concept of Effective Altruism is simple. It is unlikely that your donations to the first charity that you see will bring about, as a Utilitarian such as Peter Singer would phrase, “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”. Instead, if you read into where your donations are going, and you streamline your choices so that they filter into only the ones doing the most good, then it is likely that you will be able to bring about a greater deal of happiness. A website, Give Well, has been set up to help with these decisions.
While some might argue that this creates a form of ‘Charity Eugenics’, it simply means that if a charity is failing to do as much good with the same amount of money as another charity. “The more effective charities are going to do more good with it, so why give it to the less effective?”
Many of Singer’s students have taken his ideas to heart. One student, Toby Ord, has set up a charity, Giving What We Can, to help encourage people to become Effective Altruists. Another person who has set themselves on the path of the Effective Altruist is William MacAskill, whose charities 80,000 Hours and The Life You Can Save, further the argument towards a more charitable lifestyle. Singer sees these two people as being among the new “connected information generation, who can see with far greater ease just how large the financial divide really is”.
Despite the differences between the two campaigns, Singer sees these ideas as ones that feed into each other. In his own words, “the best way to ensure animal rights is to ensure that people have a choice, that they are educated in their understanding of consumption and that they’re able to access alternatives to meat.”
“At the moment, people are still thinking of animals as things, and so they’re still using them and abusing them, and so leaving the world in poverty is not going to help in the long run. In the end, the only way to truly improve the lives of animals worldwide is to ensure that the choices are made avaliable to everybody. If we want to relieve animal suffering in developing areas, we must first relieve human suffering.”
Looking to the future, Singer’s main hope is that the coming years will see a greater acceptance of the idea of Effective Altruism, and to see it take a greater role in determining ethical living.
“If you’re someone who’s come from an affluent society, it’s not just that you have to refrain from harming people but, it’s not just about the ‘thou shalt nots’, if you’re going to live an ethical life, then you should at least try to help make the world a better place.”
Our world is more connected than ever, and it is continuing to become even more so. Perhaps we can ensure that our charitable actions follow this trend?
Theodore Stone, Online Features Editor, and Elizabeth Lolin