Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Professor of bioethics at Princeton, author and profound ethical thinker

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON December 01, 2015

Discussion

Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
I'm a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and the author of several books on ethical issues, including Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do. I argue that to live ethically, it's not enough to just keep to the familiar "Thou shalt not... " rules. We also have to do things that will make the world a better place for all of those who, through no fault of their own, have so much less than we do. In December Oxford University Press will be publishing one of my most widely-read articles, "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," as a short book, priced at only $9.99 so that it can reach a wide audience.
Mikhail Vergara
Mikhail Vergara@mijavergara · Student
What do you think is the most effective way or approach to talk to people about animals rights?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@mijavergara Talk to them about factory farming. Get them to watch videos taken inside factory farms, or if they won't do that, at least look at some photos and read some descriptions (Reading the relevant chapter of Animal Liberation) might do it. Then ask them if they really think it is OK to treat animals that way, just so that we can eat their flesh, eggs or milk when it isn't even an efficient way of feeding ourselves.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @mijavergara That raises a follow up question. What do you think about having hens running around and eating worms in a farm, never killing them, and only taking their eggs?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@lardhat @mijavergara Of all the non-vegan things you can eat, eggs from hens like that are the least objectionable, both in terms of the hens having a good life, and in terms of sustainability.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @mijavergara I think it can even be wrong to pay any attention to such a harmless thing. Perhaps more suffering is delivered to a boy who is sent to bed early instead of letting him watch more TV than to hens raised in such conditions.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger I equate "wrong" or "bad" with "causes suffering". And that's the basis of my ethical stance. I find myself lacking when justifying my notion that it's wrong to kill someone without pain, and even my notion that it would be wrong to press a button that would instantly eliminate all sentient life on Earth. Even if it's "doing to someone something they don't want", i still need to justify why that would be wrong. My normal answer to this is "it causes suffering" (frustrates interests), but this doesn't apply to the proverbial bullet to the back of the head, or to the prospect of instantaneous universal annihilation.
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@lardhat So you are a negative utilitarian? That means, you think that we ought to minimize pain and suffering, but you don't think that we ought to give any weight to increasing pleasure or happiness? I don't think that's a defensible position. Suppose that you could experience hours of the greatest pleasure you have ever experienced, but to do so, you would need to endure a mild headache for 1 minute. Wouldn't you do it? If so, you don't think that pain or suffering is the only thing that matters. And that offers an answer to why it would be wrong to instantly eliminate all sentient life on Earth -- because then there could be no more pleasure or happiness. You might reply that at present, the amount of pain and suffering experienced by sentient life on earth outweighs the amount of pleasure or happiness. Maybe - it's hard to be confident about such a judgment. But what about the future? I'm optimistic enough to think that we are likely to do better in future, as we learn more about the world and how to improve it.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @lardhat Yes, i do think we ought to maximize well being (and i "gladly" endure mild suffering in order to achieve greater joy). And this stance could also be used to argue for maximizing the population. Also (regarding my other question) to seed new life in other planets hoping it would evolve into sentience (which i happen to approve). I honestly cannot say even whether the amount of suffering in aeons past justifies the pleasure we experience in the present. I'm inclined to say yes (but i find myself respecting the negative stance). I appreciate so much my existence that i want there to be more of it. And if i could make it avoid suffering, that would be great, but even if it suffers, i still want more sentient life. What if the answer to this question depends on one's personal level of depression?
Brett Wise
Brett Wise@brettwise · Web Developer
@petersinger What is the biggest idea or issue that you once strongly held but have since changed you mind on?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@brettwise There are two big ones: are there objective ethical truths? (I used to think no, now I think that there are); and what is the most defensible form of utilitarianism? (I used to think that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences, now I'm a hedonistic utilitarian, ie I think that we ought to maximize pleasure or happiness and minimize pain or suffering.
Brett Wise
Brett Wise@brettwise · Web Developer
Follow up @petersinger: how did you come to change your mind on objective ethical truths?
Tobelli
Tobelli@dieethik · Tobelli
The Blue-Whale-Question: If we accept the premise of the ethical guideline of creating as less suffering as possible and the fact that growing crops and vegetables is a procedure which kills animals (rodents and deer are killed by machines and/or pesticides), wouldn’t the best food choice be to sacrifice Blue-Whales for the immense amount of protein/sentienbeing they do provide? If we take into account that using one Blue-Whale would kill only one sentient being (since Blue-Whale eat plankton) whereas to produce the equivalent amount of protein through e.g. beans would kill many more sentient beings, Blue-Whale-Meat would be the best ethical-utilitarian food choice. Would it not?
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@dieethik I've always thought of this. It's a great question. For people who think all sentient beings are worth the same, killing blue whales should be very ethical, since they kill billions of bugs that form the krill.
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@dieethik I don't think the crucial factor is the number of beings killed, but the amount of suffering caused. There is no painless way to kill a blue whale -- I think that a mouse unfortunate enough to get crushed by a tractor would die much more quickly.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @dieethik I agree with paying attention to the amount of suffering caused (the objection that we don't have the means to objectively determine the amount of suffering with absolute precision is moot, in my opinion). And i don't think krill is capable of much of that. I don't object to the eating of arthropods. I don't think it's worth it.
Tobelli
Tobelli@dieethik · Tobelli
@petersinger @dieethik I respectfully disagree. Even though the death of the mouse (by crushing) might be less than the death of a whale, the correct comparison (for producing the same amount of calories) would be 1.000.000 crushed mice against one whale, and that in my opinion is way more suffering than on the mice part than what is caused by the killing of the whale. Also I was talking about the best food choice... This is actually a very practical ethical question. P.s. Thank you very much for answering , you changed my life!
Tobelli
Tobelli@dieethik · Tobelli
@dieethik p.p.s You changed my life with your books not with your answer here... Thought I had to specify that in order to avoid misinterpretionts
Andrew Ettinger
Andrew Ettinger@andrewett · 👟 @wearAtoms // ex @Twitter @ProductHunt
What is the biggest difference you see between Princeton students and other (non-Ivy League) students you've worked with?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@andrewmettinger Everywhere I've worked there have been excellent students, bright and hardworking. At Princeton, though, that category takes up a larger proportion of the total student population.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
Another question: What would your stance be in regards to seeding life in other planets and leaving it to evolve on their own? Would it be ethical to kickstart a process of evolution that could or would end up producing sentience, while inevitably producing suffering too?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@lardhat If I knew that intelligent life would develop, I'd be inclined to say yes.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @lardhat Me also. And if it didn't, then it wouldn't be unethical. I believe intelligence and sentience are very related (and there could be some term to unify both concepts), and they are linked to the capacity to experience suffering and pleasure. But i'm quite alone when i discuss this subject with other people interested in ethics. They say they would try to stop me if i tried to seed new life. Haha They think i would be some kind of villain.
Dami
Dami@damiosinubi_ · Dami Osinubi
@petersinger @lardhat I am with my fellow IB students, who are currently studying your book, 'The life you can save' and this surprises us, seeing as this would surely be expensive, and the funds could be used to save the poor
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@damiosinubi_ @lardhat I wasn't assuming that it would be expensive. In fact I wasn't considering the question as raising a choice between different priorities, just as asking, more abstractly, whether it would be a good thing to do if one could do it.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @lardhat Yes, it was an abstract question. Let's make it free of cost, for the sake of argument.
Danny Sensocentrismo
Danny Sensocentrismo@medinatfm · Sensocentrismo, papá.
I Understand that there's a ethically big diference between a worm and a cow, but ¿how can we measure that? ¿what ethically is consciousness more important, and why?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@medinatfm We can't measure it, as yet. Maybe one day we will be able to. At the moment we can only form rough estimates, based on what we can observe.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @medinatfm We can actually measure sentience, in a way, by observing behavior. The amount of options a brain is capable of producing in some circumstance amounts to its sentience. And suffering is directly related to it. In a way, the only things that suffer are our options. "I'm thirsty. But water is far away, and i'm also tired." Whatever i choose, the other option (the other interest) will suffer. The more the options a nervous system is capable of producing, the more its sentience. The less options, the more automatic, the less it can suffer. And worms are pretty automatic creatures. We have, in fact, made robots with the same level of sentience than a nematode worm, by copying its nervous system. Should we be ethically worried for such robots? No, not yet. They'er still quite far from being ethically important. But then so are worms.
Hello @petersinger :) I have a question that can also be applied to the situation of animals, it goes like this: What do you think it is the most effective way to help to less afortunate people? a) To colaborate to improve the humanitarian help to poor countries through the Government and International Entities (like the ONU or Unicef, for example) b) To promote the work of private (most effective) charities working on it Thank you for allowing us this instance.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
@petersinger Thanks for joining us today. During your career to date, what is the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Flip side - what's the worst?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@ems_hodge Probably the best came from one of my philosophy professors - to write as clearly and as simply as possible. That's certainly helped me to reach a wide audience. I'm having trouble thinking of any really bad advice I've had!
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
@petersinger Hey! What does your writing process look like? How do you go from idea, to words to publish?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@bentossell I start with a question that seems to me both interesting and important, and I try to formulate my thoughts about it. Once I have some ideas, I start writing, and I find that the process of writing helps me to formulate my ideas, make them more precise, and -- sometimes -- leads me to change them.
Ben Tossell@bentossell · newCo
What are some of your most recommended books?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@bentossell I've recently read Larissa MacFarquhar's Strangers Drowning, and I recommend that. I have also often recommended Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature, and Joshua Greene's Moral Tribes. Oh, and I strongly recommend Renata Singer's Older and Bolder: Life After 60. If your parents are around 60 or more, give it to them for Christmas. [Full disclosure: Renata is my wife.]
Nicky
Nicky@nicolahhdawson · Nicky Dawson teacher
My students are studying your book for IB and wonder how important intentions are. Does it matter if a celebrity donates a huge sum as a PR stunt?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@nicolahhdawson Suppose she donates it to an organization like Seva http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org... and so lots of people who are blind get to see again. Does it matter to them why the celebrity gave the money? Not really. So it was still a good thing to do. On the other hand, if we are wondering what to think of the celebrity -- is he or she truly a good person? -- then the intention might be relevant.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @nicolahhdawson If a company needs good PR there could be good reasons for that. Perhaps it causes some harm, and the good reputation it could acquire by donating could be more harmful than the good provided by that donation.
Millie Sparrow
Millie Sparrow@milliesparrow1
@petersinger my class are studying your book 'The Life You Can Save' - we are wondering if you Belive the rich in poor countries have as much of an obligation to give as the rich in more economically developed countries? How does the obligation differ?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@milliesparrow1 Absolutely, I think they do have as much of an obligation. It doesn't really differ. What is important is whether you are able to help, and to be confident that your efforts are doing the most good you can. OK, it's after 4pm now, so thanks everyone for your questions. Sorry if you had one I have not been able to get around to answering. Bye!
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
If someone could make one small change to their day to day life to make things better for others around them, what is the smallest - meaningful change they could make?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@ems_hodge Eat less meat. Better for animals, better for our climate, better for reducing environmental impact on land and water, better for grain prices, and probably better for your health too
Angie McAllister
Angie McAllister@angiemcdata
@petersinger I am persuaded that one of the greatest failings of our educational system is that we don't explicitly include ethics in our K-12 curriculum and learning standards. What's your point of view on this?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@angiemcdata I think it is worth talking about ethics at any age. And if often is talked about, even if it is not a formal part of the curriculum. The reason it is not is that people are worried about kids being indoctrinated with someone's version of ethical truth. But getting kids to think for themselves about ethical issues is a different matter.
Warren Bowen
Warren Bowen@warrengbowen
@angiemcdata you might be interested in the philosophy for children movement, where dedicated teachers and philosophers are attempting to have such conversations part of curricula in countries such as Canada, Australia, and the UK.
Kate
Kate@katesegrin · Head of Social @ GitHub
Do you think capitalism is a just and/or ethical system?
Florencia Natalia
Florencia Natalia@frutalflor · Animal Libre
@petersinger You would consider that the capitalist economic system has worked and can work to improve the situation of animals in factory farms? If so, how?
Mihnea Maftei
Mihnea Maftei@mihneamaftei
@petersinger Do you have any meta-ethical worries? For instance, do you worry that perhaps, as Parfit would phrase it, nothing matters (in a sufficiently strong sense)?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@mihneamaftei That may be how Parfit phrases it, but of course it is the exact opposite of his view. He is arguing for objectivism in ethics, and thinks that unless objectivism is true, then nothing matters. I don't really worry about nothing mattering, though. I think it is clear that many things matter.. including, as we have been discussing, the amount of suffering and happiness in the world.
Facundo Cesa
Facundo Cesa@lardhat
@petersinger @mihneamaftei How could it not matter? What does "matter" mean, if it doesn't apply to sentient beings mattering, which are quite factual? This "meta-mattering" sounds like mental masturbation, to me. Yes, there is no meta-mattering, meta-right, meta-wrong. So what? There still is right and wrong, and things still matter. To us, sentient beings, of course. What else could there be?
Mihnea Maftei
Mihnea Maftei@mihneamaftei
@petersinger Thank you. I know about Parfit's view and I'm sorry my question sounded confusing. I mentioned Parfit because I know you now agree with him, but I wondered if there was some doubt in your mind on this issue and whether it worried you. Thanks again for the response!
Jeff Umbro
Jeff Umbro@jeffumbro · CEO of The podglomerate
Hey @petersinger - What's something in the tech world that you see as misguided?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@jeffumbro Probably doesn't count as "the tech world" as you are thinking of it, but I do think leaf blowers must be the stupidest things ever invented. Noisy, uses fossil fuel... just rake the things up, or leave them to rot and add compost to the soil.
Theoharis Dimarhos
Theoharis Dimarhos@theo_dimarhos · Marketing+Biz Dev at AngelouEconomics
Hello Peter! Do you give a dollar to the homeless person you see on the street? Why?/Why not? Also, why is giving directly to a person in need so demonized compared to giving to an organization?
Peter Singer
Peter Singer@petersinger
@theo_dimarhos Generally speaking, I don't. There may be occasional exceptions, but mostly I feel I just have no idea whether it will do the person any good, and I am also conscious of not wanting to encourage people to spend their time sitting out on the street with a cup waiting for people to donate to them. On the other hand, I would never demonize giving to a person in need. The question is always, is that the best use of the money you are giving? Yesterday a journalist asked me what I thought about people who had donated $2million to someone for chemotherapy. If given to an organization like Against Malaria Foundation, that amount would have saved hundreds of lives, not just one (if indeed the chemo worked - I hope it did, but obviously there can be no certainty of that.)