🎧 Peter Singer On How To Reduce Suffering

Peter Singer and Yascha Mounk discuss morality, utilitarianism, and altruism.


Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, is one of the most influential philosophers of the past fifty years. A leading exponent of utilitarianism, he has often explored how individuals can improve the lot of those in need with their own choices. 

In this week’s conversation, Peter Singer and Yascha Mounk discuss what utilitarianism gets right, whether the effective altruism movement is effective, and why freedom of inquiry is crucial to improving the world.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: What's the case for being a utilitarian and seeing the world through utilitarian eyes?

Peter Singer: I think utilitarianism—far from being a kind of dry economic science or anything like that—is actually a reforming impulse. That goes back a long way before Jeremy Bentham, but was certainly made explicit by Bentham. Bentham and [later] utilitarians have been against slavery, they've been for women's rights. They've been for the rights of gay people long before anybody else dared to even talk about that. They've been against cruelty to animals. They've been for prison reform. There's a long list of things that utilitarians have been trying to reduce the amount of suffering in relation to and I’m very happy to be part of that tradition and to think of utilitarianism not merely as something for philosophers to talk about, but something that motivates people to act.

Mounk: What about the fear that some people have that aiming for a maximization of happiness is often not the right way of, in fact, reaching it? I think that's often true in our personal lives. If I structure my life around what makes me most happy in any particular moment, and perhaps even if I structure my life around what's going to make me happiest decade to decade, I may be less likely to actually have a happy life. How do you respond to those kinds of concerns about utilitarianism?

Singer: The Greeks were already aware of what they called the “paradox of hedonism.” That is, if you aim directly at pleasure, you're less likely to actually achieve it than if you find something worthwhile to do, and work at that, and succeed in that. That is likely to bring more happiness. And that's something that I've emphasized in my work about altruism and about helping people in poverty, for example—that it's likely to be more satisfying to people to identify with that goal, than to take the money that they could have donated to help people in poverty and buy luxury holidays with it and sit in the sun in a nice resort. 

Something like that may be true at the level of public policy as well. This is not an objection to utilitarianism, though, because utilitarianism is very open to evidence about what will produce the best consequences, and it is interested in the best consequences in the long run for all of those affected. So, to the extent that these things are true, utilitarianism will say, “Yes, don't think about maximizing utility at every turn. But think about it in the long run. Think about the kinds of things that will bring you satisfaction—where there's evidence from social science research that it will bring satisfaction—and do that.” So to some extent, to use a term that the Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit used, utilitarianism may be self-effacing, or partially self-effacing. That is, it might actually tell you not to put it up front all the time in all your decisions, but to get some general principles and then follow those things.

Mounk: I want to take us through a few of the interesting stances you've developed over the course of your career. One of your first very famous papers argues that our obligations to help people are much less constrained by the extent to which we know them—by the extent to which they’re geographically or culturally proximate—than we might think. Is moral duty much broader, and perhaps more extensive, than many of us might imagine?

Singer: That was one of my first papers, called “Famine, Affluence, and Morality,” and in it, I tried to motivate people to think about their duties to strangers by asking them to imagine that they were walking past a shallow pond, and they saw that a small child had fallen into the pond, and there seemed to be nobody else around who was looking after the child or was going to pull the child out of the pond. Presumably, most people would immediately think, “I must rescue this child.” But then you stop and think that you're going to ruin some expensive clothes that you've put on because you're going somewhere special, and you don't have time to get rid of them. So there is some cost to you in doing this. But I assume that my readers—and I've since put this to many other audiences, too—would still think that it would be terribly wrong to let the child drown because you don't want to ruin your expensive clothes. 

And yet, the child is a stranger. Nobody has asked you to look after the child. You haven't taken any responsibility for the child. So I use that example to suggest that if you can do something that is really significant, like saving a child's life, at a small cost to yourself that’s in no way comparable to the harm that you're preventing, then we ought to do it. And of course, that was an appeal to people's intuitions. But I think you can look at that as a general moral principle, and most people would endorse it. And yet, that is something like the situation that we—meaning, people who are reasonably affluent and have some resources to spare—are in, in relation to people in extreme poverty in the world, people whose children might die from malaria, or people who might go blind from trachoma, which can be cheaply prevented.

Whether somebody is on the other side of the world, from a completely different culture to yours, a different country, or whether they're a fellow citizen—this isn't really that important, morally, as compared with the differences in their needs. The amount of difference you can make when helping somebody who's in extreme poverty, who's living on $2 a day, is so much greater—because of the laws of diminishing marginal utility—than helping somebody in your own country, who might be classified as being in poverty in an affluent country. But that probably means they're on $20,000 a year where modest amounts are not going to make life-changing differences.

Mounk: This is also in your book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. What is the case for effective altruism, and how can it help us save people in poverty and improve the state of the world?

Singer: A lot of people don't realize how much good they can do. There are these two insights: One is that we live in a world with great inequality, and there's something that we can do to help those who are much worse off than we are if we are among the better off percentage. Secondly, people don't realize how much of a difference it makes to select the very best organizations as opposed to selecting just an average organization to give to. And I'm not here talking about the fact that some organizations may be much worse than average, and may be fraudulent. There's a small number of organizations like that, but it is very small. 

Let me give you an example that has been used in the effective altruism movement. A lot of people think that giving to organizations that train guide dogs to help the blind is a good thing to do. And there are these little dog-like boxes where you can drop coins into the head of the dog and you think you've done something really good. There's no doubt that training guide dogs to help blind people is good, but it's been estimated that it costs about $40,000 to train one guide dog to work with one blind person. Now consider that preventing blindness in a low-income country—for example, preventing trachoma, which is a leading cause of blindness—can be done for as little as $25. Let's say that that's too low. Maybe it costs $100. But if it costs $100 to prevent somebody from going blind—considering the $40,000 that it takes to train the guide dog, you could prevent 400 people from becoming blind. It's at least 400 times better value to donate to one of these organizations like the Fred Hollows Foundation, or Seva which are doing this work in preventing blindness, or in some cases, restoring sight for people who have cataracts—also very inexpensive—rather than donating to the organization training dogs for blind people.

Mounk: Since you started speaking about dogs, let me ask about another topic you've written about, which is the well-being of animals. I think utilitarianism has certain boundary issues about who's included and excluded in the definition. How should we think about the suffering of a dog relative to the suffering of a human, and how does that lead you to an expansive view of our moral duties towards animals?

Singer: I'm concerned about factory farmed animals in particular. Where are the boundaries? I do believe that fish are capable of feeling pain, for example. They're vertebrates. They have nervous systems somewhat similar to mine. When we get beyond vertebrates, it does get more difficult. Once we talk about insects, then I think it's really hard to know whether insects are conscious beings. It's certainly possible they are, but their behavior in some ways is more pre-programmed. Again, we're talking about a vast array of different species, different orders. It may be the case that some of them can feel pain and others can't. I certainly would not exclude all invertebrates, because I think the octopus is clearly a conscious being. An octopus is clearly a being able to solve novel puzzles and work things out. That's quite remarkable, because the separation point in evolutionary history between us and octopuses is maybe 700 million years back. I think it's very unlikely that oysters are capable of feeling pain; their nervous system is too rudimentary. Why would they have evolved a nervous system with a sense of pain, given that they can't run away from sources of danger? I think you have to look at all of these different invertebrates on a case-by-case basis. 

Mounk: What about people who love eating meat but also recognize some abstract duty not to do that, because it helps to perpetuate the system of factory farming? What would you say to people in that category?

Singer: There are many things that I might say. One is that I do think that they are contributing to not just one bad thing—that is, not just to the suffering of animals—but also to climate change. If it's come from a ruminant—a cow—then it's made a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. And I think that's something else that we ought to be thinking about. If people really say, “Well, it's really important to me. I can't imagine living happily without any meat,” I think that's probably because they haven't really tried, in most cases. But let's just grant that that might be the case. Then we could still ask where they're getting their meat from. It certainly doesn't have to be a factory-farmed product, and at least as far as the animal’s suffering is concerned, if they're getting it from free range animals, I think that's significantly better. And that shows, I would say, a step towards being what has been sometimes called a “conscientious omnivore”. Michael Pollan talked about “the omnivore's dilemma”, and talked about more ethical ways of eating than just going to the supermarket and buying what's cheap, which will invariably have come from intensive forms of animal raising.

Mounk: Do you envisage that one hundred or two hundred years from now people will be horrified by the idea that their ancestors ate meat and kept animals in deplorable conditions?

Singer: I do. I take a long-term view. I've written a book called The Expanding Circle, and the title of that book takes a quote from the late 19th and early 20th-century historian W.E.H. Lecky, who wrote the history of European morals from Augustus onwards. He has this idea that the circle of morality has been expanding from, first, a tribal ethos, then to a national one, and finally, one that includes all human beings. I think that is broadly correct. 

I remember when I was relatively young, going to New Guinea, and up in the highlands, being told by people that there was a tribe in this particular valley—and that within living memory, if you had strayed over the ridge of mountains into that valley, you were liable to be killed because you are not part of that group. That was a morality, I assume, for a long period in some parts of the world. I think we have progressed. It's interesting that Lecky, in talking about the progress in his time, doesn't talk about the position of women. That's something that came later. It was around in his time, but it developed later. He certainly doesn't talk about expanding the circle to include people of different sexual orientations or anything like that. So we've continued to make that progress through the 20th and early 21st century. And I do believe that eventually we will expand our views to include animals in ways that we don't include them now.

Mounk: Let's change gears a little bit. You founded something called the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Some of your theses have proven to be very controversial, including your views about the morality of abortion and the killing of young babies. What is the utilitarian case for creating a culture in which ideas that seem dangerous, that some argue will harm others, need to be stated openly and publicly without fear?

Singer: I think that case was made by the 19th century utilitarian John Stuart Mill in his work On Liberty. That's the classical statement of that view, of the importance of freedom of expression and also of freedom of individuality to live as we please if we’re not harming others. Mill pointed out that when we suppress ideas, we very often do so wrongly, and gave many historical examples where people had been very confident that something was true and right, and suppressed contrary ideas, but it turned out later that those ideas were in fact, the right ones. And I think that's still a valid argument, that the way to get at the truth about things is to have a free contest of ideas, and to allow people to sort through those ideas. 

I think we can add a little bit to Mill and talk about using standards of rigor and evidence and scientific method to sort out which are the true claims and which are not. I think we have to add that we should be doing this in a civil and respectful way that isn't simply an attempt to stir up hatred. Mill himself, to some extent, made that point, regarding freedom to say that the corn dealers starve the poor: You might have freedom to write that as an article and publish it in the paper, but you don't have freedom to say that in front of an angry mob standing outside the houses of the corn dealers. He knew this distinction between whipping up people's emotions and making arguments, and I think we should bear that in mind when we consider laws about racial hatred and racial vilification. We don't have those laws in the United States because of the First Amendment, but there are a number of countries—including my own, Australia—that do have laws against racial vilification. I think that's reasonable as long as you take a narrow view of what vilification is. It's not simply trying to lay out evidence that suggests that some policies relating to minorities are wrong; it’s a matter of stirring up hatred, and arousing emotional feelings against them.

I emphasized vilification and stirring up hatred. I think that's different from making general statements about minorities. Take an example like Charles Murray's The Bell Curve—he's somebody who has been attacked for speech and been denied freedom of speech. I may not agree with his work, but I don't regard it as an effort to stir up hatred or vilify. It's quite a dense book with lots of statistics and graphs and evidence and so on. If anybody were to say that that should not be allowed because it violates laws against racial vilification, I think that's a mistake. That's why I said that the laws have to be narrowly interpreted to make this distinction between what is vilifying in the proper sense of that term, and what is trying to mount a case with evidence.

Mounk: To me, the biggest concern about any form of censorship is that you're always opening the door to particular—or really powerful—people exercising forms of censorship, since it will always be either the state or some very influential private company, or perhaps some committee of people who are part of some form of political or financial elite who make the decisions about what is permitted.

Singer: I'm not sure that there is a way of completely avoiding that; there are definitely going to be borderline cases that have to be adjudicated in some way, unless you simply say that there are no limits on freedom of expression. You could do that, but then you effectively allow Nazi-style racial propaganda to be out there, and I'm not sure that that's a better outcome than having the laws occasionally interpreted too strictly and therefore losing a little bit of free speech. The slippery slope idea suggests that there's going to be a steady progression against freedom of speech. I haven't seen that, looking at these racial vilification laws in various countries. Yes, they have sometimes broadened, sometimes too much in my view, but they have tended to pull back. You're balancing costs and benefits here. It's difficult to do and I'm not completely confident that what I'm saying is the right way to do it. But I would not like to allow for any kind of racist propaganda.

Mounk: What advice would you give to young scholars who want to be politically engaged, but also want to put pursuit of truth above everything else?

Singer: There is a tension there. I don't feel it in myself that much, maybe because I'm fairly senior in my career. I have a tenured position, so I'm not really too worried about pursuing ideas to the logical conclusion if I think they're right, and I'm not worried about the negative impact that that's likely to have on me. You mentioned my views about allowing parents to choose euthanasia for their severely disabled newborn infant, if they think that is the best thing for the child and for their family. This has caused a lot of controversy. But in the end, I think that that was the right thing to argue. I couldn't have consistently held other views that I hold about the value of life and my critique of standard views of the sanctity of human life without drawing those conclusions, in at least some circumstances. 

So I would encourage people to do that, to put the role of pursuing truth as they see it first, in terms of trying not to be too worried about the consequences for themselves. But if there is a real concern, then that's why, together with Francesca Minerva and Jeff McMahan, I co-founded the Journal of Controversial Ideas, an academic journal which uses peer review and is looking for well-argued articles. It allows people to publish under a pseudonym if they wish to do so, if they're worried that something they have to say is going to harm their career, or maybe lead to personal attacks on them, which has certainly happened—to me in one case, and my co-editor, Francesca Minerva, for her views about abortion and infanticide, too. They can get those ideas out there. If the climate of opinion changes, and they want to be acknowledged as the author of those ideas, then we're happy to confirm that they are. In that way, we are trying to provide a space where people can say things that are well argued and defended, but that in the present climate of opinion might lead to them being attacked.

Mounk: I think that there is an assumption among many young people—probably not the majority of young people, but perhaps the majority of politically very active young people—that capitalism leads to deeply immoral forms of behavior. Is capitalism one of the drivers of the “expanding circle” you talked about earlier, or is the ill repute of capitalism, in some part, justified?

Singer: I don't think there is a utilitarian view of capitalism, because there are certainly utilitarians who would be very much opposed to capitalism. There's an interpretation of Marx that says he was a kind of utilitarian; I actually don't think that's correct. But you could certainly have utilitarians who support the kind of conclusions that we should abolish capitalism and aim to have a much more egalitarian society. And of course, you can have utilitarians who say that capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions of people—billions of people—out of poverty, and has been the best thing that could have happened. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in between. I don't think that we have a better system than capitalism at present for producing the goods and services that people want and need. But I also think that capitalism does have tendencies that are harmful. It promotes self-seeking in materialist ways that are not good for society and maybe not conducive to general happiness. It also, of course, doesn't do enough to assist people in poverty. Now we can have forms of capitalism that people here in the United States would describe as socialism, like Scandinavian societies that are undoubtedly still capitalist societies, but have a much stronger social welfare net for people who fall through the cracks. I certainly think that's a better form of capitalism: Capitalism with a safety net. Perhaps those kinds of systems are the best that we have been able to develop so far on a large scale. Maybe we'll find something better at some point, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

The final thing I want to say on that is that sometimes, when I talk about effective altruism, and talk about helping various effective organizations—e.g. the Against Malaria Foundation, which provides bed nets for people so that children don't get malaria; and these organizations that prevent blindness and many others—somebody will stand up and say, “Look, isn't the problem capitalism? Isn't that what's producing poverty?” And my answer to that is, “Well, firstly, I'm not sure that's true, but let's just assume it is true. What are you actually proposing to do about it?” 

Are you going to let children die of malaria and people go blind, while we wait to overthrow capitalism? People have been talking about that for a long time, and I can't see that we've gotten any closer to it. It seems to me that that kind of revolutionary rhetoric is almost irrelevant in the present context, because I haven't seen anybody with a real plan for how we're going to get rid of capitalism. We have to try to do the best we can within the system that we're likely to have for some time to come.

Mounk: Speaking about how to do the best we can: what should the listener do, after this episode is over, to go and make an impact in the world?

Singer: Well, my advice would be: don't struggle to become a saint. There are very few saints in the world. I think that's too difficult, and it wouldn't be good utilitarian advice to say you've got to be a saint, because you're going to lose most people. So I would say, if you have been persuaded by the kinds of things that I've been saying, start with something that you're comfortable with, whatever that level might be. I've suggested at various times in the past giving 10% of your income. But in fact, in The Life You Can Save, I now have a more progressive scale which starts lower than that for people who don't have a lot. It starts at giving 1% and goes up to giving a third. If you're earning more than a million dollars a year or something like that, I think you can probably afford to give a lot more than 10%. But let's start with something you're comfortable with. Find effective organizations to help, and try to do that for a year. Maybe you're so comfortable with that, and you get some personal psychological reward from knowing that you're helping these organizations, and you want to go and give more. Don't stress about the super demanding ethic that utilitarianism can lead to; go for something realistic, and I think you'll be doing some good and you'll be encouraging others to do the same. They'll see that you're comfortable with it. And maybe that will actually have better consequences in the long run than struggling to aim for something really high.

Please do listen and spread the word about The Good Fight.

If you have not yet signed up for our podcast, please do so now by following this link on your phone.

Email: podcast@persuasion.community 



Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry

Connect with us!

Spotify | Apple | Google


@Yascha_Mounk & @JoinPersuasion


Yascha Mounk


Persuasion Community