Peter Singer - Ethics in an Age of Darwin

November 7, 2008

One of the most controversial and influential philosophers alive today, Peter Singer is DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne. He writes a regular column for Free Inquiry magazine, and is the author of dozens of books, including Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death, Animal Liberation, and Writings on an Ethical Life.

In this conversation with D.J. Grothe, Peter Singer explores how controversial or compatible his views are with religious thought and in what sense his ethics is informed by a naturalistic or Darwinian understanding of the origins of life. He discusses the value of human life as regards end-of-life questions such as doctor-assisted suicide, and offers justification for the involuntary euthanasia of severely disabled infants. He details what it means to be genuinely "pro-life." And he shares his views on stem cell research and abortion, arguing how that even though abortion is killing a human life, it is not unethical. He also explains what qualities of life would make killing it unethical.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Practical Ethics Peter Singer

Animal Liberation Peter Singer

Related Episodes

Richard Dawkins - Science and the New Atheism
December 7, 2007

Comments from the CFI Forums

If you would like to leave a comment about this episode of Point of Inquiry please visit the related thread on the CFI discussion forums

Good to hear a Melbournian on Point of Inquiry!

Posted on Nov 08, 2008 at 5:51pm by Jackofreason Comment #1

Great to hear Peter Singer. Some of the questions were ignorant and stupid. It’s important to play devil’s advocate but there should be some filter for quality. That’s not going to produce interesting, insightful answers.

Posted on Nov 09, 2008 at 11:32am by Aj Comment #2

I recently just finished his Practical Ethics so this was a nice supplement. IF DJ is going to have Singer on again next week to talk about vegetarianism, I for one would like to know if he thinks there is anything unethical about eating invertebrates, because I’ve only ever heard him talk about birds and mammals and fish. Does he think it would be OK to eat crustaceans, insects, or mollusks? (octopus and squid are borderline cases, probably smarter than most fish, but what about snails and bivalves?)

Posted on Nov 10, 2008 at 1:36pm by cyris8400 Comment #3

Great to hear Peter Singer. Some of the questions were ignorant and stupid. It’s important to play devil’s advocate but there should be some filter for quality. That’s not going to produce interesting, insightful answers.

WTF???????????????

Could you elaborate on that point about ignorant and stupid questions?  Singer’s ethical arguments shock a lot of people who have fallen into accepting positions based on social convention—whether they are on the left or the right; and that’s why every interview with him has to cover his challenge to default doctrines like the sacredness of human life. Whether you realize is it or not, liberals and conservatives all feel it is a common sense idea until challenged to explain why. And unless Singer is called on to explain some of his controversial ideas, the general public isn’t challenged to really think about their concepts of right and wrong.

Up until recently, I was spending a great deal of time posting on a conservative-dominated political forum, and I was starting to get irritated whenever threads started on ethical issues like abortion, because the prolife people throw out the same arguments, and so do the few pro choice advocates!  I, myself am pro choice, but I could never understand why the most adamant pro choice advocates could not give a simple answer for why cutting the umbilical cord was the precise moment when human life was granted full human rights. Nobody wants to encourage infanticide (not even Pete Singer), but should third trimester abortions be allowed for frivolous reasons, such as the fetus being the wrong sex or having minor defects such as being diabetic or club-footed?  All I got, time after time, was the slippery slope argument—if we restrict personal choice even the day before delivery, then the anti-abortionists will keep moving the clock back to fertilization.

To me, it seems that neither side has a method for determining what an ethical choice should be! Pro life says human life is “sacred” and pro choice says every restriction threatens the right of privacy—and the debate ends there!  A logical system of ethics might determine that there are some instances of late term abortion, where the state should intervene, and on the other hand, there are some cases where infanticide is better than keeping a severely deformed child alive.

There are a lot of things I don’t agree with Peter Singer on, and I get the feeling that no one school of ethics is perfect since Singer seems to take utilitarianism to a point where it can become absurd, but I think he is right that in order to resolve contentious ethical issues and fix the growing ecological nightmare, we need to move beyond the Judeochristian ethic that separates and elevates human life above all other life. If the human race is going to survive the next few centuries, we need an outlook that views us as part of the natural world—not above and exploiting nature for our own personal benefit.

Posted on Nov 10, 2008 at 3:28pm by workinprogress Comment #4

The argument has to steer away from all this deflection about when to call a fetus or a baby,or sperm or eggs life.The argument should move directly to eliminating potential lifeforms for the sake of society.Unwanted lifeforms too.That is self-evident by the very nature of the argument subject.
On one side…people who wish to prevent new-humans,or heck,like the SPCA,new dogs and cats,from entering into the economy of the tribe.
On the other side,people who apparently will never prevent life from being born,and want to prevent others from doing so.
Killing!!Plain and simple.Call it killing,and throw it right in there with the death penalty,carpet bombing,dumping toxic waste into the water table etc…
I have to pass a Clinic everyday,and the pro-lifers are out there now with sign-boards that say:“I’m protesting at a Baby Killing Factory”
I’m just baffled by them.Can people really be that concerned about an unborn,unnamed,unseen,growth/fetus/baby.Really?Are they really passionate about saving a life that isn’t born yet.But after it is born,in most cases,wouldn’t want anything to do with this sacred life form,wouldn’t,and doesn’t care one speck about it’s well being after it’s born,and grows up.
Or are they really just psychologically distressed about people exercising sexual freedoms.Do they need to follow some cause,to belong,in some parade of righteousness?

Posted on Nov 10, 2008 at 5:57pm by VYAZMA Comment #5

Could you elaborate on that point about ignorant and stupid questions?

I’m not very good at transcripts, so I didn’t want to go point by point.

There are also many Darwins. And you’ve suggested that your naturalistic ethics is taking into account the Darwinian world view. The Darwin of the eugenics movement. The Darwin that was used to justify notions of pure race, and how we should weed out undesirable elements from the gene pool. And then there was the Darwin that Marx said undergirded his arguments. So before we get into specifics of your ethical positions. Tell me what makes you so sure that your version of Darwin that is informing your ethics is the right Darwin.

On eugenics, as Peter Singer stated it’s commiting a naturalistic fallacy. It seems as if some ignorant people decided that “survival of the fittest” was an instruction not a description, which isn’t actually a part of Darwinian evolution, and couldn’t be part of science. A similar mistake was committed with Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, but not only were they committing the naturalistic fallacy, they also were confusing genes with the organisms built by them. Is Darwinian evolution understood by Marx really different than the one understood by those that advocated eugenics? I don’t understand why an identical view of evolution can’t inform both.

Darwin wasn’t Jesus, there’s no proposed authority and cryptic language that begs to be interpreted in different ways. Darwin contributed a theory of evolution that isn’t to be interpreted as gospel, but as science, to be researched and falsified. I don’t really understand what a Darwinian world view would be, or a Newtonian optics world view for that matter. This all is in aid of a question containing a misguided idea that Peter Singer is using Darwinian evolution as a basis for a system of ethics, an absurd idea.

Posted on Nov 10, 2008 at 7:02pm by Aj Comment #6

Workinprogress, have you read Should the Baby Live? or Rethinking Life and Death? They sound like they’d be up your ally.

Aj, I don’t think Singer believes that Darwinian evolution can tell us what is or is not best to do. He says as much in the synopsis of one of his earlier books, The Expanding Circle. “He shows how biology alone cannot mandate ethics.” That’s pretty much a direct quote from the jacket description. Another of his books, A Darwinian Left, focuses on how Darwinism does not disallow altruism and kindness. So Singer doesn’t use the naturalistic fallacy with regards to Darwin but instead says “These people who thought evolution was only about selfishness were wrong.”

Posted on Nov 11, 2008 at 2:27pm by cyris8400 Comment #7

I didn’t write that he did. Peter Singer stated that it’s a naturalistic fallacy, not that Peter Singer himself stated a naturalistic fallacy.

Posted on Nov 11, 2008 at 7:24pm by Aj Comment #8

EveryZing link listen at 15:30

You mentioned the Netherlands and active euthanasia that occurs there they don’t do only physician assisted suicide but they’ve engaged in. Killing on severely disabled. Infants it’s not just of voluntary decision of a mentally competent terminally ill and suffering patient and his or her life but. Parents are physicians saying. This severely disabled baby. Has no good life prospects and our judgment so let’s you know do the right thing in quotes and kill it on but this is kind of the slippery slope that a lot of people in America are so afraid of it’s exactly what the pro life cultural conservatives. Say physician assisted suicide is going to lead to this active euthanasia position is by definition. Kind of anti life or anti kind of life at all costs it you could argue that its pro quality of life for something like that.

I live in the Netherlands but I have never heard of these practices. As far as I know euthanasia in the Netherlands is not 100% unthinkable but it is far from normal and most people would be against it. Killing “severely disabled”, Infants and mentally incompetent I have never heard of.
Could somebody provide links for these or is it just easy to use Holland as an example because “nobody hates the dutch”?

Posted on Nov 12, 2008 at 5:20am by Fergy Comment #9

Workinprogress, have you read Should the Baby Live? or Rethinking Life and Death? They sound like they’d be up your ally.

I haven’t purchased any of his books, but I have read some of his essays and listened to a number of interviews with him, so I am somewhat familiar with Pete Singer. I was trying to get the point across above, that I am at least in agreement with him most of the time; my only qualifier is that I am dubious about one ethical system, like utilitarianism being “the” method to resolve all moral and ethical dilemmas.  But, in fairness, I don’t think Pete Singer wants acolytes who agree with everything he says either!

I, myself, am not a philosopher, and I never really explored philosophy and ethics until I left the Church (where everyone is supposed to follow the advice and instructions of the rule book and church hierarchy), so it has only been relatively recently that I have been studying this subject. The problem I have with various forms of consequentialist ethical systems resolving everything is that sometimes we have to consider the importance of a person’s intentions, and we can’t always predict what the consequences will be, and they may actually end up being the opposite of what we intended—for example: Singer believes that we should make greater personal sacrifices to aid the majority of people in the world who are less fortunate than we are.

I agree with that principle, and as a sidenote, I’m bewildered about how what used to be regarded as a core Christian principle has disappeared from the canon of right-wing Christianity, but setting that aside, there is a balancing act to perform when you are trying to help those who are less fortunate; and I don’t think Singer, or others on the Left deal with situation that has developed in many Western nations where aid to the poor and especially to children in poverty, actually encourages mothers on social assistance to have more children in order to get an increase in child benefit payments!

When unemployment and welfare-dependency becomes generational, it becomes accepted as a way of life, and the children often feel no motivation to set higher goals for themselves—and the state is put in the impossible situation of trying to assist those living in poverty without encouraging them to remain dependents on government relief. A blind adherence to a principle of trying to equalize outcomes and give more to the poor may not actually reduce poverty in the real world.

Posted on Nov 12, 2008 at 3:00pm by workinprogress Comment #10

In Practical Ethics, Singer starts with consequentialism as the best available ethical model, but he notes that it is not without flaws. For example, he mentions the idea of another ethicist who talked of “intuitive” and “critical” moral judgment. Intuitive moral judgments are absolutist or semi-absolutist rules of thumb to follow when you don’t have the time for long reflection.

Posted on Nov 12, 2008 at 7:32pm by cyris8400 Comment #11

In Practical Ethics, Singer starts with consequentialism as the best available ethical model, but he notes that it is not without flaws. For example, he mentions the idea of another ethicist who talked of “intuitive” and “critical” moral judgment. Intuitive moral judgments are absolutist or semi-absolutist rules of thumb to follow when you don’t have the time for long reflection.

I’ve also heard Singer describe utilitarianism as a platform for developing an ethical system that is valued by most people and most societies, rather than a finished product that will provide the best solutions to ethical dilemmas.

Last year, in an interview on the Australian public radio network show “The Philosopher’s Zone”, he was asked whether he favoured Act or Rule utilitarianism and responded that he did not see himself as either a pure act utilitarian nor a pure rule utilitarian, since we would generally try to follow rules in our everyday life, but that there may be circumstances where we feel it’s best to break the rules even if we consider those rules to be fair and beneficial under most circumstances.

Whatever the failings are of consequentialist ethics, I think it’s a better place to begin creating an optimal ethical system than to try to base ethics on intentions, as many Christian approaches take!  I got a little insight into why Catholic and other Christian approaches to issues like abortion and euthanasia didn’t make sense to me when a Catholic convert on a conservative forum introduced me to their method of making decisions based on the doctrine of Double Effect.  This concept, created by Thomas Aquinas, is based on the intentions of the person making the life and death decisions, since the end results might be the same!

For example, a doctor who intends to hasten the death of a terminally ill patient by injecting a large dose of morphine would be regarded by the Church as violating the “sanctity” of life if he intends to bring about the patient’s death. However, if the same doctor gave the patient the same dose with the intention of relieving the patient’s pain, his action would be viewed by the Church hierarchy as engaging in a merciful act rather than deliberately causing death!  Does that actually make any sense beyond trying to find a loophole in harmful church dogma to allow for an act of mercy?

Posted on Nov 13, 2008 at 4:54am by workinprogress Comment #12

I just started listening to the podcasts yesterday and this was my introduction to Pete Singer and his ideas. I will have to try and find his books and read more about his ideas. On the surface, I would say that my own thought process over the years has led me to draw some similar conclusions to his. That was an interesting surprise because I thought I was alone in thinking things like seeing that humans are but one of many species on Earth among other things I heard him talk about in the interview.
I especially enjoyed his comments on the Pro-life movement. I lived in Brazil for about ten years and there abortion is illegal. This doesn’t mean that women can’t get them but they have to get them in a “black market” way - basically paying whatever fee the doctor performing the “illegal” medical service feels makes it a worthwhile risk. However, and Pete mentioned something along these lines, the worst part of the contradiction is that there are millions of children who live on the streets or in extremely poor situations. It appears that the right to life is only up until the passage through the birth canal. After that you are on your own.

@ workinprogress, would you know what book I could find that information about the doctrine of Double Effect you mentioned?

Posted on Nov 13, 2008 at 4:46pm by Ken Comment #13

I especially enjoyed his comments on the Pro-life movement. I lived in Brazil for about ten years and there abortion is illegal. This doesn’t mean that women can’t get them but they have to get them in a “black market” way - basically paying whatever fee the doctor performing the “illegal” medical service feels makes it a worthwhile risk.

And that’s the problem with religion-based laws that totally disregard the actual consequences of criminalizing abortion!  In the U.S. and Canada, the pro-lifers are generally too young to remember when abortion was illegal, because there were back-alley abortionists in every major city!  They ignore the horror stories that are happening now in places like El Salvador, where women who have gone to a hospital and been suspected of having had an abortion, are manacled to a hospital bed until a forensic examination of their uterus is performed.

However, and Pete mentioned something along these lines, the worst part of the contradiction is that there are millions of children who live on the streets or in extremely poor situations. It appears that the right to life is only up until the passage through the birth canal. After that you are on your own.

I’ve heard a quote somewhere that pro-life Republicans respect the sanctity of life….......until it has left the womb!  The latest episode of the Reasonable Doubts Podcast has an interview with bioethicist Ronald Lindsey, who has a similar viewpoint as Peter Singer—he made a point that not only are the anti-abortionists unconcerned about life after it leaves the womb, but they also show no concern for the 50 to 80% of fertilized embryos that are spontaneously aborted because of miscarriage, and asks why they have no plans to stop that “holocaust.”  The only sensible conclusion is that, whether they consciously realize it or not, they are motivated by a desire to have control over women’s fertility, not the welfare of the “pre-born babies.”

@ workinprogress, would you know what book I could find that information about the doctrine of Double Effect you mentioned?

My desire to learn about Catholic ethics isn’t deep enough to motivate me to buy and read entire books on the subject, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article explaining the theory and possible applications of this principle, along with criticisms and even a question as to whether it is truly a single ethical principle or an agglomeration of different ways of justifying an action.

Posted on Nov 14, 2008 at 6:19am by workinprogress Comment #14

The latest episode of the Reasonable Doubts Podcast has an interview with bioethicist Ronald Lindsey, who has a similar viewpoint as Peter Singer—he made a point that not only are the anti-abortionists unconcerned about life after it leaves the womb, but they also show no concern for the 50 to 80% of fertilized embryos that are spontaneously aborted because of miscarriage, and asks why they have no plans to stop that “holocaust.”  The only sensible conclusion is that, whether they consciously realize it or not, they are motivated by a desire to have control over women’s fertility, not the welfare of the “pre-born babies.”

For those who don’t know, Ron Lindsay is CEO of CFI. Thanks for the heads-up.

Posted on Nov 14, 2008 at 7:34am by dougsmith Comment #15

For those who don’t know, Ron Lindsay is CEO of CFI. Thanks for the heads-up.

Actually, I didn’t know that either! I knew the guys who do Reasonable Doubts were CFI affiliates, but I missed the mention about Ron Lindsey’s connection with CFI even though I listened to the interview twice.

Posted on Nov 14, 2008 at 1:28pm by workinprogress Comment #16

My desire to learn about Catholic ethics isn’t deep enough to motivate me to buy and read entire books on the subject, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good article explaining the theory and possible applications of this principle, along with criticisms and even a question as to whether it is truly a single ethical principle or an agglomeration of different ways of justifying an action.

LOL, I don’t have that patience either which is why I asked for the direct route to that idea of Aquinas. So, for the starting point, I thank you. I only want to read it so that I can give myself a better handle on the arguments from the other side. Although, I have to say that over the past two days I have been listening to many of the previous podcasts and even from a scientific / atheists point of view that Mark Hauser, Chris Hedges, Austin Dacey, Barbara Oakly, among a couple of others have sent my head spinning about how to look at and formulate morals. I have a lot of home work to do = ) It almost seems to me that there can only be a tentative moral set, which I don’t see as a problem but even for a rationalist atheist like myself it is still hard to wrap my head around because it seems more natural to rally behind “universal, unchanging” moral truths. Anyway, I’m glad I came acroos this site and the podcasts, great work CFI is doing.

Posted on Nov 14, 2008 at 8:19pm by Ken Comment #17

Actually, I didn’t know that either! I knew the guys who do Reasonable Doubts were CFI affiliates, but I missed the mention about Ron Lindsey’s connection with CFI even though I listened to the interview twice.

I don’t think they mentioned it. I think Ron has to be a bit more proactive about doing marketing for CFI!

:lol:

Posted on Nov 15, 2008 at 7:19am by dougsmith Comment #18

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Posted on Nov 15, 2008 at 9:18am by Luke Vogel Comment #19

LOL, I don’t have that patience either which is why I asked for the direct route to that idea of Aquinas. So, for the starting point, I thank you. I only want to read it so that I can give myself a better handle on the arguments from the other side. Although, I have to say that over the past two days I have been listening to many of the previous podcasts and even from a scientific / atheists point of view that Mark Hauser, Chris Hedges, Austin Dacey, Barbara Oakly, among a couple of others have sent my head spinning about how to look at and formulate morals. I have a lot of home work to do = ) It almost seems to me that there can only be a tentative moral set, which I don’t see as a problem but even for a rationalist atheist like myself it is still hard to wrap my head around because it seems more natural to rally behind “universal, unchanging” moral truths. Anyway, I’m glad I came acroos this site and the podcasts, great work CFI is doing.

I guess we all have a lot of work to do, and it probably will never end, because societies have changed over the ages, and changed their interpretations of what is morally good and what is not. I think that Marc Hauser’s concept of a “universal moral grammer” may have some basis in fact, and some of his conclusions about the results of the Moral Sense Test seem to show why we have obstacles that stand in the way of resolving contentious issues such as euthanasia—for example, if people are hard-wired to be more accepting of omissions that cause harm, than intentions which cause the same harm, that could explain the hangups which allow passive euthanasia, but balk at allowing the same person who may be terminal, to choose when and how to end their own life.

I was impressed with Austin Dacey, although I haven’t bought his book yet, I agree with a point he made about liberal secularists retreating from the offering any moral judgements and instead trying to make all issues of conscience matters of private, personal interpretation. I noticed this problem when the polygamy issue arose last year and many liberals came out in favour of legalizing polygamy even though they did not contest the evidence that a general acceptance and practice of polygamy would be the end of principles of equality and democracy. They simply feared taking away the polygamists’ personal choice would threaten the personal choice of gays who want same-sex marriage, without bothering to examine what impact either institution would have.

Posted on Nov 15, 2008 at 2:20pm by workinprogress Comment #20

I knew the guys who do Reasonable Doubts were CFI affiliates

Is this correct? Also, what does it mean that they’re “affiliates”?

On the Reasonable Doubts homepage they identify themselves as members of CFI Michigan, and one of the doubters - David Fletcher,“is the founder and former chair of CFI Aquinas College.”

Posted on Nov 15, 2008 at 2:24pm by workinprogress Comment #21

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Posted on Nov 15, 2008 at 3:33pm by Luke Vogel Comment #22

I knew the guys who do Reasonable Doubts were CFI affiliates

Is this correct? Also, what does it mean that they’re “affiliates”?  Also, Ronald Lindsay is new to the position of Chief Executive Officer for the Center for Inquiry/Transnational and also a Senior Research Fellow (but is trying to sell his book). A position that was formally held by David Koepsell (who was reportedly still wondering the desert).

Hey Luke, nope, not wondering (nor wandering) in the desert… quite the opposite.  Joined the Philosophy Faculaty at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, teaching Ethics and Technology.  Enjoying what I love most, teaching and writing.

Posted on Nov 18, 2008 at 6:41am by David R. Koepsell Comment #23

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Posted on Nov 18, 2008 at 9:09am by Luke Vogel Comment #24

 

Hello David, I am quite pleased to read this good news. The Netherlands, hey? Thank you for letting me (us) know, and I wish you the best of luck. I hope you will find time to contribute your ideas to the CFI, or at least join DJ on PoI to debate whether atheism is a civil rights issue :cheese:  (has this anything to do with accepting a position in the Netherlands?). Hope to see more of ya…

LOL, no, I left CSH as exec. Director for family reasons, my wife was looking for a job away from Amherst.  As it turns out, we both found jobs in The Netherlands, a nice civilized, secular country with milder weather (believe it or not) than Amherst NY.  I still am affiliated with CFI and CSH as an Associate Editor of Free Inquiry, and a Senior fellow of the CFI Institute and member of the Collegium.  Dj and I are actually co-editing a special section of FI, due out next summer, so we’ll stick to collaborating rather than debating old, exhausted topics. :)

Posted on Nov 19, 2008 at 2:39am by David R. Koepsell Comment #25

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Posted on Nov 19, 2008 at 6:17am by Luke Vogel Comment #26