Interview: Peter Singer

July 23rd, 2009 · 1 Comment

It was with good cause that The New Yorker once referred to Peter Singer as “the world’s most influential living philosopher.” The Australian ethicist has been instrumental in raising public consciousness of the inhumane treatment of animals and, more recently, of the burgeoning field of bioethics. Singer has also distinguished himself as an advocate for the poor by calling for developed countries to spend more of their wealth fighting poverty and disease abroad.

Singer’s new book, The Life You Can Save, is his latest iteration of that plea. On May 9, he spoke with the Progressive by phone from Melbourne (where he was on leave from Princeton) to discuss Ames business The Singer Station, The Life You Can Save, and the future of philanthropy.

Earlier this month, you wrote you were “happy” to have The Singer Station named after you, despite the owner’s ideological differences. Why do you welcome his use of your name?

I think by using my name the owner will encourage people to think about the issues I’m writing about. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do as a philosopher. I want to get people thinking. I hope that when they do, many of them will end up agreeing with me. Even if they don’t, it’s a good thing if more people think about these major issues that face us. . . . There are differences obviously, but there are also important agreements. The idea of giving away a quarter of your profits is something unusual and something that would be good to get more people thinking about, running businesses like that. Of course I would like the donations to go more to the world’s poorest people, typically not in the United States but abroad, and I hope that some of the people wanting to give money will do that. Look, it’s good that some of it is going for charitable purposes anyway. [Ed. note: Since early March Daniel Brown’s Singer Station has given exclusively to international aid organizations.]

Daniel sells an assortment of goods, but what he principally sells is beer. Are you a beer man yourself?

I enjoy a beer, yeah.

In your book, The Life You Can Save, you say you’re distilling what you’ve learned about why we give. What do you think are the most important things you’ve learned about giving in the last thirty years?

There’s a lot that I’ve learned. The most important thing that I’ve learned is the view that it’s really relatively easy to give. We can save the lives of other people. We can transform their lives from basically being fairly miserable to being much better. We can do that quite easily. So that’s one important point, that it’s not so difficult. The second important point is that when we give we help ourselves as well as others. It makes our lives more fulfilling and more satisfying, to know that we are helping others. That’s the sort of thing I was saying in relation to Daniel’s business. It’s important to live for others, not just for yourself, and that redounds to your own good. You end up having a better life if you do think about others.

What realizations have you come to that have modified the positions that you advocated when you wrote “Famine, Affluence and Morality” in 1971?

I suppose the main difference is that I’m aware of how few people will really respond to an argument that is as challenging as the argument of “Famine Affluence and Morality.” Although some people do respond very strongly, it’s not reaching the mainstream. What I’ve done in the new book, The Life You Can Save, is to suggest that we should urge a public standard that is acceptable, or should be acceptable, to most people. That is, essentially an easier standard to meet. What I’ve come up with is a realistic standard of giving in proportion to your income, which starts with as little as 1 percent and rises if you’re in the top 10 percent of U.S. taxpayers. This is something I think that we can really expect people to meet as a public standard. As well as putting it in the book, I’ve set up a website,, which sets out that standard, and invites people to make a public pledge to meet that standard. I’m pleased to say that this week we’ve passed 3,000 that have pledged to meet the standard. So that’s a good beginning. I hope it will continue to grow from there.

In “The Singer Solution to World Poverty” you said, “Whatever you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.” But you seem to recognize here that that’s not something that would lead to expedient social change. Are you moderating your expectations of people a little here?

Yes, I think that puts it correctly. I’m moderating my expectations, and therefore I’m moderating what I’m asking of people, in order to get them to do something rather than nothing. Rather than [pushing them] to reject the proposal altogether, I’m putting forward a more moderate suggestion, so that people can feel, “Well, I am playing my part, and it’s something that I can do quite easily.” And maybe some people who start doing that will go on to do more and others won’t, but if everyone feels that’s something they can do, and will do, that can have a huge impact.

Much of the developed world is experiencing a recession right now. How do you persuade them that it’s still important to give, even in light of their present financial difficulties?

The U.S. is undergoing a recession, and if people are in a position where they don’t know if they’re going to be able to pay their rent or meet their mortgage payments, or they’ve lost their job, or are in danger of losing their job, I can certainly understand that this would not be the time for them to think about giving to others. Most Americans, fortunately are still not in that situation. Most Americans are still overwhelmingly better off than people living in extreme poverty. Even if they have lost their job, they’re still better off because Social Security is not great in America, but it’s definitely better than it is in a lot of other parts of the world, where it really doesn’t exist. I think most Americans still have the capacity to give. If people are worried about their situation now, then in a year or two the economy will start to pull ahead again, and we’ll be in back in a situation where more people can give. I think the economic downturn should be a time for thinking about what’s really important to us. We might realize that some of the things that we regarded as important, that we were spending money on, just aren’t all that essential, and might give us a chance, once the economy picks up again, to live more modestly and therefore have more to give.

To what aid organizations should people give?

Well, there are quite a number of them. Again, people can check out the website. I refer to quite a few in the book. I’m a big supporter of Oxfam America, because they’re an organization that does excellent grassroots work, as well as being an advocate for the poor, with the U.S. government and at on a global level, in terms of changing trade polices to help the poor. I also talk about many smaller organizations that do things that are more specific. I talk about The Fistula Foundation, which for about $450 can repair . . . a terrible condition that women in Africa get when they have children and their bodies are not quite ready for that. Essentially that condition ruins their life, but it can be relatively easily repaired with surgery. That’s beyond the reach of these people, so this foundation sets up hospitals in Ethiopia and provides the operation for women. I think that’s an excellent sort of thing to do where you can feel like you’re specifically making a difference to some person’s life. There are a number of other organizations. I also talk about Givewell, which you can find on the web at, which is evaluating charities. It’s good to go to that website and look for some of the charities that are most effective. It recommends Population Services International, which gives out condoms that both reduce fertility and also reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS. It provides bed nets that protect children from malaria. There are a lot of good organizations out there that I think people can have confidence will be putting any money given to good use.

Do you have a “hierarchy of needs” in your head when you’re trying to allocate funds? Do you try to address those in the order of the magnitude of that need?

I think there are certainly people in extreme poverty who are having trouble meeting their basic needs. We should focus on the basic needs. The need for food and shelter and healthcare. The need to educate their children, at least at a primary school level. Those are the things that I think are really basic. There are so many people that can’t meet them that we should be looking at ways to help meet them. We should be looking at the things we can do most cheaply, the low hanging fruits. Which are things often related to saving lives, health-related issues, providing clean drinking water, sanitation, better agricultural techniques. Those are the things we should be focusing on, I believe.

What metrics do you use to determine the effectiveness of a charity?

Clearly looking at how much they accomplish for how much money. I think charities need to give us some evidence about what they’re doing and why it’s helpful. If you’re talking about charities that are saving lives, that are providing health benefits, you’re talking about how much it costs to save a life, really. That’s the kind of thing that does. They try and look at that. Not all charities are into saving lives; some are more into general development. That’s harder to evaluate, but you just have to take a look at the specific projects and see what they achieve for how much money.

Why do you think some aid organizations are deficient in keeping these kind of statistics?

“Keeping” them is not quite the right word. That implies that they can have them or can get them. It’s not easy to do. These evaluations are very difficult to provide. It costs them money to provide it. They need to employ people to find out the impact of what they’re doing. They need to employ people to try and gather statistics. Ideally, they would compare an area where they’re putting aid in with another area where they’re not putting aid in and see what sort of difference it makes. But that means you have to investigate the area where they’re not putting aid in as well. Some of these agencies say, “Well, we have limited funds, but we’re reasonably sure we’re saving lives, or helping people get enough food, and we want to use all the money we’ve got for that. We don’t want to use some of the money for evaluating what we’re doing and providing data on that to others.” But while I can understand why they want to do that, I think in the long run it’s very important that they do demonstrate that they are using the money well.

You talk about your hope that society challenges “the norm of self-interest” and the idea that it’s intrinsic to human nature. How do you believe that can be changed on a large social scale?

I think that we have to talk more about what we do that’s altruistic. The norm of self-interest leads us to think that what most people do most of the time is just follow their self-interest. So people actually become a little embarrassed or ashamed of talking about things that they do that are altruistic. I think we need to change that. I’m not denying that human nature has a self-interested element, but it also has compassionate and sympathetic and altruistic elements. I think we need to talk more about that. I think the culture can encourage the compassionate and altruistic elements rather than encouraging the self-interested ones, which is what it mostly does at the moment.

You’ve written in the past about the harm that religion does, and you say that it’s not something that’s necessary to lead a moral life. Yet in this book you cite holy texts to establish some precedent to this argument that people have an obligation to give. Why do you embrace religion in this context and reject it in others?

I don’t embrace religion. Don’t say that I embrace religion. I’m as staunch an atheist as I have ever been. The point is that I’m trying to show that the kind of thought that I have here – that we have pretty demanding obligations to help the poor – is not something that is so unusual in human history and in the history of thinkers of various times. Some of those thinkers, of course, have been religious ones because religious ethics have dominated discussions of ethics for most of the last couple of thousand years. So that’s why there are religious thinkers [in the book]. I’m not quoting them as authorities because they’re religious. I’m just pointing out that many other people have come to similar conclusions, whether they’re Christian or Jewish or Islamic, or, for that matter, out of the Chinese philosophical tradition, like Mencius.

How do you think corporations can optimize their giving?

Well, I’d like to see corporations establishing workplace giving. I suggested in the book that when corporations sign on new employees they could say to them that, “It’s our policy to give a quarter of 1 percent of your salary to save the lives of children dying elsewhere in the world. If you agree to this, then our corporation will match it with their own funds. If you don’t want to do this then you can opt out.” And you could have physical boxes you could tick to opt out. The point is, I think we need to reverse the default here. I think the default should be that people give a little. And if people wanted to opt out they could, we’d preserve their freedom of choice in that way. But as we have it now, we have the default the other way, that people don’t give unless they specifically say they want to. I think corporations could help change that.

What corporations do you think model good philanthropic practices?

I mention some in the book. I talk about Whole Food Markets for example, which encourages workers to do philanthropic things, They give them paid time off [to work] in the community, and I think that’s a good example. I talk in the book about Bear Stearns, but they no longer exist as the result of the credit crisis. They had a policy of getting their senior managers to give 4 percent [of their annual incomes] to charity. I think that’s a good standard. I think some things like that will reemerge out of the crisis.

How far do you think microcredit and other market-based solutions will go towards eradicating poverty in developing countries?

Microcredit won’t eradicate poverty anywhere. It will help a number of people in poverty to succeed in having a better life. It helps people get out of the clutches of moneylenders who charge extraordinarily high interest rates in some countries and thereby keep people in poverty. It may help others to develop small enterprises that can feed them and their families. But it’s not going to reach everyone, and it’s not going to help everybody. Not everybody has the capacity to use that. I see microcredit as one part of the solution, but it’s certainly not the whole solution.

You express some apprehension about rising food costs in the book. What practices do you think contribute most to the rising costs of food?

There are three different things that I talk about. One of them is climate change, which has certainly had an adverse effect on some food production. For example, the price of rice rose very sharply because of the failure of the Australian rice crop, which at the time was the result of climate changes preventing rice growers from having water to irrigate their land. The second one is the use of grains for biofuel, which I think is a wasteful procedure – certainly the way it’s practiced in the United States. The third one is the use of grain for feeding livestock, which is, in terms of quantity, much more wasteful than the use of grain for biofuel. [Feeding livestock] uses about 750 million tons of grain a year, as compared to only about 100 to 150 [million] for biofuel. That’s really the biggest waste, and that would be the best way to drive down the price of basic grains – to stop feeding them to livestock.

What would you do to deincentivize people from making food into biofuels?

All the United States would have to do would be to stop subsidizing the stuff. It would never work if it wasn’t for all the subsidies.

How do you respond to people who suggest that population control should be emphasized over other philanthropic causes?

I accept that the world needs to stabilize its population, and it’s good to be doing things about that. But I think reducing poverty has to be a part of that. People in extreme poverty are often not going to be able to control their fertility. Particularly when girls get education, fertility drops. While I’m all in favor of distributing condoms and contraceptives, that should just be part of a larger plan of trying to overcome poverty. That’s the only way we’re going to get to reach a sustainable population in the long run.

You note that since the Sixties the number of people living in extreme poverty has halved. Are you optimistic that the number will continue to decrease?

Yes, I am. Certainly what’s really decreased sharply is the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. The numbers have been dropping too, despite the increase in the world’s population. I think that we have the capacity to make huge inroads on this. We know more about how to do it; we’re learning more all the time. The wealthy part of the world, despite the present financial crisis, is a lot wealthier than it was 50 or 100 years ago, so we have more capacity to do it. I think that, if we put the effort into it, we’ll continue to decrease the number of people living in extreme poverty and eventually reduce it to a number of isolated pockets.

In “Famine, Affluence and Morality” you entertain the possibility that developed nations giving a huge portion of their GDP could actually depress economic growth to the point where they wouldn’t be able to give as much. Have you found any data that supports or disconfirms that possibility?

The data that I’ve found shows that [giving a huge portion of GDP] wouldn’t be necessary. If you look at the data that Jeffrey Sachs has, even if you think he’s underestimating the cost of meeting the Millennium Development Goals or eliminating poverty, it’s just not going to be necessary to give so much because the affluence of the world has reached such levels. If you look at the figures that Sachs produces, we’re only talking about 1 percent of GDP [for all developed countries] – maybe it’s going to be 2 percent or 3 percent. It’s nothing like as much as would really have a major impact, in terms of really depressing those economies, especially if it’s something you build up gradually. And also, of course, if it brings more people into the global economy we will eventually become potential customers of them. So in the long run I think it’s going to be economically beneficial and any negative effect is going to be pretty minor.

You describe philanthropy for the arts as a “morally dubious” pursuit. But what do you think of institutional support for people like yourself, who raise consciousness about global poverty?

I’m fortunate in that I have a position at a very well-funded university. To be honest I don’t think it would need as much money as it has to be able to still raise awareness of these issues. . . . For me, the priority is still helping those who are in extreme poverty, not supporting educational institutions that are really already quite rich.

In an interview with Reason you said that you “don’t live up to your own standards” in respect to how much you give. If you were to live up to your own standards what would your life look like?

Well, it would be very much simpler. There would be a lot of things that I could still do without. I would be probably giving away substantially more than I am, if we’re talking about the ultimate standards, rather than the public standards that we discussed earlier in the interview. . . . Probably I shouldn’t be taking vacations with my wife or family, because there’d be better things I could be doing with the money. I certainly could be living more simply.

What do you hope to achieve through that you haven’t been able to do elsewhere?

I’d like people to see others giving and to join with them and to have some contact between people who are giving from all over the world. I’d like people to exchange ideas and information about organizations we should give to. I’d like people to talk about research into making aid more effective. There’s a whole lot of things that don’t necessarily have to be on my website, but they could be linked to from my website so that it’s kind of a one-stop place to go to for information on this topic.

Tags: 2009 · AP Issues · Cristóbal Matibag · Interviews · July 2009

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  • 1 Zizek is a hipster overlord « The Art Below // Oct 19, 2011 at 1:47 am

    [...] return women afflicted with obstetric fistula to a normal life through surgery costing only $450. Here is Singer, from an interview at Ames [...]

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