Denver: We are going to play Take Five with Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and the Author of The Life You Can Save. Are you ready, Peter?
Peter: I’m ready.
Denver: What is today’s most underreported story?
Peter: The fact that we are reducing global poverty. It’s a huge difference that we’re making. When I first wrote the first edition of this book, there were 9.7 million children under five dying every year from poverty-related causes; now, it’s down to 5.3 million. So, in 10 years, we’ve almost halved this, and yet that story hardly ever gets reported.
Denver: What should we as a society be worried about?
Peter: I think we should be worried about climate change. I think climate change is a huge problem that is affecting the whole world. All of the good progress we’ve been making in reducing poverty could be undone by changes in climate, the fact that rain stops falling in places where people need it to grow their food, more floods, more droughts. I think that we need to be more worried about this.
Denver: What is something you believe that other people think is insane?
Peter: I hope that there’s nothing that I believe that people think is really completely insane, but I do think that we ought to be giving a substantial amount of our earnings to help other people. A lot of people, I guess, particularly in the United States where there’s a kind of ethics of wealth being fine and good, think that it’s insane to believe that we should be giving money away.
Denver: Not to put you on the spot, but name some organization or person that you have a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for.
Peter: Well, I’m going to named Charlie Bresler who is the person who has really built The Life You Can Save into an organization. I wrote a book with that title. A couple of students help me put up a website and create some presence online for people to get information.
But Charlie then called me and said he wanted to do something more worthwhile with his life than had been doing. He had a successful career in the retail industry. He had made enough money, but that wasn’t in accord with his values. So, he volunteered to retire from his work and go full time building up this organization for no pay whatsoever. In fact, I tell him he’s on negative salary because he donates to the organization. So I really admire that commitment, and I greatly admire what he’s done to build up the organization.
Denver: What idea in philanthropy is ready for retirement?
Peter: I think what’s ready for retirement is the idea that you can tell how good an organization is by looking at the ratio of administrative expenses to funds received. That’s what a lot of people do, but it’s really misleading. It’s really a myth because it encourages organizations to cut back on their administration, and sometimes that means that they can no longer really check that the money that they’re handing out is doing what it’s supposed to do. And it can be much better to spend more on administration and really have your money do what you want it to do, really have only effective programs, and cut out the others. But that takes staff, and that takes cost, and some organizations are reluctant to do that because so many people are choosing to give to the ones that can say, “We only give 10%, or even less, to administration.”
Denver: What have you changed your mind about in the last 10 years, and why?
Peter: So that’s a bit more of a philosophical question, I guess. I’ve changed my mind about the objectivity of ethical judgments. I studied in an era when a lot of people thought that yes, there’s some role for reason in ethics, but it’s limited, and underlying it all is really emotional judgments that we can’t say are right or wrong. Over the years, I’ve become dissatisfied with that, and within the last 10 years, I’ve become more clear that I do think there is objective truth in ethics.
Denver: If you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be?
Peter: I hope that I would be a fork. It’s less destructive than a knife, and it’s very useful for picking up the things that you really need to have and putting them where you want them to go.
Denver: What do you wish people were more open and honest about?
Peter: I’d like people to be open and honest about their giving. One of the funny things about giving is that people are actually a bit shy, a bit reluctant to say: “Oh, yes. I give. I think it’s important to give some percentage of your income to effective charities.” People feel that that’s somehow going to be boasting or self-righteous, but all the psychological research shows that people are more likely to give when they know that others are giving, and if they think, “No one else is giving, then why would I give?” So, we need to have people talking about their giving in order to spread the idea that that’s a normal part of life, and that that’s the thing that decent, ethical people do.
Denver: What’s your superpower?
Peter: I suppose… I’m a philosopher, and my super power ought to be reasoning at a high level and working things out. So, I hope that that’s what I approximate, and if I really had superpowers, I hope that’s what it would be.
Denver: If you were to start your career all over again and do something completely different and away from this field, what would that be?
Peter: I really love being out in nature and out in the open, so if I really had to do something completely different, maybe I’d go and be a ranger in a national park.
Denver: Give us a name of one of your favorite restaurants.
Peter: Blossom, a vegan restaurant in New York City on Ninth Avenue is a great place to go.
Denver: What is something, whether this is related to your work or not, that you’re exceptionally excited about right now?
Peter: Well, really, it is related to my work. I’m exceptionally excited about the release of the new edition of The Life You Can Save and the fact that people can download it for free.
I really want to see how that goes, and I just hope that we get a huge number of people reading and talking about it.
Denver: What is one thing you wish you really more fully understood?
Peter: There are many philosophy problems that I’d like to understand more fully. One of the deep ones is the question of consciousness. How do we know whether another being is conscious? And this relates to my work about animals: How do we know which animals are conscious? Are insects conscious? What does a fish experience? We can have some insights into these different things, but it’s still something of a mystery as to what the sort of physical basis for consciousness is, and how we can really assess the consciousness of different beings.
Denver: What is something about you that very few other people know?
Peter: Probably not many people know that I’m a surfer. I guess growing up in Australia, it was an easy thing to get into the ocean and the waves, but actually surfing on a board is something that I only got into much later in life. But I’m still doing it when I’m back in Australia, and I’m enjoying it a lot.
Denver: Given the choice of anyone famous in the world, dead or alive, that you could invite over as a dinner guest, who would that be?
Peter: I think the 18th century British philosopher David Hume might be one because he had such a wide knowledge. He wrote important work about ethics and philosophy, but he also wrote historical and political essays, and there’s a great sense of humor and style that goes through his work. So I think he’d be a wonderful dinner conversationalist.
Denver: What is the best constructive criticism you have ever received?
Peter: I have received criticism for my views on ethics of many kinds. But in terms of constructive criticism, I think the criticism that I got from my supervisor in Oxford, Professor R.M. Hare, really helped me to develop as a philosopher and to express my ideas as clearly as possible. Hare believed in writing in plain language and avoiding jargon and trying to reach an audience outside the academy. I’ve done that, and I think it’s really been an important component of what success I’ve had.
Denver: What is something that everyone else seems to love, but you just dislike?
Peter: I don’t really watch very much television. A lot of people tell me, “Have you seen this great series or that great series?” or whatever. And I find it more interesting to try and learn more about the world, to do my own work and my own writing, to contribute to things than to sit passively watching a television set.
Denver: What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?
Peter: I think people have the misconception that I’m somehow a cold and rational calculator, and I don’t feel that that’s true at all. I think that I am moved by sympathy and compassion and abhorrence of unnecessary suffering, and I think that underlies all my work.
It’s true, of course, that I do try to calculate how to do the most to reduce that, but people sometimes just focus on that and forget about the feeling that lies behind that.
Denver: What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Peter: I would say: Be yourself. I think at 20, I was still a little nervous about the way I was appearing to others and the way I would come across. I think I learned later on to relax and just be myself, and let people take me as I am, and if they didn’t like that, well, okay, then I can move on and do something else.
Denver: And finally, do you have a quote you live your life by, or think of often?
Peter: A quote that I think of often comes from a 19th century British philosopher called Henry Sidgwick who said, “From the point of view of the universe, everybody’s well-being counts, just as much as everybody else’s.” And there are other people who have said that, too – all lives are of equal value; it’s on Bill and Melinda Gates’ website.
But this idea of looking at things from the point of view of the universe… not that I think the universe itself actually has a point of view, but we can take that perspective; we can elevate ourselves to getting away from our own situation, and we can say what really would do the most good from that perspective? And I think it’s important that every now and again, we do that.
Denver: Thank you very much, Peter.
Peter: Thank you, Denver.