Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Global Politics

Časopis pro politiku a mezinárodní vztahy

Interview with Peter Singer – On Global Poverty, Human Rights and Ethical Questions

obrázekWhere are the boundaries of our moral obligations in eradicating global poverty? At what point can we speak of a fetus as a human being? Are we capable of reaching objectivism in ethical questions? For what reason is it necessary to reach reassessment of our view of human rights concept?

Peter Singer, Ira W. De Camp professor of bioethics in the Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate professor at University of Melbourne, has been standing at the forefront of debates about our ethical obligations and approaching global poverty, euthanasia, abortions and animal rights for more than three decades.


The Animal Liberation (1975) book is widely considered as a bible of modern animal rights movement, therefore it is not a surprise, that The New Yorker labeled Peter Singer as „the most influential living philosopher“ and in 2005 Time magazine included him amogst 100 most influential people in the world“. From the other publications we should mention e.g.: The expanding circle: ethics and sociobiology (1981), Practical Ethics (1979), A Companion to Ethics (1991), Rethinking life & death: the collapse of our traditional ethics (1994), A Companion to Bioethics (1998), One World: The Ethics of Globalization (2006), The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter (2006), and The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009).

While attending his lecture „Animal Liberation: Retrospect and Prospect“ at the University of Melbourne, Peter Singer agreed to provide an exclusive interview to Czech Centre for Human Rights and Democratization, interview by Petr Pribyla.

Within political philosophy you have been standing at the forefront of utilititarianistic perspective towards global poverty, saying we have the same moral obligation to help someone who is standing right next to us as someone being thousands miles away from us. Can you explain your utilitarianistic approach?

What I am criticising is the argument that distance morally makes a difference. In the past distance has made the difference because it has not really been possible to help people in a distance, but today it is.

Some specific group of authors within political philosophy have been defending argument that human beings have only negative obligation, e.g. don’t cause a pain, do not let anyone suffer etc. Therefore anything that goes above our negative obligation, as a positive obligation to help someone in need, is simply a secondary matter.

That is why I started an article I wrote already in the 1970s with the example about rescuing a child drowning in a pond right in front of you. Virtually everybody would agree that you do have a moral obligation towards that child. If you are passing by a pond and see a small child drowning and you can save the child’s life but there is something crossing your mind like ruining a nice pair of shoes, people would think, that it would be wrong to walk on and say I do not want to ruin my shoes and I have no obligation to save that child. So the view, which you suggested, is far outside the mainstream. That alone does not say it would not be defensible. But you start with a burden of proving that there is no obligation to rescue not even the child, which is so easily rescued. There is a kind of libertarian view that you mentioned represented by people like Robert Nozick, who are saying that there is no obligation, but I am simply on the grounds of thinking that everybody’s in­terest matters and you can’t give thousands and thousands times more weight to your own interest than you give to those strangers. That is obviously what you are doing if you reject the idea that you have no obligation to help somebody else.

According to the UN statistics more than 1.2 billion people—one in every five on Earth—survive on less than $1 a day and on the other hand the top 1% of the world’s richest people earn as much as the poorest 57%. Is it morally justifiable to have such a wealth?

The problem is not whether the wealth is morally justifiable but the problem is that those who are having the wealth are doing nothing to help the poor. This is not justifiable and that’s what I object to. It is fine if people have wealth because it is not a zero-sum game. It is not that if some people have wealth it means that others are poor, but the thing is, if they are not helping the poor and they are not doing the things that they could do. Then there is a problem in justifying the wealth.

Within the last decades, a most of discussions about global justice and solving global poverty have tightened themselves with a concept of existing universal human rights. Where does your approach of practical ethics stand towards the concept of universalism in human rights?

The concept of practical ethics is based on moral obligations that do not have to go through arguments about human rights, that is true.

“The discussion about Asian values does not do justice to Asian tradition.”

However, even there we have to face questions dealing with objectivism and particularism. There have been lively discussions about an existence of so-called Asian values concerning human rights, which is implying relativism in minimal standards of human rights as consequences of specific differences between western and eastern traditional values. Thus, if we step up into the discussion of global justice through concept of practical ethics, are we than able to reach any objectivism in moral questions? I.e. Aren’t the ethics and ethical question, at the end, a purely subjective matter, for individuals to choose, or perhaps relative to the culture of the society in which one lives?

Yes, I do think that some objectivism in ethics exists and that there are values that by careful reflection and consideration people from any culture can reach. The discussion about Asian values does not do justice to Asian tradition. Certainly, what we have been discussing you can find in work of Asian philosophers like Mencius who thinks there is an obligation of wealthy and powerful to help the poor. Thus, I do not see any fundamental difference between western and eastern traditional values on ethical questions.

International organizations and international systems as such are usually blamed from a political utilitarianistic position for its ineffectiveness, illegitimacy and being responsible for the situation of global poverty. Should we not to be more concern, at the end, to solving the ineffective international system than donating through charity? We can quite often come across an argument saying, that individual direct donations relief just a short-term solution and simply delays additional problems.

I am not interested in short-term solutions. There is all kinds of assistance that we can get and those which are providing short term solutions are not as good as the ones that are providing a long term sustainable solutions. But the question is what is a long-term sustainable solution? And I think that we have to give, from the wealth that we have available, to those most effective organizations providing long-term solutions. There is a huge number of different aid organizations following different strategies and we, as responsible donors, our obliged to find those who are doing it. Fortunately, there are organizations that are examining that. I have mentioned some in my book The Life You Can Save and I talked about organizations like GiveWell who are trying to find out which organizations are the most effective.

For example Brian Barry, well-known political philosopher saying, that natural resources provide a relatively straightforward application of the idea that what nobody can make any special claim on everybody has an equal claim on. In this view, citizens of countries as United Arab Emirates flourishing through having access to the oil under their surface, having no more rights to drill for them than citizens of some of the no resource-rich countries. Thus, Brian Berry defending argument, that there should be an international income tax on countries above some certain amount of GND and where the money would go to poor countries.

That would be fine if countries would do that. That is a sort of social welfare’s theme on a global level rather than on a national level. The money would have to be used effectively and it is not that we want to get money to every government no matter how effective it is in helping its people. What we want to do is to raise the money as we just said and providing long-term solutions. That’s what we have to do and if governments would tax their citizens for this purpose, that would be fine, but since they do not, it is up to us as individuals to do that job.

If we look at the ongoing economical crisis, is it too naive to expect any reassessment of our moral obligations towards poor?

When the global financial crisis started, there were only few people who said that we have to reassess what is important. I do not really see that a lot reassessment is going on. Unfortunately, the global financial crisis affected that some nations give less than otherwise they would give. That is a pity, because people all of a sudden felt that they are not so wealthy. But all together I do not see that it is a huge impact. People are gradually starting donating again and I hope it will continue.


You have been also extensively covering the euthanasia issues within last decades. If we look at Europe, since Netherlands started allowing euthanasia, few other european countries as Belgium, Switzerland and recently Luxemburg joined in. How do you see those changes in European societies and how do you approach the euthanasia questions in general?

I suppose that people should be able to decide to end their lives, if they are incurably ill and they do not wish to go on living. I do not see that it is in the interest of state or anyone else to force them to live in conditions which they regard as unacceptable. The way in which the laws work in Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg and other countries you mentioned generaly shows that euthanasia is something people want. I have to admit that I am surprise that it spreads only slowly. But I do think it is spreading.

Let’s think of a situation of someone being in a coma, for many years, no chances to get out of that condition and thus is not able to decide if wants to go on living. Than, are we allowed to make that decision instead him?

I think that patients should be able to decide whether they want to go on living or not, once they are fully informed about their condition. Of course, when they are in a coma they cannot decide, but maybe they will sign a declaration beforehand that they would like to end their life in some situation or maybe they have given power to some friend or relative to make that decision for them. I believe that in these cases the decision should be respected.

If we stay with the autonomy of a person, lets say there is an adult, who wants to commit a suicide, is fully aware of the consequences and is rationally thinking. Is it morally justifiable to commit a suicide?

It can be morally justifiable, especially as you say, if they are fully aware of the consequences and in a rational frame of mind, then it can be morally justifiable. Especially if people are incurably ill, than, it is clearly justifiable. So, the problem is to simply make sure that people are not temporarily depressed by something that has happened and when there is nothing seriously wrong with them. Abortion

If we step out of euthanasia, you have been also extensively writing about abortions, which you have been defending. But if we look at the debates about abortion in general, the discussions are circulating about one side defending an individual right of a mother to decide what to do with her body and on the other side stands interest in protecting prenatal life. How should we deal with those conflicting rights?

First, you have to decide what the moral status of fetus is. I do not think that either of this side, as you mentioned, are right on their own terms. The crucial question really is whether the fetus has a right to live. I argue that a fetus is not the kind of being that has absolute right to live, it does not have any conscious of awareness of its own life, and therefore it is not wrong to end its life before it properly begins. Thus, I do not see a problem in ending a life of a fetus.

However, usually the decisions of highest and supreme courts are mainly focused on finding answer to a question: when the fetus is becoming a human being? In Europe abortion is usually allowed within first 12 weeks of pregnancy, however the threshold varying from country to country. Thus, is the question “when“ really the right sort of question we should be finding answer for?

I do not think you can answer the question of when, unless you ask a question of what is wrong with killing a human being. That is the basic question and that is what you have to ask first. And if you are asking that question, the answer really is that killing a being becomes most serious when the being has some self-conception, some self-awareness of its own life, and of living over time. A fetus never has that, therefore I do not see any problem with killing a fetus if that is what the mother wants. And my view also implies that it is less serious to end the life of a newborn infant than of an older child.

So if we stay with the newborn baby, we can think of a situation where a child is born and diagnosed with an incurrable decease with no perspective of a decent life as such, and his parents do not want to go on in his living and better letting him to die?

Yes, I think that it can be justifiable. It will depend on the condition of child and if other people would want to care of that child and how much that child would suffer, but I certainly think that the child has not any kind of absolute right to life which would makes it wrong to kill that child at the early stage, speaking still about newborn infants.

Animal Liberation

“ What gives a being rights and what makes it wrong to treat being in a certain way is not what species it belongs to but what capacities it has. And the most fundamental of those capacities is to suffer or to enjoy life.”

For more than four decades you have stood at the forefront of advocating of animal rights. Your book Animal Liberation from 70’s has become a bible of various animal liberation movements. On which presumptions do you conclude that animals are having the same rights as human beings?

We have to ask the fundamental question, which is why we think that there are human rights in a sense of rights that all members of the species homo sapiens have but no members of any other species have? When you start thinking about that than it becomes rather peculiar. Because why should membership of a certain species give you rights? If there were beings from another planet who could suffer in exactly the same way that we can, would it be right to say that because they are from another species we do not need to care about their suffering, and can treat them as we treat animals today just because they are not members of our species? I think that the answer is clearly not, it would not be right. What gives a being rights and what makes it wrong to treat being in a certain way is not what species it belongs to but what capacities it has. And the most fundamental of those capacities is to suffer or to enjoy life. Since there are many billions of non-human animals that can suffer or enjoy life than we do wrong if we ignore their interests in not suffering or enjoying life simply because they happened not to be a member of our species of homo sapiens.

Recently, the British house of Commons passed a motion directing the government to impose a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. At the same time, the lower house of the Dutch parliament passed a law giving the Jewish and Islamic communities a year to provide evidence that animals slaughtered by traditional methods do not experience greater pain than those that are stunned before they are killed. How do you see the progress which has been done in protecting animal rights within last decades?

I think that they are actually very small ones. What you should have mentioned and is million times more important than those things in fact are in farming. On the 1st of January next year across the entire European union the standard of conventional battery cages becomes illegal. That will be affecting hundreds of millions of animals, not the very small number of animals that will be affected by the two peaces of legislation you mentioned. And in a year and a half, in January 2013 it will be illegal to keep pregnant sows in individual crates, as they are standardly kept now. This is actually an enormous progress as compared how things were twenty or thirty years ago since I have started writing about those issues. But at the same time I would like to obviously go a lot further because these reforms, important as they are, do not stop widespread cruelties at the farms and cruelties to rise for food, to rise for fur as many other animals are facing. So, we still have a long way to go but there is an encouraging progress being made.

Thank you for the interview.

Petr Pribyla is a student of European Master's Degree in Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice and an intern at the Czech Centre of Human Rights and Democratization of Masaryk University.

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Petr Pribyla
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28. 9. 2011