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Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? The controversial Peter Singer!
Charlotte Laws cautiously chows down with the Defender of Animals.
I recently had the opportunity to eat, drink and make moral calculations with philosopher Peter Singer, who is sometimes called ‘the Father of the Animal Rights movement’. You might think that hanging out with a renowned and accomplished philosopher would cause a pain in the brain, risking the sort of soreness that can develop after a college class of induction, deduction and general cerebral gymnastics. But as a lifelong fiancée of philosophy, I was thrilled that Professor Singer agreed to meet with me.
Singer has the distinction of being the epiphany-trigger in my life. In 1985 I read his book, In Defense of Animals, in which he talks about ‘speciesism’, a prejudice similar to racism and sexism, in which humans assume they are superior to other species. Singer argues that nonhumans are of equal value to humans and worthy of equal consideration, and that an animal’s ability to feel pain should also give him protection under the moral umbrella that humans typically reserve for themselves. To me this idea was like a starter pistol being fired, signaling me to begin my mission to help the truly voiceless and defenseless members of society. I stopped eating meat that day. So when I heard that the normally reclusive Singer, who lives in Australia and New Jersey, would be speaking at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles about animals and art, I figured, why not take him out for a bite? Controversial utilitarians have to eat too.
Singer is controversial mostly because of his position on infanticide and euthanasia. For example, he holds that it would be morally proper in some circumstances to kill a severely incapacitated infant whose life would cause immense suffering for himself and his family. Singer comes to this conclusion in the same way he comes to every conclusion: by embarking upon a utilitarian calculation. A utilitarian deems an action right or wrong based upon the consequences of that action. He tallies the positives (‘hedons’) and negatives (‘dolors’) of the situation in advance, and selects the course of action that is likely to result in the most positives, or the least negatives.
Deontological moral theory is, in effect, the opposite of utilitarianism. Deontologists argue that consequences are inconsequential in evaluating moral rightness. They claim instead that people have certain duties or moral obligations which are based upon some absolute authority: the authority might be religion, universal reason, natural rights, natural law, or some other entity altogether. A deontologist would most likely think it wrong to kill an infant regardless of the child’s level of disability – a precept that might be supported by religious orthodoxy, for example. But this is not Singer’s way.
In order to impress Professor Singer, I figured I had better be on top of the ‘utilitarian calculation’ game. No slacking. I had to be on my guard every second, ready to shift my actions to the right utilitarian course of action. I did not want this great philosopher to construe his time spent with me as in any way immoral.
The first order of business was to choose a restaurant. Singer had only made one requirement: there had to be a vegan entrée on the menu. But as a good utilitarian, I knew I had to weigh a parade of other factors. His hotel was in Santa Monica, so I chose a place nearby so as to save fuel and not contribute to global warming. I selected a totally vegan place, to encourage exemplary establishments to be fruitful and multiply. After grappling with whether the area was more or less moral than surrounding communities, I ultimately decided it was okay for the restaurant to be situated in Santa Monica itself.
Out To Dinner With Singer
I picked Prof Singer up from his hotel and flipped on the car’s air conditioning. I wanted my important guest to be comfortable. In a polite way, he explained how my action was destroying the environment and suggested we simply lower the windows. I couldn’t believe it: I had already screwed up! I quietly chastised myself for failing to make the necessary moral calculation.
My second test came when I was confronted with the choice of making a left turn, and in so doing, hold up a long line of vehicles behind me. The alternative was to drive all the way to a signal light, turn onto a less busy street, do a three-point turn into a driveway, go back to the original intersection, and make a right turn – an undertaking that would take an extra five minutes. Most people in our ‘I’m entitled’ me-first society feel justified in holding up a long line of other drivers, some who may be rushing to an emergency or may be late for a critical appointment. But would a good utilitarian come to such a conclusion? I decided not, and opted to inconvenience only my erudite passenger and myself, and add five minutes to our journey.
The vegan restaurant was bustling like a beehive, and lean on seating. We were directed to an airless corner, where we were expected to jam ourselves into a pint-sized table. Part of me wanted to put down my philosophical foot, refuse the cramped conditions, and demand a roomy nearby table. But I heeded utilitarianism, and resolved that a party of four deserved the extra space. As the heat intensified during the meal, I began to regret my decision. It was Dolor City in that stuffy corner.
Singer sipped on his cocktail of beet, apple and carrot juice as he explained why he was leaning towards supporting Barak Obama for President. We discussed Congress’ proposed immigration legislation, and how the issue is dealt with in Australia where his three kids live.
When we exhausted the media’s hot topics, we delved into the hypotheticals that make philosophy a cocktail party favorite, such as “If a trolley is rolling down a hill, should you let it kill your own child or a stranger’s child?” and “Is there a difference between killing someone and letting him die?” We even explored the always-popular free will debate. I asked Prof Singer if he was choosing to have an enchilada or whether he was merely picking the entrée as a helpless pawn of the universe. He thought he was choosing, but I argued that he was probably just a chess piece in a boardgame called ‘Life’.
The Flexible Utilitarian
After spending two hours with Professor Singer, what struck me most about the man was his humility, flexibility and open-mindedness. He is able to examine an issue with a fresh pad of paper, so to speak. He lacks the cumbersome, preconceived ideas that stalk most individuals; and he is willing, even eager, to alter his opinion when new data and better arguments come to the fore. I find many people to be the reverse: stubborn, immovable, bogged down by pages and pages of mental notes, unwilling to delete them under any circumstance.
Perhaps this illuminates the distinction between the utilitarian and deontological mind. Utilitarianism by its very nature welcomes, even mandates, ideological pliability, while deontological ethics thrives inside a moral tank, oblivious to its environment.
In The Sacred Canopy, Peter Berger says that people invent ideas, but forget that they are the architects of these ideas, later attributing them to an outside, religious source. Non-religious precepts seem to migrate a similar path. Ideas become rooted social norms, like a brazen statue at the center of the town square. They may emanate from a deontological or utilitarian or other source, but they become more deontological, that is, immutable and transcendent, as they stand erect at the center of people’s lives. The statue of ideas is virtually impervious to the elements, in part because the average townsperson resists change. It’s easy and comforting to reinforce established laws, moral rules, and codes of conduct.
Utilitarianism may receive low marks in some circles because it has been abused to justify dubious actions. We have all heard excuses like, “I think it’s alright to cheat on my taxes because I figure the government has enough money,” or “I didn’t return the lost wallet because I figured I need the money more than the other person does.” This ‘figuring’ type of calculating is a misapplication of the utilitarian method; it does not reflect what an impartial observer would decide, which is what the utilitarian calculus requires. It reflects only the outcome the thief already seeks: to avoid paying taxes, or to keep the lost wallet.
But despite such misuse, utilitarianism has a critical role to play in society, in keeping society’s ideas fertile. It can chisel away at or altogether overturn deontological values. One of the founders of utilitarian ethics, Jeremy Bentham, claimed that duty-based thinking is merely camouflage for the popular morality of the day. By contrast, utilitarianism allows undiscovered evidence and improved arguments to emerge. It is our best hope for a improved future, and we should recognize it as such.
I thank Professor Singer for being a living example of the flexibility of utilitarianism. And from now on, when someone asks me to guess who’s coming to dinner, I will hope it’s a utilitarian. Especially a controversial one.
© Charlotte Laws 2008
Charlotte Laws, PhD, is an author, Commissioner and politician in Southern California.
Peter Singer and Animals
Peter Singer’s views on euthanasia have made him one of the most controversial living philosophers. However, his work has been an inspiration to the animal rights movement ever since the publication of his book Animal Liberation in 1975. In that book Singer applies Utilitarian ethics to the question of our treatment of animals, by saying that we should act so as to minimize suffering. He argues that animals should have various rights derived from this principle, but that these are not necessarily the same rights that humans have. He also introduced ‘speciesism’ in that book: the idea of an unjustifiable prejudice against members of other species, analogous to racism or sexism. Singer has expanded on these ideas in later books such as the collection In Defence of Animals. In his 1979 book Practical Ethics, he goes into more detail of how different creatures’ interests should be assessed and weighed. Recently Singer co-authored The Way We Eat, an investigation of the food industry which includes various arguments for vegetarianism. He is currently a Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University. He is renowned for his efforts to apply his philosophical ideas to his own life, and he donates 25 percent of his salary to Oxfam and UNICEF.