Peter singer on animals, effective altruism, and the ethical life

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A conversation with Professor Peter Singer, Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. The interview looks at his life story, and touches on his works which helped shape the modern animal rights movement and advanced our understanding of practical ethics in relation to international aid and development. 

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Peter Singer

Monday 13 August, 2018


00:00 Nick: It's a great honour and a privilege to be here with Peter Singer who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University and a laureate professor at the University of Melbourne.


00:14 Peter is consistently described as one of the leading philosophers and public intellectuals in the world, and I think he is one of the most influential and significant Australians of all time for his work in founding the modern animal rights movement and also in his work in practical ethics and international development and the eradication of extreme poverty.


00:32 Before we begin, a quick disclaimer that I'm not a philosopher, nor even a student of philosophy in any meaningful sense. Peter has spent a lifetime answering the most serious and challenging questions about morality and what it means to be human, while the most pressing questions I deal with are what to order for dinner on Uber Eats each night, but I am interested in human beings and what it means to live an ethical and authentic life in the 21st century. And also, how Professor Singer uses his own contributions to humanity and life on earth.


00:55 So, for listeners and readers not familiar with you and your work, Professor Singer, could you please give a brief vignette-filled overview of your life story in your terms, including that of your family's migration to Australia and your education at Ormond College and University of Melbourne and your work as a philosopher.


01:15 Peter: Okay, happy to do that, Nick. But first, I think you'll need to learn how to cook so that you can stop ordering from Uber Eats.


01:23 I was born in Australia in 1946 and that was just after the war. My parents came to Australia just before the war. They were refugees from Austria, from Vienna. They were Jewish so once the Nazis marched in, they realised that they had to leave, and they were fortunate enough to have met an Australian who offered to sponsor them to get a Visa. It wasn't easy to get a Visa to come to Australia. So, that's where they landed.


01:48 I grew up in Melbourne and went to the University of Melbourne, originally intending to study law but an advisor here suggested I do a combined arts/law degree because I'd done well in my arts subjects.


01:59 And I got interested in the arts side more than the law. I completed an honours degree in philosophy and history, and then decided to go on to do first a master’s which I did in philosophy. And then I was also fortunate enough to get a scholarship to go to Oxford, so I did further graduate studies at Oxford.


02:24 It was at Oxford that I got interested particularly in applied ethics which was - you couldn't really say it was a new field because it had been done for many centuries earlier, going right back to Socrates.


02:42 But when I was at the University of Melbourne, most of ethics was really conceptual analysis. It wasn't really about how we ought to live or what we ought to do. It was considered that they were not really proper questions for philosophers to answer.


03:03 But like everybody in the department, I was fortunate enough to have a teacher called John McCluskey who did political philosophy and was concerned about questions like, "What's the best kind of state? Or what should the limits on an individual freedom be?" 


03:15 But a lot of other philosophers at that time thought that the business of philosophy was to analyse the meaning of moral words. This was a time when there was a lot of student ferment. The Vietnam War was on. I'd been involved in Melbourne in protests against the Vietnam War and I thought that philosophy could actually connect with this. Traditionally, it had. Traditionally, philosophers discussed questions like, "Should we obey an unjust law?"


03:46 So, I tried to connect my philosophy with those issues that interested me. And I found an advisor at Oxford, R M Hare, who supervised my thesis on whether we ought to obey the law in a democracy, if we think we disagree with the law, are we obliged to obey it or not?


04:06 So, iI was getting into what you’d call normal ethics or anywhere normative political philosophy. And then I started writing about ethics as well, getting into questions about the obligations of the affluent to people in extreme poverty, which was something that was triggered in part by the crisis in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh, when the Pakistani army brutally suppressed a movement for autonomy in that part of Pakistan and 9 million people fled over the border to India to escape the Pakistani army. So, 9 million refugees in a small area in a very poor country and not getting nearly enough assistance from the rich nations of the world. 


05:00 That's what got me thinking about what are my obligations as an individual. I didn't have a lot of money. I was living on a scholarship and my wife was a school teacher but still, living comfortably. And what were our obligations to help people in such desperate need?


05:19 Nick: So, while I was preparing for this interview, I found it most helpful to start with your 1972 essay 'Famine, Affluence and Morality.' I was able to understand your subsequent work on animal rights and effective altruism which we'll explore later throughout the interview, with a grounding in this essay. So, can you touch on - I guess in greater depth and perhaps you've already done so - the suffering and devastation that was then occurring in East Bengal and how it prompted you to write the essay? But I suppose more relevantly because you've already covered this off, what it was that you were saying that had not been said before or had not been heard in that particular way such that it had the impact that it did?


05:53 Peter: Right, well ‘famine, affluence and morality’ is the essay that I was referring to that was prompted by that situation. But also prompted by the desire to write something that was applied ethics and that was relevant to a large number of people. So, not a sort of arcane question that you were not likely to come across. Questions like 'Is capital punishment justified?' are not questions that really have a practical significance for most people except as citizens voting I suppose, but otherwise only for people in government making those decisions.


06:37 Whereas questions about 'Are we justified in spending money on luxuries that we don't really need when there are people that are in extreme poverty in the world?' are questions that really affect everybody who can afford to buy a cup of coffee which costs as much as some people in the world have to live on for the entire day.


06:54 So, the situation in what's now Bangladesh was really a dramatic way of raising this question, but the question is one that goes on all the time, whether there is such a crisis or not because there are people in extreme poverty. We can help them quite inexpensively and the question is whether we're justified in ignoring that, whether we can think of ourselves as living an ethical life if we don't do something significant for people in extreme poverty.


07:23 So, what did I say that was new in that essay? Well, it's pretty hard in philosophy after two millennia of philosophy to say something that nobody has said before. So, I'm not going to claim that I did but I certainly said things that nobody was saying at the time. Pretty much nobody in philosophy.


07:50 In fact, as I mentioned in the article, some of what I was saying was really quite consistent with traditional Christian and more specifically Roman Catholic teaching because I think I quoted Thomas Aquinas who said that the right to property exists in order to help us meet our basis needs, to help us better meet our needs.


08:22 But if in fact it's standing in the way of meeting those basic needs, then you don't have a right to that property. Say, for example I'm a wealthy man and I'm putting on a big, lavish feast for all my friends and there's somebody who is starving or whose family is starving, and he is able to come to the table and take a loaf of bread and put it under his cloak and walk off with it, he's not stealing according to Aquinas. He's not stealing because I have no right to this abundance when his needs are going unsatisfied. So, he actually has a right to that loaf of bread.


08:57 Nick: And so, in the context of what was happening at the time, I remember there was this great example that you raised about the exorbitant spending on the supersonic aircraft and the comparatively little funding that was spent on addressing the human suffering of I think 7 to 9 million people you mentioned. Is that an example of what you're saying?


09:23 Peter: Yes, that's right. I was talking about the amount being spend to develop Concord which was the first supersonic commercial passenger plane and clearly, it was not a great success because it was withdrawn after use. It flew for some years, a small number of flights, very expensive. A couple of them crashed and then it was withdrawn, so that was actually with a benefit of hindsight, we can see now, really a vast waste of money. And that money could have gone to help people in extreme poverty, to meet their needs.


09:56 So, I did then, and I even more firmly do now think that we ought not to have spent that kind of money when there are other people in extreme poverty.


10:09 Nick: So, perhaps with reference to effective altruism and your 2009 work, The Life You Can Save, can you expand upon this notion of moral cosmopolitanism which I think maybe even in referencing Christian theology - the idea that every soul is of equal worth - can you expand upon the idea of moral cosmopolitanism and the idea that all lives are equal, and that individual suffering is worthy of our attention, regardless of geographical distance or other factors such as familial connection or even time - the idea that we should consider future generations?


10:37 Peter: Yeah, that was certainly a large part of the argument because the article started by using this example which has acquired a kind of fame of its own about seeing a small child in danger of drowning in a pond and thinking about whether you should rescue this child. It's not your child. You're not responsible for it in any way. It's the child of a stranger and you don't know where the parents are.


10:58 But should you rescue it, even at the cost of ruining your really expensive clothes that you happen to be wearing and that you wouldn't have time to take off if you were going to jump into the pond and save the child?


11:09 So, pretty much everybody agrees that you should rescue the child there in front of you, even at the cost of spending let's say a few hundred dollars on replacing those expensive clothes.


11:26 But what you need to do then is to think about well, if it would be wrong to leave the child to drown in a pond, is it wrong to leave the child to die of malaria because there are no bed nets in that village, despite the fact that malaria is prevalent there and children often die of it?


11:47 That's just another example where we can for a modest amount of money, save a life or certainly reduce the chances of a child dying.


11:57 And then you have to say well, yeah, but the one child is in front of you and the other child is on the other side of the world. One child, you can actually see. The other child, you don't know who the child is that you'll save. One child is - you'll solve the entire problem there by pulling the child out of the pond. The other child, let's say you'll donate enough to save one child's life but there will be other children who are still going to die from malaria.


12:20 So, I examined whether those kinds of things make a difference. Do they make a difference to your ethical obligations? And a significant part of the argument of that article is to argue that they don't. So, I'm arguing that we do have - as you were saying - cosmopolitan moral obligations.


12:41 Another way to look at it is to say we ought to take a universal point of view. We ought to not simply look at the world from where we are today. That is, here I am in Melbourne, there are people in some need close to me in Melbourne but there are people in significantly greater need elsewhere or needs that can be more easily and effectively met elsewhere in the world.


13:16 So, should I first look after the needs of people in Melbourne, even if I can help more people with the limited resources I have if I help people far away from me? I would argue no, we ought to give equal weight to everyone's interests, irrespective of where they are, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their race, their religion, whatever. And that means that we ought to really be focusing much more on people in developing countries than in our own community.


13:41 Nick: As you mentioned in the article, it does kind of run counter to millennia of human psychological evolution in that we are kind of hardwired to be more concerned about the child drowning in the pond in our immediate vicinity or perhaps the child who is part of our family. Essentially, privileging the tribe or those who are most like us rather than the other or someone who is maybe many thousands of kilometres away and that seems to many people to be a natural response. 


14:10 With thinking about that, can you perhaps comment on how globalisation and technology has eradicated these boundaries to empathy and concern to fellow human beings, what the implications are in the 21st century when there are no real barriers to have communications with or having connections with people around the globe?


14:36 Peter: Yes, you're right of course that we have now technologies to relate to people on the other side of the world that we never had until relatively recently. That enables us to know what their needs are. It enables us to respond to urgent needs like drought, famine, civil war and so on.


14:55 And I do think that creates obligations which people didn't have a few generations ago when they couldn't really help. I mean, if you can't help somebody far away, clearly you don't have an obligation to help them.


15:10 So, that has made a difference. And it's also made some kind of psychological difference because we can see more of what's happening and image is often very powerful emotionally as the image of the small Turkish boy, the child of Syrian refugees who was washed up on the shore. That made a huge impact on people's support for refugees and the amount that was contributed to organisations helping refugees.


15:49 So, emotionally seeing something - even seeing a photo - makes a difference. And seeing something directly in front of you when it's not a photo makes a bigger difference. And I think, as you were hinting at, there are obviously evolutionary reasons why that should be so, why we should be geared to help people that we can see and that we can help and that mostly will be part of our own tribal or social group because that's how our ancestors lived, in quite small communities.


16:20 But the ethical question is so, okay, it does make a psychological difference. You could even say its natural in some way to respond to someone you can see rather than a stranger you can't see. But given that we're aware of the situation, given that we can know that we will save a child, given that will be a real child - just as real as the child in front of me, even if I never know who that child is - then I would argue that our psychological readiness to help the child near doesn't really translate into an ethical difference. It doesn't mean that it's required of me to help the child in front of me and not required of me to help the child far away who I don't see.


17:07 So, taking it one step further from the individual's responsibility in an ethical sense, how should governments prioritise the collective ethical responsibility of taxpayers, for instance, in terms of making decisions about allocating funds towards hundreds of thousands of people in international aid programs, for instance in Indonesia, or a smaller collective of farmers here in Australia? Does the same kind of principle apply at the government public policy level?


17:35 Peter: I think the general principal is that you should try and do the most good you can, whether an individual or a government. But it's true that governments are responsible to their electors, at least if we're talking about democratic governments - and I do think that democracy is the best available system or as Winston Churchill put it, the worst system except for all the others.


18:10 So, I favour that, and I recognise that governments have to please their voters, or they will be thrown out of office and there's no point in doing things that are going to be undone by your successor.


18:22 So, I think here governments need to lead and encourage voters to see this as something important, as something that's not going to hurt them to spend a modest amount on effective aid overseas.


18:35 And it is an extremely modest amount that we're spending. In fact, in Australia I would say it's a shamefully modest amount. We're spending about 22 cents in every hundred dollars that the nation earns, so about one-fifth of 1% of what we earn as a nation, and that's way below other countries that we compare ourselves with. It's only about a third of what the United Kingdom spends on foreign aid.


19:03 So, I think governments ought to educate the public as to how little we are spending and why the right thing to do is actually to spend more.


19:16 Nick: So, with this idea of moral cosmopolitanism and empathy for other sentient beings in mind, regardless of other things we've talked about like vicinity and other things like familial connection. I'd like to move to a consideration of your work in the animal rights movement which largely started with your 1975 work, Animal Liberation. So, I'd like to begin with the question of humankind's relationship to animals and the concept of animal rights as an extension of your reconsideration of humankind's concern for the suffering of other beings and by simple extension, the suffering of animals. That question didn't come out so well as it was written hastily over lunch. 


19:45 If I may, I'll open with a quote from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s ‘Enemies, A Love Story’ which you referenced at Melbourne University the other day. “As often as Herman had witnessed the slaughter of animals and fish, he always had the same thought. In their behaviour towards creatures, all men were Nazis. The smugness with which man could do with another species as he pleased exemplified the most extreme racist theories, the principal that might is right. In relation to them, all people are Nazis. For the animals, it is an eternal Treblinka”


20:11 So, that quote seems to echo Thracymachus’s assertion that justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger from Plato's Republic. Can you speak about the notion of speciesism which features strongly in animal liberation?


20:28 Peter: Yes. It's a very powerful quote obviously. I don't think that Isaac [unclear] or Herman, the person who he is speaking through, is saying the same as Thracymachus. Because I think for Thracymachus is really taking a cynical view that there is no such thing as justice. When he says justice is really the interests of the stronger, that's a deflationary kind of justice. You know, if that's true, then sure, the stronger might force us to do what they want us to do but that's not justice. That's compulsion.


21:11 So, I don't think that IB Singer - who incidentally is no relation to me - I don't think that he is being cynical about justice. He's just saying that the relationship between ourselves and animals parallels the relationship between Nazi's and their victims, particularly Jews, in that they are stronger, and they do what they want to do. And of course, that's unjust in both cases but that's not to say that there isn't such a thing as justice.


21:43 It's a very powerful quote before of course Singer is a Jewish writer and some people would find that offensive, that to compare effectively in some sense Jews with animals - if you are comparing what we do with the animals with what the Nazis did to the Jews, then sort of the Jews are in the position of animals. Again, that's not what IB Singer was saying.


22:08 But he was saying these are situations in which we fail to deal rightly with people who are in our power. In fact, we deal very wrongly with them.


22:21 And although I've generally avoided making that comparison between Nazis and the way we treat animals, I can see why Isaac Bashevis Singer is making it because he is appalled at what's happening. We do it without much thought for the victims of it and we do it when we don't need to do it.


22:52 So, I think in that sense, it's an accurate account of our relationships with animals which is one where generally we simply use them as our means, as we wish to do so, with very little thought for their interests.


23:07 Now, that's not the case perhaps with dogs and cats and horses, other animals that we feel fondly about or have some relationship with. But it's very definitely the case with most of the animals who we eat because they're reared in factory farms with no real concern for their interests. The limits to how much we will crowd them together or misuse them are really just the limits of whether we'll reduce our profits because so many of them will die that we won't get the products at the end that we want to.


23:47 Ian: It's obviously a sensitive question but growing up in the shadow of World War Two and the Holocaust and your own family's experience, but how much did your family's experience inform your instinctive feelings and philosophical work in regard to repulsion towards totalitarian regimes and arbitrary cruelty, violence and suffering? Is that something that was...?


24:06 Peter: I'm sure it played a significant role. It's very hard to trace the influences on yourself, especially when they began when you were a small child. But obviously I knew a lot about Nazis. I knew a lot about what the Nazi's had done to my family and although my parents escaped, my grandparents did not and three of them were murdered in Nazi camps.


24:34 So, that was very present. As I got older, I read quite a lot of history. As I mentioned, I did both history and philosophy here at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate. And in history, I did a lot of different periods. I ended up doing quite a lot of history of the rise of fascism in Europe and the rise and fall of the Third Reich. So, I was aware of the brutality that was involved, of the breakdown of law and order, of the Nazi SA thugs in the streets and the things that they had done to my family when the Nazi's marched into Austria.


25:25 So, I think an abhorrence of that probably did play a role in forming my attitudes about the importance of the rule of law, the importance of decent institutions, open society, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and also concern for the weaker and the victims.


25:45 Of course, I could have had it without any Nazi background. Many people do but I think in my case, I was influenced by that.


25:51 Ian: You've also written about how when you went to Oxford, I think you started speaking with your wife and suddenly you have this volta or change in your attitudes. You said something like, "I think we need to stop eating meat," or something. It was a decision you came to together.


26:04 And like with the example of the suffering of millions in East Bengal, was there any particular personal experiences which spurred you on to adopt that position?


26:18 Peter: No, I mean, I think the encounter I had with a Canadian student, Richard Keshen, who was a vegetarian and a vegetarian because he didn't think it was right to treat animals as the animals that we're eating were treated. It was really the trigger for that.


26:37 I'd never really thought very much about the ethics of how we treat animals up to then. And I know that will sound pretty strange today when it's impossible to imagine that you get to being 24 years old and a graduate student at Oxford without having encountered people who are ethical vegetarians and who are stimulated don't think about that issue.


26:56 But that's how it was. I had never met a - if I'd met a vegetarian at all, I think it was a Hindu, and obviously I didn't relate to that. But I don't think - until I met Richard Keshen, I don't think I'd met someone who was an ethical vegetarian for non-religious reasons.


27:20 That wasn't really an issue that was being discussed. There was the RSPCA which was concerned mostly about cruelty to cats and dogs but there was no discussion of the treatment of animals in factory farms. So, I hadn't really come across that but once I did and once I went into it a little bit, then obviously the question of whether we were justified in eating meat arose. And as you said, I had a discussion with Renata, my wife, about that and she agreed that we should make that change.


28:01 I was ready to make it, so we did, and that was - of all the things that my work in ethics had actually on my personal life, the impact that it had on my personal life - that was by far, the most momentous because here it was changing something that we did every day. Twice a day, anyway. We didn't eat meat for breakfast as some Australian's do but twice a day anyway, I was usually eating meat. And this was something we had to change.


28:25 So, that was a big step and that did lead to this turning point and we also started thinking about our obligations to the poor and donating 10% of our income it was at that time, to Oxfam for its anti-poverty work. So, that was certainly a turning point in my life.


28:44 Nick: This is a bit of a long question, but I think one of the most beautiful and impactful pieces of writing in Australia in the last decade was Anna Krien’s 2012 Quarterly Essay, Us And Them. 


28:58 It opens with a sophisticated vignette about the slipperiness between our notions of humankind and animals and how we're often able to recognise in animals those qualities we like to think make us human and vice versa.


29:10 It makes very compelling and emotive reading and by blurring the lines between animal and human, encourages us to see animals as other ‘beings’ rather than mere ‘things’ whose suffering isn't morally relevant or can be explained away or even justified, biblically or otherwise.


29:21 So, can you reflect on the role of empathy in changing attitudes towards consuming animals? Like, for instance we don't eat other human beings because they are like us, exactly so. We don't eat species we keep as pets because we see ourselves in them and have feelings for them. 


29:35 We are generally more comfortable eating non-mammalian creatures like fish rather than animals such as cows and sheep. And people are generally non-plussed about eating non-sentient beings without central nervous systems like oysters. So, there seems to be a bit of a hierarchy based on likeness to us.


29:48 Peter: I don't agree if we are talking about Australians - and I don't think most people are at all uncomfortable about eating pigs and cows unfortunately. I think they should be, but I don't think we've got to that point.


30:01 I think the better contrast is to say we're very uncomfortable about people eating dogs and pretty uncomfortable about people eating horses. So, we think it's appalling that the Chinese and Koreans eat dogs, but we don't really transfer that over to well, isn't it just as appalling that we eat pigs? After all, it wasn't for nothing that George Orwell made pigs the leaders of Animal Farm above the dogs because pigs are at least as intelligent as dogs. But we don't have them running around the home, so we don't relate to them in that way.


30:44 I think that's the major boundary - the idea that there are some animals who we admit to our home and almost because part of our family and we love them and care for them. And then there's others that we don't have much to do with and they are mostly out of sight as well, living indoors and in huge sheds. We just buy pieces of them at the supermarket and that's where the empathy cuts out.


31:11 So, show us a picture of the dog markets in Seoul and yes, empathy comes in. Pick up a piece of pork at the supermarket or steak or cow or whatever it is, and there's very little empathy. 


31:24 So, I think the trouble with empathy is it's often too geared to those kinds of emotions, and it takes an effort to actually say, "Hey, wait a minute. Pigs are also animals that can have a good life and that it's wrong to inflict a miserable life on just because we want to eat parts of their body."


31:50 And so, it's a kind of a cognitive empathy that we need, not an emotive empathy if we're really to get beyond these pretty arbitrary lines that we draw.


32:05 Nick: This leads onto my next question about, how hard is it to be human (in your philosophy), because humans don't like thinking and cognitive empathy certainly very difficult and something that requires effort. So, how hard is it to be human - when we are flawed and self-interested in the most part - and to do what your philosophy demands with regards to our relationship to animals? I feel sick sometimes when you think about 60 billion animals slaughtered and one trillion fish each year for human consumption. I become quite misanthropic and almost left in a state of despair and yet, I still haven't changed my behaviour in some years about eating meat.


32:42 I was vegetarian for 18 months for a time and then I suppose, you just forget about it. It just becomes easy amidst the business of life to not think about other beings.


32:56 Peter: Well, I'm not quite sure how to respond to that because I think it's always there and I don't actually think it's all that difficult - certainly it's not difficult to be vegetarian. Being vegan is sometimes a little more complicated, but I don't think it's really hard to stop eating animals.


33:16 Yeah, my life is busy too but that doesn't mean that I somehow would save a lot of time if only I went out and bought a steak or something like that.


33:28 So, is it hard? I don't think it's really hard to be human in this way. If by being human, you mean living out the ethics of how we ought to live. I think there are various pressures - psychological pressures, group conformity pressures - that lead people not to do it. But I think it's really easier than many people imagine.


33:58 Nick: I did it for 18 months. I was there...


34:01 Peter: Right. We need to have a conversation about why you went back to eating it after not doing it for 18 months.


34:06 Nick: Swordfish steaks was the gateway back to - real steaks. Anyway...


34:10 Peter: Okay, so some people think the solution to people like you is to produce steaks from plant-based products or invitro cell culture that are real meat but don't involve any animal suffering and fewer greenhouse gases.


34:27 So, maybe it's actually that we have some capacity for ethical thought but it's weak and therefore, it's outweighed often by your desire for swordfish steaks or your desire for T-bone steaks or whatever they might be.


34:41 Nick: But I think the point remains - going back to the 1972 piece about if you can be moral and there's a very little cost to it, then you should act to save the child, despite getting your boots wet or so on.


34:50 You mentioned it before. If you could have a plant-based substitute and in many ways, all the grain production on earth could sate the human need or demand for protein, why wouldn't we do it? It seems to be more a question of human pleasure or desire for animal products rather than it does about meeting a basic need as perhaps it once was, which bore out of necessity to eat the meat.


35:15 Peter: As I said, I think it's partly a kind of peer pressure. I think we are rather like sheep in not wanting to go our own ways as individuals as many people are. I think it may take a critical mass of people to refuse to eat animals for it to become easier for other people to do so.


35:45 And maybe we're getting there. Certainly, the number of vegetarians and vegans seem to be rising or at least the vegan and vegetarian food is much more evident now than it used to be. It's much easier to find in your supermarket aisles or in your restaurant menus.


36:04 So, maybe that's going to create some sort of tipping point. Or maybe, as we were saying, it's the production of better alternatives to meat that will do it. But I certainly don't despair of us actually getting there.


36:17 Nick: Yeah, it kind of leads on to a question about will, really. You're famously an atheist but I think that a lot of the things you advocate for which is essentially compassion and kindness towards other beings - as regards to the things we've discussed today - would be a lot easier if we could be certain of the existence of God. Not because we fear of being struck down by some omnipotent and retributive force when we stray from what is objectively right or true but because we could be certain of particular model truths which would make it easier to object to factory farming and eating meat, supposing God had forbade those things.


36:52 And as it happens, the converse is true where a lot of the attitudes towards eating meat are justified by the biblical hierarchies set out in Genesis 1, that is that God granted man dominion over the fish of the sea and animals of the land for his use and consumption.


37:11 So, when faced with what Camus called the 'benign indifference of the universe' - that is, a universe without God which is indifferent to our suffering and the suffering of animals on earth - why should we ultimately and metaphysically be concerned about the suffering of animals?


37:25 This might a bridge too far but if you can keep with me. To borrow ridiculously Plato’s example of The Ring of Gyges, why should we act in a moral way in a godless or atheistic universe in which there is no punishment for injustices, particularly when we consider that all morality may be socially constructed including your own, and the ones that you outline in Animal Liberation?


37:55 Peter: Well, I don't think that all morality is socially constructed. I do think there are objectively right ethical principles. And I think for example, inflicting suffering pointlessly is something that any rationale being, whatever society they had grown up in and indeed whether they were human or some other form of rational life, would be able to see was wrong.


38:22 And that has nothing to do with a belief in a God because there's the famous dilemma in Plato’s Euthyphro about, do the gods command things because they're right or are they right because the gods command them? Unless you want to make the god's arbitrary tyrants, you have to say the gods command them because they are right. So, you would need some sort of notion of what was right to make sense of that idea.


38:57 Of course you can ask well, what will motivate us to do what's right? One possible answer would be because well, we see that it's right and we're rationale beings and that in itself is a motivation to do what we see as the right thing to do.


39:12 But that doesn't seem to be a powerful enough motive for many people. So, I do think we need to add that in fact it's a fulfilling and rewarding kind of life, to do what is in accordance with our values and to feel that we're living to some purpose and that purpose is not only our own happiness, but it's a purpose of making the world a better place.


39:35 And I know that motivates me and it motivates a lot of people in the effective altruism movement. So, I do think that’s real and there's also plenty of good psychological studies that back that up, that show that people who are more generous and caring about others are actually more content with their lives and have a greater life fulfilment and satisfaction than others.


39:54 Nick: To wrap up - I know you've got to run - but when you look out to the horizon of the 21st century, what are you most optimistic and pessimistic about for humankind and other beings on the blue planet?


40:08 Peter: Well, I'm pessimistic particularly about our ability to deal with climate change. That seems to be the major worry at the moment, that we're not doing what we need to do. That the result is going to be a warming planet which is going to be much worse for billions of the world's poorest people and that's going to exacerbate a lot of problems.


40:35 If it were not for that, I'd be reasonably optimistic about our ability to make progress in feeding the world, in finding solutions to violence and generally also in increasing concern for animals as we decreasingly actually need to use them because of technological advances.


41:03 So, you could say I'm broadly optimistic except for the problem of climate change which is a particular dilemma because it requires everybody to act together. It's not enough for one individual or even one nation to act on it. It does require coordination so it's a kind of problem where it's in short term interests of everyone to be free riders on everyone else's actions, and that's why it's so hard to solve.


41:27 Nick: I forgot to add - this is one for a friend, a very quick one. There have been massive moral and social transformations in the last 75 to 100 years, for instance attitudes towards homosexuality or interracial marriage. Looking forward to the next 20 to 50 years, what are some things that you think may be considered wrong or whatever now but which you think might become accepted?


41:49 Peter: Interesting the conservative American columnist, Charles Krauthammer was asked to discuss that question in a column. Our attitudes and treatment of animals was the thing that he mentioned although not been known previously as someone who was particularly concerned about that or a campaigner about that.


42:12 So, obviously I do think that's something people will look back on and they'll be appalled at the way we treated animals as we are now appalled at the way that slave owners treated African slaves or Romans treated Christians in the arena.


42:33 But it's very hard otherwise to predict the things that have not yet been raised, that are not yet on the horizon. I don't have a crystal ball for seeing.


42:38 Nick: Professor Singer, thank you so much for your time today. It's been a singular pleasure.