Paul Monk on Sex, Love, Life and Poetry

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Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking ChinaIn this podcast, Paul and Nick discuss the biological origins of sex and sexual desire, the nature of love and its human possibilities, and artistic expressions of love.

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Melbourne, 13 August 2018

Interview with Dr Paul Monk

Saturday September 1, 2018

00:00 [Music - Angie, Rolling Stones]


00:30 That was the legendary Mick Jagger singing his wistful song, Angie, about a love that had slipped away. I've been fascinated about the elusive and profound nature of love ever since I read The Road Less Travelled by American psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck, when I was a teenager. It's a stunning and mature work which, among other things, makes the distinction between sexual desire and romantic love.


00:55 I decided to interview my friend, Paul Monk, about this topic because aside from being a poet who has written a lot about love and infatuation, his own life has been a kind of road less travelled.


01:05 Nick: So, Paul, if you were to sum up love, you know, in a succinct manner, how would you do so?


01:08 Paul: Well, you know, as a poet I could - perhaps later I will - wax lyrical about that but it seems to me that there is a folk wisdom about this and I would be inclined to distil it into two quite simple maxims. They're not sentimental ones.


01:17 The first is that love will make a fool of you, but life is bleak without it. I think each in our own way we do experience the truth of this and it goes back a long time.


01:23 The second is that there is no remedy for mortality. We age, we die and that's in the best case, and the losses that are entailed in aging and dying are poignant. The things that are most poignant are the loss of the things and the people that we love.


01:42 Between those two maxims it seems to me one might claim to have summed up the importance of love to human beings and the depth of feelings that it stirs so that would be my summary, if you like.


01:50 Nick: Do you feel as though you’re able to articulate those two maxims as succinctly and eruditely as you have done so just now, having lived a lifetime in which you have experienced love and romance and intimacy and desire, and all various facets of human intimacy as opposed to when you were maybe 18 and sort of just setting out on life...


02:15 Paul: Absolutely. I mean, look, I would say - and I speak from personal experience in this - when you're 18/19/20, even well into your twenties, and people offer you stuff from wisdom literature or in many cases lines from poetry or offer you advice, it can sound cliched and weary and not very interesting because you are just - your hormones are raging, and you want love, you want passion, right? Everything in your being is screaming out for it.


02:49 After you've lived a few decades and lived and loved, you begin to understand why there is poetry and what is the difference between wisdom and superficiality and, you know to perhaps quote something that's overquoted, it was I believe John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans," and that's absolutely been true in my case.


03:07 I had many plans and most of them came unglued. I had many loves and most of them came unglued and along the way I kept learning, and that's why such maxims now mean a great deal to me. They're not empty.


03:19 Nick: Yeah, something sort of comes through in those maxims but also in our various conversations is this - and the reference to the M. Scott Peck's work as well - is this dichotomy or definitional difference between love and sexuality or love and infatuation. Scott Peck famously refers to it as ‘the illusion of falling in love’. If you could set up the difference between love and desire, I mean, how would you do so?


03:49 Paul: Well, I think we need to think or let me put it more generously, we can think for the sake of clarity about this subject in terms of a kind of pyramid with three steps. The first is the biological world. Sexuality is biological. It's absolutely fundamental and the whole animal and plant kingdom is full of sexuality. Every spring, there's blooms to life and animals getting into the mating season.


04:10 The second level is the distinctively human. What is it that makes us any different from any other animal when it comes to attraction, to display, to courtship, to mating, the reproduction?


04:19 The third beyond those basic human characteristics is what is it that is possible for human beings, what heights can we rise to in the kind of love we can experience and give to others? And we might perhaps make progress by addressing those three steps, one after another.


04:35 Nick: So, if we were to begin with the biological - you referenced spring. It is the first day of Spring today in Melbourne though you wouldn't know it by the freezing cold temperatures outside. 


04:42 Paul: It's a Melbourne Spring, after all.


04:43 Nick: It is a Melbourne Spring indeed. It keeps you on your toes but if you were to give a lot of biological basis for sexuality and thereafter love and intimacy, how would you do so?


04:54 Paul: Well, if you look at the poetry, the song, literature of virtually every human culture on earth, one thing that springs to the eye straight away or the ear if you will is that sexuality constantly draws on metaphors from the natural world - of spring growth, of the winter of lost love, of the beauty of flowers and trees, of the magnificence of animals and their courtship rituals, of the beauty of various kinds of animals and their display, and human beings themselves of course give flowers in romance and dress themselves in finery and they display and they compete. So, this is age old.


05:50 What we've discovered in the last 150 years or so is the whole science of biological evolution which has thrown a lot of light on what's going on in the plant and animal world, on the nature of sexuality and has given us access if we take the trouble to inquire to a better understanding of the nature of sexuality and the traps it actually sets for the unweary because the whole thing about attraction, desire, the compulsion to sexuality and the consequences that flow from that is something we experience by trial and error in every generation and it's only by learning - hopefully before we've made fatal mistakes - that we can rise to a higher level and gain ourselves freedom and dignity. That's what the human thing is all about.


06:31 Nick: Sexuality and the compulsion towards romance and mateship and courtship is nothing more than, I guess, a function of life reproducing itself. Is that kind of what you're referring to?


06:40 Paul: At the most fundamental level, absolutely and unequivocally. And let's not consider that that's selling it short. You know, Nick Lane in a recent book called Life Ascending points out that there are two basic kinds of biological cell in the world. The prokaryotic cell which reproduces itself by cloning - bacteria do this - and the eukaryotic cell which reproduces by swapping genetic information and this is the foundation of sex. What we’re doing in sexual relations is swapping genetic material...


07:15 Nick: … eukariotically.


07:17 Paul: … eukariotically. and all animal life and plant life on the planet is essentially eukariotic so the profusion of colour, of display, of song - birdsong, etc., all the repertoire of human courtship and romantic behaviour...


07:34 Nick: All the beauty we see in the world really, isn't it?


07:35 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, Lane put this very well when he said sex makes the difference between a silent and introspective planet full of dour self-replicating things and the explosion of pleasure and glory all around us, alright?


07:48 Nick: That is amazing.


07:49 Paul: That is the biological reality.


07:49 Nick: That is incredible.


07:51 Paul: … and if we fail to understand that, not only do we not understand the natural world and other creatures, we fundamentally fail to understand ourselves.


08:01 Nick: So, if we were dour self-replicating beings, what's the point of it all? This seems like so much of our telos - our purpose in life seems to be partnership and romance and courtship and that kind of maybe sometimes get misconstrued with the, you know, sort of the external manifestations of love and romance and desire, right, rather than I guess the ultimate nuts and bolts of it, if you will, of actual reproduction.


08:34 Paul: Well, notoriously...


08:34 Nick: In a universe in which all we had to do was reproduce which we've acknowledged is the point of sex and attraction and whatever, why do I need all this fanfare?


08:42 Paul: … because otherwise we wouldn't bother. We have to be tricked into it. I mean, I'm perfectly serious. When you look at other living creatures, leaving aside human pretentions and illusions, our living creatures do these things, right?


08:56 … and they do it seasonally and males compete brutally and often, you know, for female favours. There are variations on the theme but one or other gender tends to engage in a great deal of display in terms of colour and physical beauty or dance or song and all sorts of things to attract a mate, alright? This is about reproduction, alright?


09:12 There's a wonderful book by Richard Prum which was published only a couple of years ago called The Evolution of Beauty and his argument is that we have neglected the role of beauty in mate selection and therefore in evolution to our cost, in terms of understanding ourselves and life on the planet.


09:29 … and I think if we do understand this, not only can we take these things more seriously, but we can also gain a certain amount of freedom from our own compulsive behaviours, right? We need to rise above the automatic to generate what's distinctively human which is a free and creative approach to the whole issue of desire, attraction...


09:58 Nick: … impulse.


09:58 Paul: … courtship, impulse exactly. So, not only in moral terms, but in poetic terms. In terms of making something of our lives that's distinctive and free and dignified and this is where the philosophy as well as the morality of sexuality kicks in and ultimately - and in my view at the pinnacle - where poetic creativity enters the picture.


10:27 Nick: That's all fascinating and I will touch on in the interview the nature of human love and what it means to be human and participating in this exchange but, you know, it's remarkable to thing that there are prokaryotic cells in the world which sort of fulfil the same function without all the circuitous and often painful and, you know, difficult...


10:50 Paul: … and very time consuming.


10:51 Nick: Yeah, and process of mating and falling in love or reproducing. So, I don't know, it's almost existential, like why are we eukaryotic and not prokaryotic? It's extraordinary and why is it that the eukaryotic cells seems to have attained a state of sort of primacy on planet Earth?


11:08 Paul: Well, there are two ways to answer that question. The first is that eukaryotic cellular structure and behaviour makes things possible that have never been achieved by prokaryotic cells and from any aesthetic point of view, if you were as it were, a godlike being looking at the planet, the emergence of eukaryotic cells and complex lifeforms is far more interesting than anything that happened before, alright?


11:30 … and if you're a human being and you take an interest in the natural world, you would surely reach the same conclusion.


11:34 On the other hand, from a prokaryotic point of view, all of this is in one sense a departure from the norm because for about two and a half billion years, the whole of life on earth consisted...


11:49 Nick: … prokaryotic.


11:50 Paul: … of prokaryotic cells, alright, and they had the planet to themselves.


11:54 Nick: Dour and grim and efficient.


11:58 Paul: Well, from our point of view but from their point of view, that's life, alright? 


12:03 Nick: … but why life? Yeah, go on. Let's not answer that.


12:06 Paul: Well, you might - of course, without digressing at too great length here, you might still ask as people do, okay so we're human and we have all these impulses and we do all of this stuff but what's the point? What is the meaning of life?


12:15 Nick: So it’s like telos before, what is the meaning essentially?


12:18 Paul: Well, now that's a whole big subject.


12:19 Nick: Another podcast.


12:20 Paul: It's one that philosophers and poets in their own way attempt to answer and at the very least, in the case of poetry, attempt to give a liveable answer here and now to that question.


12:30 … but to cap off an answer to your question about prokaryotic and eukaryotic - as you know at least but your listeners won't - one of my early poems is called Wekaryotes and it makes precisely this distinction and without reciting the whole poem, it opens by saying How would life be? Would it still be erotic had it made you only simply prokaryotic? 


12:55 Nick: This is an interesting point to jump off into the nature of human love rather than biological or material, functional love. What, if anything, distinguishes human love from everything else we see around us in the world, not just prokaryotic exchange but, you know, the love and the courtship rituals of lions for instance or ants or bees or whatever it might be? You know, when we speak about human love, do we mean anything beyond that in a different form?


13:26 Paul: Well, this is where we have to make a couple of distinctions. So, one way to answer your question is to say on the whole there isn't any very great distinction. If you look at the way birds or dolphins or whales or monkeys and others court one another, you can go into the insect world, there are countless variations on the theme. They differ in detail but fundamentally the same thing is happening. That is, on an intraspecies basis, male courts female or vice versa and they reproduce, and another generation grows and that's extraordinary as a phenomenon and then they grow up and they do the same thing all over again and it's been happening for millions and millions and millions of years.


14:01 Our species has been doing it for, well it's now estimated in the case of our particular species perhaps 300,000 years but our stories are almost entirely confined to the last few thousand because it's only then that we've had writing, but I would say this. 


14:19 At one level, generically speaking, there's no difference. We're just like other creatures in our own way but there is a sense in which what's different about human beings is that what's possible for human beings, not what happens automatically....


14:36 Nick: It's something you have to work at, it's not an impulse.


14:38 Paul: It has to be culturally and even personally generated in order to rise above the completely automatic and banal. In any given culture, overwhelmingly people go through the same rituals. Why? Because neither they nor the people around them have terribly much imagination in terms of making it in any way different. This is just what you do.


15:04 Physiologically, there are impulses. Culturally, there are rituals, and generation after generation, that's what they do, and it seems to add a certain amount of meaning to have rituals that go back at least decades, sometimes centuries, sometimes millennia.


15:19 What the poet tries to do is to give it a whole new meaning. What the philosopher tries to do is to understand what's really going on here and what's possible for human beings more generically is to keep rising through those levels of meaning and giving felt meaningful expression then to their personal love.


15:36 Nick: So, before we jumped into this interview, we sort of spoke about Plato's Symposium as the first or I guess the seminal work that tried to distil or unpack or define/understand this idea of human love. So, do you want to sort of speak about that?


15:49 Paul: Well, you know, it certainly wasn't the first attempt of course to do that. Human poets, long before Plato, had been attempting to give expression lyrically and reflectively to their experience of love and the possibilities of love and not just in the Greek world.


16:03 … but what's interesting about Plato's Symposium is that it consists of a dialogue among a number of educated Greeks at the height of the glory of Athens, the 5th century B.C. In fact, in the middle of the Peloponnesian War, the dialogue can be dated to 416 B.C., and several famous historic figures are present. Socrates is there. Aristophanes, who is the great comic playwright, is there. Agathon who is a tragic dramatist is there and he's won the prize at the Dionysian festival for his tragic drama. Alcibiades, the statesman, is there who is a young protégé of Socrates and they've had a kind of erotic involvement which Alcibiades reflects on.


16:48 … but the subject of their drinking party, their symposium, is this question, what is love? And Plato of course wrote it and it's a consummate work of dramatic art because he begins with love or Eros being described in fundamentally biological terms just as we have done. And Aristophanes who is a comic playwright has this hilarious scenario in which he says, you know, originally human beings didn't have four limbs, they had eight because they had two sets of genitalia and they were joined in such a way that they could copulate whenever they wanted, and they rolled around, tumbling around on their eight limbs.


17:29 Nick: Prokaryotically.


17:30 Paul: Well, not so much prokaryotically but certainly erotically, and Aristophanes says but the God's eventually became disgusted because there was this constant sexual congress and so they decided to crack down a little and they bisected all of these eight limbed human beings, the way he says you split an egg in half with a hair.


17:59 And as a consequence, he said human beings have ever since been running around looking for their other half and we feel very happy if we find our original half and we feel a great sense of unity and completeness but it's very hard to find our authentic other half. And it's complicated by the fact that some of us were originally two male bodies or two female bodies, not just one male and one female, and so we're attracted to our own sex.


18:22 This is quite an ingenious piece of writing and it's completely unashamed from the point of view of later puritanical morality and Agathon then speaks and he says in a very highbrow way that Eros is about all the highest ideals and the greatest fulfilments and happiness. And Socrates then says well, you know, that sounds find, but is it really true? And he reflects in a more analytical way on what's really going on, what love really is and perhaps what it's not.


18:50 And he ends up suggesting that there is something that's available here that the others had either failed to noticed or skimmed over and that is that yes, there's the biological and yes, human beings run around and they need to find another half as we even say now but he says there comes a point where you can realise that there is the beauty of another human being to which you're attracted but that rather than just feeling this compulsive attraction to an individuals, you notice that there is beauty in one, there is beauty in another, there is beauty in a third. In short, there is beauty as such and that it's beauty that really draws and that it's incidental in a sense which individual draws you or is idiosyncratic.


19:46 Once you realise that sororates, you can start to reflect that beauty in its own right and the creation and regeneration of the beautiful is what draws you. Well, he says, that can bring you to a whole new level of freedom and dignity as a human being and a commitment to creation and preservation of what is beautiful to treating the other as beautiful rather than simply desirable.


20:10 This makes the dialogue profound and then Alcibiades bursts in and he's drunk, and he's come late, and he hasn't overheard what's been said but he makes clear that, you know, Socrates is a rather strange individual, but he's had personal experience with Socrates. He says, you know take it from me, I tried to seduce Socrates and he wouldn't be seduced. He was trying to instruct me the whole time and I eventually realised that this was authentic, and this was a most unusual human being. I haven't been able to rise to the standards that he sets. I'm much more worldly but I think Socrates is extraordinary.


20:49 Now, that's a bold summary of the symposium but I mention it because of two things. One is that the view of sexuality is very candid. It's not puritanical and yet at the same time, we're being offered the possibility of a transcendence of let's call it animal sexuality. Not because one is condemning sexual desire but because one is seeing through and beyond it to human possibilities.


21:19 Later, in our culture Christianity and on the borderlands of Christianity but coming from the same biblical route, Islam, were much more inclined to be puritanical and condemnatory of sexual desire, much more haunted by it and ill at ease with it than you find in the symposium.


21:32 So, if we a refreshing and free approach to sexuality and love in our time, we could do a lot worse than begin with the symposium.


21:39 Nick: That's a fascinating summary of the philosophical nature of love, Paul, and made more astonishing by the fact that it was written 2400 years ago but supposing you were Alcibiades 2400 years ago, bursting in on the symposium, and you want to sort of outline what love means for you in terms of human possibilities as you references, what would you say? What has it meant for you?


21:59 Paul: Look, I would say that in a sense, every one of us who picks up the symposium now to read it is Alcibiades. We're bursting in on the drinking party which is already taking place and we come in with that kind of ingenuous and worldly question.


22:17 Socrates is offering a rarefied vision here. How do we rise to that standard? What does it mean for us? In my person case, of course I read the symposium a long time ago and I've always regarded it as a classic.


22:37 And to me, when I was younger and first read it, what it indicated was that sexual desire is an impulse that can lead us either to physiological entanglement and/or to a kind of sublimation of that desire, to an appreciation of the beauty of another person and a beauty of such which opens up being human in a whole other way.


23:11 And I wanted that for myself, but I wasn't sure as a young man, of course, how do you do that, and it took a long time. You know, I was a romantic from way back. I mean, I’ll never forget for example more than 30 years ago when I had an encounter with a woman who I went on later to write poems for and it was a case - a classic case - of being smitten. That I was standing in my dorm room at a university and she walked past my open door. I was talking to a male friend and she looked at me and smiled and, I tell you, I was smitten on the spot, just I thought wow and it was beauty that struck me. I didn't know the girl. I got to know her somewhat better later, but I was smitten by beauty and I had to wrestle from that point for several years with that smitten and the question of beauty and the other person and sexuality, and I tell you, it was a painful lesson and I wrote my first half decent poems in wrestling with that.


24:13 And that wasn't the first time I'd fallen in love and it certainly wasn't the last time, but it was an indelible moment and all those questions that were raised in The Symposium were being raised right there.


24:24 Nick: There's a really interesting distinction you've made just now through appreciating the beauty of another being just by virtue of themselves and appreciation of another being is almost like a vessel towards a form or an ideal realm of the beautiful which Plato refers to in The Symposium. Can you kind of - not necessarily with reference to that person in the example you just gave - but comment on that distinction and whether maybe Plato's - I don't know, it doesn't seem right to me in many ways, to think about other human beings as vessels to the beautiful, where we're actually in love with the form of beauty and the human particular is almost incidental.


24:59 Paul: I think there is a danger of that of course and if that is what happens, you can end up with a rather cold idea of beauty. So, we have to hold a certain tension between the transcendent vision and as you rightly say, the particular human being.


25:17 Nick: … which is the physical manifestation of that reality.


25:20 Paul: It's a mortal being with their own concerns and needs and an organic being. We're living beings. We're not abstract entities...


25:30 Nick: Yeah, who lives an individual life as unique as your own.


25:34 Paul: … and it's full of vulnerabilities and uncertainties and so a personal love is a way of the exploration and it's almost an infinite journey and potential into understanding and caring for and appreciating the complexity of another person. And the wonder of it is when that's reciprocated, when you find that the other person is...


25:56 Nick: Totally and completely.


25:56 Paul: … exploring you but if you can do that...


25:59 Nick: … and appreciating you and accepting you.


26:01 Paul: Absolutely and, you know, it's a fraught journey. We know this is not all, as we say, wine and roses but if we are operating at more or less this philosophical level as urged by Socrates, then I would say - and I would say this this as a matter of personal experience - while we love that individual, we can see the nature of love and the attempts we're making at loving in a transcendent context.


26:31 All the religions claim of course to do this in their own ways. The philosophy here is separate from and I would say free from any idea of punishment of hell or heaven, of angels or rituals. It's about real experience and how it can rise to a level of vision and appreciation and awe that otherwise is largely subconscious and strongly driven by biological impulses.


27:00 What we need to be able to do ideally is dance with the two and our most creative endeavours, our greatest achievements in music and poetry, in ballet, in dance, do exactly that.


27:11 Nick: So, I'm fascinated by the poetic, literary, musical, artistic expression of love which to me seems to be like another step on from - I think you articulated this earlier - but from the biological to the human nature of love which we've just touched on in the philosophical nature of love, but then there's this sort of like almost expressive transcendent kind of articulation of that human experience which I think not everyone can access but everyone can relate to. You know, we all love, you know, beautiful love songs or like we started the whole interview with Angie by Rolling Stones, right? So, there's something in that which kind of like distils in its purest form what it means to be human and someone who seeks to love and be beloved on this earth.


27:53 Paul: … and, you know, we asked before about whether there are differences between human beings and other creatures in this regard and I said well, at a very generic level, no. We just do in our own way what they all do in terms of courtship and mate selection and reproduction and the cycle of life, but we are a distinct species.


28:17 Now, two of the things that set us apart are language and music and they are key to our possibilities in the area that we're talking about in terms of love and vision and creativity because language is not as most of the sonic systems - birdsong or whale song - language is not limited in the ways those are to certain kinds of signal or expression.


28:49 Nick: … or expression or whatever, yep.


28:51 Paul: Language is generative of all sorts of subtleties and modes of reference to past, to future, to possibility and through it if we use it - and a poet uses it pre-eminently - we create meaning. We articular our experience. We have it shape than other people who are less perhaps linguistically gifted find that they want to inhabit. As you said, you know, you listen to a song, you know...


29:14 Nick: I suppose feeling these emotions I think are quite similar or...


29:17 Paul: Exactly and the music enhances that, and the musicologists and our theorists of music have been establishing in recent decades in terms of neuroscience and everything else that music seems to be even more deeply rooted in our being than language.


29:31 And one of the most fascinating ways this emerges is that people can have Alzheimer’s or dementia and they can seem far gone. They don't speak anymore. You start playing music and they'll tap their feet. Sometimes they'll even burst into song. You think they can't speak and they'll sing. This is extraordinary. This is music and music is distinctively in that sense human and we're only beginning to, as it were, do an archaeology of how did this come about?


29:54 That’s a profound area and when you see a concert and you see thousands of people responding to an elite musical performance and they're just profoundly physically moved by this - they dance, they chant, they're full of emotion.


30:15 Nick: It's rhythmic, it's primal.


30:17 Paul: Absolutely so and it's worth reflecting on that. You know, we talked about Plato and the sense of beauty. If you go to a concert, you can get carried away with the music. If you're also philosophical, you realise this is a profound experience and you get a kind of binocular vision of this, the immediate experience and the meaning of that experience. And if in addition you are a creative human being, you take it another level again, you contribute to that.


30:43 Nick: Before we move onto poetry and your experience of it, is it not also true that, you know, animals do experience love as well?


30:51 Paul: Yes, there's a continuum in life. You know, if I might put it this way, I briefly refer to my poem Eukaryotes and I asked will I still be erotic if we were prokaryotes instead of eukaryotes? And the answer in the poem is well, no, not really. But from that point where eukaryotic cells start to exchange information, there's this very long slope - we would say upwards slope - to creatures becoming more and more elaborate and experiencing life more and more fully, more and more emotionally.


31:35 And clearly that varies over a broad spectrum of lifeforms, but we know - every person who has paid the slightest attention knows that the animals we associate with - dogs famously, horses - we know in the wild elephants...


31:57 Nick: Whales, pigs, monkeys...


31:58 Paul: Whales, pigs, monkeys, etc., there's a lot of feeling there. There's a lot of sentience, a lot of awareness.


32:01 Nick: Capacity for suffering but also of love.


32:03 Paul: Clearly. I mean, dogs can be enormously affectionate and loyal. Elephants have long memory and we observe animals...


32:07 Nick: … grieving.


32:07 Paul: … in various kinds - grieving, mourning, mating, flirting. You know, monkeys famously and of course, they're very close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. So, the short answer to your question is absolutely and we've done a disservice to ourselves in the modern world where we've tended to see animals in a Cartesian sense as just unfeeling machines. That's simply not the case.


32:30 Now in the 21st century, some of us at least are edging back in another direction saying animals have rights, you know? They're sentient beings like us and we need to pay attention and give them more love and that industrial farming for example is simple criminal because of the pain and distortion it inflicts on animal lives.


32:47 And you can link that back to our central concern with human love by saying that if we treat another human being - any human being - simply as an object of physical exploitation.


33:01 Nick: Gratification.


33:02 Paul: Gratification, right. We are in a way doing to them what our industrial farmers do to chickens and pigs and so on. We're treating them as an unfeeling, pointless thing and that's the very opposite of love and physical abuse of another person should in no way be confused with love.


33:31 Nick: You said earlier when you were a young man, you felt these great set of impulses or a compulsion to write poetry, to give expression to the sort of rich feelings or this rich interior life that you had with regard to, you know, emotion and love and attraction to other women and so on.


33:46 Paul: Not other women because I'm a male, ha ha. You can leave that in, that will be funny.


33:53 Nick: I'll leave that in as well, but how did you get there? How did you sort of overcome the fact that when you first starting writing poetry or analytical writing about the nature of love - it was difficult and fumbling and maybe not altogether expressive and lucid as it clearly is today - so what was your sort of transformative slope, as it were?


34:15 Paul: Well, the simplest way to put it would be trial and error, you know? And I have to say that a thought that's occurred to me in recent years is if I had in fact succeeded in the ordinary romantic sense in any of my early loves and married in a conventional way and had children, etc., I wouldn't have become a poet. Almost certainly. I wouldn't have had the time. I wouldn't have learned enough. I wouldn't have had the leisure to practice. I wouldn't have had the, you know, varied experience that I've had with different woman, different loves, different kinds of failure and above all, I wouldn't have met the woman who finally has become my muse and who more than any other has inspired me to write good poetry and with whom I have a very authentic loving relationship.


35:16 It's in many ways deeply satisfying to be able to look back on that and see how much I've learned, often very painfully let it be said, but I do remember saying to a younger male friend about 20 years ago when he had lost a girlfriend who had left him, and he was desolate as one tends to be. I said my advice is exploit this for all it's worth by listening to the best soulful music and song which has been composed by people giving expression to what you're going through. Find the better poetry and take it to heart because you're discovering how real it is.


35:39 Nick: You can mine it and excavate it.


35:40 Paul: Absolutely, you can, and you build your own interior world. And I did do that and, you know, one early step along the way was almost fortuitous. I was staying at a university college 35 years ago and the English tutor in the college decided to run a sonnet competition and the girl I was seeing at the time said, "Are you going to write a sonnet?"


36:08 My initial response was no, I don't write poetry. You know, I'm a political scientist and historian and she said, "You're very good with words. I think you should have a go."


36:21 Nick: Amazing.


36:23 Paul: And I did. I wrote a sonnet and how did I get to write a sonnet? Well, first of all, one is supposed to write a sonnet. That was the competition but secondly, to teach myself I read Shakespeare’s sonnets. There's 154 of them. I read the lot.


36:39 By the time I had read all these sonnets I thought well I get the hang on this, this is what a sonnet is. Then I simply had a crack at writing one and it turned out to be a good one. From that point, over the years when I fell in love which I did many times, I would write sonnets.


36:51 It took me a long time before I became free enough emotionally and in terms of self-confidence to have a crack at other kinds of poems and it didn't really happen until I met my current partner and muse and she really lit up the landscape for me. So, I've written better and much more varied poetry with a whole variety of rhyme and metrical forms and themes and moods for her than for anyone else.


37:16 Nick: If you had to pick one to read now, what would you choose and let's have a read of it, I think.


37:22 Paul: Well, to kick it off with, I...


37:23 Nick: Here's one you prepared earlier.


37:25 Paul: Yes. Yeah, well we talked about biology as the foundation and about evolution and beauty and so on and there is a poem that I wrote a few years ago called Fire in the Wheel which is about exactly that. The central conceit of it is a poem is that the same couple - let it be said in this time of all sorts of gender variations that it's about a heterosexual couple, not a gay couple. I'm heterosexual, you know. People with different experiences and identities will write poetry about that. I'm uncomplicated in being heterosexual. This about a male and female who live through the whole human evolution over millions of years and it's addressed by the male partner to his beloved partner, looking over the many many millennial, the millions of years in which they have been reincarnated as it were again and again.


38:23 And so, it brings together the biological theme that I mentioned with this specifically human and then being upon, it instantiates a third, so it gives you the whole pyramid.


38:34 Nick: A very nice end way to sum up.


38:35 Paul: It reads as follows. I've loved you from the beginning with the simplest of gestures, with inarticulate cries, with unselfconscious mimicry. I've loved you since the first fire wielding when we yelled together at encircling beasts, feasted on fire roasted insects and nuts, huddled around the flames in awe. 


38:56 Was that Eden, that long-ago eon? As the hand formed, and the inner eye, the larynx and broker's brain, before ever we sang to one another. Or was Eden a time of hand-axes, as all this came together in our hearts and hunting, from old Andalucía to the Chinese rivers? 


39:13 What years those were of wide exploring. Eurasia was ours with new spheres, exulting in our uncanny craft, we wondered at what we were. Our long days fell like forest leaves. They endured like evergreens. Our fire circles lit the long nights, changing our dreams. 


39:32 Were those shimmering years, those many hundred millennia before our love made music, truly our golden age? Did you feel loved then, as the wide seas rose and fell, as the ice advanced and retreated, as the giant forests shifted again and again? Or was it only later that sentiment came and crooning, coaxed by oxytocin out of the flicker of long light under the waxing moon? Was I a caricature to your mind of all that was possible? Possible for a singing hominid under the sun. Was I stone in need of shaping? 


40:07 Ah, we buried each other many times, again and again with grief and ochre, over ages under the ageless stars, from [unclear] to [unclear]. Remember the times sheltered from the harsh climate shift in the north when we relished our little piece of Africa in Andalucía, those idyllic coasts and caves. 


40:27 But your love transformed me. Your call for songs and stories. You’re playing to me on bone flutes. Your vivid art of changing forms. We shook the shackles of the ancient trees, hailed the sky-god with high hands. We took to the open horizon, pitched bold camp on the stark step. 


40:46 There at last, you carved me into shape. Your love cut antler into a figurine and I, deer hunter, roamed forth graviton, making long lasting legends on the plains. You wove me a coat of wool, dyed in wondrous new colours, finer than any cured skin and I revelled in your homespun beauty. Even that was a long age of ardour under the high wheeling stars, rich with rumour of far mountains, with mammoth hunts and possibilities. 


41:15 Then the revolution came at last. The wheel. The mastering and mustery of horses, the making of wanes and war chariots, the being of bright, burnished bronze. Ah, sky-gods, the wheel and the horse brought an end to our long cycles. Ah, my lover with golden hair, the wheel set us rolling, riding, racing in the chariot of the sun, did it not? 


41:36 Since then, everything has gone in a flash. A riotous blur of songs and innovations, a nightmare of blood and terror. I've loved you from the beginning. Let's not now go under the wheel. All our myths are confused. I long only for your beauty.


41:57 Nick: That's a really, really stunning poem and I think - you know, not that I've read it recently - but it seems to me to be remarkable because it encapsulates the expansive feeling of love in the way that you've sort of straddled it or extended it, kneaded it, across space and time and matched it to the entire history of human evolution and development on the planet through the story of one love which is reincarnated and almost eternal and infinite which I think at its deepest expression, all love should be thought of in a metaphysical, eternal sense which transcends the brief time you have together on earth.


42:58 Paul: The immediate, and the banal.


42:59 Nick: The immediate, exactly. Well, not necessarily the banal, but the immediate and the confined, necessarily mortal nature of love. One thing that struck me as I was listening to that was the fact that, you know, the idea of being ground under the wheel - the wheel of life - was the fact that how many, you know, billions of stories - individual human stories and individual human loves - have there been on this planet since homo-sapiens or this animal - this human animal - sort of evolved consciousness and the ability to think in this manner. You know, and they’re all essentially ground into the dirt and then just sort of lost for all time. It's striking. If you think about it. One likes to think that one’s love transcends and it immortal and is eternal.


43:29 Paul: Well it's a conceit of course because it isn't but in cultural forms, whether a poem or a treatise like The Symposium or a great song, things can endure and be passed on long after the author is gone. You know, we could read a poem - for example, Shakespeare famously wrote a poem saying that his poem would immortalise the life of his beloved. We read the poem and we get his sentiment, but we haven't any idea who the beloved was.


44:03 Nick: No, exactly. But I suppose for Shakespeare in writing in, in any writing, perhaps it feels - perhaps it is a conceit, like a literary conceit, but you know, I do still feel as though for the author, when you set down and you express in writing - maybe in music or in art - that feeling and that relationship that you have with that particular person who hopefully if it was love, felt the same way about you, authentically. You know, one likes to think that it will endure in some way.


44:45 Paul: Well, think of it - here's another way to think about it. If we make up a melody in enthusiasm and if we're able to do that but we don't have any means to record it - we don't have notation, we don't have a recording device - it can disappear. We might even personally forget it. We whistle it to ourselves on a morning walk and then we can't set it down and we can't remember it after a little while, and we certainly can't share it readily with others. But if we had notation, we can write down the rudiments of it. Somebody else can then take that notation and say, "That's not bad but if you did this and this, you could enhance it," and then you get a musical ensemble and they start to perform it. And they said, "What if we added this instrument and that variation and this?" and it just becomes something bigger, right?


45:33 Nick: But in your example with Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty, it was almost metaphysical in a sense that the story behind your writing of that was you might explain yourself but your love that inspired that particular set of poems said that whatever comes with this, at least this will be like a lasting testament to our love. It doesn't matter if - no one reads this stuff. It was there, and you set it down in writing and it's almost enough for you...


46:00 Paul: Yes, that's of course - within literary human cultures, that's an ancient aspiration, you might say, or conceit. Specifically, what happened, and I did share this story with you was that - I must have written about 40 sonnets for this particular young woman a long time ago now and I was madly in love with her and she loved the poems. She loved the fact that I wrote them for her. She said to me things like, "Other men have written poems for me but never like these."


46:25 And then one particular night, she held up one of them on the piece of paper I'd written it on and waved it in the air and she said, "You must get these published then in years to come, whatever happens between you and me, I'll be able to hold up your book and say I inspired this."


46:38 That's a lovely thing to share and I did get them published eventually. Not the 40 but 12 of the best arranged in a sequence and illustrated and with commentary and it makes a lovely book.


46:54 We had long since gone our separate ways by the time that happened and I've no idea - I've lost track of her completely - I've no idea whether she ever got hold of the book but it's there. It does exist and for me at least, quite apart from whether she ever gets to hold it up and say that it inspired her - and I hope she does so, I hope that it consoles her, whatever the condition of her life now is - but for me it made something beautiful out of an ephemeral love affair that fell apart and left me heartbroken.


47:33 Nick: Yeah, so what do you say to those people who kind of are cynical and sceptical and say we don't really need love and it's all...


47:41 Paul: I would lay good money that they are being disingenuous but it's a defiant way - like in the old Simon and Garfunkel songs saying, you know, I'm a rock, I'm an island, I don't need love. They're fooling themselves. Either they actually do want it and they're defiantly pretending they don't or they're so shut down emotionally that they don't realise what they're missing and then one feels a little sad for them.


47:58 I would rather have the pain of unfulfilled passion or loss than not love and I've tried to express that in my poetry. If I may, if we have time, I'd like to add a second poem. This is one that I also wrote in recent years. It's called Dance me on down from Toledo and it attempts to capture this idea that once you've formed an intimate partnership and just to the extent that there really is love and it is working, it becomes a kind of dance.


48:28 Dance requires cooperation, you know? Even in most classical forms of dance, a man may lead but if a woman is not there with him and not moving with him, it doesn't work. So, it is with love.


48:46 So - pardon me - this one goes: “Come and dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Dance me speechless to high snow-capped mountains from which orchards and pastures are fed, and the cypresses, arches and fountains of Alhambra, the Isle of the Dead. There the rich Andalusian musers sing softly to all who can hear, though a pallid blue past still confuses the mind and the heart and the ear, for vengeful and dark Catholic violence five centuries since overthrew and condemned to the grave or to silence the voice of the Moor and the Jew. 


49:31 But dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. Though golden Al-Andalus perished, suppressed by the cepted and crossed, the ballads and songs gypsies cherished plucked song lines from ruinous loss.


49:47 The spirit of Arabi lingers in the genius of Spanish guitar, in flamencos for feet and for fingers, in [unclear] and in [unclear]. Those flamencos and song lines in flower, the soul of Granada reborn so offended the fascists in power that they murdered poor [unclear] at dawn.


50:04 Still dance with me down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. From there, let's dance on out of reason with our hearts full of [unclear]’s deep song and to beauty has come into season and we know that that's where we belong.


50:23 While we dance, let's sustain that illusion with whatever good faith we can find. May our steps take us wide of confusion. May our love keep us blissfully blind. For to sing and to dance in our yearning, to share our deep song face to face, to glide into each twist and turning is to live with both freedom and grace.


50:49 And so dance me on down from Toledo by the light on the bridge we have made, to a land with a non-Christian credo, where flamencos and tangos are played. 


51:01 Nick: Stunning. 


51:04 I would think that there is another note which we might perhaps finish on that is to do with communicating and just intimacy. So, that last poem was about in a sense the movement of life, dealing with the twists and turns and challenges of life. But there's a very important sense in human love though not as we hinted earlier, altogether absent in the lives - emotional lives - of other animals with the dogs or whales, etc.


51:30 But that is that you want to be understood by the other person and you want to think that they want to be understood by you. There is very subtle elements to that and I've written a short poem which is actually a variation on a poem by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, and it's called So that you will hear me.


51:48 It goes like this: “So that you will hear me my words like lithe chameleons are changing shape and tone. Before you touched them, my words will murmured darkness and cold stone, but you soothed my psyche, persistently making murmurings light, lamps over the muttered. Now I want my words to say what I want to say to you so that I will hear you say that you want to hear me say them. I want my words to form a necklace of pearls for your hidden self, for your heart's throat.”


52:17 Nick: Stunning. Well, thank you very much for your time, Paul. As always, it's been a great pleasure.

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.