A conversation with Peter Singer, professor of bioethics
By Richard Atcheson
15, 2000, Princeton
Writings on an Ethical
Life, a new book by bioethics professor Peter Singer and his
first since he joined the Princeton faculty, will be published next
month by The Ecco Press,. PAW asked writer Richard Atcheson '56
to interview Professor Singer about the book and about his teaching
and research at Princeton.
RA: How would
you describe your new book?
PS: It's a collection
of writing most of which was previously published, with some new
pieces in it.
RA: I have to
tell you that I enjoyed it very much. How is it that, as a philosopher,
you write so lucidly, so availably?
PS: Clarity has
always been regarded as a virtue in the Anglo-Saxon philosophical
tradition, which is the one I was educated in, in Australia. I was
taught at Oxford as well. I always strive to be clear and to eliminate
unnecessary jargon. I think if you are writing in ethics particularly,
it's important if you want to be read outside the profession.
RA: You call on
your own life and experience, and tell a human story, for example,
about having been influenced to become a vegetarian.
PS: For me, it
serves the purpose of making my thought more accessible. We philosophers
often forget that the ordinary reader is not so used to abstract
thinking. Putting real people and real examples into the work helps
the reader to follow what you're doing.
RA: In one of
the pieces you mention a growing awareness of animal rights. Is
there anything new in that area?
PS: There is not
as much activity now as there was in the '80s, certainly not as
much in the headlines, but it's getting to different people at different
levels of organization that it never reached before. A good example
in the last three months is something that never happened before,
when McDonald's Corporation announced that they would set standards
for the welfare of hens from whom they obtain eggs. So they are
actually saying to their suppliers, "We won't buy from you
unless you give your hens more space than the average in American
industry," and in fact it's 50 percent more space. Now that's
a significant move. It's coming from one of the major fast-food
chains, certainly not the darling of environmentalists or liberals
particularly, but they are seeing themselves as doing the right
thing in this area.
RA: Were they
pressured in any way?
PS: Well, I have
to say that I've had some role in it, because together with a good
friend of mine in the animal movement, Henry Spira, who has since
died, we met with McDonald's executives three or four years ago
and talked about some of these issues. In the last year the People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals tried to put a bit of pressure
there. So you could say there's a range of circumstances. But I
believe, from my own conversations with the person who is directing
this program, that it's because he has become personally convinced
that it's wrong to keep hens in the way they have been keeping them,
and they need to change. That's the best way for change to come
RA: You describe
yourself in another piece as being the man in the middle, in that
you're not subscribing to either camp.
PS: Well, I'm
certainly not subscribing to the more militant of the agitators,
that's true. Philosophically, I'm sure I'm close to the positions
that they would like to achieve, though I may not always agree with
the methods by which they go about achieving them.
I also think that it's
a mistake to demonize the adversary. Basically you have people who
are human beings doing a job by their notion of what's decent, what's
ethical; and living in a culture which is only slowly awakening
to the idea that animals are sentient beings with lives to live
and they count morally too. So I think you have to encourage these
people morally to look at the issue afresh, rather than just assume
that just because they work for corporations whose business is selling
pieces of slaughtered animals, that that makes them evil. It's not
as black and white as that.
RA: Do the extremists
target you because you don't go along with them?
PS: Yes, I've
had some pretty vehement attacks from people... particularly those
opposing animal experimentation. Some of them get almost to be like
little sects that just have to believe this or this. One group has
been saying abusive and quite defamatory things about me for some
time - it's called CIVIS, a group run from Switzerland and Italy.
RA: How long have
you been at Princeton now?
PS: About 15 months,
RA: Do you have
another book in the works?
PS: I am working
on a book about my grandfather. It's not really a work of philosophy.
I've also just finished giving the Terry Lectures at Yale, a series
of four lectures, and part of the deal is that I have a year to
get them into a book that the Yale University Press will publish.
The topic was "One World - the ethics and politics of globalization."
RA: What are you
PS: I teach ethics,
basically. I'm teaching a freshman seminar at the moment called
How Are We To Live? on ultimate choices in ethics. In the spring
I teach a practical ethics course, a senior-level undergraduate
course, on a range of different ethical issues. And I have some
graduate students too. Undergraduates, though, get most of my time,
and that is one of the interesting things about Princeton, which
I hadn't been aware of before I came, but I like it - that Princeton
really sees its primary purpose as undergraduate education. It was
clear from the start that I was encouraged to see that as the most
important thing I do. Also senior theses - people can ask me for
supervision from all over, from philosophy, politics, Woodrow Wilson.
One graduate student I'm working with is actually in biology - ecology
RA: What was it
that animated you to write this new book?
PS: Well, as you
know, there was a lot of controversy when I arrived, and a lot of
things were written about me. And I felt that people were forming
opinions of my work without having read it. So I was pleased when
Dan Halpern, who directs Ecco Press, suggested that I put together
this anthology. His view, too, was that his friends in New York
were discussing whether I should be at Princeton or should not be
at Princeton, and when he asked them, "What have you read?"
basically the answer was, "Well, I just read this article about
him." So now, once this book is out, people will have an overview
of my work as I want it presented. You may well disagree with it
after you've read it, but at least you'll know what I want to say.
RA: How did you
personally weather the storm that greeted your arrival here? It
was quite a storm.
PS: It was, but
I was encouraged by the really tremendous support I got from the
university, from President Shapiro down. There was never any wavering,
or any suggestion that they were going to heed the protests, or
ever that I should be cautious about what I say. I was given complete
backing to be here, to do the teaching and research work that I
have been employed to do. That made it a lot easier.