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November 22, 2000:

Of animals and ethics
A conversation with Peter Singer, professor of bioethics

By Richard Atcheson


November 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 about.

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, I guess.

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 teaching currently?

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 and evolution.

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.