(For details of books referred to below, please see my )
I. Affluence and Poverty
Q. You have said that it is wrong to spend money on luxuries for ourselves when we could give the
money to organizations working to help the world’s poorest people in developing countries. But shouldn’t we think of the poor in our own country first?
A. We should give where it will do the most good. There is no sound moral reason for favoring those
who happen to live within the borders of our own country. Sometimes, just because they are closer
to us and living within the same political system, they may be the people we can most effectively
help. More often they will not be. If we live in a rich nation like the U.S.A., our money will go much
further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations. About
a sixth of the world’s population survives on the purchasing power equivalent of less than $US1 per
day. For a more detailed statement of my views on this topic, see ‘The Singer Solution to World Poverty’ at the New York Times and chapter 5 of One World.
Q. Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?
A. I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more
than I should. I give about 25% of what I earn to NGO’s, mostly to organizations helping the poor to
live a better life. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since I started giving, about
thirty years ago, I’ve gradually increased the amount I give, and I’m continuing to do so.
Q. To what organizations do you give?
A. I give mostly to members of the Oxfam International group. In the U.S.A. that means Oxfam America.
Q. How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that
the world has too many people?
A. It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a
lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I won’t go into here.
I do agree that continued global population growth will eventually bring disaster. One proven way of
reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no
education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly
related to population issues, you could give to organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation or DKT International.
II. Animal Liberation
Q. I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human
being is no more valuable than an animal?
A. I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the
sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that
being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for
the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human
being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But
that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.
Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both,
wouldn’t you save the human being?
A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is
human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn't morally
significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different
interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something --
that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something
that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it
matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life -- that is,
can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.
Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that
mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of
a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the
human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse. And we
can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human
being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that
animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates).
That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning
building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the
human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
Q: Is it true that you have said that an experiment on 100 monkeys could be justified if it helped
thousands of people recover from Parkinson's disease?
A: I was asked about such an experiment in a discussion with Professor Tipu Aziz, of Oxford
University, as part of a BBC documentary called “Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing" that was
screened in November 2006. I replied that I was not sufficiently expert in the area to judge if the
facts were as Professor Aziz claimed, but assuming they were, this experiment could be justified.
This response caused surprise among some people in the animal movement, but that must be
because they had not read what I have written earlier. Since I judge actions by their consequences,
I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified. I do insist, however, that the
interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight
to the interests of nonhuman animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.
In Animal Liberation I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level — say, those born with
irreversible brain damage. Experimenters who consider their work justified because of the benefits it
brings should declare whether they consider such experiments justifiable. If they do not, they should
be asked to explain why they think that benefits to a large number of human beings can outweigh
harming animals, but cannot outweigh inflicting similar harm on humans. In my view, this belief is evidence of speciesism.
Even if some individual experiments may be justified, this does not mean that the institutional
practice of experimenting on animals is justified. Given the suffering that this routinely inflicts on
millions of animals, and that probably very few of the experiments will be of significant benefit to
humans or to other animals, it is better to put our resources into other methods of doing research that do not involve harming animals.
Incidentally, it is important that there be room in the animal movement for a variety of views about
ethics, including views that are rights-based and views that are consequentialist. Debate over such
issues is a sign of an open and sound movement. On the other hand, it is also important to focus our
energies on attacking speciesism, and not those who, although opposed to speciesism, do not share the particular set of moral views we may hold.
Q: I've heard about the possibility of growing meat in a laboratory, just by cells reproducing. Should
this lab reared meat prove ecologically safe, cost and energy efficient and safe for human consumption, is this an ethically acceptable way in which animal meat can be developed and
consumed? To avoid discrimination on speciesist grounds, providing the meat can be sufficiently engineered for safe human consumption taking into account the accusations aimed at cannibalism,
would it be required that laboratories should also grow human meat for consumption?
A: Yes, this would be ethically acceptable, because no animals would suffer or die to produce it. There's nothing wrong with meat in itself.
If people prefer the taste of meat grown from the cell of a cow to meat grown from the cell of a
human, that's fine too. So there's no ethical requirement to grow human meat for consumption, just because we're growing meat from other animals.
III. The Sanctity of Human Life
Q. You have been quoted as saying: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a
person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." Is that quote accurate?
A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term
“person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term
"person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for
the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater
wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn
human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never
equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is
not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and
cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their
newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the
baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is
different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is
better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by
withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration
or from an infection - but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.
Q. What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a
healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?
A. Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it. And
that’s a good thing, of course. We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help
them to do so. Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore
is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong
done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in
our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.
Q. Elderly people with dementia, or people who have been injured in accidents, may also have no
sense of the future. Can they also be killed?
A. When a human being once had a sense of the future, but has now lost it, we should be guided by
what he or she would have wanted to happen in these circumstances. So if someone would not have
wanted to be kept alive after losing their awareness of their future, we may be justified in ending
their life; but if they would not have wanted to be killed under these circumstances, that is an important reason why we should not do so.
Q. What about voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide?
A. I support law reform to allow people to decide to end their lives, if they are terminally or incurably
ill. This is permitted in the Netherlands, and now in Belgium too. Why should we not be able to
decide for ourselves, in consultation with doctors, when our quality of life has fallen to the point where we would prefer not to go on living?
Q. What should I read to learn more?
A. You might like to start with one of the two collections of my work in print, Writings on an Ethical
Life, or Unsanctifying Human Life. After that, your choice should depend on what particular issues most interest you. For my views about animals, see Animal Liberation. The fullest statement of my
critique of the traditional doctrine of the sanctity of human life is in Rethinking Life and Death, and the most elaborated philosophical elaboration of my views is Practical Ethics.
These books are in many libraries. They can also be ordered from bookstores, or from online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.