A conversation with Peter Singer
by Noel Rooney
[ people - june 04 ]
Peter Singer has been called the most controversial philosopher in the world (this may be because he's the only philosopher most journalists have heard of). His books cover a wide range of ethical issues, from animal liberation to euthanasia, and from globalisation to the workings of George Bush's mind. I met him in a quaintly swanky little hotel in Marylebone, and we settled into a couple of vast leather armchairs to talk about the books, the president, and the health of ethics in a secular world.
Noel Rooney (NR): Something that occurred to me when reading several of your books, is that you could be seen, either as applying ethics to specific issues, or, in a grander way, taking specific issues and fitting them into an ethical framework. Which of those two views would you be more sympathetic to?
Peter Singer (PS): I would certainly have though that I was doing the former; but it's true that there are some issues I guess that you don't necessarily see as ethical issues - global warming would be an example, I think; people don't tend to think of that as so much an ethical issue, but then, when I discussed that in my book One World, I did think of that as a question of how you divide a scarce resource, and that puts it into a familiar ethical framework...
NR: ...also an economic framework of course, and in a linked world, issues like global warming seem to fall under a larger framework, which made me want to ask you a question that goes to some of those specific issues. What is there, do you think, that is essentially unique, or new, or real, about globalisation? What is there to justify its label?
PS: I think there are ways in which we have become a single global community that were not true a hundred years ago; the ability to know what's happening everywhere instantly by having CNN or something similar there beaming it into our living rooms; that connection with remote parts of the world that we never had. The idea that we can actually have an impact on places more or less instantly, too, by responding in some way or not responding, I think, also makes it true.
NR: And that's a difference of kind, not of degree?
PS: Well, you could argue about that, but it's such a difference of degree, if it is a difference of degree, that it creates a different sort of community; I think you can't really speak of the notion of a single community if you have to send someone for three months to find out what's going on, and it's going to take them another three months to get a report out, and then if you want to respond, it's going to take who knows how long... Then I think the sense of it being one community breaks down; but if you know instantly and respond within twenty-four hours, it's a very different sort of situation.
NR: As you said that, I thought of the fuss over prisoner abuse in Iraq, and the length of time it's taken for reports get onto people's desks; it makes you wonder if this instant global reach is a rather particulated creature.
PS: Yes, it'll only be there in some cases and not others; though in that case there may have been people higher up who didn't particularly want to know about it, but could have. Had Rumsfeld said at any time 'get me a report on what's going on', he could have had it. You're right, it depends on choices that we make, which parts of the world we want to be in immediate contact with.
NR: And you don't think it's merely a function of speed? Some 'instant' forms of communication were available 2,500 years ago; the oracle centres used pigeons to relay news between them at a speed which must have at least seemed instant, or at least mystical. I get the impression, even from people writing about globalisation de facto, that there is something chimerical about it. Do you get that sense?
PS: Yes, but I do believe that there are real differences, even if you could say the differences aren't there all the time. Ancient recipients of instant news probably couldn't do very much about it, for instance. Xerxes would still need three months to get his army together, and he might not get home for years. [As I transcribed, it occurred to me that it took the Bush administration that sort of time to get their troops to Iraq, in an 'instant' response]
NR: since you wrote the President of Good and Evil, as you look at the actions of the US administration, do you think things have changed? I recently heard Emmanuel Todd say that since his Après L'empire, he has become more pessimistic about the relationship between the US and the rest of the world and what it might lead to. As you look at the US administration now, what are your thoughts about it?
PS: I suppose what's happened recently has confirmed suspicions I voiced in the book, and I think made clearer some of those things that I point out. For instance I have a section of the book where I talk about the possibility of torture. The Pentagon said that these prisoners were kept in accordance with the Geneva Convention, and of course I was not reassured by that, but I couldn't prove that that was wrong; so we're clearer about that.
It's also much clearer how much damage the occupation of Iraq is doing to America's reputation and prestige around the world; and that's just starting now to hit home in the United States. So I might well have written a different book in some respects had I been writing it now. But I wouldn't really go back on things I had said.
NR: I heard Chomsky speaking recently about the elision of moral truisms as a kind of political strategy, and the refusal of universalism in US foreign policy. Do you see the President of Good and Evil as operating in the same sort of assumptive arena?
PS: Well, Bush is morally a universalist. For instance, he says the freedom is good, the same thing is good, all over the world. So in that sense he's a universalist.
NR: Do you think he believes it?
PS: Oh, I think so.
NR: What do you think happens when the practicalities fall very short of that? Say the American refusal to count civilian casualties?
PS: What you could say, and what I do argue in the book, is that he doesn't have as much concern for the lives of Iraqis as he does for the lives of Americans, or even frozen American embryos; I think that's certainly true, but in that I think he's simply focusing elsewhere, not looking at that and saying 'how can I justify my support for human life against what I do in Iraq'; he rather takes a view that's relatively widely held - he simply says we didn't intend these deaths, so therefore they somehow don't count.
NR: Yes, you sometimes get a sense they're somehow less fatal, those deaths.
PS: Yes that's right; the people are sort of less dead.
NR: During the Vietnam war, Hunter Thompson wrote a piece about hearing Walter Cronkite describing casualties as 'sporadic', and he mused on how one could be sporadically dead.
NR: A question that struck about half way through the book was: why should a professional politician be at all concerned with ethics; and what is the pragmatic relationship between ethics and realpolitik?
PS: Well Bush doesn't present himself as a realpolitik politician.
NR: He doesn't need to - he's surrounded by them.
PS: Well, he tones them down and in the case of Condoleezza Rice, he changes her I think. She doesn't put forward the same ideas as she did before she got involved in Bush politics. So he takes a heavily moralistic line which she then tries to reconcile with her realism, but I think now that's really come unstuck, quite obviously. But if a politician were to say, well, I'm just concerned with America's national interest, then there would be a different kind of argument.
In a situation where many national leaders do the same thing and look out for national interests, and with an issue like global warming, you're likely to get no solution, so I think you have to have some kind of ethical trump on some of those issues. But I wrote this particular kind of book about Bush precisely because he puts himself forward as the president of good and evil.
NR: In terms of issues like global warming, John Gray among others says that nationalism is the dominant ideology of our times. Looking at the kinds of solutions you offer in One World, what effect does this nationalist ideology have? Do you believe the claim in the first place?
PS: Well, I believe that nationalism is a very strong force, but there are other forces operating; there are tendencies pushing towards a larger picture, especially in Europe, I think; but I still think nationalism is real. I think there are a number of smaller countries where nationalism is not such a dominant force, and they want global solutions. And then there's the United States which often just confuses the world with itself; and where it seems that's what's good for the US is good for the rest of the world. so I don't think nationalism is alone holding the field; it's in contention with a lot of different things. Some of the things that I'm trying to do are to strengthen those other forces, and give them a better chance of having some influence.
NR: So there's a kind of war of attrition, and something has to be bludgeoned out of the nationalist consciousness?
PS: I think that's right; I think that's exactly what you see with attempts to get agreement on issues like global warming. You can argue that it's still national interest, but long-term nationalist interests are likely to coincide a lot more with broader points of view. As we realise that more and more things have global impact, I think we're going to get people increasingly wanting to get away from a purely national interest.
NR: Another remark that Todd makes is that the evil that Bush and his colleagues identify everywhere is actually resident in the US itself; it's merely an abject projection.
PS: I think there is some truth in that but it's simply not the way that Bush looks at it; the US is good, the moral nation for him. He sees the evil as out there in the wider world, residing in people who 'hate freedom'. Look at his immediate response to the pictures of prisoner abuse; this is not what Americans do, these are not our values.
NR: There's a more general question that I wanted to ask. When ethics turn themselves to geo-political problems, it often seems that solutions involve compromises; is this a de facto recognition that there's a clash of ethics, and what does this say about the universal application of a universal ethics?
PS: I don't think there's anything in the compromise that means that there's a clash of ethics. More often there's a compromise between ethics and expediency. For instance, you might hold an ethical position that it's wrong to lie, but if you have plans for a war in Iraq, and you want to keep them secret for practical reasons - to reduce casualties, perhaps - and someone asks you about those plans, you may need to lie for a 'good' outcome.
I'm a Utilitarian, so I don't see the rule against lying as absolute; it's always subject to some overriding utility which may prevent its exercise. So the compromise itself is within ethics rather than between competing ethics, and I think that's true in geo-political concerns.
NR: So you would subscribe to the idea that there is an ethics which can govern us all?
PS: Yes, I think that's right.
NR: That implies to me that ethics are in some way super-human; and one assumes ethics to be a human product.
PS: I think that some of it is pre-human. We see proto-ethics at least among our closer non-human relatives. We see things like reciprocity which are fairly central to our view of ethics. But if you're talking about a set of worked-out rules on what we are supposed to do then, yes, it is a human product.
NR: And as a human product you wouldn't expect any regional variations?
PS: At the descriptive level, certainly, you would expect different cultures to develop different sorts of ethics and obviously they have; that doesn't mean that you can't think of overarching ethical principles you would want people to follow in all kinds of places. They tend to be pretty abstract ones then, like doing what will have the best consequences; obviously you wouldn't specify what consequences are best, they may be different in some circumstances, so at a lower, more specific level, you may well get differences.
NR: Does being a philosopher of ethics make you a marginal creature?
PS: In the sense that you're not at the centre of power, like a president or prime minister of a major power, everyone is marginalised; my position doesn't isn't unique in that respect. I think there are different sorts of relevance in different contexts. Doing ethics makes me less marginal than if I did metaphysics.
NR: Do you have any ambitions for philosophy? Are the clarity and simplicity of your popular books an effort to give ethics a more central place in our culture?
PS: Yes. I think ethics is always there; it's not always a very thoughtful or reflective ethics. I would like us to think about it more explicitly, and not take our intuitions as the given of ethics, but rather to reflect on it, and be more open about the fact that something is an ethical issues and thin what we ought to do about it. Yes, in that sense, I would like it to become more prominent.
NR: In our culture, most people might see ethics as residing more often than not in religion.
PS: That may have been true in the past, but I think most cultures including this one are much more secular than they were, and ethics has developed to fit into our more secular existence. But this is a process that's been going on since the thirteenth century.
NR: Do you think that process has left ethics in good health?
PS: I think it's healthier than when it was part of religion, because then it was difficult to criticise and discuss it, so I think it's developing robustly, but obviously it's contested territory so you have a lot of different views of it.
NR: What do you think George Bush would make of your book, assuming read it to him?
PS: If Condoleezza Rice summarised it in a paragraph for him? I think he would want to say that there is ethics whether you believe in Christianity or not; I think he would agree with me about that. I would just like to get him to think about these things; whether what's happening in Iraq is promoting the culture of life. The worry is that he is so certain that he know where he's going to lead the country.
NR: But you think he believes what he's saying?
PS: Well I think that's a reasonable hypothesis. I can't say that I know that but it's consistent with what I know about him.
NR: Some observers offer a view of the US administration which suggests it's in a pre-fascist phase; do you share those concerns?
PS: Well I'm not overly alarmist about it, but I do think there are some worrying signs, like the growing accumulation of wealth by a very small proportion of the population, plus elections in the US are much more dominated by money than anywhere else calling itself a democracy. It means that, in fact, it's - whether fascist is the right word I don't know - more of a plutocracy than anything resembling a democracy; it has become a nation controlled by a very small, very wealthy elite.
NR: You speak in your work as if liberal democracy is - at least in principle - a good thing; looking round the globe, do you think you can see many democracies?
PS: It's a matter of degree how democratic a country is. We've just had a situation in India where it seems to me the rural poor were the decisive electoral factor. The rule of the plutocracies is limited in various ways.
NR: Where others - for instance John Gray - concentrate on identifying problems, you seem in your books to want to at least attempt to offer solutions, or directions for thinking through the problems; is that a consciously didactic strategy?
PS: In a way. I don't think there's much point in bemoaning the state of the world unless there's some way you can think of to improve it. Otherwise, don't bother writing a book; go and find a tropical island and lie in the sun.