“Try To Do the Most Good You Can”: An Interview with Peter Singer

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University in the University Center for Human Values and the Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne in the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. He is the author of influential and popular works including Animal Liberation (1975), The Life You Can Save (2009), and, most recently, The Most Good You Can Do (2015). His occasionally controversial writings treat a wide range of ethical problems, especially global poverty and meat-eating, from a utilitarian perspective.

Special thanks to Prof. Bart Schultz and the Civic Knowledge Project for helping to coordinate the interview.

The Gate: As an ethicist who has written extensively on animal rights and global poverty, why have you now turned your attention to climate change?

Peter Singer: Climate change is one of the great moral challenges of our age, so you can’t ignore it. I thought particularly as we have this important conference [COP21] coming up now in Paris in six weeks, this would be a good occasion to talk about that. I am talking about “Effective Altruism” tomorrow at the Humanities Festival, so this would be a way of doing both of those topics.

Gate: Could you talk a little more about what Effective Altruism is?

Singer: Effective Altruism is a way of approaching your life, and it is also a social movement. As a way of approaching your life, it says, think about not just yourself but about the impact you have on the rest of the world and try to make that a positive one—and not just positive, but try to do the most good that you can. In order to do that, you have to draw on evidence and think about what is going to make the biggest difference. If you want to use the resources that you have, whether that is time or money, you want to use that as effectively as you can. You need to think about how you are going to do that. That is the basic idea.

It is also an emerging social movement of people—largely fairly young people, millennials—who are committed to making that an important part of their lives and producing a lot of research on the best ways to do it. Essentially, they are trying to change the nature of philanthropy, so instead of it being simply impulsive or emotional, it is rather directed towards having the biggest impact that we can.

Gate: The primary context in which one hears about Effective Altruism is global poverty alleviation—the classic example is buying  mosquito nets, since this is a particularly efficient way to spend your money. How does this relate specifically to climate change?

Singer: I think for climate change, the most effective thing individuals can do is to be active citizens and to support those governments and elements within governments and within political systems that are taking seriously the idea of climate change. They should work for that so that there will be political impetus and support for the idea of really facing up to this problem and doing something serious about it.

Gate: In previous lectures, you have talked about several ethical principles—like an equity principle, a “you break it you buy it” principle, or something similar to a Rawlsian Difference Principle—to determine how the global community should distribute the burdens of dealing with climate change. Could you talk a little bit about these principles?

Singer: I will talk about all three of those today because I think they are principles that come to mind fairly obviously when people discuss climate change. Before you actually get to that, you have to understand that the political problem of climate change is a problem of distribution. A lot of people don’t see that because they think if you’re going to distribute some good, you have to have some principle, if it’s money or food or whatever it might be. But they don’t see that climate change is the same kind of problem. It is, once you think of the atmosphere as a common resource and a scarce resource, because there are more people wanting to put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the atmosphere can safely absorb. That is why it is a problem of distribution.

Once you do think of it as a problem of distribution, then you have the question, how do we divide that up? Now you have competing views. Some will say, the Chinese for example have been saying, that industrialized nations have been putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for a long time. If they hadn’t been doing so, we wouldn’t have this problem, so they are responsible for it. They are the ones who ought to cut their emissions. That’s an argument that would obviously impose a very heavy burden on affluent countries like the United States.

But even if we reject that and move to one of the other two principles that you mentioned and that I’ll talk about—equal shares on a per capita basis of the atmosphere or a principle of helping those who are worse off—in either of those cases, it would still be that the affluent countries and the industrialized countries ought to make deeper cuts than the developing nations. I think it is important for Americans to realize that,on pretty much any plausible principle of equity or justice that you could think of, that’s going to be the case. That’s why you need to discuss those principles—to get people to see what the implications are for the affluent nations.

Gate: Do you have a preference among those principles?

Singer: I think as a practical negotiating basis, “equal per capita shares” is one that seems to be pretty reasonable. I’m not saying it is the ideal principle, but it is one way that you can calculate what emissions nations ought to be emitting. It is less difficult to apply than historical responsibility where there are more arguments about, “Well, we didn’t know that these emissions were going to have this impact.” So then you have to consider whether you only [hold nations responsible for their pollution from] some date where [the risk of climate change] was known.

Although equal per capita shares is a little easier on the long-term industrialized nations than historical responsibility, it is still very tough. It still shows that there is a lot that needs to be done. I think if people understand that, they will understand why the United States should be taking a really strong stance on this issue.

Gate: As you mentioned before, the COP21 Summit is coming up in about six weeks. Do you have any thoughts on this—are you optimistic about it or do you have many doubts?

Singer: Well, I do have some doubts—I think anybody who has been following these conferences from before the Copenhagen conference of 2009 is going to worry about what will be achieved. It seems that the idea is that rather than go for some legally binding treaty, nations are making their own individual commitments as to how much they are going to reduce greenhouse gases. The idea then is that, if they fail to live up to those commitments, there will be kind of a public shaming of them for not doing their part. Maybe there will be some other repercussions, though at this stage it would be very hard to say what they might be. So, you know, that is not as good a strategy as having a legally binding treaty, but it may be the only feasible one—even in the United States, where a legally binding treaty would have to be submitted to Congress. At the moment it doesn’t look like Congress would approve. So it may work for the United States as well as for other nations.  

The real problem is that if you totaled up the commitments that have been made so far, they don’t add up to deep enough cuts to stop us from exceeding this 2° Celsius guardrail that most scientists think would be dangerous to go beyond. That is why it is hard to be optimistic, but I suppose if we get some commitments that will go some of the way towards solving that problem, we can hope that we can ratchet them up, maybe in five years time, and get further. I mean, that is not being very optimistic at all, but it’s better than nothing. It is a very challenging situation.

Gate: Do you see any bright spots in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that the UN passed in September in regards to nations fulfilling their ethical obligations to stop climate change?

Singer: Clearly it is important that any continuation of the Millennium Development Goals should be sustainable. I think that the Millennium Development Goals were at least a partial success. They did achieve things and focus some things. Some goals were achieved or close to—there was a bit of fudging. If you look at the indicators of where we were in 2000 and where we are this year on global poverty issues and on things like child health issues and child mortality, we have really made quite significant progress. So that’s good.

I’m not sure the Sustainable Development Goals are going make the same kind of progress. They’re a little more diverse and a little harder to measure and assess. Also, there hasn’t been as much fanfare about them. I feel that this is somewhat [of a] softening of what we had for the past fifteen years.

Gate: Do you see any hope for improving that situation?

Singer: I don’t see the UN goals anymore as the sort of make-or-break criteria for whether we are going to make progress for global poverty. I think there are a lot of things already in place, some of which were in place before 2000 and some of which got developed during the 2000 to 2015 period and will continue.

We are making a lot of progress now in things like reducing child mortality. That’s come down just in the seven years since I was writing the Life You Can Save, which came out in 2009 and went to press the year before. I say the number of deaths of children under five from preventable-poverty related diseases is 9.7 million a year in the original hardback edition. By the time the paperback came out, it had already dropped a million or so per year. Now, if we look at it, I think it is something like 6.3 million per year—a pretty dramatic drop. I think that will continue. There was just a report about the reduction in malaria that has happened in the last ten or fifteen years, which is quite dramatic, and I’m sure related to the mosquito nets that you mentioned earlier, other diseases as well. So, I think we are making encouraging progress in some of these areas.

Gate: One of the critiques of the Millennium Development Goals is that they weren’t “integrated” enough. In the developing world, poverty fell from fifty percent to fourteen percent of the population but emissions in the same time tripled—the trade-off here being economic growth in exchange for environmental health. Clearly we want both a reduction in poverty and emissions. How can the global community approach these trade-offs better? Is it a question of improved technical solutions or political will?

Singer: It is both, but I think technical solutions are going to be important. We can’t expect the impoverished developing countries not to want to provide their populations with electricity for instance. There are hundreds of millions of people in the world who don’t have electricity. That’s going to happen, and what we need are solutions to make sure that it happens in clean ways that don’t contribute to climate change—development of solar technologies, wind technologies, small hydro schemes, and so on. These things are all possible in many different regions. So I think we need those solutions to that sort of problem.

Gate: So, primarily technical?

Singer: Yes, but sometimes it will take the political will to get the technical solutions to work because you already have the established other systems, and inertia leads to them being extended. It may take a political effort to get to these alternatives.

Gate: Do you see poverty and climate change as at all different in the way the global community should approach them? In approaching global poverty, it seems that the solutions already existed, and we just needed to find the money. This is a large part of what your work has focused on. But climate change seems to be a different problem in the way the stress is distributed and who should take care of it.

Singer: It is a different problem. Although certainly we can encourage individuals to reduce their own carbon footprints, I don’t think we will get a solution to the problem by individual actions in the way that we could get a solution to the problem of global poverty—or at least make a big difference on it, if everybody who is middle class and above in an affluent country would give ten percent of their income to effective charities. We could get rid of a large proportion of remaining world poverty.

But on climate change, we are going to need government action, and we are going to need carbon taxes or cap and trade schemes because we need to improve the financial incentives for clean energy. Those decisions, as to cap and trade schemes for example or as to the energy generation infrastructure that takes place, are going to be made by governments, maybe by some large power utilities in countries where they are independent of government. But they are not going to be made by individual action.

Gate: As a philosophy professor, it seems that your political stances are motivated by moral arguments. Is there any disconnect between the two? Does the theory always translate into a very clear political position?

Singer: I don’t think there is any disconnect, but of course there is room for disagreement with regard to particular views that I hold because philosophers always disagree—that’s what they’re about, really. What I am doing as a philosophy professor is to put forward ethical arguments. I think ethics is a branch of philosophy. I think that thinking carefully about both ethical theory and the applications of those ethical theories does put you in a better position to suggest what might be done in these cases.

Of course, these are things that are only being put forward in the spirit of stimulating a public discussion. It’s not that philosophers have any authority to make decisions, but I think that we can contribute to raising the level of debate on some of these issues by using the familiarity that we have with ethics, the way ethical arguments work, our sense of where the values are, what values are at stake, and our knowledge of different principles. I think all of that is useful. So I see that very much as part of my role as a philosopher, particularly a philosopher concerned with ethics.

Gate: The argument you published in Famine, Affluence, and Morality and the similar one you present at the beginning of The Life You Can Save were particularly well known and effective. Are there any ethical arguments for climate change that you have found to be quite as effective in stimulating political movement?

Singer: As I said earlier, what I am trying to do in my contribution to climate change really is to get people to see this as an ethical issue—and an ethical issue in which we as residents of the United States, though also true of residents of Canada, Australia, and many European countries, are not really doing what we ought to be doing.

I started writing about this issue shortly after I came to Princeton, which was in ’99, because I was attending seminars at a program called Science, Technology, and the Environment. I was attending seminars at which some of the speakers were people who were in the US administration involved with these issues. They seemed to be discussing it without any sense of it being an ethical issue. They seemed to be discussing it from the point of view of what’s going to be good for the United States. And I thought, we really need a different framework. Climate change is going to be bad for the United States, it is already bad for the United States. I think you can see from the droughts in the West, for instance. Sea level is going to rise near a lot of major coastal cities and so on.

But that is by no means all of it. We need to think of this as something that we are currently doing that is harming and will increasingly harm people who are far from us—many people who are far from us geographically and less able to defend themselves, and many people who are far from us temporally and not around to defend themselves, but to whom we are likely to leave a world that is much more hazardous and much more difficult to live in.

The image featured in this article was taken by Mal Vickers. The original image can be found here.

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