Peter Singer

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Peter Singer is a controversial philosopher, formerly Australian and currently a professor at Princeton University, USA. He works in practical ethics, is usually classified as a utilitarianist (specifically "preference utilitarian") and is concerned with the formulation and justification of concrete ethical rules.

He almost single-handedly jump-started the modern animal rights movement in 1975 with his book Animal Liberation in which he argues against what he calls "speciesism": the discrimination against certain beings based only on their belonging to a different species. He holds the interests of all beings which are capable of suffering to be worthy of ethical consideration, and concludes that the use of animals for food is unjustifiable because it creates unnecessary suffering.

In a 2001 book review, Singer stated that humans and animals can have "mutually satisfying" sexual relationships. Bestiality is no cause for shock or horror, writes Singer, because "we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes." Thus, Singer concludes, the idea of sex between humans and non-humans "ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."

His most important work, Practical Ethics in 1979, analyzes in detail why and how beings' interests should be weighed. He states that a being's interests should always be weighed according to that being's concrete properties, and not according to that being's belonging to some abstract group. He concludes that the right to physical integrity is grounded in a being's ability to suffer, and the right to life is grounded in the ability to plan and anticipate one's future. Since the unborn, infants and severely disabled people lack the latter (but not the former) ability, he states that abortion and painless infanticide and euthanasia can be justified in certain circumstances, for instance in the case of severely disabled infants whose life would cause suffering both to themselves and to their parents. This position has been vigorously attacked by right-to-life activists and advocates for the disabled, who argue that Singer is in no position to judge the quality of life of the disabled. Lectures by Singer have been disrupted, especially in Germany, where his position has been compared to the Nazi practice of murdering "unworthy life".

Singer experienced the complexities of these questions in his own life. Singer's mother had Alzheimer's disease, which rendered her, in Singer's system, a "nonperson". He did not euthanize her, commenting that it was "different" in the case of someone he knew and loved. "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult." Singer continues to hold that euthanasia can be justified in certain cases.

Singer laments the injustice of some people living in abundance while others starve and argues that everybody able to do so should donate at least 10% of their income to hunger relief and similar efforts: the good to be done with this money would greatly outweigh the lost happiness of the donor.

Singer served as chair of philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996 Singer ran as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate but failed to be elected. In 1999 he was appointed Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics of Princeton University's Center for Human Values, and relocated to the United States.

See also Vegetarianism


Further Reading and external links: