Ethics and the Left

by Peter Singer, Edward Lewis

Peter Singer is the world’s leading moral philosopher. He spoke to Edward Lewis of NLP about world poverty, human nature, the priorities of the left and the nature of morality itself.

First published: 16 March, 2010 | Category: Philosophy and Theory

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He is the author of over 40 books, including Animal Liberation, How Are We to Live?, A Darwinian Left and, most recently, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty.

Can you explain what you think is a morally defensible response by individuals in rich countries to the plight faced by the world’s extremely poor.

If you are putting the emphasis on defensible then I would say that as long as we do something substantial to help, we are in a morally defensible position.  For most of us this means giving money to Oxfam or any other agency that is effective in doing something to help those in extreme poverty.  How much to give?  If your income does not put you in the top ten percent of the population, that could be between one and five percent of your income.  (For my suggestions in more detail, please go to .; But you could also contribute time and labour, rather than money.  We should also be active on this issue, encouraging others to do as we are doing, and supporting the cause of the poor politically.

I'm not saying that this level of giving means that we are doing all that we ought to be doing.  At that level, we will still be spending money on things we don't need, when that money could be saving lives.  I can't see how we can justify that. But at the same time, the level I have suggested above is much more than most people in our society do, and it is a level of giving such that, if everyone were to give at that level, we could drastically reduce, and perhaps eliminate, large-scale extreme poverty.  To demand more from people is probably unrealistic, and we should praise people who are doing so much more than the average person does, not blame them because they could do still more.  Hence it is a morally defensible response to the plight faced by the world's extremely poor.

Your practical focus in The Life You Can Save is on the life-saving power of private donations to aid agencies. However, this approach to global poverty is often criticized. Can you respond to the following concerns that many, leftists as well as others, have about aid:

(a) Aid breeds dependency amongst recipients and does not facilitate the conditions for improvements that can be sustained over the long-term.

You can't make such sweeping generalizations about aid.  There are all kinds of aid.  Some can properly be criticized along those lines.  But most aid organizations are now well aware of the problem of creating dependency and the need for sustainable development.  Consider, for instance, Oxfam's support for women's organizations in Mozambique that were fighting to change property laws under which in the event of the death of a married man, the couple's property -  land, home, and any other assets - went to the deceased husband's family, leaving the widow penniless.  The campaign was successful and the law was changed.  How can that kind of aid be seen as creating dependency?  That's just one example, I give many more in the book.

(b) The more widespread private giving does become, the more it will be used for propaganda purposes to justify the initial inequality in income and wealth, since the rich will seek to portray themselves as noble philanthropists.

There has always been inequality, and there always will be.  It goes far deeper than the division between capitalism and socialism.  There is inequality among chimpanzees and among flocks of hens.  Let's stop worrying about inequality of wealth and income, and see if we can do something to produce a distribution of income and wealth that leads to less misery and premature death than the present distribution.  That shouldn't be too difficult.

(c) People’s time, energy and money would be spent more effectively on campaigns for more fundamental, structural change, rather than on raising and donating money to the poor.

First, I've never suggested we donate money to the poor.  I've suggested we donate to aid agencies that have a good track record of helping the poor.  Often those agencies do seek fundamental structural change ' empowering the poor and empowering women are often key elements of their strategy.  But if you think we need to abolish capitalism in order to help the poor, I would say that the poor don't have that long to wait. (Nor am I sufficiently confident that abolishing capitalism would help the poor to suggest that they should be more patient.)

Do you think the left has failed to come to terms with the implications of a Darwinian view of human nature? Are the implications of such a view of much political significance?

Yes ' see the point I made above about inequality in nonhuman animals as well as in humans.  Anyone who had noticed that should have paused before proclaiming that inequality is the result of a particular economic or social system.  The implications are profound, because once we can no longer believe that abolishing capitalism will bring about a world in which we all live in equality and harmony, we will switch from fantasizing about the perfect society to the much more practical and achievable task of improving social arrangements so that there is less unnecessary suffering in the world than there is today.

Would you regard yourself as anti-capitalist?

No.  Capitalism is very far from a perfect system, but so far we have yet to find anything that clearly does a better job of meeting human needs than a regulated capitalist economy coupled with a welfare and health care system that meets the basic needs of those who do not thrive in the capitalist economy.  If we ever do find a better system, I'll be happy to call myself an anti-capitalist.

The left is undergoing a protracted period of weakness in the Western world. How do you think the left in this part of the world can become a more potent political force?

What is the left really about?  Adapting the traditional values of the left to today's understanding of the limits of our planet and of the need to extend our concerns to all sentient beings, I believe the left should be focused on ensuring that everyone ' and that means everyone in the world, not just in our own country - has the means to meet his or her basic needs and, as far as possible, to live a rewarding life, in a sustainable manner that does not exploit other sentient beings.  I'd like to see the left stick to these core values, but be open-minded and empirical about the best way to achieve them.  We should learn from research into human psychology and social behavior and from small-scale social experimentation what reforms are likely to come closest to bringing about the kind of society we want, and then try to implement them.

I want to pose two objections to some of your comments so far: First, in response to your comments on inequality, surely we should be concerned about inequality out of concern for social justice and democracy, and because of the socially corrosive effects of inequality?

I’m not really sure what you mean here by “social justice” - that’s a big term that can stand for many things, each of which would need careful discussion.  And the socially corrosive effects of inequality appear to vary with the culture.  Paradoxically, they strike me as less prevalent in the US than in the UK, perhaps because in the US so many people believe that one day they will make it and be rich.  (A myth, of course, but how else can one explain popular opposition to the so-called “death tax” which only has an impact on estates over $5 million?)

But I agree that to have a thriving democracy, in which everyone can feel that he or she has a genuine voice, we should try to avoid the extremes of inequality that have developed in recent years.  And of course we should try to minimize the role that money plays in politics - an attempt that seems to have failed dismally in the U.S. (I mean, the role money plays in politics there has been a scandal for years, but will only get worse now with the recent Supreme Court decision striking down restrictions on corporate political spending.)

Second, you seem to accept that there may be desirable alternatives to capitalism, even we don't know that there are. But the only way we will find out is if there is a struggle to create such alternatives. Given the many problems of capitalism, shouldn't the left be putting at least some of its energy into this task?

Some of its energy, sure, I have no objection to that, as long as there is plenty of energy left for doing something that will help the billion people living in extreme poverty now.

Do you think that activists would benefit from drawing more on the resources of academic philosophy? And do you think that philosophers, especially moral philosophers, do a good job of applying their insights to the urgent practical issues we face?

At its best, academic philosophy can help us to think more clearly about values and activists can benefit from that, as anyone can.  Many moral philosophers are currently making relevant contributions to practical issues, but that is not to say that all moral philosophy is worth reading.  For a young academic philosopher there is a constant tension between pleasing one's academic colleagues, and writing in a way that makes a useful contribution to public discussions.  Unfortunately, since it is one's colleagues who will decide whether you get an academic job, or get tenure or promotion, often the need to please one's colleagues wins out.

Your career has been devoted to illuminating the nature and demands of morality. However, do you think that we are really bound by moral obligations, irrespective of our own inclinations and beliefs? Is there a firm basis for the view that morality is truly objective, and which we always have reason to comply with?

That's a large and very difficult question, and I'm still thinking about it ' and planning to write a book on it one day.  So I couldn't say, at present, that there is a firm basis for the view that morality is truly objective, or that we always have reason to comply with it.  The best I can say at present is that there are some arguments for believing that this is the case, and others for doubting it.  It would be nice if in the end the reasons for believing it can be shown to be sound, and the reasons for doubting it can be shown to be mistaken.  But even if we have to conclude that there is no firm basis for taking the view that morality is truly objective, and we do not always have reason to comply with morality, it might still be the case that most of us want to do what is right and live morally good lives, and it might even be the case that it is in our interests to do so ' that we will live happier, more fulfilling lives, if we also live morally good lives.  And there might, after a lot of reflection and argument, be considerable convergence on what living a morally good life involves, So even if we do not always have decisive reasons to do what is right, and cannot prove that what we think to be right really is objectively right, morality could still play a very important role in our lives.

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