Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

June 17, 2008

Host: Ted Simons

Peter Singer

  • Doctor peter singer is known internationally as a philosopher and professor of public ethics. His views on issues have drawn attention as well as controversy. Larry Lemmons sat down with Dr. Singer to talk about his ideas.

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Ted Simons:
Dr. Peter Singer is known internationally as a philosopher and professor of public ethics. Singer has written extensively on bioethics, the philosophical study of the moral questions that arise from such things as life sciences, medicine and biotechnology. His views on issues have drawn attention as well as controversy. Larry Lemmons sat down with Dr. Singer for a conversation.

Larry Lemmons:
Dr. Singer, I would like to begin with something of a definition for utilitarianism. People might not know what that is. That sort of philosophical tradition that you come from – Bentham, Mills. Could you describe that? What is the basic idea of utilitarianism?

Dr. Peter Singer:
The essential idea is that we should judge actions by the consequences. If you want to know whether something is right or wrong, you ask, does it have better consequences all things considered for everyone affected than anything else that I might have done under those circumstances.

Larry Lemmons:
In the past, I know that the definition would include whatever would create more happiness for people. Is that not something -- you say consequences now, better consequences.

Dr. Peter Singer:
That’s the most general form of utilitarianism. Now, if by consequences you mean happiness then that’s what we call classical or hedonistic utilitarianism. That’s the form that Bentham himself, for example, held. I hold what’s called preference utilitarianism. So for me, the consequences are better if they satisfy more preferences all things considered. So if that's what people want, or, I’d include non-human animals as well, if that's what all of those beings, conscious beings who are affected prefer to any other outcome, all things considered, then that makes it better consequences.

Larry Lemmons:
Since you brought animals into it. We’ll talk about your new book, “The Ethics of What We Eat.” That is the correct title, you can hold that up.

Dr. Peter Singer:
This is the hard back. The publishers then decided that “The Ethics of What We Eat” was a neater, shorter title. So they’ve gone for that for the paperback.

Larry Lemmons:
You have talked in this book that it is wrong to eat animals primarily because why?

Dr. Peter Singer:
Well, because in turning them into food essentially we are not taking account of their preferences, of their interest in having a decent life. I imagine here in Arizona you are pretty well aware of that because you recently had that initiative where you voted to add law two of the worst forms of factory farming. The, uh --

Larry Lemmons:
-- putting the pigs in the small pens.

Dr. Peter Singer:
That's right pigs and veal calves. Those are two of the worst forms of factory farming and I’m really delighted you decided to ban them here. But there are still a lot of others that still go on. So that’s why I argue in this book that ethically, really, we should not be buying the products of methods of farming that essentially are abusing animals, ignoring their interests.

Larry Lemmons:
Well then, you are just talking about the way that the animal is produced as it were as opposed to, is it wrong to eat animals generally.

Dr. Peter Singer:
Well I’m not saying that it's always wrong to eat them. Certainly if you needed to eat them to survive that would be a completely different matter from if it’s just a matter of walking in the supermarket and saying I will have this or that. And if they were really, you know, if they really had good lives, if they really were outside in the fields in their sort of natural social group and then they were painlessly killed, say where they stood in the field, without being transported to slaughter and put through the slaughter house. You might be able to argue then that that's ethically defensible meat production. I’m not taking in this book a sort of absolutist line against it. I’m just saying that as it is in practice, it's really very difficult to find ethically produced meat or animal products. It’s therefore better to avoid them.

Larry Lemmons:
Another aspect -- I think people might have a misconception about what you're doing in terms of calling it irony then that if you would take this position, then you would have the same position that if a parent wants to euthanize an infant that they know is going to be severely disabled, you say that's okay, and so you’ve obviously gotten a lot of flack for that.

Dr. Peter Singer:
I certainly have gotten a lot of flak for that. It’s clearly not a popular view especially not in this country where there's a pretty strong conservative religious group who believe in the sanctity of all human life. My view is consistent with my general philosophy, that it depends on the preferences of those affected. If we’re talking about a newborn infant, it doesn't really have awareness of its own life. So parents, generally, are in the best position to decide whether that life is going to be a miserable one with a lot of frustration and pain and distress because of some disability or whether it’s going to be sufficiently rewarding for the child and for the family. I think the parents and families’ concerns also have a legitimate place in that calculation. At present, doctors already make decisions to let infants die under some circumstances. So they will withdraw a respirator from an extremely premature infant that's had a massive brain hemorrhage say, because they know that essentially that infant will be a vegetable. They will withdraw the treatment if the infant can't breathe, they will withdraw the respirator and the infant will die. But they won't go the other step. Of course it's illegal so they can't now. Of saying -- having made the judgment that it’s better that the infant not live. There’s not really a big difference between turning off the respirator on the one hand and giving the baby a lethal injection on the other.

Larry Lemmons:
But I can see how, not just from the religious right, I would think that there would be people who would say, “Well who makes that ultimate judgment then?” Is it the parent’s right once a child is born? Once you open that door, it's going to be very difficult then to close it. I would expect people to make a lot of bad choices I would think.

Dr. Peter Singer:
What I’m saying is in a way the doors are already opened because we allow doctors to withdraw treatment knowing that the infant will die without that treatment. So that already makes that decision about the quality of life, whether it's worth prolonging the life or not. I do think that it's important that that decision should primarily be that of the parents. Although of course they have to be advised and have to consult with the doctors. I don't want the state to get into that business. I think that would certainly be a bad way of doing it. But if it's an individual family decision with doctor's advice, I think that's a reasonable safe guard If the doctors are not comfortable with the decision the parents reach, if they think that that’s, you know, the parents have grossly exaggerated the severity of the problem for the infant, then they should be able to go to the hospital ethics committee in the first instance, perhaps to a court and then the infant could be taken from the parents' custody if the parents, you know, want to reject the infant and think the infant is better if the infant die but the doctors and the committee or the courts say no, then maybe the infant should be put up for adoption.

Larry Lemmons:
Within utilitarianism, how does this fall within the greater common good, as it were?

Dr. Peter Singer:
It’s really like my views about animals, my views about how we handle disabled children, my views about the obligations of the rich to the poor, they are all concerned to try and avoid unnecessary suffering. That seems to be the clearest and easiest way in which we can go about satisfying more preferences, avoiding the frustrations of preferences. And I think in all these cases, at present, we inflict a lot of pointless suffering. If we can change our practices a little, then I think in each of these cases we can spare animals a lot of suffering by the way we’re treating them. We can not have the pointless suffering of very severely disabled infants lingering on, or having lives that are difficult for them and their families. And I think we can help people who are living in great poverty elsewhere in the world.

Larry Lemmons:
Dr. Singer, thanks so much for talking to us.

Dr. Peter Singer:
Thank you, its been good talking with you.

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