‘Pain is pain: whether you’re a human, or any other animal’ | Peter Singer

Philosopher, ethicist and Animal Liberation exponent PETER SINGER talks about the need to ‘expand the circle of moral concern’: to include humans, animals, and ‘all sentient beings, everywhere’

Peter Singer
Peter Singer

Peter Singer was invited to Malta by the Philosophy Sharing Foundation

In your 1975 book ‘Animal Liberation’, you argued that human beings are guilty of ‘speciesism’: a tendency to attach undue importance to their own species, when compared to other animals. Separately, however, you use the philanthropic argument, that the wealthy should have an obligation to assist the poor. Do you not see a small contradiction, there? On one level, you seem to be minimising the importance of the human species, as a whole; but on another, you argue that there is a lot of importance to be attached to the individual human being…

I would say there’s a lot of importance to be attached to EVERY sentient being… not just the individual human. So I don’t really see any contradiction, no.

I see it more as a matter of finding opportunities to improve the lives of all sentient beings, everywhere. I’m still very concerned with doing that for animals; and I still think there are enormous problems… with factory farming, for instance; and the way we kill animals…

But the fact that we ignore the situation of so many people in extreme poverty - who could easily be helped - is something that I think we should be doing more about, too. The common thread, however, is that I’m pointing out two ways in which we can relieve suffering, at low cost; but - because ‘those who are suffering’, are in some ways ‘not us’ - we tend to neglect their suffering.

And there are different ways, obviously, in which other beings can be defined as ‘not us’. They could be people who live far away, in other countries; or who are ethnically, or racially, distinct from ourselves… or in other cases, the difference could be that they belong to another species.

It’s an idea I’ve explored in one of my less-known books, ‘the Expanding Circle’… about ‘expanding the circle of moral concern’. I think these are two different ways in which that could be done. We could ‘expand the circle of moral concern’ to other humans in extreme poverty; and to other species, as well. And as far as Climate Change is concerned, it could be expanded to future generations, too…

On the subject of ‘us’ and ‘them’; we have seen a lot of evidence, recently, of how different countries tend to discriminate between human beings, on the basis of cultural proximity. The war in Ukraine, for instance, has sparked a refugee crisis… but we all saw how, in European (and global) media coverage, the Ukrainian refugees twere clearly perceived differently, from (for instance) those who come from equally war-torn countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya. Would you consider this as an example of ‘unequal treatment’, based on cultural affiliations?

Yes, I think there is some sort of affiliation going on, there. Specifically, you see it very clearly in Poland: because the Polish government was very hostile to taking in Syrian refugees – it had refused to take in even just a few hundred, from the EU – but it’s now taken in 3 million Ukrainians.

Naturally, I applaud the fact that it did accept to help so many Ukrainians. But obviously, that was made easier, politically – and had much greater support - because Ukrainians are ethnically so much closer to Poles, than Syrians. Many of them will be Catholic; all of them will be Christian… and yes, I think all of that does clearly make a difference.

But if you wanted to defend the different reaction: one thing you could say, is that Putin is a threat not only to Ukraine; but also to the wider world, and certainly to the other former Soviet satellites. So I think it’s reasonable to say that this is a more serious global crisis, than the other wars you mentioned: which don’t show much sign of spreading beyond the countries where they exist.

And yet, these different reactions all seem indicative of an entirely ‘natural’ tendency. It seems that human civilisations have always created their own social and political hierarchies… and these have always been based on the view that ‘the other’ is somehow ‘inferior to oneself’. Would you agree that this is a deeply ingrained tendency; and if so, can it really be addressed through something as abstract – and (no offence) sometimes ‘impractical’ – as Philosophy?

You could describe it as a ‘natural tendency’, yes; but - like all tendencies in human nature - it is not ‘determined’ that it will always be that way.

As for your question about the ‘practicality’ of philosophy, though: it depends what sort of philosophy we’re talking about, really. There are some philosophical approaches where the criticism you mention would certainly be valid – I would agree with it myself - but if we are talking about philosophy that is doing ‘Ethics’; and, in particular, ‘Practical or Applied Ethics’ – then… it can be enormously influential. Billionaires are subject to its influence; as are others.

If you look at the website of the Gates Foundation, for instance: it makes various ethical statements, about ‘recognising the equal value of all human lives’. An even better example would be Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, who started something called ‘The Good Ventures Foundation’; and that gave rise to an organisation called ‘Open Philanthropy’, which is funding some of the most effective charities – and also doing research, into what ARE the most effective ways to be charitable, to begin with.

So I think Philosophy is making a big difference. It is clearly influencing – not all, perhaps; but certainly some of the people who have the ability [through their wealth] to make differences, in important directions; and who have extraordinary opportunities, to make a difference for good….

I can’t help but notice that – notwithstanding my own earlier question – your own approach seems to be rather consistently pragmatic, so far. For instance: in another interview, you once quoted from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’…

… I mentioned that same example in my lecture, yesterday…

There you go. In any case, the novel presents us with a hypothetical scenario: ‘If you could bring about eternal world peace, by torturing a child to death… would you do it?’ You yourself argued (very pragmatically, I would say) that there can be no real possible circumstance, in which ‘torturing a child to death’ could ever truly ‘bring about world peace’.  But… isn’t that also true of other examples of ‘Practical Philosophy’? Take the famous ‘Trolley Problem’, for example: there is very little realistic chance that any of us would ever really be in that position (i.e., to save lives, by diverting a train), either…

Well… it’s not so much that I reject the use of hypothetical scenarios. I think that they can be very helpful, in illustrating certain things. But I would say that the Trolley Problem is a little different, from Dostoevsky’s example… because it is more of a ‘thought experiment’, than an actual scenario.

First of all, there are two versions: one where you could ‘throw a switch’ to divert the trolley [in which case, it would kill only one person, instead of five]; and the second is where you’re standing on a footbridge, over the railway line; and the only way to stop the trolley from killing those five people, is by pushing another person – someone who would have to be ‘big and heavy’ enough, for the purpose – down from the bridge, and into its path.

But the point of this experiment is that, when people are asked the question, ‘Would it be wrong?’ about both scenarios: the vast majority reply that it ‘would NOT be wrong, to throw the switch’; but that ‘it WOULD be wrong, to push the heavy stranger’.

And this creates a problem for philosophers: because in both cases, the outcome is the same. ‘One person dies, and five people are saved’. So first of all, you need to ask the question: ‘Why do people think it’s different?’; and secondly: ‘Is that a good reason, to think there’s a difference?’

So the Trolley Problem actually helps to illustrate things about the way people think; and it could even lead to the entirely Utilitarian conclusion, that – while we do have these intuitions, that tell us that ‘some things are right’, while ‘other things are wrong’ - we shouldn’t rely on those intuitions, too much. They don’t really reflect any underlying ‘moral truth’; so it’s more important to look at the consequences of what we’re actually doing.

Utilitarianism is often (loosely) defined as ‘striving to achieve the greater good, for the greater number of people’. How do we define the ‘greater good’, though? Doesn’t that depend on having a shared understanding of what actually constitutes ‘right and wrong’ (or ‘good and bad’) to begin with? And if, as you say, there is no ‘underlying moral truth’: isn’t there a danger that the same philosophy could be used to justify - if you’ll allow the extreme example - even the Nazi atrocities of World War II? (After all, Hitler himself did believe that his own views served the ‘greater good’)…

Oh, consequentialism can certainly be misused, in that sense. Because it depends, as you just pointed out, on a correct assessment of the facts. And people will have different – and sometimes, very seriously mistaken – views about the facts.

That’s true: but I think that any moral view can be misused, in the same way. Certainly, we’ve seen many examples in history, when people had, for instance, very strongly-held views about the importance of ‘following the One True God’… so they simply killed anybody who didn’t…

But I don’t think it depends so much on ‘having a shared understanding of right and wrong’. It depends more on being willing to think about it; to discuss it; and to try and come up with some ‘soundly-based view’.

For instance: if Adolf Hitler really HAD made those claims, he would have just been… well, wrong. But even if you assume, somehow, that his crazy, racist theories about ‘Aryans’ being superior to ‘non-Aryans’ – Jews, Slavs, and others – were ‘right’… it still doesn’t justify the treatment of those Jews, Slavs and other ‘non-Aryans’. No utilitarian, on any version of the facts, would ever be able to justify inflicting so much suffering.

Because even if you do assume that those people were ‘inferior’ - in the same way, perhaps, as other animals are often perceived to be inferior - a Utilitarian would still argue that: ‘You must not let them suffer. If you can do anything to prevent their suffering… you must do so.”

And there are actual examples of this, from Nazi Germany. Himmler, for instance, once said [words to the effect of]: ‘If 1,000 Slavs die, digging a defensive trench for Germany… I don’t care, because the only thing that matters is that the trench gets built!”

No Utilitarian would ever have said that: even if they really did believe that the ‘best utility would be served, in a world that is ultimately ruled by Germany’. Because the suffering of those people, could still never be considered part of the ‘greater good’…

In a sense, this brings us back to the original notion of ‘speciesism’. You’ve just made a comparison between the Nazis’ dehumanisation of their victims; and the way in which ‘other animals are often perceived to be different’. Am I right in understanding, then, that - in terms of our ethical approach to such matters - animals should ideally be treated as entirely equal to humans… at all levels, everywhere?

No entirely, no. First of all, the Animal Liberation viewpoint is not one that says: ‘there are no differences at all, between humans and other animals’. It simply says that it is wrong to give greater weight to interests, on the basis that those interests belong to members of the species ‘Home sapiens’… as compared with similar interests among non-humans, in cases where such comparisons can be made.

A simpler way of putting it would be: “Pain is pain; and pain is equally bad, whether it’s the pain of a human, or a dog, or a pig, or a chicken, or anything, that has the capacity to feel pain…”

At the same time, though – and this is a Devil’s Advocate question, by the way – you have also been criticised, in the past (and even ‘boycotted’, in certain US states) for arguing in favour of the right to abortion, in some cases. How do you respond to the view that you seem more concerned with non-human animals, than with the human foetus?

Well, once the foetus is capable of feeling pain… I AM concerned about it. In fact, if you asked the question: at what point is the foetus entitled to some kind of moral significance, or moral status… I would say it is the point at which it begins to be capable of feeling pain.

But the vast majorities of abortions are performed before that, where possible.

Even where it isn’t possible, however: I don’t argue - and this is true about animals, as well - that the ‘capacity to feel pain’ means that it is just as bad to take the life of that being, than anybody else’s.

I think that, when it comes to ending the life of a being, there are other factors: such as, for instance, to what extent is that being self-aware? Or capable of seeing itself as ‘living, over time’? Or ‘having a future’, and so on? All that may make a difference, to the seriousness of killing a being.

But it doesn’t make a difference to the seriousness of inflicting pain on that being. So even at the point when the foetus is capable of feeling pain… there might still be reasons that would justify ending the life of that foetus: especially, if it could be done in a way that does not cause any serious pain.

So, while the capacity for pain is morally significant; it doesn’t conclusively determine the right to life, of any particular being. What it does do, however, is create obligations for us, regarding what ‘should’ or ‘should not’ be done to those beings: and obviously, one of those obligations is to ‘not inflict pain on them’… unless there is an overriding reason to do so.