Think outside
the bubble

From Marx to animal rights to effective altruism, the scope of philosopher Peter Singer’s work is vast

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Often said to be among the most influential philosophers in the world, Peter Singer is best known for his work on animal rights and his 1975 book Animal Liberation criticised speciesism, which he called a “prejudice or bias in favour of the interests of members of one’s own species and against those of members of other species”. But his latest book is a primer on Karl Marx, revised for the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth.

In it, the Australian moral philosopher offers a clear introduction to the core ideas in Marx’s philosophy and thinking and shows how these theories can be applied to twenty first century politics and society. He also considers whether they still hold true.

Singer has also been credited with providing an underpinning to effective altruism, a philosophy that argues we should use the best available data to make moral decisions, such as deciding which charities to support or which policies to implement. Effective altruists believe that resources should be channelled where they can do the greatest amount of good possible, rather than being swayed by emotional interests. Singer is said to give between a quarter and third of his income to charity.

What inspired you to write your book about Marx?

As a graduate student, I studied Marx quite intensively and developed a view about the continuity of his work, from the early, more philosophical writings about alienation to the later, supposedly more scientific works. The invitation to write a short introduction to Marx gave me the opportunity to present this view to a broad audience. More recently, the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth seemed a suitable occasion to reassess Marx’s significance today.

How would you sum up Marxist philosophy? 

Marx has a vision of history as moving towards the goal of human liberation. We cannot be liberated, he believes, until we take control of our circumstances, including the way we meet our needs for food, shelter and clothing, and carry out these activities in ways that are liberating rather than oppressive.

If you could meet Marx now, what would you ask him? 

I would ask him if he still thinks that there is no biologically-given human nature.

What do you think he would say if he saw the world today?

“Capitalism has survived? How could that happen?”

Does Marx offer solutions to climate change and the environmental crisis?

No. Marx, like Kant and Hegel and most of the German philosophers who preceded him, thinks that humans are all-important and nothing else really matters.

You consider yourself an effective altruist. What exactly do you mean by this?

Firstly, that I want to make the world a better place, and secondly, that I want to do that as effectively as possible. That means, for each pound I donate, or each hour I work to make the world better, I want to get the greatest possible impact, in terms of reducing suffering and increasing happiness.

Is it possible to apply effective altruism or other moral philosophies to everyday decisions in a fast paced, globalised world where we are required to make quick decisions? 

It is always possible to do the best you can, under the circumstances in which you find yourself. Our world may be fast-paced, but we also have much faster access to information than we did when we had to go to a library and search among books and journals. You may not make the right decision every time, but there are always better and worse choices, based on the available evidence.

How does effective altruism differ from the utilitarianism of Bentham and JS Mill – the 18th-19th century ethical theory that decisions were moral if they led to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people?

In today’s world, I’m sure Bentham and Mill would have been effective altruists. But that doesn’t mean that every effective altruist needs to be a utilitarian. One can be an effective altruist while still believing that some actions are absolutely wrong, irrespective of their consequences, and hence not be a utilitarian.

Effective altruism largely deals with symptoms, such as poverty. Would it be more effective to focus attention on the wider structures causing poverty instead, such as corrupt governments and diverted aid? 

It is only effective to focus on what you can change, or at least have a chance of changing. Changing corrupt governments in the world’s poorest countries is extremely difficult. If you have a realistic strategy for achieving that ambitious goal, then go ahead and try it. If you can persuade effective altruists that your strategy has a chance of success, they will support your efforts.

Does moral philosophy have an applied role today or is it largely academic?

If it were largely academic, why would you be asking a moral philosopher these questions? Moral philosophy changes lives all the time, and in a good way.

If Trump pulls off peace between North and South Korea, does the good created here outweigh the conflicts he has caused elsewhere – for example, refusing to address climate change? Is this a useful way of looking at it? 

Not really. In the long run, climate change is a much bigger problem than peace on the Korean peninsula.

Can you sum up how you would protect animal rights and ethics?

By far the worst thing we do to animals is lock them up in crowded factory farms. So the best way to reduce animal suffering is to stop eating animal products. Go vegan if you can, but at the very least, stop buying or eating meat, eggs or dairy that comes from animals unable to walk freely in the fields – and ask your friends to do the same.

Do you see progress in animal rights over recent years with, for example, the rise of veganism?

Yes, for the reason I just gave. That’s very encouraging.

China just held its famous Dog Meat Festival, attracting criticism from the West. But is there a material difference between the East’s willingness to eat dogs and the West being willing to eat beef or lamb?

In general, eating cows, pigs, lambs, or chickens is just as bad as eating dogs. But in China and Korea, dogs may be beaten to death with sticks because it is believed that this makes the meat more tender. Slaughterhouses in our own countries do not always inflict a swift and humane death, but being beaten to death with sticks is a worse death than that suffered by most animals killed in slaughterhouses in most countries.

VSI Marx by Peter Singer is the latest in Oxford University Press’s Very Short Introduction series

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    09 Jul 2018 16:17

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