Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. In this interview, we talk about his parents escaping Nazi occupation, being picked on in Melbourne, collecting stamps, coins, and rocks, reading History of Western Philosophy, considering going into the family business, realizing he likes history and philosophy more than law, trying to figure out the origins of fascism, drinking and arguing, his initial reaction to the Sheriff counterexample to utilitarianism, Vietnam, conscription, abortion, meeting his wife, how raising children affected his philosophical outlook and vice versa, differences between grad school and being a grad student, taking classes with Parfit, Glover, and Griffin, how a conversation after a philosophy class led to him becoming vegetarian, working with Hare, the rise of Radical Philosophy, the popularity of “Famine, Affluence and Morality,” working at NYU, moving to Melbourne and starting the first center for Bioethics in Australia, the difference between a protest and being silenced, wild animals and human extinction, anonymous journals, running for office, moving to Princeton, working with a Buddhist monk, reason and the possibility of agreement, Anscombe, moral tribes, Mozi, and the ethical views of ET…
[7/14/17, photo credit: Alletta Vaandering, hyperlinks inserted by editor]
Where did you grow up?
In Melbourne, Australia, in a typical Australian suburban home, single-story, with what Americans call a yard, but Australians call a garden, and for my father, it was definitely that – he spent a lot of time planting a garden with trees, flowering shrubs and annuals.
What did your parents do?
My father had a small business, importing coffee and nuts. My mother was a doctor, a general practitioner.
Was your family, were you, religious?
Did you ever seriously consider it?
Not really. There were periods when I was open to the idea that there might be a god, but I never got further into religion than that.
In general, how did your family, or where you grew up, shape your worldview, you think?
My parents were of Austrian-Jewish origin. When the Nazis took over Austria, they soon realized they had no future there, and as a result of a chance meeting with an Australian who had come to Austria to ski, were able to get visas to go to Australia. Their parents stayed, and only one of them survived. Obviously, that family history had an impact on me. It led to strong support for racial equality, the rule of law, democratic government, a cosmopolitan outlook, and an abhorrence of violence and cruelty.
Crazy. Did you encounter discrimination in Australia?
Australia was still largely an Anglo-Celtic community. I came from a different background. I also looked different – I had darker hair and skin than most other kids. Most of my parents’ friends were also Jewish refugees from Central Europe, so the culture around my home, and the food we ate, was different from that of my schoolfriends. At a local swimming pool, I remember a group of boys picking on me and telling me “go home.”
What was school like?
I went to an experimental primary school that allowed students a great deal of freedom, and then to a private Scottish Presbyterian boys secondary school, because my parents thought it would give me a better education than the local public school. The primary school taught me to think for myself, and the secondary school added some discipline and did, on the whole, give me a good education.
Did you enjoy school?
Yes, sometimes it was intimidating, especially the early years of secondary school, but on the whole I enjoyed it.
As a kid, what did you do for fun?
In summer, I did what most Australian kids do: I went to the beach, swam a lot, and lay in the sun. I also went for hikes with my father. In winter, as my parents came from Austria, the family went skiing. And of course, I spent time with my friends, “mucking around.”
What were your hobbies?
I collected things: stamps, coins, rocks and minerals. I was a cub and then a scout, and liked the camping and hiking. I read. My parents had bought the full set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and at one stage I set out to read it from A – Z, all 23 (I think) volumes. I didn’t finish it, though. But I did read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy. That was the first philosophy book I read.
As a kid I collected coins and rocks! Read History of Western Philosophy as an undergrad. What was your favorite part?
At the time, I enjoyed Russell’s demolition of Hegel. When I got to know Hegel better, I realized that what Russell wrote about Hegel had more to do with his hostility to German authoritarianism than to Hegel’s philosophical views.
Did you party?
There were parties, of course, and I went to them as much as most of my friends, but not more.
As a teen, did you start thinking about what you wanted do for a living, or college? If I asked you back then what you would end up doing, what would have been your best guess?
Early on, my best guess would have been that I would go into my father’s business. From the age of about 14, I would work in his office for part of the summer holidays. He had mixed feelings about whether I should be his successor. On the one hand he would have liked the business to stay in the family; on the other, the financial risk caused him a lot of stress, and he often said that there is no future in small business, the big players will push you out.
My sister, my only sibling, is six years older than me, and studied law (which in Australia you do straight after secondary school) so that was the most plausible alternative to going into my father’s business, and when I was in my final year of secondary school, that is what I decided to do.
In college, what were your least favorite classes?
I went to the University of Melbourne to study law. But an enrolment advisor there looked at my results in the final high school exams, and thought I might find the law degree insufficiently stimulating. He suggested I do a combined Arts/Law degree – a longer course but one that leads to both a Bachelor of Arts, and a Bachelor of Laws. That was fateful advice, because without it, I doubt that I would have ever taken a philosophy course.
I enjoyed both philosophy and history more than the law subjects. I got quite engrossed in twentieth-century European history, especially in trying to understand the rise of fascism.
Did you figure it out?
Well, there wasn’t just one factor, but I felt that I understood some of the causes, anyway, and also how Hitler’s rise to power could have been prevented, if only the communists had been willing to work together with the social democrats.
What attracted you to philosophy?
I was attracted to philosophy because I had always enjoyed an argument, and on Friday evenings you could go to the pub across the road from the university and get into an argument over a beer with some of the lecturers and more senior students who would be hanging out there.
What was the name of the pub? Is it still around?
Naughton’s – it is still a hotel, but it’s been gentrified, not the same place at all.
H.J. McCloskey, who taught the first ethics course I took, was the opposite of inspirational – you could say that he was dull. But he gave his students an excellent grounding in both metaethics and normative ethics. He was strongly opposed to utilitarianism, but I didn’t find his objections convincing. It was in arguing against him that I first began to find utilitarianism an attractive theory that can resist the usual objections.
As an undergrad, did you just have utilitarian intuitions about all the infamous counterexamples, or did you have conflicting intuitions, where the course of action utilitarianism would recommend bugged you, but you settled on utilitarian responses because it gave the most coherent account of your intuitions all things considered?
I always thought that the sheriff would be justified in framing the innocent man, if that was the only way to save six innocent men from being lynched, and there would be no other bad consequences. There may have been some other counter-examples that troubled me more, but if so, I don’t recall them.
In college, how did you change as a person, and how did you evolve philosophically?
Perhaps the most significant aspect of my time as a student is the era -- this was the 1960s. Australian troops were fighting alongside Americans in Vietnam, and there was a growing student movement opposed to the war. I became active in student politics, at one point leading an organization campaigning against conscription. I was involved with the Rationalist Society, as were many philosophers, both students and academic staff, and with the abortion law reform movement. I also wrote for, and became deputy editor of, the student newspaper. All these activities made me more open to radical ideas, and no doubt made me receptive to ideas that were still to come.
When did you decide to do philosophy for a living? Did you consider doing anything else?
The structure of the Arts/Law degree meant that I completed the BA before the law degree, and I did well enough to be offered a scholarship to do a Master of Arts, which was a thesis-only research degree, usually taking 18 months to two years. I went to talk to an advisor at the law faculty, and he said I could take the scholarship, and complete the law degree after I’d done the M.A. But while I was doing the M.A., the Philosophy Department encouraged me to apply for a scholarship to do further graduate study at Oxford – the centre of the philosophical world at the time, or so everyone in Australia thought. Oxford was an irresistible attraction, so when I got the scholarship, I was in no doubt about taking it. Even then, I kept open the option of going back and finishing the law degree. Once I was in Oxford, however, I knew that I wanted to do philosophy full-time if I could.
You met your wife back then, yes? How did you meet?
We were already married by the time we went to Oxford. Renata and I got to know each other at the University of Melbourne, in a history class, but we only became a couple after meeting again at a party.
What did your wife study? What does she do?
History. She has been a high school teacher, and she has worked for nonprofit organizations helping immigrants, helping poor people in developing countries, and helping disadvantaged women to obtain employment.
That’s awesome. Is she a utilitarian?
Close enough, but maybe not all the way.
Ha! What was the structure of grad school at Oxford?
It seems funny to say that I was in “grad school”. I was a graduate student at Oxford, but there was nothing school-like about it and we didn’t use that term. I had supervisors for whom I wrote papers on different topics – first John Plamenatz for political philosophy, then R.M. Hare for moral philosophy and for my thesis, then Patrick Gardiner for philosophy of history. I wrote a thesis, and at the end of two years I sat exams. But I was free to choose to go to whatever seminars or lectures I wished – or to go to none at all, should I have been so indifferent to the intellectual smorgasbord on offer.
At the time, what was trending at Oxford, in ethics and political philosophy?
There was a lot going on, but for me the most exciting seminars – perhaps the most exciting seminars I have ever attended -- were those offered by three young and to me quite unknown philosophers: Derek Parfit, Jonathan Glover, and James Griffin. Parfit considered the question “What is the optimum population size? Should we assume it is the one with the highest average level of happiness, or would it be better to have a larger population with a greater total quantity of happiness?” That question had first been raised by Henry Sidgwick almost a century earlier, but apart from an article by Jan Narveson, had been very largely neglected ever since. Glover’s contributions were also stimulating – I remember especially that he discussed examples in which one can say that one isn’t doing anything wrong because what one does makes no perceptible difference to anyone, even though when others do the same, people are worse off.
Ronnie Dworkin, who had just taken over H.L.A. Hart’s chair of jurisprudence, was attracting attention, although not all the Oxford philosophers were enamored of this brash American wearing stylish suits and a bright yellow tie. Hare was doing his lectures on why the naturalists were wrong and universal prescriptivism was the only defensible approach to ethics. There was plenty of interest in Marxism, with Gerald Cohen expounding his Analytical Marxism but some preferring Althusser’s much more obscure writings. And during my time in Oxford, the Radical Philosophy movement emerged, demanding that philosophy should be more relevant to the great issues of the day, like the Vietnam war and racial and economic equality.
So you were clearly inspired by Parfit and Glover…anybody else?
Absolutely: J.L.H. Thomas, from whom I learned how to read and understand Hegel. Hare turned out to be much more supportive of applying ethical theory to practical problems than I had ever imagined, from his writings up to that time, he ever would be.
Did you ever feel nervous or honoured working with these amazing philosophers?
When I went to Oxford I was nervous about meeting, and being taught by, the philosophers whose work I had studied in Melbourne, people like Hare, and H.L.A. Hart. And I felt honoured when Hare offered to be my supervisor. After Oxford, the nervousness diminished and eventually disappeared, because I felt that I had already met and got to know many of the world’s greatest philosophers.
Do you ever feel honoured working with anybody nowadays?
There are many philosophers whose work I admire, and if they want to spend some time with me, I do feel honored by that.
So, was writing the dissertation difficult?
No, I enjoyed it, and Hare was an excellent and encouraging supervisor.
Still friends with anybody from back then?
Yes, especially with Richard Keshen, Canadian graduate student who had a big influence on me and his wife Mary. And I remained in contact with Derek Parfit until his recent death (and edited Does Anything Really Matter?, a collection of essays about his work, which was in press when he died). We are also still close to two couples who we got to know through the high school near Oxford where Renata was teaching.
How did Oxford shape you as a philosopher? How did Keshen influence you? How did your philosophical outlook start to influence your behavior outside of the classroom?
My time as a student at Oxford was transformative. It was at Oxford that I first began to think about the ethics of how we treat animals, prompted by a chance encounter with Richard Keshen, the first ethical vegetarian I had ever met (I describe that experience in the Preface to Animal Liberation.) I talked about it with Renata, and we became vegetarian. Once we had put ethics into practice in that very practical way, we also decided to start donating 10% of our income to Oxfam. (Oxfam was the obvious choice, both because, of all the organizations helping people in poverty in developing countries, their values were most closely aligned with ours, and because they had their head office in Oxford, so it was easy to go to talk to them about what they were doing.)
What did you do to relax?
Went for walks, mostly, with Renata and our friends. I also started growing vegetables. We were renting a house outside Oxford with a large area of unmown grass, so I cleared some of that and made a vegetable garden.
You started teaching in Oxford. How did your experiences as a student affect your approach to teaching?
Although my position was a Radcliffe Lectureship, I didn’t give any lectures. I was teaching in the Oxford tutorial system, which meant weekly meetings with students, individually or in pairs. I would give them some reading each week, and they would write a paper on it, which we would then discuss. I tried to be as careful and helpful as Hare had been with me.
How did you end up at NYU?
My Radcliffe Lectureship was for two years only. We had planned to go back to Australia after that, but during this period I received invitations to apply for visiting positions at both NYU and Johns Hopkins. That may have been because I had published “Famine, Affluence and Morality“ as well as a little piece in Analysis called “Moral Experts“ but it is also possible that someone had sent out feelers to people like Parfit, or Dworkin, asking about likely prospects for the positions. At the time NYU did not have a great reputation, but living in New York was a more exciting prospect than living in Baltimore, so we went to NYU. It was a good choice.
Favorite part of living in NYC?
Just the city itself – the streets are always so lively, the buildings spectacular, no need to own a car or drive anywhere, so many things to do and friends to see, all in easy reach…
Who'd you work with at NYU?
I wouldn’t say that I worked with anyone at NYU. I was planning Animal Liberation, and thinking about life and death issues in health care. But I talked to lots of people in the department, including Peter Unger, Bill Ruddick, Michael Lockwood, John Taurek, Chauncey Downes, and Raziel Abelson, and graduate students like Greg Pence and Christina Hoff. I also got to know others in New York, though not at NYU at the time, for example Tom Nagel.
After NYU, you found yourself at LaTrobe, then Monash for two decades. What did you do for fun?
By the time I got back to Melbourne, we already had one child, and Renata was pregnant with our second. Both Renata’s parents and my parents lived in Melbourne then, and my sister (who had two children) as well as Renata’s brother. So we spent a lot of time with our extended family. In the summer we had family holidays at the beach. We joined a hiking group for people with small children, and went hiking and camping in the bush with them. It was much more fun when our kids had other kids of their age to play with.
Big hiker here. Does having children have an impact on your ethical perspective?
I already knew how strong the ties of family are, and how difficult – virtually impossible – it is to be impartial between one’s own family and strangers, but of course having one’s own children makes one feel this even more deeply.
How does being a philosopher affect your approach to raising kids?
Having children led me to take an interest in how they saw and understood the world, and of course in their ethical development. I became involved, to a modest extent, in the philosophy for children movement, ordering some of the books aimed at young children written by Matthew Lipman. I read and discussed them with my own children, as well as taking them to the children’s primary school and trying to stimulate some interest in philosophy for children there.
Academic highlights in Melborne?
Being appointed to the chair of philosophy at Monash was certainly a highlight. I was only 30 when appointed, and Australian departments are, or were then, on the UK system where a department has a very limited number of chairs – in fact I was appointed to what was, at the time of my appointment, the only chair in a department of about 16 academic staff. At Monash then the departmental chair had to be a professor, so that meant I walked into the department and was immediately chair, with the authority to make whatever decisions I liked. Most of the academic staff were older than me, and several had been there for many years. I instituted regular staff meetings and we voted on major decisions, which was something of a novelty for the department. Other highlights included the publication of Practical Ethics and its subsequent widespread use in courses around the world, and the establishment of the Monash University Centre for Human Bioethics, of which I was the founding director. It was the first university-based bioethics centre in Australia.
At this point, did you feel like you 'made it'?
I’m not sure that there was any one moment. My academic career went really well from the start: getting a distinction in my B.Phil at Oxford; my appointment as a Radcliffe Lecturer at University College; the reception that “Famine, Affluence and Morality” received; the NYU position; my appointment at La Trobe University, at the Senior Lecturer level, when it is normal to start as a Lecturer; and then of course the appointment to the chair at Monash. Certainly by that time, given that I also then had a contract with Cambridge University Press for Practical Ethics, I felt that my decision to go into academic life had been a good one.
Were you surprised that people were appalled by some of the things you've argued, such as your position on disabled infants, or bestiality? What do you make of the attitude, that seems as if it is increasingly popular, that certain things simply should not be said?
I think that attitude is deplorable, and especially in philosophers. I wasn’t surprised that people should disagree with my views on these issues. Philosophers expect objections and counter-arguments. That’s how we make progress. What has surprised and disappointed me is that some people have, because of their opposition to my views, attempted to prevent me speaking. That approach hearkens back to the trial and execution of Socrates, which means that it is the opposite of what philosophy should stand for. It’s a stupid tactic anyway, because invariably it means that my views get more attention. You just have to look at a sales chart of the German editions of Practical Ethics to see that. The book sold poorly in Germany for several years. Then when I visited Germany I was prevented from speaking on a few occasions, and this became a major news story, in newspapers and on television. My German book sales soared, and ever since have remained at a higher level than they were before the opposition stopped me speaking.
How do does it make you feel when folks protest your talks? Weird for you, given how much of your energy is devoted to trying to make the world a better place?
People have a right to protest, and I am not disturbed by nonviolent protests that do not seek to prevent me speaking. But it is, as you suggest, weird when – as happened with a talk I gave earlier this year, via skype, at the University of Victoria, British Columbia – people who object to my views on the treatment of severely disabled infants try to prevent me being heard by an audience that has come to hear me speak about effective altruism and global poverty. If people care about those with disabilities, you would think that they would support my efforts to increase donations to effective charities that, among other things, prevent blindness and restore the sight of people in developing countries.
Ever avoid exploring an outrageous implication of utilitarianism, because you thought doing so would have bad consequences?
Maybe. I’ve said relatively little about the suffering of wild animals, because although it raises some serious ethical questions, any attempt to do something about it would immediately put the animal movement in conflict with the environmental movement, and it would be better if both movements put their energy into issues on which there is no such conflict, and on which they can hope to have a more significant practical impact.
I have a somewhat similar problem with Nick Bostrom’s argument that the importance of reducing the risk of human extinction, even by a tiny amount, dominates every other thing that we might consider worth doing, such as reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty. It’s a difficult argument to refute, but it’s not an argument that many people are likely to act on. Mind you, if a few people do respond, and do research on reducing existential risk, I think that is a very good thing.
Speaking of wild animals, what are your thoughts on domesticated animals, like dogs and cats? Slaves, companion animals, or something else?
If people can give companion animals good lives and enjoy living with them, I have no objection to that relationship.
Do you think things like social media, where we have lots of virtue signaling and moral reprobation for those whose views are unpopular, endanger the future of views like utilitarianism or might make philosophy more homogeneous in general?
I don’t think it endangers the future of utilitarianism at all. Utilitarianism is too strong for that. It might, for a time, make people more reluctant to express views that are unpopular. I’ve recently been sounded out about a proposal for a journal that would allow people to publish anonymously. The journal would keep a record of authorship that could, on request by the author, be sent to committees considering appointments and promotions. It’s unfortunate that such a journal should ever be considered necessary to enable controversial ideas to be published, but perhaps we have got to the point where it is.
Amazing idea, Peter! You ran for office in Australia, right?
I ran for the Senate for the Australian Greens. I wasn’t successful, but I didn’t expect to be, the idea was to give the Greens greater national prominence. Maybe I helped to do that, because now a Green does hold the Senate seat for which I stood.
Why did you leave Monash, or, how were you lured away to Princeton?
I didn’t apply for the position at Princeton, in fact I wasn’t aware that Princeton was trying to fill a chair in bioethics, because I wasn’t looking for a new position. I received a letter asking if I was willing to be considered. That wasn’t a difficult decision. I felt I had done what I could at Monash. I’d already stepped down from the position of Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics, and Helga Kuhse was doing an excellent job in that role. I started to feel that I needed a change. I gave up being director of the Centre for Human Bioethics, and went part-time at Monash, partly because the Centre’s budget was strained, but also because I wanted to work on two books that were not bioethics or even really philosophy, so I didn’t think I should be doing them while being employed full-time as director of a bioethics centre. Both of these books were attempts to preserve something that would otherwise have been lost. The first was Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement, which was in part a tribute to my then-dying friend, Henry Spira, and also had the goal of preserving and disseminating the strategies and tactics that he had used so successfully to reduce the suffering of animals. The other was Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna, a memoir – if I can use that word for someone who died before I was born -- of David Oppenheim, my mother’s father, who had worked with Freud and Adler and then later became a victim of the Holocaust. I had completed the first of these books, and was well-advanced on the second, when I received the letter from Princeton. Our children had left home, and Renata and I had been thinking about going somewhere else for a while once that happened. We had been contemplating living in a developing country, to get a broader experience of the world, but when I was offered the position at Princeton, that was too good an offer to refuse. Renata was keen to live in New York again, and Princeton is close enough to make that feasible. The stimulation of being at Princeton dramatically revived by interest in bioethics and ethics more generally.
Here’s one example. I attended a number of seminars on climate change, given by leading US government officials and political advisors. They saw it as a political problem, and an economic problem, and an environmental problem for the U.S., but they didn’t see it as an ethical problem. The idea that the U.S, then the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases as well as having the highest per capita emissions among large nations, might have a moral obligation to reduce its emissions just didn’t get mentioned. That was one of the reasons that I wrote One World: The Ethics of Globalization, to discuss this and other issues that need to be thought about from a global perspective.
Exciting upcoming projects?
I have two book projects underway at the moment. The first is the result of a dialogue I had last year with Shih Chao-Hwei, a Taiwanese Buddhist nun, about the similarities and differences between Buddhism and utilitarianism. We hope to turn the transcript of our dialogue into a book. The second is a book on whether the world is overpopulated, and if so, what ought to be done about it. I’m planning on writing that with Frances Kissling, who has a lifetime of experience working with women on reproductive freedom.
Fascinating stuff, Peter! What do you make of colleagues you appear to fundamentally disagree with, such as Parfit? Does this make you pessimistic about the prospects of philosophy?
I’m puzzled that you should think Parfit and I were in fundamental disagreement. He was a consequentialist, and so am I. True, he was a prioritarian, and I am a utilitarian, and we disagree about some other points, but hardly in a fundamental way. And if you were referring to metaethics, although I was once a universal prescriptivist, Parfit’s On What Matters persuaded me that non-naturalist normative objectivism is a defensible position. That, by the way, is an example of something that ought to make us optimistic about philosophy – we do change our views, after reading good arguments.
Bad example. My bad! Can you think of a better example of somebody you fundamentally disagree with? Do you think those peers are confused or misinformed? What do you think explains why some intelligent, well informed people look at a case like the sheriff and think framing the drifter is justified and others think that one simply should not ever do such a thing?
A better example of someone with whom I am in fundamental disagreement would be a hardline deontologist – G.E.M. Anscombe would have been a good example of that, and perhaps John Finnis is the best representative of that kind of position today. They would have said that it is always wrong for the sheriff to frame a person, no matter how many lives would thereby be saved. But even if Anscombe and Finnis attempt to argue for their views in a manner that does not refer to religious beliefs, it’s surely not a coincidence that both are Roman Catholics. Admittedly, there are others who are not religious but still think it would be wrong for the sheriff to frame someone. In my view, the problem there is one of giving too much weight to particular intuitions. The kind of research that Josh Greene has carried out, and described in Moral Tribes, indicates that these intuitions often evolved in response to specific conditions in which our ancestors lived. As Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and I argue in The Point of View of the Universe, our intuitive reactions to particular situations are not a reliable guide to what we ought to do.
But, according to evolutionary debunking arguments, which supposedly show our moral beliefs are probably not true, doesn’t everything we value, including happiness--which one might argue is just a chemical process designed to make us behave in ways that increase our fitness, roughly--just get washed out alongside the stuff you think doesn’t really matter, like the value of purity?
There are a lot of things to say about all that. First, suppose that there are some moral judgments that would not have conferred any evolutionary advantage on those who held them; and yet when we reflect carefully on these moral judgments, we find it difficult to withhold our consent. These moral judgments would not be susceptible to an evolutionary debunking argument, and we would therefore have a reason for judging them to be true that would not apply to any judgments that are susceptible to an evolutionary debunking argument. Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and I argue that the principle of universal benevolence – that the interests of any individual count equally with the similar interests of any other individual – is one such moral judgment. There is no evolutionary advantage to giving equal weight to the interests of your own kin, and those of strangers – there is, in fact, an evolutionary disadvantage in acting on that principle. So this principle does not get washed out along with, say, the value of sexual purity. There may also be other principles that do not.
How do we hang on to happiness? This might be a dumb question, but isn't the decision to place more value on certain intuitions over others also on the basis of intuition?
The value of happiness resists evolutionary debunking arguments in a different way. Following Adam Lerner and Neil Sinhababu, Katarzyna and I argue that we have direct phenomenal experience of the positive value of happiness and pleasure, and of the negative value of misery and pain. Nor is this “just a chemical process” -- it is that, but it is also a state of consciousness and the fact that these feelings evolved in order to influence our behavior does not in any way negate our direct experience of pain as bad and pleasure as good.
In short, then, no, the decision to place weight on some moral judgments rather than others is not just a matter of intuition. There is a lot more reasoning to it than that.
Fair enough! In your mind, what is a moral reason, exactly?
It’s a consideration that counts towards an answer to the question “What ought I to do?” The difficult question is what considerations do count towards an answer to that question. Some think purely self-interested considerations count, and others think only impartial considerations count. I’m not going to attempt to settle that dispute here.
Weird question, I know: what are the chances intelligent extraterrestrials are utilitarians?
High. It’s clearly something that any being capable of reasoning is likely to realize is an option. As evidence for that, we can see utilitarian tendencies in thinkers of different periods and cultures. Mozi and the Mohists in ancient China, for example, as well as Bentham in eighteenth century England.
How would you sum up your body of work in one sentence?
I’ve always looked for issues on which thinking philosophically can make a significant difference – and if my work shows anything, it is that philosophy can change lives and make the world a better place.
Monty Python, Woody Allen, Sarah Silverman.
Thanks for your time, Peter!