Great thinkers of our time - Peter Singer

Nicholas Fearn on Peter Singer

At the outbreak of the Second World War, David Niven abandoned his newly acquired Hollywood stardom to return home and volunteer for the war effort. "Young man," said Winston Churchill to him one evening, "you did a very fine thing to give up a most promising career to fight for your country . . . Mark you, had you not done so it would have been despicable." According to Churchill, there was no neutral land between right and wrong where one could live a morally quiet life, yet such a life is what most of us believe we are living. Few of us go to great personal lengths to alleviate the suffering of the starving of the world, but neither do many of us feel that we inflict such suffering. We are, we believe, neither praiseworthy nor blameworthy. We are not interested in morality - much as we are not interested in politics. However, to the philosopher Peter Singer, we are all as culpable as each other. Morality is pervasive and, by neglecting to do good, we each commit egregious sins of omission.

Singer is the greatest contemporary exponent of utilitarianism, the doctrine that actions should aim to maximise the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals. Given that our every action has consequences for this end, we are truly immersed in morality. With his lean build and exhausted demeanour, the Australian academic embodies the intense pressure of this outlook. "We must follow the argument where it leads," said Socrates and, during a career at Melbourne, Oxford and now Princeton, Singer has obeyed this advice at the expense of tradition, sentiment and, some would say, common sense.

It was in a lunch queue at Oxford that he was converted to vegetarianism. He soon took up the cause of animal rights and, in 1975, published Animal Liberation - which sold more than 500,000 copies and provided the intellectual force for an entire movement. It was in this and other books that he set out his most ambitious treatise on our ethical life - the expansion of the notion of morally relevant individuals to include non-human animals.

Singer hopes for a "Copernican revolution" in ethics that takes account of Darwin - a new moral universe in which human life is no longer at the centre. In Singer's ethical calculus it is preferences, interests and the ability to suffer that matter, and humans are not the only creatures to possess all three. On the other hand, some humans - such as those in a persistent vegetative state - lack the requisite traits for personhood, and we need treat such unfortunates no better than the unenlightened at present treat beasts. It is not that Singer loves animals or hates people: he merely demands the Socratic virtue of consistency. So if medical researchers wish to experiment on live animals, they must also consider practising on brain-damaged humans with equivalent faculties. If we are untroubled by boiling an egg where we would not dream of doing the same to a live adult chicken, this should tell us something about the so-called "right to life" of the unborn foetus. Indeed, Singer has considered abortion to be permissible several weeks after birth should the child be severely disabled.

For these views, he has received more than the bile of rival thinkers. His appointment to a professorship at Princeton provoked several days of angry protest outside the faculty, and the tycoon Steve Forbes vowed never again to donate money to the college as long as Singer taught there. During a lecture in Germany, Singer was shouted down by his audience, one of whom took to the stage and smashed his glasses. There, as on many other occasions, he was accused of Nazi sympathies, even though his parents were Austrian Jewish refugees and three of his grand- parents died in concentration camps. He protests that he is not prejudiced against the disabled, but points out that by bringing up such a child, a couple with limited resources are, as it were, depriving a future, healthy child of a far more fulfilled life. It may seem strange to consider individuals who do not yet actually exist, but as a utilitarian he is at least being consistent in desiring a world with as many satisfied preferences as possible.

Singer's brand of utilitarianism - one that seeks to satisfy people's preferences rather than maximise their pleasure as in Jeremy Bentham's - has led him to a paternalistic leftism (he urges American households to give away to the poor all the domestic income that they do not spend on necessities, and spends little on luxuries himself). The preferences it counts are those that people would have in ideal conditions. So a third world peasant woman's preference to remain chained to her kitchen stove is to be discounted in favour of the contrary preference she would have if she had had access to a western education. The utilitarian abacus is to be operated by those in the know, by those who are aware of people's best interests and are able to coax them to the point where they accept the need for change.

Singer appears to have history on his side. In looking forward to a day when the prejudice of "speciesism" will go the way of sexism and homophobia, he is imagining merely the obvious next step in a historical process: the celebrated "expanding circle" that has brought moral parity to an ever greater variety of agents. As for the near future, I once asked a prominent American moral philosopher whether she believed that studying ethics made those in her profession better people. "Well," she replied after thinking for a moment, "most of us are vegetarians."

Peter Singer Born 1946 in Melbourne, Australia. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University since 1999. Utilitarian ethicist and leader of the animal liberation movement; advocate of euthanasia and bestiality in certain circumstances. Practical Ethics (1979) has become a key text in the field. Among other critical works are Animal Liberation (1975), Rethinking Life and Death (1994) and the recent One World: the ethics of globalisation (2002)