In 1970 at Balliol College, Oxford University, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer had the lunch that changed his life. After asking a Canadian student named Richard Keshen why he had declined a meat-based spaghetti sauce, Singer was told that it was simply wrong for humans to treat animals in this manner. He needed no more persuading. “I regard this as one of the most fortunate events of my life,” Singer, 74, who lives in Melbourne, told me when we recently spoke.
He went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), the founding text of the animal rights movement, and a new collection, Why Vegan?, features his defining essays on the subject. Singer has also edited a new edition of The Golden Ass by the ancient Roman author Apuleius (which he cherishes for “the surprising empathy that the author shows to a donkey”).
In the decades since Animal Liberation was published, vegetarianism and veganism have moved from the fringe of ethics and culinary culture towards the mainstream. But while Singer is encouraged by this shift in moral attitudes, he lamented that “things are worse than they were in 1975 because there are more animals in factory farms having miserable lives”.
If Singer is the world’s most influential philosopher (as he is often described), he would say he is not influential enough. At present, he noted, “there are over 70 billion animals raised and killed for food each year, so almost ten times the world’s [human] population”. The environmental case for vegetarianism may now be more persuasive than the ethical one. “If we continue to eat large quantities of meat, and especially if people in Asia continue to eat the quantities they are eating, then eating meat alone will put us over the 2˚C limit” (the Paris Agreement aims to keep global warming well below this level).
The Austrian philosopher Karl Popper held that the defining test of a coherent argument is whether it can be falsified. In that spirit, does Singer believe meat-eating can ever be justified? “If you want to eat roadkill and if we produce cellular meat that was never part of a whole animal, I have no problem with that.”
More radically, Singer suggested that meat-eating may be permissible if “farms really give the animals good lives, and then humanely kill them, preferably without transporting them to slaughterhouses or disturbing them. In Animal Liberation, I don’t really say that it’s the killing that makes [meat-eating] wrong, it’s the suffering.”
[see also: The vegetarian in the abattoir]
Singer’s pragmatism extends to his own life. He eats mussels and clams because “I don’t think they can suffer” as well as free-range eggs and other dairy products when dining with friends. Nor does he preach to the unconverted: “People who I know already know my views… I value friends and I don’t want to limit my friends to only those who are already vegetarian or vegan.”
In The Most Good You Can Do (2015), Singer warned of the threat of pandemics emerging from factory farms. He does not claim prescience, noting that Covid-19 is thought to have originated from a wet market, but is relieved “there is now general agreement that it’s a major risk”.
For Singer, the philosophical lesson of the pandemic is that “people are prepared to make sacrifices or to accept restrictions, quite severe ones, if they are convinced that it is necessary for both the public good and for their own good”.
Singer’s Jewish parents emigrated to Australia from Vienna after Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Though the family were largely non-religious, they were stunned when their son told them he would not have a bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God.
In 2010 Singer signed a petition renouncing his “right of return” to Israel on account of the country’s occupation of Palestinian land and he is appalled by the current administration.
“The Netanyahu government has been furthering this trend of trying to make Israel a state in which Jewish citizens have more rights than Palestinian and Arab citizens. That’s heading in an apartheid direction – I wouldn’t say that it’s got to that point. But it’s a very bad direction for the Israeli government to go in.”
For decades, Singer has been referred to as “the dangerous philosopher”, principally due to his argument that parents ought to have the right to end the life of a disabled child. Does he still believe this? “I do still believe that and I appreciate the accuracy with which you stated my view because very often people say that I support euthanasia for disabled children, as if I want to say, irrespective of the wishes of the parents, you should kill that child.” He maintained that “generally speaking, parents are in the best position to make life and death decisions about a disabled child, obviously when advised by doctors”.
“After all, nobody queries the fact that parents can say we don’t want you to keep our child on a respirator.” There is no significant moral difference, he argues, between this “and bringing about death by giving an injection”.
As for the “dangerous philosopher” label, soft-spoken Singer riposted: “That’s a bit of media hype. I don’t think I’m all that dangerous. The influence that I’ve had as a philosopher has been mostly in relation to the treatment of animals and doing more for people in extreme poverty. I don’t think many people would think of those things as dangerous.”
This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism