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Welcome to Say More, a new weekly newsletter that brings Project Syndicate's renowned contributors closer to readers. Each issue invites a selected contributor to expand on topics covered in their commentaries, delve into new ones, and share recommendations, offering readers exclusive insights into the ideas, interests, and personalities of the world's leading thinkers.

This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and co-author of Utilitarianism: A Very Short Introduction.

In last week's edition of Say More, Nina Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, addressed Russia's strategy in the Middle East, its interests in Venezuela, the Kremlin’s relations with the US, and Vladimir Putin's future.

Peter Singer Says More...

Project Syndicate: It is easier to empathize with a single recognizable individual than with the many faceless individuals behind a statistic. This "empathy trap," you observe, often leads to bad public policy and bad philanthropy, which, in your view, should aim to do the "most good." For example, you recently suggested that Michael Bloomberg's $1.8 billion donation to his wealthy alma mater to provide scholarships to low-income students would have been better spent helping universities without large endowments. Spending that money on malaria-preventing bed nets, you point out, could have saved over 400,000 lives.

How do you – or the organization you founded, The Life You Can Save – assess how much “good” a given intervention would do? Do material needs always take precedence over higher-level needs like education? Should Bloomberg have financed bed nets, rather than donate to any university at all?

Peter Singer: For me, “good” has to be understood in terms of benefits to conscious beings – reducing their pain and suffering, or enabling them to live richer and more satisfying lives. The benefits do not have to be to beings who exist now; we should also be concerned with the welfare of beings who will live at some future date. That makes it difficult to compare the benefits of education, which can have long-term benefits, with bed nets, which have immediate, often life-saving benefits.

In general, though, my judgment is that well-targeted donations to low-income countries are likely to go further and do more good than any donations to high-income countries. The needs are greater, and any given sum of money goes further.

PS: You argue that the poor in, say, Africa are not really concerned about where support comes from, as long as it comes. Complaints about the White Savior narrative distract from that reality. But surely you agree that narratives matter, especially when it comes to empowering – even just psychologically – the historically marginalized. You yourself advocate using the preposition “who,” rather than “that,” in reference to animals, or “sex worker” rather than “prostitute,” as a means of shifting our perspectives.

So, should we retire the photo ops with white Western celebrities surrounded by poor African children, or would that amount to allowing emotion to cloud reason, threatening what really counts – the amount of money raised?

Singer: Of course things other than money are significant. But before we take a decision like retiring the photos of white celebrities helping African children, we need to ask ourselves whether there is convincing evidence that such photos really do harm to anyone.

Are they supposed to harm Africans who see them? If so, in what way? Would Africans who see such pictures really be more likely to feel that they lack power to change their own lives? I wonder if an occasional photo could make that much difference, when Africans know, better than we do, what some of their friends and neighbors have been able to achieve, and what they themselves are able to do.

Or is the problem supposed to be that such photos lead white people to think of Africans as lacking the ability to help themselves? If we have some solid evidence that this is the case, and that this view on the part of white people harms Africans, then the case for not using such photos becomes stronger. In the absence of such evidence, however, I would not do something that could significantly reduce the amount of money available to improve the lives of impoverished people.

PS: In encouraging governments to legalize sex work, you point out that the repeal of restrictive legislation is often driven by its practical benefits, such as revenues from taxation of marijuana sales in Colorado. Leaving aside the impact on sex workers and johns, what direct benefits of legalizing sex work might persuade opponents, or at least skeptics?

Singer: Compare the life of a sex worker in a licensed brothel (I'm thinking of the kind that Melbourne, the city in which I've spent most of my life, has had for many years) with that of a sex worker either in an illegal brothel or out on the street illegally soliciting clients. Workers in a licensed brothel aren't taking cash in the streets, so they are far less likely to get robbed. They also have a security guard on call whenever they need protection. In serious cases, they can call the police with no fear of prosecution.

Legal sex workers can unionize to get better working conditions, and they can take their employers to the appropriate courts or fair work commissions if they don't get their agreed share of the receipts. Legalizing brothels also reduces police corruption: police can't demand bribes for allowing the brothels to remain in business, any more than they can demand bribes for allowing a fast food restaurant to stay open. And the state can tax the brothel's earnings.

What are the disadvantages? To me, the case for legalizing sex work on this model is overwhelming.

PS: You've lamented that political leaders face an “awful moral dilemma” when it comes to migration: close their borders enough to undercut public support for far-right parties, or risk losing that battle – and much more – to authoritarian populists. Yet closing borders won't stop people from fleeing violence, economic crisis, or the effects of climate change. In imposing limits on immigration, where should policymakers who want to act humanely start, and what should they avoid?

Singer: They should start by increasing financial support for the United Nations in its efforts to provide safe and livable conditions for refugees in their own region. They should then take a significant number of refugees from UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) camps.

It seems that what most worries the voting public is the idea that their country has lost control of its borders, and could face an uncontrolled “flood” of asylum-seekers. When the government takes refugees in an orderly, planned fashion, that reassures the public that the situation is under control, and that those coming into the country are bona fide refugees.

By the Way...

PS: Your 1975 book Animal Liberation is a foundational text of the modern animal-rights movement. Do you recall a specific encounter with an animal that had a profound impact on you?

Singer: I do. It was with an animal of the species Homo sapiens named Richard Keshen, a Canadian graduate student I met at Oxford in 1970, who told me that he was a vegetarian, because he didn't think animals ought to be treated the way the animal whose flesh I was then eating had been treated. He was the first vegetarian I'd ever met. I know that, today, it's hard to believe that anyone could graduate from an Australian university and spend a year in Oxford without ever having met a vegetarian, but that's how it was back then.

As for nonhuman animals, there were no such encounters. I am not, and never have been, an animal lover. You don't need to love either humans or animals to think that it is wrong to disregard their interests and inflict unnecessary suffering on them. Every ethical person ought to be able to see that, even if they have never had any contact with animals. And if you do see that, you ought not to be complicit in the industries that are built on inflicting suffering on animals, just so that we can consume their flesh, eggs, or milk as cheaply as possible.

PS: Is there a figure in the history of philosophy that you think has been unjustly overlooked or become newly relevant?

Singer: There were three great pioneers of utilitarianism: Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. I assume that most PS readers have heard of Bentham and Mill, but not of Sidgwick. That's understandable, because Bentham was more original than Sidgwick, and Mill was a better writer. Sidgwick's masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics, consists of 500 pages of careful arguments and judicious judgments. But it is increasingly being recognized that Sidgwick was the best philosopher of the three, and deserves to be more widely read.

PS: If you could read only one book for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Singer: A difficult choice, but perhaps George Eliot's Middlemarch. There is so much in it, and it raises some deep moral questions.

PS: Is there something that you do badly, but that you enjoy doing anyway?

Singer: Yes, surfing. I began too late – in my fifties – to do ever do it well, but I love being out in the waves, occasionally getting a ride.

Singer recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Singer's picks:

Strangers Drowning

By Larissa MacFarquhar

This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. It is a beautifully written portrayal of people who go to extraordinary lengths to help others that is based on a sound understanding of the relevant ethical issues.

The History of Philosophy

By A. C. Grayling

Grayling has written a masterful and often entertaining chronicle of the epic intellectual journey we humans have taken, in different periods, countries and cultures, to understand ourselves, our world, and how we ought to live.

Doing Good Better

By William MacAskill

This is an excellent introduction to Effective Altruism written by a key figure in getting this exciting new movement off the ground.


From the PS Archive

From 2017
As the world was waking up to the danger posed by "fake news," Singer asked whether, in the Internet age, the legal pendulum should swing back toward the offense of criminal libel. Read his full commentary Free Speech and Fake News.

From 2016
As difficult as developing artificial intelligence might be, Singer argued three years ago, teaching our creations to be ethical is likely to be even more daunting. Read his full commentary Can Artificial Intelligence Be Ethical?
The Life You Can Save
The Life You Can Save
By Peter Singer

In The Life You Can Save, Singer uses ethical arguments, illuminating examples, and case studies of charitable giving to make a highly compelling case for why and how each of us can have a meaningful impact on improving lives of those living in extreme poverty worldwide. A revised 10th Anniversary Edition of The Life You Can Save will be released on November 5. 

Around the Web

In case you missed it, here are some other places around the web where Singer's work or ideas have appeared recently.

Singer – an atheist moral philosopher – discusses the relationship between religion and morality with a Christian thinker, exploring issues of human rights, dignity, and disability along the way. Watch the debate here.

There are good reasons not to treat our corner of space as nothing more than a quarry, a rubbish dump, and a lawless frontier. In fact, Singer argues in a recent commentary, when it comes to space, we should be applying the principles of sustainable development. Read the article here.

Why are so many of us unhappy? In an hour-long podcast, Singer explores the connections between money, charity, and happiness, and offers some advice for living a happy life. Listen to the discussion here.
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