06 July 2005

Happy Birthday, Peter

Peter Singer—“the dangerous philosopher”—is 59 years old today. He has been writing at a furious pace since at least 1970, when his first philosophical publication (on determinism) appeared. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Singer. I detest his leftist politics. I reject his consequentialism. I even disagree with him about the nature of philosophy. Singer thinks the aim of philosophy is to change the world. I think the aim of philosophy is to understand the world—specifically, its logical structure. To the extent that Singer advocates change, he is acting not as a philosopher but as what Richard A. Posner calls a “moral entrepreneur.”

But I love Singer’s concern for nonhuman animals. Reading his book Animal Liberation (1975) during law school changed my life. It is one of the most important books ever written. Singer says he’s an animal liberationist because he’s a utilitarian, but his argument for changing our treatment of animals—as he admitted to me in correspondence—doesn’t presuppose utilitarianism or any other normative ethical theory. All it presupposes is a principle of equal consideration of interests. Animals have interests. Disregarding or discounting these interests, while giving full weight to the like interests of humans, is irrational, a kind of self-contradiction. What would you say of someone who accorded full weight to the interests of whites, or men, but disregarded or discounted the interests of nonwhites, or women? Speciesism has the same logical structure, and hence the same moral status, as racism and sexism. That we put animals in a separate moral category doesn’t make it right, any more than our putting blacks or women in a separate moral category would make it right.

Even when I disagree with Singer, I admire his courage, his honesty, his adherence to principle (the principle of utility), and his decency. He has been badly treated over the years, and yet he keeps working. Six years ago, in correspondence with the late James Rachels, I mentioned the controversy surrounding Singer’s recent hiring by Princeton University. Rachels wrote back: “Hi Keith, thanks for forwarding the item about Peter. He’s catching a lot of flack, which is a tribute to his stature—no one cares much what the rest of the crazy philosophers think! But it’s too bad that he is having to endure this sort of press, since he’s about the most admirable human being I know.” I agree. Happy birthday, Peter! May you have many more “dangerous” years.

Addendum: Here is a column I wrote about Singer almost two years ago.

Addendum 2: Here is my review of Dale Jamieson's book Singer and His Critics.

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