Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He specializes in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, preference utilitarian perspective. Check out his website for tons of links to some stuff he’s written.
Outside academic circles, Singer is best known for his book Animal Liberation, widely regarded as the touchstone of the animal liberation movement. Not all members of the animal liberation movement share this view, and Singer himself has said the media overstates his status. His views on that and other issues in bioethics have attracted attention and a degree of controversy. For example, he argues that speciesism (which I’ll cover more in depth later. See this page for a fraction of my thoughts on the issue) is equivalent to racism and sexism and that, under certain circumstances, euthanasia and infanticide are morally permissible. For further exploration into Singer’s views on topics like euthanasia and infanticide, see this link.
I read this essay when I was 18 and it is what finally pushed me over the edge into vegetarianism. If you’re only impression of vegetarians is that they are a bunch of bleeding heart hippies, I recommend giving this essay a fair shot. While there certainly are aesthetic vegetarians, there are ethical thought processes that necessitate taking the interests of non humans seriously. I was also nudged to give to charities because of this essay. Though, since then, I have split my charity money between multiple groups.
Singer’s ethic comes from a school of philosophical thought called consequentialism which argues that that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. This is sort of the intuition that most people have about ethics. If your action does nothing but hurt lots of people, you’ve done something wrong.
A commenter on a previous post had this to say about Peter Singer:
Aussie ethicist Peter Singer (an admirable man in many other respects) definitely supports infanticide, and has toyed with supporting genocide, even ‘species-cide’! Yet Dawkins has ‘shared a platform’ with him, and they have discussed animal rights (key to Singer’s views on infanticide). Yet neither you nor other atheist commentators have even raised the matter, which throws considerable doubt on Dawkins’ consistency (how many babies must we kill before it becomes evil?????).
He was raising the question of why Dawkins would sit down with someone like Singer, but not with someone like William Lane Craig. The difference is that Singer thinks his ethics through and anyone who says that he supports the slaughter of babies is seriously misrepresenting his position. This was my reply:
If you’re opinion is that Singer advocates infanticide, then you’re almost certainly grossly misguided on his position. I would recommend actually reading what he says on the topic, not just what his critics say. I’m doing that with Craig. I’ll save you the trouble in this instance. He is not in favor of cutting your babies up because God told you to. He says that if a child is born with very severe debilitating disabilities, that the parents and doctors together should have the option of seriously considering and discussing the possibility of humanely ending that child’s life. He is not going around saying that he is the judge who can decide which child should live and die or that anyone is obligated to kill their disabled baby. If you’re serious about being able to change your mind and you haven’t updated your belief about Singer’s ethic, you’re being disingenuous.
Craig’s position was that brutally and indiscriminately stabbing children and women to death was doing them a favor (since they got salvation from it) and that they deserved it for not running away. If there is anyone who can’t see a difference that is separated by a 20 meter tall wall of white fire, then I think we’ve reached an impasse. If you can link me to any essays that Singer has written arguing for indiscriminate murder of innocent people, let me know.
If you’re interested, check out this video for a nice introductory interview with Singer to get an idea of his thought processes and methods. He also discusses his views on euthanasia and infanticide here if you don’t feel like reading an essay.