Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He first became well known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include: Democracy and Disobedience; Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; Marx; Hegel; The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells), Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse), How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death; One World; Pushing Time Away; The President of Good and Evil; and, with Jim Mason,The Ethics of What We Eat. Singer holds his appointment at the center jointly with his appointment as Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, attached to the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.
Question: How do you approach environmentalism?
Peter Singer: I think the most important thing you can do now is to reduce your greenhouse gas footprint, one of the things that I’ve been doing for more than 30 years, not primarily because of its environmental impact that I do is not to eat meat and meat production is one of the major causes of greenhouse gas emissions.
Any governmental panel on climate change, the nation’s body that puts out the big reports, its chair has said, “We have to ask people to eat less meat.” Animal livestock produces more greenhouse gases each year than transportation so this is a big thing.
As far as transport is concerned, I try to drive less, I try to use public transport or walk, I think those things are important.
Obviously, you recycle when you can, you try to use some removable energy if you can, if your utility allows you to buy any removable energy, there’s a variety of things. Eating in a way that is not greenhouse gas intensive and consuming less rather than more, I think, of the major things to it.
Question: How do you approach giving?
Peter Singer: No, I don’t see the amount that I give, which is currently around a 3rd of what I earn, I don’t see that as a sort of particular point to start with. What’s happened is that I’ve been giving money to organizations like Oxfam for the last 35 years, and we started off with 10% with the traditional tithe, and we gradually worked up from there as our income is growing and as our need, if anything, is less now that we don’t have children living with us and dependent on. So, it’s become easier to give more.
But I don’t recommend that level to everyone. I think, people should start where they’re feel comfortable with and if things go well then they can work out to it but I suggest in my book the life you can save, I suggest the scale begins at 1% for… remains at 1% for 90% of American taxpayers until they get into the top 10% of American taxpayers. I think 1% is adequate, you might want to give more of course but I think it’s enough to say that people shouldn’t point a finger at you and blaming you for not doing your part.
Question: Is it ethical to be rich while others starve?
Peter Singer: I think reactions are changing to that idea. Yeah, I think we’re going… you know, different countries are in different stages of thinking about it and fix it off and hangs together with how religious they are and what sort of view of, you know, the life they have for that reason but I think in a lot of places, people are starting to think about the idea of what is the significance of species membership and to see that as not really the crucial thing.
Question: Does America have a giving problem?
Peter Singer: Americans are not actually abysmal at giving their money away in general. They’re quite good in comparison with other nations because we have small government and somewhat lower taxes than the Scandinavian nations and we tend to have larger private philanthropy.
But the problem is that it often goes to our own community in some way. So we give to our own religious institutions and most of it doesn’t leave that religious institution or we give to our own college or school.
I think we’re really bad at is giving to the world’s poorest, people who are not in this country but who are desperately poor and that’s where most of the nations do substantially better than us.
Question: What explains this provincialism?
Peter Singer: It’s a couple of things. One is that it’s the individualistic ethos. It’s also a fair level of ignorance about the world outside the United States. I think Americans are really quite parochial in that way. Many people who come here from Europe or Australia or Canada will notice it.
The media focus very much on America, there’s very little coverage of what’s happening outside America unless it’s a country that we’re at war like Iraq or Afghanistan then you hear it. But you don’t hear very much about African countries that are not central to our geopolitical concerns. So I think that that’s part of the problem that people give so little to international aid, because they don’t actually know very much about the problems that they intend to solve.
Recorded on: March 16, 2009
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