Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times

1.

Peter Singer: I believe that we are biological being, we are animals, we have evolved from countless ancestors. Each of those ancestors, in order to pass on their genes, had to survive, and in some broad sense of the term, compete for survival against others and against the environment; and had to be successful in surviving and reproducing and as mammals protecting his or her offspring.

So, it’s not surprising that we should have an element of selfishness in us.

But it’s also a mistake to think that this competition is nature, really tooth and claw kind of bloody conflict in which we have to kill others. Sometimes we compete more effectively by learning ways of cooperating with others and then through operative pairs or groups do better.

I think there is a biological basis for both competitive and sometimes aggressive instincts and for our cooperative instincts. And what we need to try to do, if we’re trying to fashion a better society in which people could get what they want more, and there is less suffering, is we need to think about how to channel those innate behavioral patterns into ones that would be better for fostering, cooperative and productive relationships and will not foster the aggressive, competitive ones.

2.

Peter Singer: One reaction is just one of bewilderment, how people can get themselves into this mess, especially people who are already comfortably off; that they just seemed to want more and more; that they can’t stop and they get into terrible trouble.

And you wonder, is it that the money has so much value to them more--because once you have a certain amount, really, it can’t make much difference to your lifestyle.

I take it that it’s something else that’s driving them, it’s the desire for public success or status or something of that sort that must be getting them to lose sight of what, for any normal person, would be a balanced set of priorities.

3

Peter Singer: I don’t think that greed in itself is ever good. I think that the desire to succeed, the desire to have more, can lead to people being more productive and working harder.

But I think when it actually turns into greed, it’s not good for the person who’s greedy, it doesn’t conduce to their satisfaction with life, and it’s always liable to spill over to some of these consequences that we’ve been seeing in the last few months [circa early 2009].

I would not say that greed is really ever good, although I would agree that it could be a way in which some good things happen. But I would much prefer if those good things happen because people care about the good things because people care about trying to abuse a better product which will make people’s lives better. That’s certainly preferable motivation.

4

Peter Singer: I think that people may feel pinched as compared to where they were last year. We’re not being all that badly pinched if they compare themselves to where they were five or ten years ago.

I don’t think if it’s philosophy that’s helping, it’s taking a bit of perspective on your situation and of course, some people genuinely have it. Some people are not able to pay their mortgages, they’ve lost their job, their house will get foreclosed on them and I’m not really expecting those people to be altruistic.

But most Americans, even in this downturn, are still very well-off. They still live very comfortably, they have a range of luxuries. And if they compare their situation with that of those really poor, the global poor, they’re just incomparably better off. They spend on trivialities like a bottle of water which they don’t need because the water the comes out of the tap is safe to drink. And yet the cost of that bottle of water might be all that a family has to live on for a day in a developing country.

5.

Peter Singer: I think some people have always taken what they can get and it’s simply that the opportunities are different, the size of the economy is different, the possibilities are very different; and so you couldn’t steal $50 billion dollars before and now you can.

I really don’t see human nature as having changed very much in a short term. Human nature in my view is pretty much constant; and of course variable from person to person and circumstance to circumstance. But there’s something basic that underlies it that displays itself in different ways and different conditions.

 

Recorded March 16, 2009.

Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.

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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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