How to Live an Ethical Life

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

 

Peter Singer tackles poverty and the environment.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

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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