The philosopher Peter Singer discusses morality and enlightened self-interest.
Question: Why should we behave morally?
Peter Singer: I mean, the sound bite answer is you should be moral because in the long run, looking at your real interest, it will be better for you but, you know, without more explanation, that sound bite maybe doesn’t convince people.
I think people need to reexamine their self-interest, this is where we began this conversation when you look at people like Madoff and so on or going back to earlier similar crises. Why do these people who already have so much money sacrifice ethical standards in order to have more? That’s the bewildering thing and I think it has to be that they have the wrong view of their self-interest.
They actually believe that the difference between having 10 million and a billion is somehow really important difference that is going to make their lives so much better and is worth taking risks for ‘cause they must have known they were taking serious risk. And I think that that’s a mistake, I don’t think there’s any evidence that suggest that you’re necessarily going to be happier as a billionaire than… once you got 10 million.
Question: How have your ideas about morality evolved?
Peter Singer: I think the major difference between my views when I was just a graduate student and now is I give more weight to the idea that you can give an answer from the perspective of an enlightened self-interest to innate question, “Why should I be moral?”
So I think it’s very often, not always, but it’s very often in our interest to have ethical standards and to act in accordance with them and that’s good for us in our relations with others because people respect us because of it and get to know it. It’s also good for us in terms of our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment with life and so I think you can give an answer that works well for many people, if not quite perfectly through that.
I wasn’t really as aware of that when I wrote the Master’s thesis but in other aspects, the reset of the thesis, I think I would probably still accept.
I don’t think you can rationally prove an answer for everyone irrespective to their nature or preferences that shows that it’s always rational for them morally.
Recorded on: March 16, 2009