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Peter Singer - Biography

Peter Albert David Singer, B.Phil. (graduate degree in Philosophy at the University of Oxford, England), is a renown Australian-born Jewish philosopher born on July 6th 1946. For over thirty years he has challenged traditional notions of applied ethics. He is world famous for giving the impetus to the animal rights movement. Today he holds the chair of ethics at Princeton University. Singer has also held twice the chair of philosophy in his native land at Monash University where he also founded the Centre for Human Bioethics. Peter Singer is a rationalist philosopher in the Anglo-American tradition of utilitarianism. He teaches “practical ethics”, which he defines as the application of a morality to practical problems based on philosophical thinking rather than on religious beliefs. In 2009 Singer would make it to the Time magazine list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World”.

Peter Singers’ parents were Viennese Jews who had escaped the annexation of Austria and had fled to Australia in 1938. His paternal grandparents would be deported to Lodz, a concentration camp in Poland, and Singer would never know what really happened to them. His maternal grandfather, moreover, would die in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in what is now Czech Republic. Singer’s father was a tea and coffee importer while his mother was a medical doctor.

Peter Singer would for a while attend Scotch College in Melbourne, Australia. After leaving school Singer would study law, history and philosophy at the University of Melbourne where he would graduate in 1967 with a Bachelor or Arts. Subsequently he would receive in 1969 an MA for his thesis “Why should I be moral?”. After that Peter Singer would be rewarded for his promising work with an offer to enter the University of Oxford, which he would accept, leading him to earn a B.Phil., which is in spite of its name is a graduate degree in Philosophy in 1971. His dissertation would be on civil disobedience, supervised by the famous English moral philosopher R.M. Hare. Singer would later publish this same thesis as a book in 1973 with the title of “Democracy and Disobedience”.

His 1975 book “Animal Liberation” would greatly influence the modern movements of animal welfare. There he argues against speciesism, which is the discrimination between beings on the sole basis of their species, and in this way it is almost always in practice in favor of members of the human race against non-human animals. The idea is that all beings that are capable of both suffering and experiencing pleasure, that is, sentient beings, should be regarded as morally equal in the sense that their interests ought to be considered equally. Professor Singer argues in particular that the fact of using animals for food is unjustifiable because it causes suffering disproportionate to the benefits humans derive from such consumption. According to him it is therefore a moral obligation to refrain from eating animal flesh (vegetarianism) or even go as far as not consuming any of the products derived from the exploitation of animals (veganism).

In 1977 he would be appointed to the chair of philosophy at Monash University where he was to become the first director of the Centre for Human Bioethics. Peter Singer is also the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics as well as the editor of the academic journal called “Bioethics” together with the prominent Australian philosopher Helga Kuhse, with whom in 1985 he would also write the famous “Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants”.

In 1996 he would run unsuccessfully as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004 he would be recognized as the Australian humanist of the year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Outside academic circles, professor Singer is best known for his book “Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement”, which is today regarded as the founding book of modern movements of animal rights. Singer’s stand on bioethical issues, however, have been controversial, particularly in the United States and Germany. Indeed in 1999 Singer would be appointed Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University, which would create a controversy important enough that Harold T. Shapiro president of the prestigious university at the time would have to justify the appointment.

In 2008 Peter Singer was part of the film and later book “Examined Life: Excursions with Contemporary Thinkers” featuring eight philosophers and directed by Astra Taylor who has also directed the famous 2006 documentary on Slavoj Zizek entitled “Zizek!”. Not surprisingly, he took up the topic of ethics and chose to do so from Fifth Avenue in the New York City because as he puts it, the fact that it is the center of one of the world’s richest countries and one of the most expensive places there raises an ethical issue. Singer points out that there are people who have the money to shop at those expensive stores and who do not seem to see any kind of moral problem with doing so. He wants to ask whether they should see some sort of moral problem about that because for him there is a real question about what we should spend our money on. He demonstrates how ethics is about such basic choices we make in our lives. He shows how if we did apply ethics more we would find that thinking things through leads to challenge common-sense morality.

Still in this film, he argues that a lot of people mistakenly think that you can only have ethical standards if in some way you are religious and you believe, for instance that there’s a God who handed down commandments to tell us what to do. He suggests that while ethics has to come from ourselves, it does not mean that it is totally subjective. Rather, when we start to look at issues ethically we have to do more than just think about our own interests. We have to ask ourselves how to take into account the interests of others. For example, we have to ask what we would choose if we were in their position rather than in ours? What emerges at that point is the priority of reducing or preventing suffering. Because ethics is not just about what we actually do and the impact of that but it is also about what we omit to do, what we choose not to do. That is why questions about what we spend our money on are also questions about what we choose not to spend our money on. A lot of us forget that he points out. Further, a lot of philosophers have asked about the meaning of life. According to Singer, life becomes meaningful when we connect ourselves with some really important causes or issues and help.

In 1971 Singer wrote an article entitled “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” which remains today one of his most known philosophical essays. There he imagines the scenario in which you are walking past a shallow pond, and as you walk past it you see there is a small child who has fallen into it and seems to be in danger of drowning. You look around to see where the parents are but there is nobody in sight. You realize that unless you wade into this pond and pull the child out, it is likely to drown. There is no danger to you because you know the pond is just a shallow one, but you are wearing a nice and expensive pair of shoes and they are probably going to get ruined if you go into the pond. Of course, when you ask people about such a situation they always say “Well, of course, forget about the shoes. You’ve just got to save the child. That’s clear.” But then you can say “Okay, you know, I agree with you about that. But for the price of a pair of shoes, if you were to give that to an organization like Oxfam or UNICEF, they could probably save the life of a child, maybe more than one child in a poor country where children are dying because they can’t get basic medical care.”

In 2009 he wrote “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty”. There Peter Singer demonstrates that for the first time in its history humanity has the financial and material resources to eradicate poverty worldwide. In spite of this, today a billion people live on less than one Euro a day. Every year ten million children die from the effects of poverty. He argues that it is a situation that is ethically indefensible and yet most of us are content simply to deplore. In this powerful essay Singer analyzes the psychological mechanisms in our relationship to money, to wealth-sharing, and to solidarity between people. Through a rigorous proof he lays the foundation for twenty-first century activism, which he sees as responsible and generous. He provides practical solutions with figures to support them, and in this way urges us to act immediately.

In 2011 he re-published one of his most important works, “Practical Ethics” (1979), which continues to be influential today.

Peter Singer is a professor of Utilitarian Ethics And Animal Rights at the European Graduate School, EGS where he teaches a summer seminar with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radekil. (July 6, 1946 - ).