Peter Singer

Peter Singer, Professor of Philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS.


Peter Albert David Singer (b. 1946) is a professor of philosophy at The European Graduate School / EGS, where he teaches an intensive seminar with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radekil. The renown Australian-born Jewish philosopher has challenged traditional notions of applied ethics for over thirty years and is world famous for giving the impetus to the animal rights movement. Today, he is the chair of ethics at Princeton University. Singer has also been the chair of philosophy twice at Monash University (Australia), 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 morality to practical problems based on philosophical thinking rather than religious beliefs. In 2009, Singer would make it to Time magazine's list of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World.”

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

For a time, Peter Singer attended Scotch College in Melbourne, Australia. After leaving school, Singer studied law, history, and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, where he graduated in 1967 with a Bachelor or Arts. In 1969, he subsequently received an MA for his thesis “Why should I be moral?” After that, Singer was rewarded for his promising work with an offer to enter the University of Oxford, which he accepted. This lead to his earning a BPhil—which is, in spite of its name, 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 later published this same thesis as a book in 1973 with the title “Democracy and Disobedience.”

His 1975 book, “Animal Liberation,” greatly influenced the modern movements of animal welfare. In it 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 a practice committed 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. Peter 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 their consumption. According to Singer, 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, Peter Singer was appointed to the chair of philosophy at Monash University, where he became the first director of the Centre for Human Bioethics. Singer is also the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics as well as the editor of—together with the prominent Australian philosopher Helga Kuhse—the academic journal “Bioethics.” In 1985, Singer and Kuhse co-wrote the famous “Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants.”

In 1996, Peter Singer ran unsuccessfully as a Green party candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004, he was recognized as the Australian humanist of the year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Outside academic circles, Singer is best known for his book “Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement,” which today is regarded as the founding book of the modern animal rights movement. Singer’s stance on bioethical issues, however, has been controversial, particularly in the United States and Germany. Indeed, in 1999, Singer was appointed professor of bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values at Princeton University, which created 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 New York City because, as he put it, the fact that it is the center of one of the world’s richest countries and one of the most expensive places raises an ethical issue. Singer points out that there are people who have the money to shop at the expensive stores there and who do not seem to see any kind of moral problem with doing so. In the documentary, he wants to ask whether those consumers 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 the 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 challenging 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 you what to do. He suggests that while ethics have 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 our own? What emerges at that point is the priority of reducing or preventing suffering. Because, he explains, 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 to this day 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, Singer 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 it. In this powerful essay, Singer analyzes the psychological mechanisms behind 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, Singer re-published one of his most important works, “Practical Ethics” (1979), which continues to be influential today.