Peter Singer Through the Decades

Peter Singer, one of this generation’s most influential philosophers, has had a long and illustrious career, with his work impacting the lives of millions around the world.

It’s almost impossible to summarise all of his accomplishments, but that’s exactly what we’ll be trying to do in this blog – Peter Singer Through the Decades. If you’ve ever wondered “why is Peter Singer so popular?”, this post is for you.

1940

Born in Melbourne in 1946 to Austrian-Jewish refugees, Peter showed interest in philosophy from a young age.

1960

Upon finishing high school, Peter studied law, history and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1967.

In 1969 he gained a master’s degree with his thesis “Why Should I Be Moral?”

1970

Peter was awarded a scholarship to the University of Oxford, where he obtained a Bachelor of Philosophy in 1971 with a thesis on civil disobedience, which was later made into a book – Democracy and Disobedience, 1973.
During these years Peter became a vegan, quite revolutionary at that time, after meeting Richard Keshen, a fellow graduate student. Keshen explained his ethical objections to eating meat, and Peter was moved. Within a week both he and his wife stopped eating meat, and continue doing so to this day.
In 1975 he published Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals, a truly groundbreaking work that is widely considered within the animal liberation movement to be the founding philosophical statement of its ideas. It can be seen as a catalyst for a worldwide animal rights movement, as before it, animals were popularly regarded as not being worthy of rights or special protection.
In Animal Liberation, Peter popularised the term “speciesism”, the favouritism of one’s own species while disregarding the interests of others. He argues that all beings capable of suffering should be worthy of equal consideration, and that giving lesser consideration to beings based on their species is no more justified than discrimination based on skin color.
In his 1972 essay Famine, Affluence, and Morality, Peter became a leading figure in the nascent effective altruism movement by arguing that citizens of rich nations are morally obligated to give at least some of their disposable income to charities that help the global poor.

He supported this notion using the “drowning child analogy”. The thought experiment goes like this: if you saw a helpless young child drowning in a shallow pond, would you save them? Most people say yes. What about if you would ruin your best clothes? You would still do it, even if you didn’t know the kid. The reality is that people are suffering all around the world, and even if you don’t know them, we have an obligation to help them if we can.

1980

Now living in Australia, Peter wrote Practical Ethics (1980) which analyzes why and how living beings’ interests should be weighed. In his view, a being’s interests should always be weighed according to that being’s inherent properties, and not according to its belonging to a group.

In it, Singer studies a number of ethical issues including race, sex, ability, species, abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, the moral status of animals, political violence, overseas aid, and whether we have an obligation to assist others. Later editions added chapters on refugees, the environment, equality and disability, and embryo experimentation.

The following year, he wrote The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology (1981), an exploration of how over the course of human history, people have expanded the circle of beings whose interests they are willing to value similar to their own.

Originally that circle would have been self, family and tribe, but over time it grew to encompass all other humans. Peter argues that non-human animals should also be included.

During the decade, Peter also published books on Hegel and Marx.

1990

In 1990 Henry Spira, a lifelong activist and founder of the modern animal rights movement, wrote Ethics into Action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement. It stems from Peter Singer’s thinking in the early 1970s, and Henry turned Peter’s ethical lessons into action, launching campaigns against organisations whose practices caused unnecessary suffering to animals.
In 1993, Peter wrote How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-interest, arguing that doing the right thing involves attending to the sufferings and preferences of other sentient beings.
He followed this work up with Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (1994) in which he argues that we cannot deal with the crucial issues of death, abortion, euthanasia and the rights of nonhuman animals unless we sweep away old ethics and build something new in its place. Singer outlines a new set of commandments, based on compassion and commonsense, for the decisions everyone must make about life and death.
In the book A Darwinian Left, 1999, Singer argues that the view of human nature provided by evolutionary science, particularly by evolutionary psychology, is compatible with the ideological framework of the Left and should be incorporated into it.

2000

In 2001 Peter became a regular contributor to Project Syndicate, an international media organization that publishes and syndicates commentary and analysis on a variety of global topics

During the 2000s a number of Peter’s books on diverse topics were published. In One World: The Ethics of Globalisation (2002) Peter applied moral philosophy to four issues: the impact of human activity on the atmosphere; international trade regulation; the concept of national sovereignty; and the distribution of aid.
In Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna (2003) Peter reflected on the life and work of his Viennese grandfather, a classical scholar and critic of Sigmund Freud who died at the hands of the Nazis, and who left behind a legacy of personal letters and other written materials.
In The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (2004) Peter examined the chasm between the words and actions of George W. Bush, who claimed the moral high ground more than any president in recent US history (perhaps until Trump).
In 2009 Peter published the monumental book The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty. The book is a treasure trove of resources for effective giving, and provides charity evaluators for prospective donors. The book inspired billionaires such as Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffet, to give away large swathes of their wealth.
Based on the book’s principles he founded the charity The Life You Can Save in 2013. The charity curates a list of effective organisations, and aims to create a world where everyone has an opportunity to build a better life, and where there’s no suffering or death due to extreme poverty.

2010

The Most Good You Can Do: How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically (2015) is a follow-up to The Life You Can Save. The latter book focuses on the broader question of how to do the most good, and challenges ineffective giving. The book shows how, paradoxically, living altruistically often leads to greater personal fulfillment than living for oneself.
In Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter (2016), Peter applies his controversial ways of thinking to issues like climate change, extreme poverty, animals, abortion, euthanasia, human genetic selection, sports doping, the sale of kidneys, the ethics of high-priced art, and ways of increasing happiness.

2020

In 2020 Peter’s book Why Vegan? Eating Ethically was published, in a world far more open to the idea of veganism, arguably from all the work he’s done over his life.

In 2021 he edited and abridged The Golden Ass by Apuleius, an ancient story of animal suffering.

In September 2021 Peter won the prestigious Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. He plans to give half the money to The Life You Can Save and more than a third to effective organizations combating factory farming. As for the rest, you can help decide where it’s donated to on The Life You Can Save’s website.

See Peter Singer LIVE

Would your friends and family love to see Peter Singer LIVE on-stage? We’re touring him across Australia and New Zealand (with a Virtual Event for those who can’t make it to an in-person show) in March/April 2022!

The net proceeds from the tour are being donated to The Life You Can Save in support of their efforts to alleviate global poverty, so when you buy a ticket you’re not only getting your mates a great night out, you’re also supporting a worthy cause – that’s a win-win!