Global Ethics and the Point of View of the Universe

Nov 7, 2014

Sidgwick's concept of looking at issues from "the point of view of the universe"--in other words, giving equal weight to everyone's interests, irrespective of who they are, now or in future--can be the basis for a global ethic, says utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. He goes on to explain what this means for all of us in practical, concrete terms.


RAJAN MENON: My name is Rajan Menon. I am a political science professor here at City College and also a Global Ethics Fellow of the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Professor Peter Singer, whom you've all come to listen to, will take the stage momentarily but permit me please to tell you a little bit about the background of today's program and to thank some people who need thanking, because without them this would not have happened.

This day's events are a collaboration between the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, not to be confused with their kindred spirits, the Carnegie Corporation or the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. These are three separate entities with three separate missions, although set up by the same individual.

Earlier this year, Joel Rosenthal, whom I've known for many years, who is the president of the Carnegie Council came to attend our human rights forum. I think Joel spoke at the very first one. We then talked about how nice it would be if we could have a collaboration between City College and the Carnegie Council and this is the result of that. It is, in some ways, a curious partnership—curious in the best sense of the word.

First, there is the age factor. The Carnegie Council is a venerable institution. It is now celebrating its centenary. This is its Centennial year, as Judge Goldstone pointed out in the lunch address today. City College is even older than that. We were set up in 1847, which makes us 167 years old but the Colin Powell School, the youngest child of City College, is barely a year old. So it is a collaboration then between a young institution, the Colin Powell School, and an old venerable New York institution, the Carnegie Council.

The second has to do with geography, which in New York, matters a great deal. The Carnegie Council is located at a wonderful building on roughly 64th and Lexington. They're down there. We're up here in Harlem and rarely does it happen in New York that institutions, all of such different backgrounds, collaborate, and so we're very happy to welcome those of you who do not belong to our community uptown. Come often and visit.

A third respect in which this is a distinctive occasion is that this is the first time that the Carnegie Council and City College are collaborating. You might call it Global Ethics Day 1.0. Be aware that all the bugs in the software are being duly noted. I haven't seen any major ones so far.

A little bit about what happened today for those of you who've just arrived to hear Professor Singer: We began with a welcome breakfast where our dean of the Colin Powell School, Vince Boudreau, gave a wonderful presentation on sumptuous Shepard Hall, which I'm told is the oldest building on this campus.

From 10:00 to 12:00, running concurrently, there were 5 panels at which Carnegie's Global Ethics Fellows—now these folks are not just global in their thinking; they are truly global, because they come from all over the world—gave presentations, which were chaired by City College faculty and I would just briefly like to acknowledge my colleagues who chaired those panels: Professor Maria Binz-Scharf, Professor Lesley Paik, Professor Dan DiSalvo, Professor Bruce Cronin, and Professor Kevin Foster. Thank you all very much and welcome once again to the Global Ethics Fellows.

At lunch, the eminent South African jurist and international lawyer, Richard Goldstone, whom we managed to get at the last minute and was kind enough to come to address us at short notice, spoke on "Can There be a Global Legal Ethic" and we now come to this part of the program where Professor Peter Singer will speak to you.

An event on this scale and, especially, an event, which I called 1.0, cannot happen without the help and hard work of many people who often go unrecognized so permit me as a closing act, if you will, to recognize them: from the Carnegie Council, Joel Rosenthal, who when we suggested this collaboration to him was immediately willing and welcome; to Devin Stewart, a program officer at the Council; thank you Jenna Zhang, Melissa Semeniuk and Anna Kiefer, a Council employee who was there at the outset of the inception of this but I gather no longer works for the Council. They have been a wonderful team to work with and we would like to record our appreciation.

Speaking of wonderful teams, we have a wonderful team of our own, of the Colin Powell School: Dee Dee Mozeleski, Nkem Ejoh, Brooke Rocchino, Tiffany Scruggs, and David Covington. You've done an enormous amount of work that I personally have watched over the last several weeks and months in great awe. Thank you very much.

I'm now going to call on Professor Bruce Jentleson, professor of political science at Duke University and a trustee of the Carnegie Council to introduce our speaker, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University.

Thank you.

BRUCE JENTLESON: Thanks very much, Raj, and it's a privilege to be here representing the Carnegie Council board of trustees. As Raj said, this has been a fabulous collaboration.

This is the Centennial year. It was 100 years ago when Andrew Carnegie created the forerunner of our organization. He was that rather unusual combination of personalities in one person of, some would say, hard-driving—others might use a different adjective—kind of business man, and at the same time, someone who believed that he could prevent war—and particularly World War I from occurring—what some might call a naïve idealist, all wrapped into one.

This has been a centennial year. This is the third in a series of events. In October 2013, we gathered with many other Carnegie entities in Edinburgh, and visited Dunfermline, the small town outside of Edinburgh where he was born before he came to the United States.

In June, there was an event in Sarajevo, commemorating—that's probably a better term—the beginning of World War I and also focusing on recent events in the Bosnian and other wars.

This in New York is our third event and it's really very exciting.

Let me simply say that as a organization that has in its title "ethics in international affairs," there's sort of a sense of "now more than ever" for what we represent, in two respects.

One, I think—and our speaker very much in his career and his work addresses this—is that sort of the barrier between the international and the national or domestic has become increasing porous in so many ways. I mean, think Ebola or many, many other aspects. So when one thinks of ethics, it becomes harder and harder to separate it into ethics that one thinks of within one zone, nation-state domain, and broadly international.

And the second I think that is also very interesting is there would be a time where many of my friends and colleagues would say, "Oh, ethics, that's really good—go think about it and talk about it over coffee or a glass of wine but we have to really think about real hardcore pragmatic issues like war and peace and the like." Well, the principled and the pragmatic are becoming increasingly interconnected in so many ways here in the 21st century.

And so we have a speaker, Peter Singer, who has been so thoughtful and prolific on so many different aspects of ethical issues that constantly brings people's focus back to the ethical domain but in ways that really connect the principled and the pragmatic. As many of you know, he's the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He also continues to hold the position of laureate professor at the University of Melbourne and the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics back there in his hometown.

You can go to his website. He is enormously prolific as a scholar, as a public intellectual. Let me simply mention two of his most recent works—his book published in May 2014 called The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick in Contemporary Ethics and the book that he's working on now, Doing the Most Good, which is something we all probably want to think about how best to do.

Please join me in welcoming Professor Peter Singer.


PETER SINGER: Thank you very much for that warm introduction and I want to thank the Carnegie Council and, of course, the Colin Powell School here at the City College for organizing this event, putting it together and bringing you together and making it possible for me to speak in this wonderful hall, the first time that I've been in it, and it's great to be part of that.

Now, as was just mentioned, my most recent book has the title The Point of View of the Universe and I thought that would be a good place to begin to speak about global ethics. How is that possible and to what does it lead?

The phrase the "point of view of the universe" is not mine. It comes from the 19th century Victorian philosopher that that book is in part about, Henry Sidgwick. For those of you who are not trained in philosophy and even perhaps some who are may say: Who was Henry Sidgwick?

Well, Henry Sidgwick was the last of the three great 19th century English utilitarians and he was certainly the least well known of the three. The school was founded by Jeremy Bentham. It was continued by John Stuart Mill and it's probably still the case that if you are taking a course in ethics and if you are assigned one of the classic works of utilitarianism, it will be John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.

But as a philosopher—of course not the only thing one can say about somebody—but as a philosopher, Henry Sidgwick certainly was the superior of either Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill. His work, The Methods of Ethics runs to about 500 pages of fairly dense Victorian prose, which probably explains why, if you were assigned a work of classic utilitarianism, you were sent to Mill's Utilitarianism. It's a very short work. It was written for a magazine to be published in three installments. It was not really revised and, in my view, it contains a number of philosophical errors, which maybe makes it handy for your professors to point out to you if you're assigned it.

In comparison, Sidgwick wrote The Methods of Ethics and continued to revise it over a period of about 30 years. So it's a careful work. It's a qualified work. That's why it's not so widely read and that's why in writing this book, my co-author and I wanted to do something to direct attention to a more careful statement of a utilitarian ethic.

As part of that, we discussed this phrase of Sidgwick's, "the point of view of the universe," and the context of that is that Sidgwick is an objectivist about ethics. That is, he thinks that there are some ethical judgments that are objectively true.

He was familiar with the view—already, it was well-established in various writers in the history of philosophy—there have been various writers who had defended the idea that ethics is something subjective, there is no truth to be found really in this area. Sidgwick rejected that and argued that there are some, perhaps rather abstract, ethical principles, which anyone who contemplates them, carefully reflects on them, any rational being will see to be objectively true.

One of these was the idea that from the point of view of the universe, the welfare of any one individual is of no greater importance than the welfare of any other individual, supposing only that the quantities of welfare that those individuals are capable of are broadly similar. So essentially, what that means is that in considering whether an action is right or wrong, I should be not giving special weight to whether the action furthers my interests or your interests and we can go further.

I should not be giving special weight to considering whether the action furthers the interest of people in New York City or people in, let's say, Dar es Salaam. I should not be giving special weight to whether the action furthers the interest of people in the United States or people in Mali.

What we should be considering is how much impact does it have on the well-being of any of these individuals. And Sidgwick thought of that as something, which if we think about things carefully, if we detach ourselves from our own particular desires that we may have—we can appreciate, something that anyone capable of reasoning should be able to reach that judgment.

Not everyone will agree with that but I think it is a defensible view that—although, of course, we are not purely rational beings, and I'll say a bit more about that in a moment—to the extent that we can detach ourselves from our non-rational desires and impulses and intuitions, we can see that there is this broader point of view which Sidgwick calls the point of view of the universe.

Now Sidgwick didn't mean in using that phrase that the universe actually has a point of view. On the question of whether there is a God of some sort, Sidgwick was fairly much agnostic really. It was a question he was very interested in. He tried exploring it in various ways.

He was interested, for example, in claims about the possibility of communicating with people after they die and whether there are spirits. He conducted research into that but he was never satisfied that there was good evidence that that was the case and he, in fact, at one point resigned his college fellowship because it was then a condition at the University of Cambridge for being a college fellow that you had to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Although that was, for many people, just a formula, Sidgwick decided that he could not honestly subscribe to that and he therefore resigned. That actually contributed to a movement to have that requirement rescinded and it was rescinded some years later by the English Parliament and he was then able to take up his position again.

So it's not that the universe has a point of view, but it's rather that we are capable of thinking "as if" from that universal point of view. That's why I think this is an excellent basis for talking about a global ethic—you could say, a universal ethic and if there are conscious beings elsewhere in the universe, then indeed I think it would make sense to speak about a universal ethic rather than simply a global ethic. But for the moment, it's probably ambitious enough in the world's circumstances to talk about a global ethic and to try and aim at that.

Let me just say one more thing about Sidgwick before I leave this topic and that is, as well as saying that the interests of every individual count the same, wherever they are or whoever they are, another of his circle of self-evident axioms was that a difference in time is also not, in itself, morally relevant. As he put it, the hereafter as such does not reduce the significance of someone's life. So what he meant by that is that we should also have concern for the interest of future generations, not just those existing now. A universal ethic would take that into account.

Again, you could discount for uncertainty. We may have relatively little idea of what people in 500 years will need, what kind of technologies they will have and what we can do now that will help or hinder the lives they lead. Indeed, we might be uncertain whether there will be any sentient beings on this planet in 500 years—it's possible that we will manage the future so disastrously that there won't be. Insofar as there are, their interests have to count as well. And that's something that I think is important for some of the issues that we need to deal with.

So if that can be a kind of groundwork for a universal ethic—the idea of giving equal weight, equal consideration to everyone's interests, irrespective of who they are, now or in future—where does that lead us in terms of what we should focus on in the world as it is today?

In other words, what's the application of this very broad and very abstract idea to the situation in which we face ourselves? Well, there are a number of issues where clearly this is relevant.

One of the ones that I've personally focused on right back since my earliest years—one of the earliest articles that I wrote in the early 1970's is the question of the obligations of citizens of wealthy nations like this one to people in other parts of the world who are in extreme poverty or possibly even in a situation of desperate need.

At the time when I wrote this, the desperate need that I had in mind that had spurred me to write was the crisis in what was then East Pakistan and is now Bangladesh as a result of the repression of a movement for autonomy by the Pakistani Army, which had led to 9 million people from East Pakistan fleeing across the border into India. So we had 9 million refugees in camps in a desperate situation. If we move forward to today, as was already mentioned by Bruce in the introduction, we could look at the Ebola crisis and look at what that is doing and threatens to do to parts of West Africa.

That's an interesting situation, because obviously the media have been full of this situation but, in particular, they've been full of the situation affecting the United States and the very small number of Americans who've contracted the disease and what is to be done about that. Now certainly that's important. I'm not for a moment saying that it's not. But the fact that the crisis has developed where it has in Liberia and Sierra Lione is really due, in part at least, to our failure to assist those countries to provide better infrastructure in health care and that's what is now coming back to at least threaten us.

If you compare the situation in Nigeria where there were some cases and where for a time it seemed that Ebola could spread even more disastrously because cities like Lagos have so many more people than in Sierra Lione or Liberia, it appears—I know one has to be careful in making categorical statements in a fluid situation—but it appears that a catastrophic outbreak has been averted there because there was a hospital, developed and built substantially by aid from this country, primarily, as I understand it, from the Gates Foundation, not specifically to deal with Ebola but to deal with an infectious diseases—deal with polio and then subsequently to deal with HIV AIDS.

Because there were well-trained staff and good resources, it seems that it's been possible to control that outbreak. We can certainly hope so. And perhaps if we had done more beforehand for the other countries where the outbreak exists, we may not be facing the tragic situation we are now.

So that's the present face of that situation and it is a situation which calls on us, I think, to explicitly endorse a global stance, again a point of view of the universe stance of global solidarity wherever the disease is and not to retreat to a kind of "fortress USA" attitude where we say we close our borders. We make sure that nobody who is at risk of having the disease gets into the United States and we worry only about where the disease is threatening us now. That's probably not feasible to do even if we wanted to do it, but I think it would be a profoundly unethical approach to take even if it were feasible.

Having spoken about Ebola though, it's important to realize that this is happening against a background of illness and death, which really dwarfs even the tragic toll that we have seen in the countries where Ebola is now present. This is something that we have known about for a long time and although we have not been completely inactive, we have not, I think, lived up to the obligations of our global ethic.

We are living in a world in which it's obvious that there is very considerable affluence, affluence in this country and many other countries and affluent classes in other countries like China and India, as well. Yet there is extreme poverty. There is extreme poverty that affects about, according to the World Bank, 1.2 billion people, and they're poor by a definition which essentially says they do not have enough income to meet their basic needs.

The World Bank defines that as the purchasing-power equivalent of $1.25 a day. That's in 1993 dollars, so let's say $1.75 a day, perhaps, but it's the purchasing-power equivalent. It's not what you would get if you took $1.75 to a bank in a developing country where you would find yourself with an amount of money that would buy a lot more in that country than $1.75 buys here. It's already calculated at purchasing power equivalence. So over a billion people are living on essentially what you could buy if you had $1.75 to live on per day. That's a kind of poverty that really does not exist in this country.

When I talk about why we should be helping people in extreme poverty elsewhere in the world, a lot of people will say, "Look, there are poor people in this country." They may say there are poor people not very far from here, within a few blocks of here.

Of course, there are people who are poor by the standards of the U.S. poverty lines, but this is a different standard. We provide people here, for example, with supplementary nutritional assistance, what is popularly known as food stamps. The cash value of food stamps is around $4.00 a day. So if you're getting food stamps, that alone puts you above the World Bank's international poverty line. It's true, unfortunately, that not everybody uses their food stamps wisely and there may therefore still be people who have food stamps but whose families go hungry. That's a tragedy, but the means are there.

Of course, in addition to having food stamps, people in this country have clean water, safe water. They have sanitation. They have access to health care—even if you don't have health insurance and even if you're not on Medicaid, if you're seriously ill and you go to a hospital emergency room, they have to treat you. They can't turn you away until you've stabilized your condition. That's something that for a billion of the world's poorest people cannot be said.

So this is a kind of poverty that has a bigger impact on people. It may mean also that they can't afford to send their children to school, depending on where they are. Again, that's something that everybody here can do.

And it has the effect that their children may die of diseases that we know how to prevent or to cure, diseases that children here do not die of. Some of the biggest killers among the global poor are diseases like diarrhea or pneumonia or measles or malaria, diseases which we don't have here or which we can easily treat.

One indication of the ongoing effects of extreme poverty are the number of children who die before their fifth birthday as a result of these diseases and of lack of sanitation and of safe drinking water. The most recent figure in the most recent report issued by UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Foundation—it just came out last month—is that 6.3 million children die before they reach their fifth birthday from poverty-related causes. That comes out at about 17,000 children a day.

So that's why I say this dwarfs the Ebola outbreak. This is preventable and, in fact, we have been moderately successful in preventing it over the last couple of decades.

In 2009, I published a book called The Life You Can Save. [Editor's note: see Singer's 2009 Carnegie Council talk on this book.] In that book, I discuss the problem of global poverty and child mortality and the figure that appeared in the original hardback edition of that book was 9.8 million children dying each year. I suppose I was probably using a 2008 figure when the book when to press, so in quite a short space of time—let's say six years—we have cut the death rate by about a third or slightly more than a third; so aid in this area has been effective.

You sometimes get skeptics about aid saying the money doesn't reach the people who need it, the countries are corrupt, it's like pouring money down a black hole. This is not true. Of course, I'm not saying that aid is never wasted. In any large human enterprise, there will be corruption. There will be waste. But the effect of this is so important that even if it's true that not every penny that we give gets to people who need it, what it is doing is doing much more good than it would do if we were to retain it.

So we have been very successful in immunizing more children against measles so that the number of deaths in measles has now fallen to under a million—quite dramatic progress in a few years. The distribution of bed nets to prevent malaria has helped cut the death rate for malaria. The provision of clean drinking water has reduced the incidence of diarrhea and the distribution of a very simple mix of salts and instructions to people how to use it enables rehydration of children with diarrhea where dehydration is often the principle cause of death.

These are very simple solutions, very inexpensive solutions that make a big difference. If we ask the question, which was mentioned in the introduction, the question that I'm discussing in the next book I just completed and which will appear next year—if we ask the question of how can we do the most good, my answer to that is by supporting efforts to reach the world's poorest people and focusing our attention on them rather than on more local causes, which often tempt us.

You will be aware, if you are not spending the summer and early fall somewhere in a remote mountaintop, of the Ice Bucket Challenge, which led to many million—I think it's ended up over $40 million—being donated to an organization trying to combat ALS, known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Now it's good that people are stimulated to think about charity and to give to charity, but this was not really the most effective thing to do if you are giving to charity. This is a relatively rare disease that affects a small number of people. It's one that we don't really know how to prevent or cure. Of course, we can do more research on that but whether that research will or will not be successful, even if we throw $40 million towards it, is something that nobody knows.

But with $40 million, there's no doubt that we could save a large number of lives by increasing immunization against measles, distributing more bed nets against malaria. We can save lives for hundreds of dollars probably, perhaps in some areas, a couple of thousand dollars—estimates vary—but we could certainly have saved a lot of lives for that money whereas we don't know if we will save lives in using it in domestically in the United states.

So global poverty I think is one issue which really calls for a global ethic and an approach where we are less narrowly centered.

The other issue that I want to discuss and which I think is extremely important and certainly relates to global poverty as well as to many other things, is the question of global warming. Now I'm aware that there has been some discussion about whether global warming is real and whether global warming is caused by human activity by the emission of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide, and methane, in particular, into the atmosphere. The overwhelming majority of scientists in the relevant area think that the answer to both these questions is yes. Yes, global warming is real and yes, it is caused by human activity.

But suppose that there was uncertainty about that question. Suppose that even though the overwhelming majority of scientists are saying that is the case, suppose that really we could have been no more than 50 percent confident that human greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet in the way that scientist predict. Would that justify us not doing anything to reduce our greenhouse gases? Well to answer that question, you have to look at what is the expected value of action in this case. So by expected value, we mean what are the costs and benefits divided by the expectation that we will achieve them.

So expected value is a matter of probability times prize, right? If you have bought a ticket in a lottery and the prize is a million dollars and there are a million tickets being sold, the expected value of your ticket is only $1. If it's a much smaller lottery—the prize is only $1,000 but there's only 100 tickets being sold, the expected value of your ticket is $10. It's a matter of what are the returns and what are the odds. Fairly simple math if you know what the benefits are.

Well in this case, if the scientists turn out to be right and global warming is caused by our greenhouse gases and we do nothing about it, the costs are going to be extremely large.

We got a little glimpse of that here in New York and along the New Jersey coast with Hurricane Sandy. We got a little glimpse of how costly that was both in loss of lives and in what we need to do—what we need to spend to prevent that happening or to rebuild what still has been damaged from it and we still haven't done that.

In fact, I just came in on the train from New Jersey. It seems that one of the tunnels that goes under the Hudson—the tunnels got salt water in them during Hurricane Sandy and they have now discovered that they are going to have to close one of those tunnels and there's going to be disruptions and delays for several years to trains running in and out of New York City in that direction because of Hurricane Sandy. So we have not paid all of the costs of that as yet. There's a lot more to come.

And if the scientists are right, then that is just a tiny, tiny fraction of the costs that we will pay and the world as a whole will pay much more.

We may be able to buttress Manhattan against rising sea levels. We may be able to build sea walls and barriers so that even if sea levels do rise up to a couple of meters in the next century or so, we can keep the water out of here.

What are the 30 million inhabitants of Bangladesh going to do if sea levels rise? They have very dense, low-lying farmlands. The delta regions of the rivers that flow to the sea in Bangladesh are very rich, because for a long time they've been inundated with silt from the rivers so they're intensely farmed, but already, some of those areas are starting to become unfarmable because of occasional inundation with high tides and storms in the Bay of Bengal. So we are going to have far more people becoming refugees if their farmlands are inundated.

In large parts of Africa, subsistence farmers rely on rainfall in order to grow the crops with which they feed themselves. Their predictions are that rainfall patterns will change and some of those areas may become areas in which it's impossible for people to feed themselves. So we could have hundreds of millions of more people becoming refugees from those areas.

Essentially, the people who are already at the bottom are the ones who are going to suffer most from this, and this is again, something that is going to continue. It's not just something that will happen to people now, although it certainly is happening to people now in a small way. But it is going to be more severe as the decades and even the centuries roll by.

So if we take the point of view of the universe and if we take, as I said, a long-term perspective whereby the well-being of people in 50 years or 100 years or 200 years matters just as much as the well-being of people now discounted only for the uncertainties as I said, then this is clearly a critical question for which we, again, need a global ethic.

I think in looking at that in terms of a global ethic, it's clear that the affluent nations are the ones that have to take the first steps. It is the affluent nations that have created the problem through their much higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions over the centuries since the Industrial Revolution. So if you look at it on the principle of who broke it and therefore who should fix it, then obviously it's the affluent countries who caused the problems, who should fix it.

If on the other hand you say, "Look forget the past. We didn't know what we were doing," let's look at what's happening now. It's still the affluent countries who are on a per capita basis by far the biggest contributors to climate change, although it's true that China's greenhouse gas emissions recently passed those of the United States. The population of China is something like four times that of the United States, so obviously their per capita emissions are still something like a third to a quarter of those of the United States. That's even more true of India and other impoverished nations.

So on that basis as well, you would have to say it's our responsibility to take the first steps.

Finally, if you accept the principle of justice put forward by John Rawls, the late 20th century philosopher of Harvard, his view was that we should try to help those who are worst off. We should give priority to improving the situation of the worst off. Well, again, it's therefore necessary for those who are better off, which includes us, to take steps to help the worst off.

So I think that these are two examples, certainly not the only ones. I haven't talked about issues about war and peace. Those are further questions that we certainly could address. I haven't talked about environmental issues, apart from climate change, which are close to my heart, about the status of non-human animals and extending ethics to them, which is something I think is also important.

But given the time constraints, I think the questions of global poverty and the questions of global warming are two important issues in which we very urgently need to recognize that underlying ethic that if we take the point of view of the universe, the well-being of any individual is as important as the well-being of any other. If we do live in accordance to that, we are going to take strong action on both of these issues and I hope that we will be doing that and we will be focusing on how to do that as effectively as possible over the coming years and decades.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: Thanks, Peter, for your great talk and so good to see you after such a long time.

Your justification of supporting or giving priority of absolute poverty over relative poverty is based on your Sidgwickian point of view of the universe principle. Also you have championed that idea of impartial partiality along the same line and it seems like it's the moral version of Nagel's epistemic issue of the "view from nowhere," which Amartya Sen dubbed as as "positional objectivity." But from a moral perspective, would you share a comment on the relation between impartial partiality, which takes us beyond these special ties that partiality supports but not national partiality but global, and your Sedgwickian principle of this point of view of the universe?

By the way, Sidgwick himself taught that national borders matter and David Miller refers to him in support of his views that are, of course, very different from yours. So would you like to comment on these two principles to see how from a utilitarian perspective they converge?

PETER SINGER: Thank you. That's a good question. I'm glad to have the chance to develop what I said in that respect.

The principle that I mentioned, the principle of equal concern for everyone's interest from the point of view of the universe, is an underlying principle. It's a fundamental principle. But it's true that Sidgwick thought that in the situation in which he was living, it was necessary to have various more limited applications of it. And to some extent, that's still true, although I think less so than in Sidgwick's time.

So Sidgwick argued that for most people, it would still be the case that they ought to focus their philanthropy on people near them, people they knew in their local area, because he thought that was where they could best know what was needed and they could do more good in those areas.

Now it's true that in the late 19th century, it was pretty difficult to know what you could do to help people who were poor in Africa or Asia or other parts of the world. In fact, as many of you will know, Charles Dickens made fun of a character he called Mrs. Jellyby for her telescopic philanthropy, as he called it, because he pictured this woman as neglecting her own children—a very slovenly run household—but very concerned about doing good for the natives along the bank of the Limpopo or some river in Africa. I think Sidgwick had—not to the extent that Dickens had—but had some sense of the folly of trying to help people far away where you didn't know what was going on.

That's not the case now. We can know much better what's going on and we can learn at least what works and what doesn't work. Now that is something we have to learn and it is something we're still learning and that's one of the things I'm writing about in the new book Doing the Most Good, that we have to have good methods of evaluating our aid projects.

Ideally, if we can, we do randomized trials just as we do when we're testing a new pharmaceutical to see whether it works for a disease. So if, for example, which is the case, we don't have the capacity to distribute bed nets against malaria in all of the villages in a region where malaria is prone, we check the death rate, the infant mortality rates in, let's say, 100 villages and we distribute the bed nets in 50 of them and we see whether it does reduce the child mortality rate. If it does, then we have good evidence that it's making a difference. So we can now know the difference.

That's why I think, while some degree of partiality is permissible and indeed at least if you go to the family level, some degree of partiality is inevitable—I think the family is still the basic unit of society. It's still the basic unit for rearing children. We're not really going to get away from that. Attempts to get away from that, for example, in the Israeli kibbutzim, were not really successful. The bonds between parents and their children were too strong to be overcome even by idealistic socialists. So I think we're stuck with that and we're going to have to accept that the bonds of love and affection are what is going to govern family relations.

When we get beyond that, when we get beyond those sorts of circles of family and friends, I think we should be focused on where we can make the biggest difference, and as I say, that is going to be not really in this country. That is going to be where people are in extreme poverty.

Just let me say one more thing that I didn't get time to mention also in the talk—just think of it in terms of money. Suppose that you have $1,000 that you can donate. Well, a family living in poverty in the United States, a family of four is defined by the U.S. poverty line as living on less than $23,850. If you give them $1,000, you're not making a very dramatic difference to their annual income. But if a family of four is in poverty by the World Bank's standards, giving them $1,000 is likely to double their income, even if there's a couple of adults in the home.

So it can make a huge difference to what they can do. It can make the difference between them going hungry or not. It can make the difference between them having a bit of capital to start a small business. It can make it possible for them to replace a leaky thatched roof with a corrugated iron roof, all of those things.

I think we should be thinking much more than we do about where we can have the biggest impact rather than about what our local or national loyalties ought to be.

QUESTION: Can we always calculate where things will do good? I've been involved myself, and I know others have, in what looked like lost causes and the Camus position would be just fight on. There's a dignity in fighting on. Some things aren't predictable. I agree with everything you say but there's also tha we find ourselves in situations where it seems hopeless.

I'm reminded of the ethologist Lorenz, who pointed out that if somebody's missing, the geese will search—it's hopeless but the geese search. They're driven to search and maybe that hopeless searching—they never give up, nobody's ever lost, nobody ever dies, he said, as far as the geese are concerned. If a partner is gone, they go forever looking and he said maybe there's something in that drive to search, even though the odds and the the cost benefit analysis doesn't pay—maybe in some ways that's helped this species survive, the fact that they did not admit to any lost cause.

PETER SINGER: I think we can admire the nobility of somebody who perseveres in the face of the knowledge that something is almost certainly a lost cause and as you say, just occasionally, it turns out that it was not a lost cause and what seemed to be a hopeless struggle is vindicated.

But in general I still think that we ought to be sensitive to the probabilities of success and the probabilities of achievement and we ought not to invest our scarce resources, because resources are always scarce—even Bill Gates can't cure all the malaria in the world just by spending what he has. So I think we ought to use them where, as I said, the expected value is high.

Now that still might mean that we invest in a cause where the odds of success are small as long as the payoff is very big. Or we might choose to invest where the odds of success are very good and the payoff is relatively smaller. Those can both be reasonable strategies.

But if the cause is really hopeless, if all of the evidence and assessments that you have suggest that you cannot win or it's just extraordinarily unlikely that you will succeed, and if you fail, everything that you've put into it will be wasted, then I don't think that's a good strategy. Noble as we might find it, I think we ought to focus on where we can do the most good and that's not going to be banging our head against a brick wall.

QUESTIONER: It may be that the distinction you draw between international policy and more closer to home comes to bear—like a mother will fight for her kid no matter what. But you're talking about a more—

PETER SINGER: I'm talking about a larger picture, yes.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for that talk. I just wanted to ask what you thought how one could do the most good to reach the goals you are seeking. So beyond making arguments—this is a little outside any of our competencies—what do we do to get this kind of thinking onto the political agenda and move us away from just private charity but to the getting governments to do much more? How do we do the most good here?

PETER SINGER: There's more than one thing that we can do. One thing that we can do is support some of the organizations that are effectively reducing global poverty or helping the global poor.

I choose that one rather than climate change, because I think climate change, although as individuals, we can cut our own emissions, there's a clearer need for government to get involved. But in the global poverty thing, there are highly effective organizations.

If you want to know which they are, the best evaluator of charities in this country is Give Well. So go to and you'll find they list a very small number of organizations that do some of the things that I've been talking about, like helping the global poor against diseases or in one case, giving cash grants to people who are in poverty and monitoring what happens to that. So you can find effective organizations that are actually doing that.

You can also find organizations that are more advocacy organizations that are trying to effect government policy. The organization ONE, which is associated with Bono of U2 fame is one of those advocacy organizations.

An organization that does both advocacy and direct aid that I've had a long-standing connection with is Oxfam. Oxfam America acts both as an advocate for improving government aid, for better government trade policies that will be more favorable to the global poor, trying to improve the policies of big corporations where they effect the global poor and also doing direct aid at the village level.

So you can do that certainly.

In terms of being a more active citizen and getting government to change, there are again organizations that are trying to do that. ONE is one of those that I've mentioned. There's an organization called Results, which encourages citizens to contact their Congresspeople and to be active lobbyists and active citizens.

On the climate change area, there's also Citizens' Climate Lobby and other climate organizations are doing the same—obviously, we saw that in New York City with 311,000 people estimated just a couple of weeks back. Exactly how big an impact that had is hard to say but I think it was impressive that that many people were prepared to turn out. If that continues and those people don't just go away and say that was a nice Sunday march, but actually make sure that they are a continuing political presence on that issue, maybe we will start to see a much-needed change in this country's policies.

QUESTION: Today, at least in the first example of reducing global poverty, you talked about an equal interest or the assumption was an equal interest in life, in living, right? In the past, you've distinguished ethically between the interest in life and in equal interest in not suffering and I'm wondering if you could—I know that we've gone from the very concrete to the very abstract here—but if you could talk a little bit about that in terms of making choices globally about where to put our resources.

And may I just add very quickly, I'm very happy to see you and John Rawls joined in the same cause today.

PETER SINGER: Well philosophically, I certainly differ with John Rawls but I do think that these principles often converge. I think clearly they converge in what we ought to do about climate change and, in fact, I think if Rawls had been truer to his own principles when he talked about the global situation and global poverty, they would've come closer to converging on global poverty as well.

But to answer your more specific question, when introducing Sidgwick's principle, it's almost difficult to do this just briefly in a talk. I said that what he says is from the point of view of the universe, each individual counts the same assuming quantities of welfare are the same. So there are differences there and if I were giving a talk about questions in bioethics, questions about life and death, decisions in health care, then I think it does make a difference.

So obviously, I don't think that if somebody has no awareness—this is an extreme case—but if someone is in a persistent vegetative state, and let's say we can be sure because of images we've taken of their brain and the damage that's happened to their brain, we can be sure that there is no consciousness and there never will be consciousness, then even though perhaps they could live for 30 years, I don't think Sidgwick would have thought to say that their well-being was important as yours or yours or mine. Clearly not. So it does make a difference, what kind of capacities you have, at least at that extreme level.

Also it makes a difference, I suppose, how many years' expectation you might have. I think normally we would say that somebody gets to my age—late 60s—has maybe a life expectation of perhaps 15 years, 20 years if I'm lucky. I would say that if it were a choice between saving my life and the lives of many of those in the audience I see who look to be in their 20s or something like that, then you've got many more years to live and so more well-being in your life is more worth saving than mine.

QUESTION: You've made a strong case for intervention when it comes to the distribution of resources or the ceasing of pollution. What if the suffering is a result of torture or genocide? What then is the responsibility, either of individuals of states, to intervene?

PETER SINGER: Thank you. That does introduce another large area and a difficult area in which I think the questions of what are the ethical principles are relatively easier and the questions of what are the factual issues in terms of the consequences of your intervention become much more critical.

So in theory, I support the idea that there is a responsibility to protect people anywhere in the world from crimes against humanity, from genocide, for example.

That's not something that was always accepted, of course. For many years it was assumed that the guiding principle was non-intervention in the sovereign affairs of another country, but subsequent to World War II and more recently after what I think most people recognize was a failure to act in the case of Rwanda—certainly Bill Clinton said that he regarded that as one of the failures of his presidency that he most regrets—that there's an increasing idea that we do have a responsibility where we can intervene to protect people against genocide and similar atrocious crimes. But the question always is: Are we doing this at the right time and in the right way? The claim has been made that in Rwanda if we'd got in early enough, maybe as few as 5,000 well equipped troops could have stopped what later led to the deaths of 800,000 innocent people. [Editor's note: For more on the Rwandan Genocide, don't miss the recent Ethics Matter interview with Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire.]

But on the other hand, we've seen that intervention in some other countries as not being as clear-cut a success. We're looking at the unraveling of American intervention in Libya, for example, and even in Iraq, though, I wouldn't say that the original invasion of Iraq by the United States was intended primarily as humanitarian intervention—it wasn't even sold that way by President George W. Bush but Tony Blair certainly tried to sell it as humanitarian intervention to the British. It would be pretty hard to see that as having benefitted the people of Iraq on the whole now, brutal as Saddam Hussein was.

So I think that's the real question: Do we know what we're doing? Do we know what the consequences are going to be? Do we have a long-term strategy for the outcome in these situations?

And, to me, that's the real problem—not that in principle we should never go in to stop these things but that it's—we're often too ready to go in, perhaps where other interests of ours are also at stake or where we perceive there to be other interests of ours at stake and we use the humanitarian intervention as a justification. I think we can very often go wrong.

QUESTION: You discuss how the view from the universe would also require us to take a look at future generations and that we might discount the interests of those people based on our ability to know what their interests might be. I wonder if you would talk a little bit about whether or not you would advocate the economic principle of discounting the future or if you had something else in mind.

PETER SINGER: Good question. So when people talk about discounting the future, especially if you talk with economists, there are two quite different things that can get confused. There is the fact that if you have $100 to invest today and you put it away at compound interests for a certain number of years—let's say for 100 years—you will get back some significantly larger sum than $100 at the end of that time. Exactly how much larger is controversial.

When Bjørn Lomborg, the Danish environmentalist who initially was quite skeptical about doing stuff about climate change, made his argument, which I think was in the mid-'90s if I remember rightly, he used the discount rate of a compounding rate of 5 percent per anum, because he said you can safely get 5 percent per anum anywhere in secure bonds and so on. [Editors note: For more on Bjørn Lomborg, check out his 2005 Carnegie Council talk.]

Well, today it doesn't look that easy to get a safe 5 percent compounding return, so that figure certainly seems to have been high, but it's reasonable to say that, yes, you can discount for the real rate of return, safe rate of return putting aside inflation obviously. That's one thing.

But some economists also discount for what they call pure time discounting. In other words, just the fact that something is not happening today but it's happening in 10 years is a reason for discounting it and they justify that by saying that's how people choose and they do experiments in which they bring people in and they say something like, "So you can have $10 now or if you come back in a month, we'll give you $12."

Well, that's a very good rate of return for a month—much better than you'll get leaving your money in the bank—but most people say, "I'll take the $10 now." So economists say, "Look we ought to reflect people's actual preferences and people do time discount in the choices that they make. They're not good as postponing pleasures in order to have greater pleasures later or they're not good at accepting discomfort now in order to avoid greater pain and discomfort later and we ought not to impose our judgments on them so we ought to have that discount."

I think that that's accepting a flaw in our make-up, a flaw which perhaps has a pretty clear evolutionary explanation. I haven't talked too much about the evolutionary explanation of some of our intuitions and judgments but it is part of the reason why I had problems in thinking about issues like global warming, because for most of our evolutionary history, that is early human and pre-human, other primate ancestors, for example, there was no point in postponing things. We couldn't store things for the long-term future or if we were to do so, there would be risks that they would damaged or taken from us or something like that. So generally speaking, if you had good food, you would probably do better to eat it and let your body store it as fat than to say, "Oh well, I'll put this aside and save it up for several days hence."

So I think we're not good at thinking about what's in our long-term interest, let alone what's in the long-term interests of others. That's why I think it's a mistake to say we'll be guided by the revealed preferences of people when we get them to make these choices.

I think it's much better to say, "Look, we are making decisions not just for us now but for our futures and for the futures of people who are not born and for that reason, we should not have pure time discounting although we can discount," as I say, "for the investment returns or we can discount for uncertainties."

So give you one example of that quickly—Nicholas Stern is an economist who wrote a report on climate change for the British government in which he rejected, despite being an economist—they don't all follow the party line—the idea of pure time discounting. But he said, "Look, there is a probability that we will be wiped out by, let's say, a collision with an asteroid—not even by human activity, maybe we'll be wiped out by terrorism or nuclear war but we could also be wiped out by some asteroid wiping out our planet, so we have to have some discount for that." And he produced a very small discount figure for that kind of very small probability of our extinction. [Editor's note: see Nicholas Stern's 2009 Carnegie Council talk on climate change.]

That's perfectly reasonable but not just because things are in the future.

QUESTION: It seems to me that one problem that a global ethic that takes the view from the universe has is something you haven't mentioned and that's aliens, that is people who are not like us, those poor people in different countries who are so far away that we don't identify with them, we don't sympathize with.

Do you think we live in an age where we're ready for that view from the universe? Do you think that the expansion of the Internet, with us watching YouTube videos of other people's suffering, is enough right now? Do we need more technological innovation? Or should there be something else that will make us not see aliens as something other than us?

PETER SINGER: Right, at first when you mentioned aliens, I thought you were talking about people from somewhere else in space. [Laughter] I see that's not what you have in mind.

I think it really depends on what are the issues that we're asking about.

There is a small but growing open borders movement, which essentially says we have no right to keep people out from our own borders. Now I don't support that, although you might think given the point of view of the universe, I should support that. There's a sense in which I hope we come to reach that point, but I think if you did that right now, the differences between the rich and poor would be so great that there would be a huge influx of aliens, if you like, of people from other countries and there would be resistance from people here. I think that resistance might lead to extreme unpleasantness, possibly even to a kind of civil war.

I think that you have to be realistic in terms of what people will accept and you have to move somewhat slowly, but I hope that at some stage, we will be able to completely abandon those borders and those differences between us and them.

QUESTION: You mentioned Bjørn Lomborg and the Copenhagen Consensus and they wrote this really interesting book on how to spend $75 billion dollars—a series of academics and others who've looked at the utilitarian approach to giving.

I wanted to put you on the spot. How do you do the priorities, because you mentioned a laundry list of things, but if I hold your feet to the fire and say what's say 1, 2, 3, 4 in terms of priorities, how do you list that?

Secondly, just quickly, you have this utilitarian idea—how much should a person's personal preferences—things they're interested in—enter into their giving? So in other words, if I'm giving away $10,000, should I think about what tickles me? Or should it be strictly lives saved, utilitarian approach?

PETER SINGER: Okay, so the second question I can answer quickly. I think it should be strictly what does the most good and the fact that you enjoy opera or perhaps the fact that someone you love died of a certain disease should not really lead you to support the opera or to support research into that particular disease.

The other one is much more difficult. I've talked about advocacy for the global poor and direct aid for the global poor. I think they're very important. I think climate change is important. I think we can actually quite inexpensively reduce animal suffering.

Another issue that I haven't had time to talk about is, I would support movements to move people to vegetarian or vegan diets for two reasons—one, because it would eliminate an enormous amount of the suffering of non-human animals. Secondly, it would eliminate a very large quantity of greenhouse gases so it would have a payoff for global warming as well.

So that's probably my 1, 2, 3.

QUESTION: Sorry, that was one of my questions. One of the previous speakers asked about lost causes and I find that it's very hard to convince people to become vegans or vegetarians

What do you tell your students now to contribute to charity? How much are you telling them? I do use your book.

PETER SINGER: Thank you. I see you've got a copy of The Life You Can Save in your hand and there is actually a website with that name as well. There's now an organization that's spun out of that book called The Life You Can Save and it has asked people to pledge to give a percentage of their income and you can find that there.

It's relatively small if you're income is less than $100,000 a year. It starts off suggesting that you can start with 1 percent and work up from there. Once you get above that level, it increased as a tax scale increases but I think what's important and what I tell my students who generally don't have a lot of money themselves, is it's important to make a start and to get into the habit of giving and then when hopefully they will have more money—and some of them do quite soon after graduating—they will have those connections, those contacts, and they will be in the habit.

I have some students now already who've taken my course in practical ethics and are earning six-figure sums and giving half of what they're earning. I think that's fantastic. I don't suggest that giving half is a target for most people but I think that if you start small and just say, "I will build up and each year I will try and do better than I did before," we will get to something significant.

RAJAN MENON: I'd like to thank all of you for coming, especially those of you who are not part of the City College community.

Peter, I'm not a philosopher. I'll have to think a great deal more about a point of view of the universe, but from the point of view of City College and from the point of view of the Carnegie Council, we're delighted that you came.

Thank you all for coming. Thank you, Peter.

PETER SINGER: Thanks very much.

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MAR 30, 2005 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 19.1 (Spring 2005): Symposium: World Poverty and Human Rights: World Poverty and Human Rights [Full Text]

Despite a high and growing global average income, billions of human beings are still condemned to lifelong severe poverty, with all its attendant evils of ...

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