My excellent Conversation with Peter Singer

Here is the video, audio, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary:

Peter joined Tyler to discuss whether utilitarianism is only tractable at the margin, how Peter thinks about the meat-eater problem, why he might side with aliens over humans, at what margins he would police nature, the utilitarian approach to secularism and abortion, what he’s learned producing the Journal of Controversial Ideas, what he’d change about the current Effective Altruism movement, where Derek Parfit went wrong, to what extent we should respect the wishes of the dead, why professional philosophy is so boring, his advice on how to enjoy our lives, what he’ll be doing after retiring from teaching, and more.

Peter described it as “like aerobics for the brain.”  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How much should we spend trying to thwart predators?

SINGER: I think that’s difficult because, again, you would have to take into account the consequences of not having predators, and what are you going to do with a prey population? Are they going to overpopulate and maybe starve or destroy the environment for other sentient beings? So, it’s hard to say how much we should spend trying to thwart them.

I think there are questions about reducing the suffering of wild animals that are easier than that. That’s a question that maybe, at some stage, we’ll grapple with when we’ve reduced the amount of suffering we inflict on animals generally. It’s nowhere near the top of the list for how to reduce animal suffering.

COWEN: What do you think of the fairly common fear that if we mix the moralities of human beings and the moralities of nature, that the moralities of nature will win out? Nature is so large and numerous and populous and fierce. Human beings are relatively small in number and fragile. If the prevailing ethic becomes the ethic of nature, that the blending is itself dangerous, that human beings end up thinking, “Well, predation is just fine; it’s the way of nature.” Therefore, they do terrible things to each other.

SINGER: Is that what you meant by the moralities of nature? I wasn’t sure what the phrase meant. Do you mean the morality that we imply, that we attribute to nature?

COWEN: “Red in tooth and claw.” If we think that’s a matter that is our business, do we not end up with that morality? Trumping ours, we become subordinate to that morality. A lot of very nasty people in history have actually cited nature. “Well, nature works this way. I’m just doing that. It’s a part of nature. It’s more or less okay.” How do we avoid those series of moves?

SINGER: Right. It’s a bad argument, and we try and explain why it’s a bad argument, that we don’t want to follow nature. That the fact that nature does something is not something that we ought to imitate, but maybe, in fact, we ought to combat, and of course, we do combat nature in many ways. Maybe war between humans is part of nature, but nevertheless, we regret when wars break out. We try to have institutions to prevent wars breaking out. I think a lot of our activities are combating nature’s way of doing things rather than regarding it as a model to follow.

COWEN: But if humans are a part of nature flat out, and if our optimal policing of nature leaves 99.9999 percent of all predation in place — we just can’t stop most of it — is it then so irrational to conclude, “Well this predation must be okay. It’s the natural state of the world. Our optimal best outcome leaves 99.99999 percent of it in place.” How do we avoid that mindset?

Recommended.  And the new edition (much revised) of Peter’s Animal Liberation is now out.


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