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Apr-06-2012 13:48printcomments

I do not think we need more human beings on this planet: Peter Singer

Kourosh engages author of 1975 book "Animal Liberation", "Rethinking Life and Death" and "Practical Ethics."

Pete Singer and Kourosh Ziabari
Pete Singer and Kourosh Ziabari

(TEHRAN) - Peter Singer is a world-renowned Australian philosopher and bio-ethicist. He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. Singer specializes in applied ethics and is known for his secular and preference utilitarian viewpoints. In 2004, he was recognized as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. Peter Singer holds controversial and widely contested viewpoints regarding abortion, infanticide and euthanasia and has written several articles and books on these subjects.

His 1975 book "Animal Liberation" is considered to be the hallmark of animal liberation movement. His other important books are "Rethinking Life and Death" and "Practical Ethics."

To me as a Muslim journalist, Singer's opinions and ideas have always seemed objectionable and irrational. According to the teachings of Islam, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are unlawful and impermissible. Islam says that human fetus is a conscious being and does have the capacity to determine its future if given the opportunity, so it's illegal to seize its life. Therefore, I conducted an interview with Prof. Singer to challenge his standpoints and ask some questions regarding the why-ness of holding such controversial and unconventional beliefs. What follows is the complete text of our conversation. Peter's answers are rather brief as compared to my elaborate questions; however, I think it has become a readable debate.

Kourosh Ziabari: why do you advocate voluntary euthanasia and abortion? I think the traditionalists and religious thinkers are right in their position that killing a human fetus or a newborn or someone suffering from a terminal or incurable disease is immoral and contrary to the laws of creation and the will of the Creator. Does it provide a justification for killing a fetus or a newborn that they don't possess the essential characteristics of personhood such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousnesses? After all, they are living beings, even if they are unable to reason or determine their fate. If allowed to be born and grow, the fetus or the newborn will turn into complete, rational human beings. Do we have the permission to deprive them of the right which the God has bestowed upon them? To put it in other words, are we the ones who decide our birth that want to be the decider of our death?

Peter Singer: I think if we are to discuss such issues at all, I need to make it clear that I do not share your assumptions about God, or a Creator. I do not believe that there is such a being. I accept a scientific view of the origins of the world, and of life, so I do not think there is a god who has bestowed rights on any beings.

Given that, then it follows, indeed, that we are the ones who have to make decisions about life and death. And if a person is terminally ill, and because of the poor quality of his or her life does not want to go on living for the last few days, or weeks or months that he or she could live for, who better to make that decision than the person whose life it is? Why should the state interfere in this choice?

As for abortion, you write that the fetus is a living being. I agree. But so is a sheep, or a cow, or a chicken, or a dog. Why should a fetus have more of a right to life than they do? After all, they are conscious beings, able to suffer, in ways that the fetus, at least early in pregnancy, cannot.

I know that some people will object that the fetus has a potential to become a rational human being, which the sheep or cow does not. But the world already has 7 billion humans in it, and this is causing enormous environmental problems, especially with regard to climate change. I do not think we need more human beings on this planet.

KZ: in a 2009 New York Times article, you raised the example of a patient suffering from advanced kidney cancer who is told that will be dying in the next year or two, but can be given an extra six months at the cost of a $54,000 medicine. Then you asked that "is a few more months worth that much?" Don't you really believe that that few more months are really worth spending $54,000? Won't the life of all of us become meaningless and hollow if we sit back and wait until our death comes and takes our life? It's hopefulness that makes the life significant. Don't you believe that the human being should do its best to live as much as possible and enjoy his life in the best way he can? Of course I'm not talking about mere pleasure and happiness, but alluding to the fact that the life of human being is the most precious gift he is endowed with. Don't you think so?

PS: Yes, I agree that human beings should enjoy life as much as possible. But my point is that there are limited resources, and even the richest nation cannot afford to do everything possible to extend the life of every person. So if we spend $54,000 to extend the life of a person with advanced kidney cancer for six months, then there is something else we are not doing that would save the life of someone who could live longer, perhaps for years. And if we were to give the money to an organization working to stop malaria in Africa, we could save someone’s life for much, much less – perhaps for just $1000, we could save the life of a child who will live for another 50 years. So for $54,000 we might be able to save the lives of 54 children. Isn’t that better than extending the life of one person for only 6 months?

When resources are limited – as they always are – we should try to get the best possible use from them.

KZ: with all due respect, I believe that the points which you raised in your book the "Animal Liberation" are contradictory to your viewpoints about physician-assisted suicide, infanticide and euthanasia. You associate a great value to the life of animals and hold that "the interests of all beings capable of suffering to 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" while permitting abortion or euthanasia on grounds that people are entitled to determine the manner or time of their death. You have argued many times that animals will be more deserving of life than certain humans, including disabled babies and adults who are brain-injured or in vegetative comas. But don't you think that this argument is unfair?

Your book converted many readers to lifelong vegetarianism and inspired reforms in humane treatment for laboratory animals and livestock. So, isn't the life of human being as valuable as that of the animals? Shouldn't we try our best to preserve the life of human beings as much as possible?

PS: No, there is no contradiction. I think we should give equal consideration to the similar interests of all beings, whether they are human or nonhuman animals. So yes, the life of a normal healthy human being is at least as valuable as that of a nonhuman animal. In fact I think it is normally more valuable, because of the particular interest that a normal human has in the future – humans make plans for the future and hope to achieve things in the future, in ways that nonhuman animals cannot.

On the other hand, as I already said in answer to one of your earlier questions, if a person is very ill and wants to die, then it is in that person’s interest to die, and we should allow him to do so.

As for people who are so severely brain-damaged that they can never again be conscious, I don’t believe that they have any interest in continuing to live, for they can gain nothing from life any more.

KZ: you're a bioethicist, but you don't believe in the sanctity of life and refute religion. Even though you proposed some of your arguments regarding the uselessness of religion for morality in the article the "Godless Morality," but it's still astounding to me that why you don't believe in the power of religion and its connection with morality. Let's put aside the human religions such as Buddhism and Sikhism. All of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) have morality and ethics as their theoretical and ideological foundations. Islam, for example, says that all of the sins are kept in a room, and "lie" is the key of that closed room. So, why don't you believe in the necessity of religion for morality?

PS: Long ago, Plato argued that there must be a basis for morality that is independent of religion. For if someone who believes in the existence of God wants to say that God is good, what is he saying, if all ideas of morality come from God? He seems to be saying that God is approved of by God. But that is meaningless. On the other hand, if there is a God who is not good, then that God is just a tyrant. Why should we obey him?

Some of the most ethical people in the world have been atheists. Even today, the two greatest philanthropists in the world, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, are not religious. And many religious people commit terrible crimes. So there is no necessary connection between religion and morality, neither in theory nor in practice.

KZ: why do you deny Thomas Hobbes's viewpoint on the rule of law and adherence to codes of morality in presence of the state? At least in the developing countries such as Iran, people need the forceful presence of an authority to persuade them to follow the social laws and morality codes. Without the presence of police, for instance, the traffic laws and regulations are meaningless in a country like Iran. What's your take on that?

PS: I am not sure what it is that you think I deny. I certainly agree that the state needs to use force at times, to ensure adherence to the law. But that does not mean that I think, as Hobbes does, that morality depends on a social contract, or that there can be no morality without a state.

KZ: in your article "Famine, Affluence and Morality" in 1971, you spoke of the suffering of Bengali people in India who were subject to severe famine, lack of food, shelter and medical care at that time. Your raised some arguments including the necessity of giving assistance to the subjugated people in dire need of help and the importance of preventing bad things from happening. You're arguments are comprehensible and well-structured. But what is happening in practice is far from what it should be. For example, we can consider the example of this year's drought and famine in Somalia. The U.S. and other Western states dispatched the least humanitarian convoys to Somalia and dedicated the lowest amounts of monetary assistance to the famine-stricken country. What's the reason in your view? Isn't it that morality is consigned to oblivion in the industrialized, developed world? Isn't it that the citizens of prosperous and economically affluent societies such as the United States are inattentive to humanitarian affairs and morality?

PS: Why do you say that Western states donated the least assistance to Somalia? What figures are you basing that claim on? To the best of my knowledge, most of the aid that has gone to Somalia has come from Western nations, just as most of the aid that goes to the global poor also comes from Western nations. Of course, I agree that the rich Western nations should do much more, but it is also a great shame that the oil-rich states of the Middle East do not use their wealth to help the world’s poorest people.

I hope that some of your readers will go to my website, and will make a personal pledge to share some of their income with people who are much poorer than they are.

KZ: do you see any significant relationship between morality and the culture of consumerism? Can we argue that the more consumerism penetrates into the society, the more morality declines and turns down?

PS: I don’t think it is quite so simple as that. Although I agree that there is too much emphasis on consuming things, I also think that we are making progress in morality, and there is more concern for the poor, for the environment, and for animals, than there used to be. I am also pleased to see that there is now wider acceptance of the equality of women, and that homosexuals are no longer persecuted in the way that they were 50 years ago. These things are all improvements in morality.

KZ: at the beginning of your "Ethics" entry for the Encyclopedia Britannica, you raised a number of questions the answers to which deal with the discipline of moral philosophy. One of them was that "If conscripted to fight in a war we do not support, should we disobey the law?" I want to know your answer to this very question. Do you believe that in the contemporary world which is witness to destructive and lethal wars and conflicts, people should refuse to comply with their nationalistic obligations and avoid taking part in wars which will inevitably lead to the killing of innocent civilians? In a broader sense and with regards to countries with fragile political structures which are prone to revolutions and popular uprisings, is joining the opposition and voicing support for the contenders of the government considered to be immoral and a kind of betrayal to the republican values? To put it more succinctly, I want to raise the example of Iran. In Iran, the majority of people are satisfied with the way the government handles the country's affairs; however, there's a significant minority which is at odds with the government. We have also powerful opposition groups and parties outside the country, including some terrorist groups such as PKK, PJAK and MKO who want to topple the government at the cost of the lives of innocent people. Is allying with them and supporting them moral, in your view?

PS: I do not think that anyone should ally with terrorist organizations, ever. But I do believe that the people of Iran should be able to vote for their rulers, and I mean, for the people with ultimate power to decide the future of their country. So I would like to see a peaceful opposition movement in Iran that moves the country towards true democracy. Such a movement has happened recently in Tunisia, and also in Egypt, although it is certainly running into greater difficulties there because of the resistance of the military to losing power. But if this can happen in Tunisia and Egypt, why not in Iran?

KZ: does culture influence the value of moral action? Can we find conceptions and behaviors which are moral in a certain culture but are considered to be immoral and unethical in another? I want to know if culture influences the quality of moral action and the morality of deeds and social behaviors. Does such an impact exist? Of course you've talked about the universality of ethics and argued that there are no ethical universals, because as you have put it, "there is so much variation from one culture to another that no single principle or judgment is generally accepted" but I think some concepts such as abnegation, sacrifice, truthfulness, honesty and loyalty have the same meaning in the all the cultures around the world. What's your take on that?

PS: I do not recognize the quote you have above. In fact I do believe that there are some ethical universals, even though there is also a great deal of cultural variation. But the principle of reciprocity, or example, appears to be universal, as is the obligations of parents to support their children. I also think that there are more fundamental universal moral truths, like having equal consideration for the interests of all, which may not be recognized everywhere yet, but one day will be.

KZ: according to the Sophist Thrasymachus, "the concept of justice means nothing more than obedience to the laws of society, and, since these laws are made by the strongest political group in their own interests, justice represents nothing but the interests of the stronger." What's your viewpoint regarding his argument? After all, there should be an authority to administer justice and proclaim the foundations and bases of justice. Is it right to deny that the distinction between right and wrong has any objective basis, only because those who set the rules of justice are in power and have authority and abiding by their rules would mean obedience to power?

PS: I do not accept the cynical view of morality put forward by Thrasymachus. What the strongest political group says is right is often not right at all. It may be that just as there are truths of mathematics, so there are moral truths, for example that suffering is bad. These truths may often not be fully accepted in a community, because we humans tend to be selfish or nationalistic in our outlook. That is understandable, for evolutionary reasons, but it does not make it right.


Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian media correspondent, freelance journalist and the author of Book 7+1. He is a contributing writer for websites and magazines in the Netherlands, Canada, Italy, Hong Kong, Bulgaria, South Korea, Belgium, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. He was once a member of Stony Brook University Publications’ editorial team and Media Left magazine’s contributing writer, as well as a contributing writer for Finland’s Award-winning Ovi Magazine.

Kourosh Ziabari was named the winner of winners in the category of media activities at the National Organization of Youths festival. He was honored by the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, receiving the honorary mention signed by him and the silver medal of Iran's Superior Youth. The media activities category did not award the Gold and Bronze medal to any participant.

As a young Iranian journalist, Kourosh has been interviewed and quoted by several mainstream mediums, including BBC World Service, PBS Media Shift, the Media Line network, Deutsch Financial Times and L.A. Times. Currently, he works for the Foreign Policy Journal as a media correspondent. He is a member of Tlaxcala Translators Network for Linguistic Diversity and World Student Community for Sustainable Development. You can write to Kourosh Ziabari at:

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Anonymous April 9, 2012 11:36 pm (Pacific time)

When Mister Singer speaks the plural pronoun "we" he means his group of enlightened Leftists and their belief in their intellectual superiority. When "we" includes people who disagree with him, his arguments fall apart. It is as simple as that. The collectivist likes 1) to speaks for others even if they disagree, and 2) usually live better than others as proof of their being "better." The collective has always come to crush individuals and the weaker, and Mister Singer is nothing more than such a collectivist, who easily says "we" while not including the likes of you or me. This is what collectivism is and does. Mister Singer does not speak for me and therefore his "we" is a lie.

Anonymous April 6, 2012 8:00 pm (Pacific time)

Mr Singer..Fine but, why dont you kill yourself then? Or does this not apply to YOU? Funny how people can talk this garbage, while at the same time not applying it to their own life...Seems Singers life is better than our lives and babies lives..Maybe Singers mom should have had an abortion? These people are so completely hypocritical its beyond my imagination..If all the people who felt the way Singer felt, would commit suicide, that would reduce the population...But they only want to reduce the population if THEY can live..hypocritical pieces of long as you kill someone besides then huh?

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