Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Profile of the Great Philosopher and Ethicist Peter Singer: A Must Read

Most of you may already know that Peter Singer is the authored of the book Animal Liberation. This is the book most look to when describing why animal rights and perhaps why they changed their lives. Please read on to learn more about this amazing man.


Profile: Peter Singer

By Lucinda Schmidt
May 31, 2006

The controversial philosopher on why it's a life of matter and death.

The furore over Peter Singer's appointment as professor of bioethics at Princeton University has died down, but even now, seven years later, he gets the occasional threatening email.

"My views are still quite controversial," the Melbourne-born philosopher and ethicist says with some satisfaction.

Best known for kick-starting the animal rights movement with his first book, Animal Liberation, published in 1975, Singer has since expounded views supporting abortion, euthanasia, infanticide for severely disabled babies and stem cell research using material from embryos. He's been accused of playing God, attacked by disability rights groups and compared to the Third Reich - despite having three grandparents killed by the Nazis.

The career academic, who lectured in philosophy at LaTrobe and Monash Universities before taking up the Princeton appointment, agrees that questioning the absolute sanctity of all human life gets him into more trouble in the neo-conservative US heartland than it does here, although he notes that he lives in New York, where only one in five people voted for President George W. Bush.

"The one thing you do notice is the place is a lot more religious," says Singer, 59. "You notice the influence of fairly conservative Christianity, even at Princeton. Things you can say here [in Australia] quite easily are seen as offensively hostile [in the US]."

He's now back in Australia for part of each year, lecturing in philosophy at Melbourne University. The second half of the year he will return with his wife, Renata, to New York and Princeton.

Singer's latest book, The Ethics of What We Eat, returns to his original concerns about animal rights, updating the approach of his 1980 book Animal Factories.

He says there has been a big increase in awareness of food ethics over the past 30 years. "In 1975, people didn't even know what vegan meant. And there was only one brand of soy milk in the UK [where he lived at the time]."

Still, he says, we have a long way to go. Part of the problem, he believes, is that most animal factory farms are highly secretive and do not allow visitors or video cameras.

The Ethics of What We Eat looks at a typical meal eaten by three families and traces the meals' ingredients back through the production process, examining the ethics of our everyday food choices, including animal suffering, child labour and environmental degradation.

One family favours meat, potatoes and fast food; another describes itself as "caring carnivores", eating meat only from animals that have been treated humanely; and the third is vegan, eating nothing that comes from animals.

Singer says that the first family was "a little disturbed" by what the book uncovered, while the family that took great care to check the treatment of animals was still making some "bad seafood choices" and not aware of some of the environmental issues.

"If you are going to eat seafood and meat, you need to be quite informed," says Singer, who describes himself as vegan when he has complete control over what he eats, although his frequent travelling means that he occasionally eats free-range eggs and is not really strict about avoiding all dairy products.


Biggest break: Going to Oxford University as a 24-year-old, and coming across the issue of the ethics of how we treat animals.

Biggest achievement: Writing Animal Liberation [his first book, published in 1975, now translated into 18 languages]. There was not much around then and it brought me international prominence.

Biggest regret: I don't have any huge regrets. Both in my professional and my family life, I've been very fortunate. Some people think it's a pity I got into euthanasia - in terms of the effectiveness of my work in animal rights - and that's probably true, but I don't regret it. That's a debate we had to have.

Personal philosophy: Trying to live an ethical life is something I find really satisfying. Thinking about ethics and putting it into practice - that has been central to my life since I was an undergraduate.

Attitude to money: It's important to try and do things that will make a difference rather than buy more luxuries. [Singer donates 20 per cent of his income to charity].

Best investment: Education.

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