Peter Singer Biography


Since 1973, with the simultaneous publication of his essay “Animal Liberation” in the New York Review of Books and the National Observer, Peter Singer has been the leading advocate of animal rights from a rigorously argued and philosophically defined ethical perspective. In that essay, Singer popularized Richard Ruder’s concept of “speciesism.” Singer defined speciesism as “the belief that we are entitled to treat members of other species in a way in which it would be wrong to treat members of our own.” Singer’s use of the term “animal liberation” tied the liberation of animals to the other liberation movements of the early 1970’s, such as the movements for the liberation of blacks and women. Singer’s work can be understood as a philosophical examination of how far the human moral horizon and human ethical obligations extend. Once humans extend that horizon to include animals, then practices that were once regarded as natural and inevitable, such as using animals for food, clothing, or medical research, can no longer be simply assumed to be ethical. According to Singer, some of these practices will “now be seen as intolerable.”

Peter Singer Biography

(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Blending classical and preference utilitarianism, Singer has applied his theory to animal welfare, environmental ethics, famine relief, euthanasia, abortion, civil disobedience, and aid to refugees.

Early Life

Three of Peter Albert David Singer’s grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps. His parents, Cora and Ernst Singer, emigrated from Vienna in 1938 to escape persecution of Jews after the political union of Austria and Germany. Arriving in Australia, Ernst Singer established a tea and coffee import business, and Cora Singer, after overcoming restrictions then placed on overseas practitioners, resumed her work as a medical doctor.

The Singers were not religious believers. They were determined to integrate Peter and his sister Joan into Australian culture. They spoke to their children in English only and enrolled them in prestigious Protestant schools. Peter’s childhood was comfortable and unremarkable. He participated in Boy Scouts, rooted for the local football team, enjoyed annual skiing holidays with his family, and earned high marks at school. He continued his education at Melbourne University, where he studied law, history, and philosophy.

While at Melbourne University, Singer met a fellow student, Renata Diamond, whom he married in 1968. He enrolled as a graduate student in moral and political philosophy at Oxford University in 1970. There, the Singers met a group of students who abstained from eating meat for ethical reasons. Their association and discussions with these vegetarians changed their lives. They became vegetarians themselves and began to see the general relationship between human and nonhuman animals in a different light.

Life’s Work

In 1973, Singer published Democracy and Disobedience. In that book, he argues that in a model democratic society, there are important reasons for obeying the law that do not exist in other forms of government. The first is that such a society is a fair compromise between competing and otherwise irresolvable claims to power by majority and minority interests. The second is that participating in a decision-making procedure results in an obligation to act as if one consented to be bound by the conclusions of that procedure. Singer argues, however, that the modern forms of Western democracy are not fair compromises between competing groups; thus, for groups and individuals with less than an equal say in decision making, the argument based on fair compromise does not apply, and the argument from participation, while still applicable to those who vote, is weakened by the absence of adequate reason, for many dissenters, to vote. With this work, Singer expressed his unwavering conviction that moral and political philosophy should be relevant to issues of current concern.

Two other publications established Singer as an influential applied ethicist. In “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972), he argues that the affluent of the world have strong moral obligations to prevent absolute poverty in the world when this can be done without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. Written in the clear, unadorned style that was to become Singer’s trademark, this article demonstrates how a simple, easily acceptable principle of morality could have radical implications for the way people live. Many charitable organizations, particularly those involved with famine relief, embraced Singer as their ideological mentor.

In Animal Liberation, Singer addresses the question of how people ought to treat other animals. He tries to expose the indefensible prejudices that underlie people’s attitudes and behavior. Singer argues that using animals for scientific experimentation, wearing furs and leather goods, and eating commercially produced meats are based on speciesism, discrimination grounded on the morally irrelevant characteristic of membership in a particular species. Drawing parallels between speciesism and racism, Singer argues that morality requires that humans treat animals as independent sentient beings and not as mere means to human ends. He claims that animals possess interests based on their capacities for suffering and enjoyment and that such interests must be given equal consideration to the like interests of humans. Preferences for humans can be based only on their possession of interests that animals lack; however, such preferences cannot justify cruelly disregarding the important interests of animals to satisfy trivial human interests.

Animal Liberation was criticized strongly by some scientists, medical experimenters, and factory farmers. Nevertheless, the book sold more than 400,000 copies, was translated into eight languages, and became the chief sourcebook for the international animal liberation movement. With this book, Singer proved that moral philosophy, written and pitched in a certain way, could fuel striking changes in social practices.

Singer expanded his application of philosophy to current moral issues with Practical Ethics. His aim was to demonstrate how a broadly utilitarian theory successfully treats such problems as moral equality, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, obligations of the affluent to the impoverished, and the justification of means to ends.

Singer’s views in Animal Liberation, although hotly contested in the philosophical and scientific communities, did not attract violent reaction. Most of those who rejected Singer’s conclusions nevertheless saw him as a well-intentioned, albeit misguided, person. His views on bioethics, however, drew forceful opposition.

Two of Singer’s bioethical conclusions repelled many. First, he argued that the intrinsic wrongness of killing a fetus and the intrinsic wrongness of killing a newborn infant are not markedly different. Restrictions on morally permissible infanticide can be...

(The entire section is 2429 words.)