Find our Sentientist conversation here on the Sentientism YouTube and here on the Sentientism Podcast.
Peter is often referred to as the “world’s most influential living philosopher.” He is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He specialises in applied ethics, approaching the subject from a secular, naturalistic, utilitarian perspective. He wrote the books “Animal Liberation”, Why Vegan? and “Animal Liberation Now!” (launched on the same day as our Sentientism episode!), in which he argues against speciesism and for a shift to plant-based food systems and veganism. He also wrote the essay “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” and the books “The Life You Can Save” & “The Most Good You Can Do” which argue for effective altruism – using evidence & reasoning to do the most good we can for all sentient beings both human and not.
In 2004 Peter was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies. In 2005, the Sydney Morning Herald placed him among Australia’s ten most influential public intellectuals. Singer is a cofounder of Animals Australia & the founder of The Life You Can Save. In 2021 he received the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. Peter donated the $1 million prize money to the most effective organizations working to assist people in extreme poverty and to reduce the suffering of animals in factory farms.
In Sentientist Conversations we talk about the two most important questions: “what’s real?” & “what matters?”
Sentientism is “evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” The audio is on our Podcast here on Apple & here on all the other platforms.
- Animal Liberation Now! – why now?
- Sentientism’s links to ancient naturalistic and sentiocentric themes of thought & Peter’s work
- Sentientism’s 1) naturalism, 2) sentiocentrism & ethical pluralism, 3) implications of not needlessly harming or killing
- “What needlessly killing amounts to… is a question… that could have a lot of discussion”
- “In terms of what really matters in itself I agree that Sentientism is the right view”
- The challenges of the words speciesism & sentientism – too many syllables!
- Peter’s entry on our “I’m a Sentientist” wall
06:12 What’s Real?
- Non-religious Jewish parents “they came to Australia as refugees from the Nazis, leaving Austria”
- Mother “a fervent agnostic… there isn’t reason to believe in a god or a supernatural being or life after death”
- “In some parts of the United States it’s almost necessary to belong to a religion to have a community”
- Rabbi cousin in Mobile, Alabama “When I say god I mean whatever it is in the universe that is a force for good… (e.g. some human beings)”
- “I kind of thought of them as fairy stories”
- Childhood meeting with Catholic kids “don’t ask him any more questions – he’ll only blacken his soul & go to hell… I wasn’t in the least frightened”
- Good aspects of religions: “they tend to promote charity to the poor” (zakat, tithing)
- Negative aspects of religions: Religious wars & “very often a conservative force against what I see as progressive reforms”
- “If there were no religious teachings against #abortion I don’t think the US would be divided over the issue”
- Voluntary assisted dying “fortunately that legislation is spreading”
- Why religious organisations get social licence to continue #sexism , #homophobia , #transphobia
- “[Religious] teachings about sex which have been a very negative influence… making people feel guilty”
- “The highest rate of unwanted teenage pregnancies in the US is precisely in the most religous parts”… rejecting contraception (“that would be sinful” – sex outside of marriage), getting pregnant, then facing abortion prohibitions
- #Descartes was a sentiocentrist (but thought only “ensouled” humans can suffer). That’s why you need naturalism too!
- “I think consequences matter” #consequentialism & #utilitarianism
- “Perhaps you want to embrace people who are religious & who are sympathetic towards animals & bring them towards #sentientism ?” The work of Andrew Linzey, Charles Camosy, David Clough
- Previous guest Lisa Kemmerer
- #Sentiocentrism vs. #Sentientism as #Anthropocentrism vs. #Humanism
- “I totally agree with you about the value of evidence & reason”… #effectivealtruism
- Religious effective altruists use evidence & reasoning but “would leave evidence & reason at the door for some of their specifically religious beliefs”
- JW: “If we acknowledge the validity of unfounded beliefs in some domains it can make it a little harder to push back on them in domains where we’re really worried about the effects”
- Postmodernism & standpoint epistemology
- “I was certainly very hard on Christianity… Aquinas said… we do not have any direct duties to them [animals] because they do not have souls and are not made in the image of god” [in the 1975 Animal Liberation]. “I’ve taken a slightly softer line in Animal Liberation Now!”
26:25 What Matters?
- Working with Peter’s father: honesty & reputation “In the long run it would have good consequences”
- “Brought up with a sense of not inflicting suffering on sentient beings… although we were big meat eaters”
- Being invited to go fishing with friends. Father: “Do you really want to catch these fish up and wash them slowly die in the air?”
- “There was definitely a concern for non-human animals but not to the extend of enquiring too much about how they were reared & killed”
- The badness of suffering vs. nihilism, relativism
- Reading Bertrand Russell “Within humans he was clearly… concerned with minimising suffering and maximising happiness”
- Criticisms of utilitarianism: JW: “A disconnection from the individuals concerned… containers of utility… replacement, aggregation, offsetting”?
- “We do have to aggregate… but I don’t think that should prevent us from empathy with individuals”
- “Utilitarianism does accept that sometimes you have to allow or even cause suffering to one person to prevent more suffering to others… but the idea that we don’t then have empathy for the people who suffer”
- “…Utility is a liquid that we pour into more containers… that seems to me to be wrong… suffering & happiness always are instantiated in one sentient being… no such thing as pleasure & pain floating around the universe unattached to a sentient being.”
- “Offset“ suffering still exists!
- Some effective altruists “but why does it follow that I should be vegan… maybe it would be more effective… to give to an effective charity fighting for animals?”… “Well why not do both?”
- Going vegan “not only reduces demand for meat… but it sets an example & it makes it more likely others will… as in fact I did by having lunch with one.”
- Testing people’s animal ethics by applying them to human animals
38:58 Who Matters?
- “Those initial seeds [of compassion for non-human sentients]… failed to germinate for a very long time… I’m not at all proud of that”
- “I became a vegetarian after accidentally having lunch with a vegetarian… I was 24 at the time… I had never had a serious conversation with a vegetarian about why they were vegetarian”
- “I don’t know that I’d even met a vegetarian… for young people today that is unthinkable… there are vegetarians everywhere… vegetarian options on the menu…”
- “I was already studying ethics… I should have questioned the boundaries of moral concern many years earlier”
- “It was a bit of a shock… I’d never seriously enquired into what animals are going through to be turned into meat.”
- “I assumed the animals I was eating had generally had a reasonably natural, tranquil, protected life and then had one bad day”
- “Eating meat every day… & not really enquiring what happens to the animals… looking back on it now it’s shocking but… it was the default”
- Philosophy, psychology, sociology, politics: “There’s a long history of humans believing what’s convenient for them to believe” e.g. Jefferson and US enslavement
- “We find it convenient… we don’t want to go against social norms…”
- The “future generations will condemn us (but I’m still not going to change)”
- Using reason & evidence to attribute sentience “it’s changing right now” e.g. UK legislation extending sentience attribution to invertebrate cephalopods (e.g. octopuses) & decapods (e.g. lobsters & crabs) based on Jonathan Birch’s LSE ASENT research
- Bivalves, insects, even plant sentience? “I’ve taken the possibility of plant sentience more seriously in the new edition… I’m still guessing not because there isn’t a brain or a central nervous system… but I’m less certain”
- Philosophy of mind: illusionism, panpsychism…
- “I’ve not gone deeply into panpsychism… I see no reason for believing that electrons or quarks could be sentient”
- “A reasonably complex organism… some kind of brain & nerve centres… the more complex it is the more likely it is that there’s sentience… correlates with more complex behaviours”
- Insects: “Such a huge variety… it seems very unlikely the answer is yes or no” e.g. bees vs. mealworms
- Previous guest Luke Roelofs – Could “micro-conscious” entities be insentient (no perceptions, sensations, thoughts…) – only “macro-conscious” entities are
- The first uses of the word “Sentientism” by Rodman & Lewis to criticise sentiocentrism as another form of human discrimination
- Biocentrism & ecocentrism. Arne Naess. “There are a lot of people who want to find intrinsic value in nature… I am somewhat uncomfortable… I really enjoy being in nature…”
- The ethereal experience of walking in an ancient forest with family “It somehow strikes me that it would be a kind of vandalism to chop it down”
- Wouldn’t a consistent ecocentrist care about a lifeless/sentientless planet as much as ours?
- When environmentalism’s disregard for non-human sentients exposes underlying anthropocentrism
- The environmental impact (emissions, pollution, energy, land use) of animal agriculture “environmental groups are now serving more vegan food when you go to their events”
- “It’s a wasteful system because we have to grow so many crops to feed to these animals… and we get back… maybe 10%”
- Considering agency, dignity as other characteristics beyond sentience?
- “This idea that there’s some special dignity about human beings… that does not apply to any non-human animals – is really groundless”
- “Some animals have agency in ways that some humans don’t”
- Agency as a basis for blame, punishment, praise, encouragement “that works with those who are agents and especially with agents with whom we can communicate”
- Agency “is relevant in that sense… but it’s a different question… from does this being have intrinsic value… and I don’t think you need agency for that… our own infants… it’s clear they don’t have agency – but does that mean that their suffering doesn’t matter?”
- Future guest Nicolas Delon re: agency as a way of extending moral consideration beyond sentience
01:10:05 How Can We Make A Better Future?
- The “Animal Liberation Now!” clarion call re: rejecting speciesism, recognising equal consideration of like interests, for “liberation” vs. ideas of “humane killing”, “conscientious omnivorism”, focusing on factory farming & suffering reduction
- JW: The risk of an end state “where we’ve actually got a larger animal agriculture system… where more animals are being killed & exploited & imprisoned… but we’ve found some way to re-brand these exercises as humane, high-welfare, sustainable… and on we go!”
- “My clarion call is really clear against suffering & exploitation – it’s not so clear… about death”
- “Sometimes it’s good for someone to die… when for example they’re suffering & their suffering can’t be alleviated… With humans… we would generally ask for their consent… but parents should sometimes be able to make that choice on behalf of their child (euthanasia for profoundly disabled infants)”
- Compassionate euthanasia without consent for non-humans (e.g. companion animals)
- Free-ranging hens living happy lives: “Is it a bad thing to have hens who live for a certain number of years and are then killed? – I find that a difficult philosophical question…”
- A positive life on condition you are killed vs. not existing at all?
- Derek Parfit’s “Reasons and Persons” & population ethics
- “I’m genuinely uncertain about those arguments in respect of issues about humans and I’m therefore equally uncertain about them in respect to non-human animals”
- Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel “Never Let Me Go”
- JW: “As soon as we have created it (them), I think we then have a moral obligation to that being as a moral patient which means that to kill them against their interests… their interests in continuing to live… is just a wrong thing… regardless of whatever deal we’ve done with ourselves in advance”
- “But then of course we won’t have any more chickens” JW: “I’m totally comfortable with that… The chicken that doesn’t exist isn’t a sentient being so isn’t a moral patient so cannot be harmed.”
- “We do have a genuine disagreement… I’m much more ambivalent on that question than you are”
- Peter’s “One World” book re: global governance
- “We have to try everything… using evidence & reason”
- Peter’s study with Eric Schwitzgebel – student meal choices were affected by exposure to animal ethics
- Alternative proteins at scale; plant-based or cellular
- Campaigning for improved farmed animal conditions: “the evidence suggests that those countries that have the best animal welfare standards… also have the highest rates of vegan & vegetarian living… it will increase the price of meat… that will make it easier for these alternatives to compete with meat.”
- Re-writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the SDGs from a Sentientist perspective: A Universal Declaration of Sentient Rights?
- “We do need stronger global institutions… we seem to have moved away from stronger global institutions”
- Effective Altruism: doing the most good possible using evidence & reason
- Challenges to effective altruism (beyond do-gooder derogation): disconnection from the individual, demandingness & maximisation risks, ends/means, unintended consequences, neo-liberal / tech solution / NGO bias vs. state / democratic, corporatisation of philanthropy, eurocentrism, welfarism, the book “The Good It Promises, The Harm It Does”…?
- “A lot of those challenges are based on misunderstandings of the movement… I think it’s very open to what is the best thing to do”
- “They’re very open people – and if somebody comes out with a hypothesis… they will certainly look at that”
- Poverty: “Just to say it’s global capitalism seems to me very simplistic – there’s been poverty long before there was global capitalism and there’s poverty in places where they’re not very much affected by global capitalism… and I haven’t seen anybody give any good accounts for how they’re going to get rid of global capitalism… but if somebody does come up with a plan… effective altruists will be very open to that.”
- Europe/US/Global North/West: “That’s where a lot of the resources are… a lot of people that can help others in need. The largest numbers of people in extreme poverty are in the ‘south’”
- “The groups that are supported by effective altruism don’t just march in to communities and say ‘this is what you need’… some of them, for example GiveDirectly, don’t even want to tell them how to spend them money… they want to increase their money” JW: “Trusting the people you’re trying to help”
- “I reject the idea that this is… ‘a white saviour complex’… you ask the people in these impoverished villages whether they would like to have assistance and they say ‘yes’. If they didn’t say ‘yes’ then you wouldn’t do it.”
- “I’ve met some truly wonderful people through effective altruism… they are both altruistic and often very thoughtful… it’s inspiring… donating money or time… donating a kidney to complete strangers!”
- “During COVID it was effective altruists (One Day Sooner) who organised the volunteers for human challenge trials… if we get a vaccine one day sooner it will save lives… they were prepared to be infected with COVID… then they would get a candidate vaccine… in order to speed up vaccine development… There was a surprising amount of reluctance to… accept what they were asking to do for the world”
- “It’s clear that philosophy can change the world”
- People making positive changes after reading Animal Liberation & The Life You Can Save
- https://www.thelifeyoucansave.org/the-book/ (free to download!)
- https://thinkinc.org.au/pages/an-evening-with-peter-singer (Peter’s speaking tour)
Sentientism is “Evidence, reason & compassion for all sentient beings.” More at Sentientism.info.
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Thanks to Graham for the post-production and to Tarabella and Denise for helping to fund this episode via our Sentientism Patreon.