Dan Banik and Peter Singer discuss what constitutes a morally good life, how we should eat ethically, and why we should be doing much more to improve the lives of people living in extreme poverty.
Peter Singer — one of the world’s most influential philosophers — is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Peter has written several influential books, including Animal Liberation, The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology, The Most Good You Can Do, Why Vegan? Eating Ethically and The Life You Can Save: How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty. He is one of the intellectual founders of the modern animal rights and effective altruism movements and has made important contributions to the development of bioethics. Twitter: @PeterSinger
Professor Dan Banik, University of Oslo, Twitter: @danbanik @GlobalDevPod
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Banik Peter, I am a huge fan of your work, I am so thrilled to see you today, welcome to the show.
Singer Thank you very much Dan, it's good to be talking to you.
Banik The first question I have for you is, what constitutes a morally good life? Because there has been quite a lot of focus on this and I am interested in understanding how does this morally good life as you see it perhaps differ from other understandings of what a good life should be?
Singer When I am asked about what a morally good life is, I suggest that it is one that considers the impact of everything that we do or don't do on all those who are affected by those decisions and that includes those who we could have affected, perhaps positively, if we had done something or even if we hadn't done it. Another way of thinking about this is to use a phrase from the late 19th century from utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick who talked about taking the point of view of the universe. It is a phrase that I and a co-author have used for a book about Sidgwick's ethics for the title of that book. If you think of the idea about taking the point of view of the universe, I don't actually believe and I don't think Sidgwick believes that the universe really has a point of view, but we can image looking at everything and saying, have I done what I would want to be done if I were taking the point of view of the universe. That is considering all of those beings in the universe, if there are beings we don't know about on other planets we can't affect them at the moment anyway, but all of those we can effect on this planet whether human or non-human, we ought to be taking their interests into account. To me that is crucial to living an ethical life and of course it does differ from those who would say an ethical life consists of doing your roles well, you're a parent, you're an employee, you're a friend and so it is really important to be a good parent, a good employee and a good friend. I don't deny that those things are important, they obviously are things where you can make a big difference to people, but I don't want to stop there, I want to include the others, the strangers, very large numbers of strangers where often we can make a bigger difference to their lives than we can to the lives of our friends.
Banik So are we then talking about doing the greatest good as being the measure of good or ethical behaviour? I am thinking of Jeremy Bentham, the greatest happiness for the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong. Or John Stuart Mill, that acts that produce pleasure or pain – those are the most desirable? It seems to me that in much of your work, minimising suffering is key. So, pleasure, happiness, suffering should be seen together and that by helping others we can derive some pleasure and happiness and thereby also reduce the suffering of those we are helping.
Singer Yes that is right, I am certainly in that tradition of Bentham and Mill and I have already mentioned Sidgwick. I think we need to be carefully about this phrase the greatest happiness or the greatest number and Bentham himself recognised after he used it that maybe it wasn't the ideal tag line for utilitarianism because it leads people to think that if you do something that is in the interest of 51% then that must be the right thing to do because you have made the greatest number happier. But you might have made the 51% slightly happier and made the 49% utterly miserable, or maybe you've made 99% slightly happier but 1% really so much more badly off that it was the wrong thing to do, it would have been better not to do that. So, you have to take into account numbers, numbers do matter, but you also have to take into account how big a difference you are making to the lives of others. I think particularly when we think about suffering, people who are suffering seriously have to get a lot of weight because that is where we can make a huge difference in their lives if we can relieve their suffering, often a bigger difference than we can make when people are not suffering, not particularly happy but living okay and it is a lot harder to make them significantly happier.
Banik But this focus on suffering, Peter, it also applies to animals, we can't just think about suffering in relation to us humans and in your influential book you have so many influential books, but the one from 1975, Animal Liberation, you argue that there is no reason not to apply the greatest good principle to animals. So, it isn't about intelligence, it is about pain and in that context, I was just thinking about the climate change discourse, there is now increased focus on the kind of ethical behaviour we should be practicing in terms of eating ethically. In this context, some of the arguments you made in 1975 and subsequently have become even more relevant in terms of the argument for vegetarianism. The fact that you and your wife I think stopped eating meat in 1971, how do you see that discourse in terms of not necessarily animal rights but this focus on suffering also in relation to animals, that seems to be very much part of the current discourse on climate change as I see it.
Singer Yes, I think that's true. When my wife and I became vegetarian in 1971 we were thinking about the effect on animals, it was after we had discovered that many animals had taken indoors and closely confined in factory farms and they were not living natural lives suitable for their nature on the fields and we thought that was quite wrong to ignore their interests and we didn't need to eat them, that was concern for the animals. I suppose there was some awareness that we had then after reading Frances Moore Lappe's book Diet for a Small Planet which also came out around that time, that it was inefficient to raise animals and feed them on grain or soy beans, that this was wasting a lot of food and therefore a lot of good agricultural land and that the planet could feed its population better and preserve the environment better if we didn't eat meat. But we had no idea about climate change, I only became aware about climate change in 1984 when I spent a year at the University of Colorado in Boulder and the National Centre for Atmospheric Research was where and I learnt from my then colleague and friend Dale Jamieson about climate change, he was the first philosopher I met who was interested in climate change. Animals, particularly ruminants give out a lot of methane and that contributes to climate change as well so that is another major reason for not eating meat. Just in the last couple of years I think we have recognised the seriousness of pandemics and how much damage they can do and many people have warned us that most of the dangerous viruses including the corona virus come to us from animals and some people have said if you really wanted to set out to breed new viruses you would take 20,000 animals, crowd them together in a single shed where they are all very stressed and then send workers to go among them and of course that is exactly what factory farms are. We have already had viruses coming out of factory farms, not totally lethal ones, or very contagious ones, but if we want to reduce the risk of having a pandemic that is as contagious as Omicron but much more deadly, then that is another reason for getting rid of factory farms.
Banik So you did write that book in 2020 when the pandemic started Why Vegan Eating Ethically, and some of these issues you discuss there. I am also thinking it is not just about meat it is also fruits and vegetables and there is so much attention now on procuring these things locally, vegetables or fruits that don't consume too much water, that there should be a focus on fair trade. What are your thoughts beyond meat?
Singer Well I think that those are all things that are worth considering, but we do have to look at the relevant facts. Eating locally in itself is good, but not always. Suppose that you want to eat locally but you still want to eat tomatoes, this will depend on where you are living, but you are living in Norway, so suppose you want to eat tomatoes in June I assume tomatoes are not going to ripen naturally in the sunshine in Norway by June. So, if you did get local tomatoes, they would have to come from a greenhouse that would have had to be heated for the previous three months so the tomatoes could grow and heating that greenhouse would probably use more fossil fuels than transporting tomatoes from the south of Spain where they could have been ripened in the sunshine. So, it is not always going to be better to eat locally, I think you need to think about, what am I eating, is it seasonal, if it is not seasonal do I need to eat it and where does it come from, how far does it travel? Another factor is in terms of fair trade, I think we do want to buy foods from countries that can grow them more efficiently than we can and at lower cost than we can. We don't want to fly them to us because that is generally pretty costly in terms of fossil fuels, but if it is something that can be shipped, say coffee can be shipped while it's green before it is roasted, it travels fine and products like rice. I am in Australia now, there is a small amount of Australian coffee produced.
Banik I didn't know.
Singer But we don't have ideal conditions for growing coffee, it grows better at a high altitude. So, I think it perfectly fine to import your coffee from Brazil or Kenya or wherever it might come from. Similarly, rice from Bangladesh for example helps support the economy there and can come on a ship, I don't have a problem with buying that either even though Australia does produce rice. I think you need to think individually, what sort of impacts am I having and how to weigh them up and we do want to help countries with lower income, but we do want to reduce greenhouse emissions as well.
Banik It seems to me Peter that it is getting very difficult these days to make these decisions to lead a morally good life, because, on the one hand you could say we have access to tons of information perhaps a bit too much and it isn't always easy for an individual to weigh the merits of these different choices that we make. So, fair trade by paying good wages to people producing coffee in Colombia is good but as you were pointing out, flying it all the way to Norway is perhaps not so good. So, how do you see these trade-offs that we must make on a daily basis as we drink our coffee, read the papers and we figure out what it means to lead a morally good life?
Singer You don't want to have to be doing complex calculations every time you buy some food, so I think get some basic principles straight and generally stick to them. Keep alert for new developments and new things that are happening that can change your habits but it is not something that you want to calculate all the time so try to avoid food that has been flown long distances but not necessarily food that has been shipped long distances because putting coffee on a ship is quite efficient, you can have a lot of coffee traveling, it takes longer but doesn't use so much fossil fuel as flying it over. Of course, as I already said, try to avoid animal products, especially factory farm products for a variety of reasons and eat seasonally when you can. There is something quite enjoyable about that, I think we have gone to the sense that we need to have tomatoes all year round but, there is more excitement in a way if we are getting the first tomatoes, it's so long since I've had a tomato that's really great. So, there are different decisions that people will make in terms of what’s more important for them and what isn't. But think about the impact you are having on animals, think about the impact you are having on the climate, think about what impact you are having on public health. All of those things come into that position.
Banik Peter, let's move to discussing effective altruism as an idea. I want to begin by referring to a book that you published I think in 1981, The Expanding Circle, where you define altruism as a genetically based drive to protect one’s kin and community members but this has not developed into a consciously chosen ethic with an expanding circle of moral concern. I am interested Peter in understanding your views on altruism, how you think these ideas related to altruism have evolved since you published that 1981 book and how you think altruism as a concept and idea is perceived and practiced today?
Singer I think there have been some changes in my thoughts although I would still agree with what you just quoted or summarised. I do think that we have a genetic basis for our altruism, but that genetic basis is relatively limited in the circle of beings to whom we are likely to show altruism. They are going to be firstly our family and close kin and then they are going to be members of our relatively small group of people who we recognise that we have long term relationships with and particularly that we have mutually beneficial relationships with, with reciprocity. For our ancestors that was probably a group of a hundred to a hundred and fifty people that was the tribal society that humans appear to have lived in for a long part of our evolutionary history, so we are well adapted to that, to those kinds of numbers. But we are not well adapted to the idea that we might be altruistic towards strangers who we don't even see as individuals because they are far from us and we are not really well adapted to altruism to non-human animals, although when we domesticated animals like dogs and had them around then perhaps, we did extend our altruistic feelings towards them. It is at that point in my view that the capacity to reason comes in and this goes back to what I was saying before of taking the point of view of the universe. So, we can see, and we have this innate idea that we are aware of how people in this small group feel and we have empathy with them when they suffer, we don't want to see them suffering and then as we develop reasoning capacities, we start to be able see that other people who are not part of that group are in important ways like them. That is that they have the capacity to suffer too, and it matters just as much to them if someone they love is killed for example as it would matter to us or other members of our family. We start to be able to say, that is not a good thing to do, if we don't need to do it, if we are not fighting a war against people, if we are not doing it in self-defence or anything like that but it is not a good thing to harm others. That is not necessarily a dominant attitude, we have clearly seen people who have gone out directly to dominate and kill and rape strangers and so on, so this is not the only aspect of our biological nature that is there, but it is there and it enables us to take that broader point of view and to expand the circle and I think we have done that over the past few hundred years and perhaps understanding more about strangers when we developed abilities to learn about them through the printing press for example and even more now through the internet and television and so on. I think that helps us to stretch these ideas and then we can start thinking about including all human beings initially, saying they have basic rights as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we can set goals to help them like with the Millennium Development Goals or the Sustainable Development Goals. We can also extend this to non-human animals, although that is still very much a work in progress, all of this is a work in progress that the rhetoric we except for universal human rights but we don't necessarily act in the way we would if we regarded all humans as equal. So, it is still something we struggle with, but I think we have made a lot of progress over the last few hundred years in recognising this and to some extent acting on it.
Banik So, as I understand it, there is altruism and then there is effective altruism and in the 2015 book, The Most Good You Can Do, you argued that the principle or the idea of effective altruism is built on a simple and yet an unsettling idea that living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good you can do. Returning to something we started this discussion with, could you please help me, and my listeners better understand what you mean by effective altruism?
Singer One of the interesting things about altruism as people practice it today and some of that altruism for example is donating to charities, is that people don't apply the same standard to charitable donations that they apply to their self-interested purchases. If you are setting out to buy a new phone, a car or a laptop, most people will do some research, look online see which ones get the most stars, see which ones they can afford to buy or they may talk to friends, if they go out and buy something and somebody says you could have got a better one for half the price, they will kick themselves and say that was stupid I must be more careful next time. But when people donate to charities very few people do that, very few people say, is this the charity that will do the most good for the amount of money that I am about to donate to it. Or are there other charities that would do twice as much good for half the money that I am donating. In fact the answer is yes and the answer is that the difference, put aside charities that are just scams or frauds there are a few of them, but the difference between an average charity and a really good charity is likely to be much larger than the difference between the best value laptop and the average value laptop because if there was a huge a difference between those two the manufactures of the average value laptop would be out of business, everybody would work out which to buy. But with charities, because they don't really check that, they don't do the research and it has been harder in the past at least to do that research, the difference between what you get per charitable dollar might actually be not just twice or four times but tens or hundreds of times. Let me give you an example that I quote for that. Most people think that a good charity is contributing to providing guide dogs for blind people, you walk through an airport and you see these big plastic dogs with a slot and you drop some money through the slot and you think great I've done something good here, and you have, I am not saying they are bad charities, they are certainly not scams and giving a blind person a guide dog can help them get around. But it is costly because you need expert trainers of the dogs to get them to work well and then to train the people to work with the dogs and it might cost for example, $40,000 USD to train one guide dog and one person to get them to work together. Now, compare that with what it costs to restore sight in someone who is blind because they have cataract, if you're in Norway, I am in Australia we don't have to worry, if we get cataract, we have a government paid health care system that will remove them for us. But many people in the world don't live in countries that do that and as they get older and get cataract, they're blind and they can't afford to see. There are also other people who are blind because they were not treated for glaucoma when they were young, glaucoma is the biggest cause of preventable blindness and that is an inexpensive treatment that they could have been given. So, I think it is clearly better to not be blind when you either were blind or would be blind and I think the difference between being blind and not blind is bigger than being blind and having a guide dog and being blind and not having a guide dog. But the cost might be just $100 for restoring sight in someone who has cataract or preventing somebody going blind from glaucoma. So, that means that for $40,000 you could restore sight or prevent blindness in 100 people and so it is at least 100 times as good to give to those organisations that are effectively doing that as it is to give to those that are providing guide dogs, I would say more than 100 times because the difference is bigger.
Banik I want to return to the article that in many ways shaped my first fieldwork in India when I was studying starvation deaths, I mentioned this to you earlier. The article from 1972, I think it was one of your first articles, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” where you have an example that has become extremely well known, not just in philosophy but also in other circles it's one of us walking past a shallow pond and we see a child drowning in it. Rather than me explaining that example, perhaps you can, for the umpteenth time explain or just describe that example and how you draw some of the principles of charity, of altruism, of our ability to combat world suffering. So, the shallow pond example Peter for the umpteenth time.
Singer This is like asking the Rolling Stones to sing Satisfaction once more!
Singer But they do it so I can do it. One day when you are going somewhere, meeting some important people so you've got your finest clothes on you take a short cut across a park and in the park, there is a pond. You are familiar with the park with the pond, and you know that the pond is quite shallow because in the summer you've seen children playing in it and they can stand, it's waist deep on a teenager. But now it's winter there is nobody playing in the pond, you don't expect to see anyone or anything in the pond, but you do notice that there is in fact something in the pond, something splashing in the pond and when you look closer you see it is a really small child, just a toddler who can't stand, even in that shallow pond. Of course, you would say that this child is going to drown, this child is too small to be able to swim, what is going on here, where is the child's parents or babysitter? But there is nobody there, you don't know how this has occurred but there is only you and the child and if you don't get into that pond really fast and pull the child out the child is going to drown. So, I think most people will think, I have to do that and start hurrying towards the pond. But suppose you have a second thought, not so noble, that is I’ve got these really good clothes on, they cost me quite a lot, they are going to get ruined if I jump into that shallow pond, the child isn't my child and I am not responsible in any way for it, nobody even asked me to keep an eye on the child, so why don't I just forget that I ever saw the child. Probably the child will drown but I won’t be up for the cost of replacing my expensive clothes. That is the story I tell and then I usually ask the audience, so what would you think about a person who did that? Would you think that was okay or would you think that was wrong? Most people say that is very wrong, you would have to be a monster to put saving your clothes from getting ruined above the life of a child. So, I say good, I am glad you agree with that way but think about your situation now, you probably have spent some money on expensive clothes or if clothes are not your thing maybe you have upgraded your phone when you didn't need to or a nice car that you didn't need. Whatever it might be and you live in a world in which there are children that are dying not necessarily that are drowning, but they might be dying from malaria which could be prevented by distributing bed nets in malaria prone regions or perhaps they get diarrhea which could be prevented by having paramedics distribute oral rehydration therapy and train villages in how to use it for kids who get diarrhea or by improving their sanitation, a whole host of things. So, are you doing that? And if you are not doing that, is your way of living that different to that of the person who didn't want to go to the expensive of replacing their clothes and was prepared to let a child drown in order avoid going to that expense. Now it is true that emotionally it is different, if you don't see the child in front of you it's easier to ignore, children you can read about or see in a video online but they are not in front of you, and you could say I am just doing what everyone else does, there is nothing special about me or nothing especially bad about me, but once you realise this, once you know about it, I don't think the fact that the child is not in front of you makes significant moral differences, I don't think that the fact that the child is in a faraway country makes a difference. Yes, you have to donate to a charity, you have to find out if it's an effective charity but it's not hard to do that online. Perhaps you could say there is some chance the charity won't do the right thing even though it seems to be a good one. So, yes maybe the probability that you will save a life is not 100% whereas you could say in the case of the drowning child in the pond was 100% or very close to it but still there is quite a high probability that by donating to an effective charity that you will save a life, or you might restore sight in somebody or do other good things. So, I think our situation is not that different from the person who looks away from the child and goes on, the passer-by, and that is the point I am trying to make with that example.
Banik I've used this article in several of my courses on the politics of poverty and we've had fascinating discussions with students on this because the sense of consequentialism as I understand it is that right action by us will lead to good results. In the article you talk about two main principles, the first principle is that suffering and debt from lack of food, shelter and medical care, any sort of suffering of that kind is bad. The second principle, there is a strong and a weak version of it. The strong version is that if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought morally to do it. A weaker version of this, you say if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought morally to do it. Now, in the latest edition of your book The Life You Can Save, How To Do Your Part To End World Poverty, you also adopt a slightly different formulation, you say that we should be giving a lot of money, donating to effective charities that can prevent suffering without sacrificing anything nearly as important. I've heard you say this before that this formulation is on purpose vague, the question is why is it vague?
Singer Well I think there are various differences between things that are written almost 50 years apart. You might say one was written by a young idealist and the other was written by an old realist, you become just a little less idealist about how people might behave, so that would be part of it. Another difference is that one was written for a philosophy journal, the article was published in Philosophy and Public Affairs then a new peer review philosophy journal and now a well-established and well regarded one. The Life You Can Save was written for a broader audience, it was originally published by Random House major trade publisher, then as a result of the publication of that book in 2009, an organisation called The Life You Can Save sprang up essentially, I co-founded it with Charlie Bresler who was the founding president of it. Charlie had the idea that we should buy the rights of the book back from Random House which they did agree to sell us and make the book available free online to whoever wanted it. As part of that I updated it for the 10th anniversary edition in 2019 and it is now available free online either as an eBook or an audio book from thelifeyoucansave.org. So, given that I was writing for this broader audience, I wanted and perhaps given I had become older and a little bit more realistic I wanted to get the largest possible number of people to do something. I wanted to avoid the idea that people would say that these principles are just too demanding, if that what it takes to live an ethically life I've got to give up on ethics. To avoid that I did make the principle rather vague as you say by using that 'not sacrificing anything nearly as bad' and I wanted people to think for themselves about what do I regard as 'nearly as bad'. But I hope that most people would recognise that for something to be not nearly as bad, that it is fairly easy for something to be not nearly as bad as allowing a child to die or even allowing people to become blind when they don't have to. So, I wanted people to be honest with themselves and say, if I don't spend this money on whatever it was going to be, that new phone or maybe a holiday that I was going to have, travelling somewhere exotic, that is a bit bad for me, it would be nice to have those things, but not nearly as bad as what will happen to people if I don't donate the money. I can use that somewhat loose phrase and if people are honest, they will still say I really ought to be giving a lot more than what I am giving and they will see that they can give a lot more and they are not making a huge sacrifice but they are in fact doing something that is fulfilling and meaningful. That was the thought, I really wanted to get more people doing something.
Banik This is why it is so fascinating to speak with you today because when I read the article and the original article in 1972, the piece you were writing at a time when Bangladesh was suffering from famine, lots of people were dying and you were almost doing like what The Beatles were doing, you were the academic rock star then. But some of the criticism at that point Peter, if I can para-phrase was that doing what you were advocating for people to do, give as much as possible, there was this requirement of heroic sacrifice, there was this overload of obligations, how would we know what to do, who to help, we have all of these other responsibilities to our family, to our neighbourhood, to our country, how would we know that these things would be effective. Those were the initial comments and then there were other much more polarising views, Garrett Hardin being in case saying it is all lifeboat ethics, and in a way, I am sure some of President Trump's rhetoric comes out a bit like that, it is the national interest we are all in these lifeboats, we should be taking care of ourselves. So, it seems to me Peter, the initial response to that academic article seemed to be focusing on this overload of obligations whereas your latest work is basically saying you don't have to give everything, but you can give quite a lot and yet maintain a good life. Have I understood you correctly?
Singer Yes, I think you have understood that quite correctly. I would just pick up one thing you said. I would distinguish Garrett Hardin and Donald Trump fairly sharply, I mean I disagree with them both, but Hardin at least was taking a global point of view, Hardin's view was some countries there is no point in helping because it is just going to mean their population expands and they will be starving again in 20 years but there will be a larger number of people starving. Fortunately, Hardin was wrong on the facts, Bangladesh was one of his examples of a basket case, we shouldn't help Bangladesh and the population of Bangladesh is now larger than when Hardin was writing I think it was in the early 80s, it is significantly larger.
Banik And it's a huge success story now.
Singer Exactly. People are not starving in Bangladesh now, so he was wrong on the facts, but he was, I suppose in some sense thinking, what is the best thing to do for all of those affected and for the future as well as for the present. Whereas Trump I don't think gives a dam about people in Bangladesh or outside America at all as far as I can see. His thing was we want to make America great again, it is America first policy, he was not taking the point of view of the universe, he was taking the point of view of Americans and perhaps just trying to appeal to the self-interest of those who can vote because of course it is Americans who vote in those elections when he was elected in 2016 and it is not the people of Bangladesh or anywhere else in the world. So, I see him as not thinking ethically at all, just thinking from a self-interested perspective whereas I see Hardin as attempting to think ethically but being somewhat careless about the facts that he was alleging.
Banik You know some of these debates from the 1970s Peter have resurfaced these days because of climate change, so you have a lot of neo-Malthusians saying that Africa is going to be a big problem when they end up consuming as much as we do and we should be thinking about population control, I think Paul Ehrlich even a couple of years ago said that he still believes that population is a problem even though as you say that we realise that there is enough food, it is more a distribution issue. But one point I wanted to ask you which goes a bit back to the Trump argument is the diffusion of responsibility. Some people say it is better for local elites out there in these countries to know what is best for their people, they should be doing more, why should it be us?
Singer Well I certainly think that we should respect local knowledge and we shouldn't just go in and say we are the white people, we know what's best, often we don't and there are plenty of examples where we have messed things up. But firstly, local elites even if they are well intentioned may not have the resources to really help people in their countries and countries themselves are not resource rich. Secondly, sadly there are some countries that have elites that are simply looking after themselves too.
Banik Too much
Singer Too much yes. I don't think we are relieved of the obligation to assist simply because they're not doing what they should be doing. So, I think that we need to be careful, we need to enlist local people and we certainly don't want to force things on them. But the fact is that we have the ability to help to an extent that very often the local people don't, and that is what we should be doing.
Banik In the book you raise some of the typically objections to your argument, one is this futility that we end up saving lives, but we want to focus more on the proportion than the actual numbers, that we are hung up on percentages when the cost of saving each group may be the same. Others would say the sense of fairness if we feel that we are doing more than our fair share then we end up not helping. Another line of thinking especially coming from libertarians in the United States is, don't tell me what to do, I know what is best for me, you're containing my freedom etc. So, how do you see this act of giving? Is it a matter of positive rights and duties more than the emphasis on negative rights and duties that often is the focus of libertarians and many others in the United States for example?
Singer Interestingly I think the libertarian position which seems in theory to be quite strong, as long as I don't harm others, I don't have any responsibilities or owe them anything. That is really undermined now by climate change, because by continuing to live the way we do, adding to greenhouse gas emissions at a rate that per capita is many times that of people living in low-income countries, we are harming these people. Even if you just say we mustn’t harm people or if we do harm them, we must compensate them for the harm we have done, we should be doing a lot for people in low-income countries. Even the libertarians if they are honest, should be committed to that.
Banik So are we saying that we are complicit, that we have actually caused?
Singer Yes, we have caused, and we are causing harm, it is possible you could get off the grid and have solar power for all of your energy and something like that, but otherwise if you're living in the midst of a major city, it is really very hard to not be putting out more greenhouse gas emissions than people in some of the low income countries in the world. They are the people most vulnerable to climate change because many of those countries are in hot, fairly dry places, they are dependent on rainfall to feed themselves, for example this is very relevant for the Indian sub-continent because there are climate models that suggest that we are going to weaken the monsoon which so many millions of people rely on to produce their food. So, I think we are complicit in this, and we continue to contribute to it. Even if I were a libertarian, who I am not, I would think that I ought to be helping people to get out of this situation. As we said at the beginning of this discussion I am more of a consequentialist like a utilitarian I think we ought to be minimising suffering and doing good and I don't hold to the idea that as long as we don't harm anyone else that's fine, I think we should be helping people, so I reject that on philosophical grounds as well as on empirical claims that I just made about the harm that we are doing. But we need to do that in the best possible way and that will involve helping people locally, asking them what they want and what they feel like need, asking them how we can make a big difference to them and in some cases perhaps just giving them cash and seeing what they can do with it. One of the effective organisations that The Life You Can Save recommends is Give Directly which is an organisation that is relatively new but started out with the bold idea that we should just give people cash and see what they do with it. They did that and they followed up and no, they didn’t spend it all on alcohol or gambling or prostitution, they actually used it in pretty sensible ways in accordance with how they perceived their needs and some people started small businesses with it and worked themselves out of poverty, other people just ate better or were able to educate their children, replaced their thatched roof with a corrugated iron one so they don't get wet and in the long run they save money because the roof lasts so much longer. So, you don't have to be paternalistic, you can just make that offer, I am fortunate that to me, let's say a thousand dollars isn't a vast sum, it's not going to make a huge difference to my life if I have a thousand dollars less but if you're somebody living on the World Bank's two dollars a day borderline for extreme poverty or less than that, for you a thousand dollars is more than your whole annual income and that will enable you to do these things that I just mentioned.
Banik Yes the cash transfer thing is now well established in the development discourse as having worked really well and as you also referred to in your latest edition of your book that universal basic income is another idea that is gaining a lot of attention. Just a final set of issues, one has to do with the distinction you sometimes make between charity and duty, and I wonder sometimes, whether we talk about charity or giving to charities we are perhaps praising people for giving but we don't usually condemn people for not being generous. So, generosity is praised, being stingy is fine, you are not really criticised. As opposed to framing this more in relation to human rights obligations, duties, how do you see that charity duty linkage?
Singer I do use the term charity, but I don't use it in the sense that some moralists do where they regard charity as something that is optional that it is good to do but not wrong not to do. I think that if you are comfortably off, middle class or above in an affluent society and you are not doing anything to help people who through no fault of their own are living in extreme poverty that is wrong. So, in that sense I would say it is a duty to help and one way of helping is by giving to organisations that we call charities because you have to get tax deductibility’s and in the United States you need to be recognised as a charity so that term is there, and we are not going to get away from it. But I am not using it in the sense of saying that charity is something that is good to do but not wrong not to do, I think depending on your economic position it can be wrong not to do it, it can mean that you are not living an ethical life.
Banik So, how can we create a culture of giving, as you put it in the book, give people the right kind of nudge. In the book you talk about a giving scale a certain percentage of income that we all ought to be contributing. How can we create that kind of culture of contribution?
Singer I would like to create a culture in which they feel that they should be giving something significant, larger proportions of their income as they have more income and the organisation The Life You Can Save as I said I co-founded does set out to do that. Its primary task is to offer a list of charities that are independently assessed as being highly effective but it is also trying to spread the idea that giving is something you can do, that it is a rewarding thing to do but ultimately as a last resort that if you are economically secure that you ought to be doing.
Banik Peter it was fantastic to see you. Thank you so much for coming on my show today.
Singer Thanks Dan, it's been a pleasure talking to you.