Philosophers: Peter Singer
(b.1946 CE)

[Life & work] | [On-line introductions] | [On-line texts]

Singer's parents were Viennese Jews who escaped the Anschluss to Australia in 1938. His father became a successful importer of coffee and tea, his mother practised medicine. Singer was born in 1946 in Melbourne, and went to Melbourne University, where he studied law, history, and philosophy, graduating in 1967. Having received an M.A. in 1969 (with a thesis on "Why should I be moral?"), he went on a scholarship to University College, Oxford to do the B.Phil., which he took in 1971. He was Radcliffe Lecturer at University College from 1971 to 1973, during which time he worked on a thesis under R.M. Hare on civil disobedience (published as his first book, Democracy and Disobedience, in 1973).

From Oxford he went to teach at New York University for sixteen months, during which time he researched and wrote his second book, Animal Liberation (1975). He then returned to Melbourne where, apart from numerous visiting appointments around the world, he's stayed . first as Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, then from 1977 as professor of philosophy at Monash University. Since 1999 he's also been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values, Princeton University.

Not only are Singer's philosophical interests confined largely to the fields of ethics and politics, but even within those fields he's almost solely interested in practical problems such as abortion, euthanasia, and our treatment of animals. Despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), he's one of the best-known of modern philosophers, and certainly the most controversial. His greatest influence has been in the field of animal ethics.


His 1975 book Animal Liberation sets his agenda. In it, he argues that although human beings have a long history of mistreating animals, there is no moral justification for such behaviour. At the heart of morality is the wrongness of causing unnecessary suffering, but suffering doesn't come in different qualities, only some of which are morally relevant; we can't condemn the pain caused to members of one species while condoning the pain caused to members of another, any more than we can do so for difference races or sexes. The fact (in so far as it is a fact) that non-human animals lack our intellect and our moral understanding is irrelevant here; it's no more right to make a dog suffer than it is to do the same to a human imbecile or new-born baby.

The book contains not only philosophical argument, but also a great deal of evidence concerning such issues as animal experimentation and factory farming. What it doesn't enter into is the theoretical basis of his moral position, though his references to and quotations from Jeremy Bentham indicate the relevance of Utilitarianism; what makes an action morally wrong is its harmful consequences, the pain that it causes. He makes this Utilitarian foundation of his views more explicit in later works.

Singer's book had a tremendous effect — not only on individuals, bringing many people, philosophers and non-philosophers alike, to vegetarianism, but also on society. We now take the notion of animal liberation for granted as a respectable moral cause; when Singer was writing, it was widely seen as the concern of eccentrics and little old ladies with too many cats.

Life and death

Singer's notoriety stems mainly from his conclusions concerning abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. He argues that, although they can suffer, the unborn, infants and severely disabled people lack the ability to plan and anticipate their future; it's therefore morally permissible under certain circumstances, to end their lives. The proviso is important, as is his careful distinction between what should be said about voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Singer offers full and rigorous arguments for his various moral positions, but instead of debating the issues with him, many of his opponents (including, unhappily, some philosophers) prefer rhetoric, polemic, and even physical abuse. He has been accused of holding Nazi or near-Nazi views, and campaigners have tried to have his lectures and even academic appointments cancelled (and have sometimes succeeded; see, for example, "On being silenced in Germany", the appendix to his 1993 edition of Practical Ethics).

When opponents do address his arguments, they often do so on the basis of distorted and oversimplified versions — which is especially odd, given that he is one of the clearest of philosophical writers, with much of his work being aimed specifically at a lay readership. In researching the links given below, I found among the plentiful supply of on-line material expressing views critical of his position nothing that either avoided childish insult, gross misrepresentation of his position, or the use of journalistic rhetoric in place of argument. In the philosophical literature, of course, one can find proper debate; no philosopher, no matter how brilliant, gets it all right all the time. Perhaps it's a measure of Singer's success in offering strong arguments for his views that his opponents are forced to fight dirty rather than meting him in fair debate.

+ One Hundred Philosophers (2004)
U.S.A.:     Barron's Educational Books
U.K.:        Apple Press
Australia: A.B.C. Books
The book covers the history of philosophy chronologically from Thales of Miletus (6th century BCE) to Peter Singer (b.1946 CE), with philosophers from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Australasia, and the U.S.A., about 60% getting a page, 40% two pages. Scattered through the book are brief introductions to such topics as African, Chinese, and Indian philosophy, scepticism, women in philosophy, mind and body, the philosophy of science, and moral philosophy. The book's divided into periods, each with its own introduction and timeline of other important events. There's also a glossary, suggested further reading, and an index.
+ Peter Singer
Wikipedia article.
+ Peter Singer
Brief article (in French) from L'Encyclopédie de L'Agora.
+ Curriculum vitæ
Singer's from Princeton University.
+ Peter Singer
Brief details and bibliography, provided by Eco Books.
+ Professor Peter Singer
Brief bio., plus extracts from some of his books.
+ Peter Singer Links
A very full page of links to on-line texts, secondary literature, and other resources.
+ Peter Singer: Equal Consideration For All
Article provided by The Vegetarian Site.
+ Philosophy Under Fire: The Peter Singer Controvers
Artidcle from the Animal Liberation Front.
+ Claiming Darwin for the Left: an interview with Peter Singer
Interview-based article by Julian Baggini for Butterflies and Wheels.
+ A conversation with Peter Singer
An interview by Noel Rooney for nthposition online magazine.
+ Peter Singer
An interview by Robert Birnbaum for Identity Theory.
+ Texts provided by the Animal Rights Library
All Animals Are Equal (from Tom Regan & Peter Singer [edd] Animal Rights and Human Obligations (1989), pp 148-162)
Animal Liberation at 30 (from The New York Review of Books Vol. 50, No 8)
Do Animals Feel Pain? (from Animal Liberation [2nd ed.] (1990), pp 10-12, 14-15) Also available from Anumal Concerns Community
Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement (from Singer, In Defence of Animals (1985) pp 1-10)
The Great Ape Project — and Beyond (with R.I. Singer; from R.I. & P. Singer [edd] The Great Ape Project (1993). pp 304-312)
A Vegetarian Philosophy (from Sian Griffiths & Jennifer Wallace [edd] Consuming Passions (1998), pp 66-72)
+ Texts provided by Peter Singer Links
Abortion (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
Animals (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
Back at the Ranch, a Horror Story (with Karen Dawn. From the Los Angeles Times December 1, 2003)
A Better World? (from One World, pp 196-201)
The Biological Basis of Ethics (PDF file. From The Expanding Circle (1981))
A Bit Rich (from The Age August 22, 2004)
Bush's Meandering Moral Compass (from the Los Angeles Times March 25, 2004)
Conditioned Ethical Blindness (with Lori Gruen. From Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide (1987), pp 78-80)
Dialectic (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
Discovering Karl Popper (from The New York Review of Books XXI, 7 (May 2, 1974))
The Escalator of Reason (from How Are We to Live? (1995), pp 226-235)
Famine, Affluence, and Morality (Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (1972): pp 229-243 [revised version])
Humans Are Sentient Too (from The Guardian July 30, 2004)
In Vitro Fertilisation (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
Killing (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
A Meaningful Life (from Ethics into Action (1998), pp 192-196)
On the Appeal to Intuitions in Ethics (from Dale Jamieson [ed.] Singer and His Critics (1999), pp 316-318)
Owl of Minerva (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
A Philosophical Self-Portrait (from The Penguin Dictionary of Philosophy (1997) pp 521-522)
The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush ((2004); Introduction)
Proving the Obvious (with Lori Gruen. From Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide (1987), pp 80-81)
A Response to Martha Nussbaum
The Right to Be Rich or Poor (from The New York Review of Books March 6, 1975)
Shopping at the Genetic Supermarket
The Singer Solution to World Poverty (from The New York Times Sunday Magazine (September 5, 1999), pp 60-63) This article is also provided by Andreas Teuber.
Some Are More Equal (from The Guardian May 19, 2003)
Taking Life; Humans (from Practical Ethics [2nd ed.] (1993), pp 175-217)
Ten Ways to Make a Difference (from Ethics into Action (1998), pp 184-192)
The Triviality of the Debate Over 'Is-Ought' and the Definition of 'Moral' (from the American Philosophical Quarterly X:1, January 1973)
Vegetarianism (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
World Soul (from Ted Honderich [ed.] The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (1995))
+ The Animal Liberation Movement
originally published as a booklet by Old Hammond Press (1985); provided by
+ "The Bread Which You Withhold Belongs to the Hungry": Attitudes to Poverty
Provided by the Inter-American Development Bank.
+ A Darwinian Left for Today and Beyond
Excerpt from A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation (1999), pp 60-63; provided by the Ne Plus Ultra project.
+ The drowning child and the expanding circle
Provided by the New Internationalist.
+ Freedom and the right to die
From Free Inquiry 22:2, Spring 2002; provided by On Line Opinion — Australia's e-journal of social and political debate.
+ "The Freest Nation in the World"?
From Free Inquiry 20:3; provided by the Council for Secular Humanism.
+ Heavy Petting
Review of Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers (trans. Paul Vincent; Verso, 2000); provided by nerve.
+ Getting the facts right on Dutch euthanasia
From the Daily Princetonian.
+ Might or Right
Provided by the New Internationalist.
+ My Better Nature: Alone with Darwin
From the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 2002; provided by the Evatt Foundation.
+ Share the wealth
From the Daily Princetonian.

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