Peter Singer (Princeton) did an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit today to tout his new book, The Most Good You Can Do. He says he may come back tomorrow to answer some more questions. In the meanwhile, here are some excerpts:
Q: If you weren’t doing what you do now, what do you think you’d be doing?
A: I suppose I might be a political activist of some kind. Back in Australia in the ’90s, I was a political candidate for the Greens. I didn’t get elected, but support for the Greens has grown since then, and Green candidates have won the Senate seat for which I stood. I’m not sorry that I lost, because it was after that that I was offered the position at Princeton that has enabled me to have a lot more influence.
Q: Do you think that it’s wrong to buy lamb and beef that has come from sheep and cattle that have lived non-factory farmed lives outdoors in fields? It’s seems to me that the lives of such animals are worth living, i.e. that the world is better off for containing such animals than not, and therefore (from an animal welfare perspective at least) it is good and right to buy lamb and beef from these sources; this would not preclude simultaneously compaigning for improved treatment of these animals. Do you agree?
A: The lives of sheep and cows kept on grass rather than in feedlots may be worth living, but unfortunately these ruminants produce a lot of methane (essentially, belching and farting) and so make a big contribution to climate change. Despite the myth of this being “natural” grass-fed beef and lamb, on the scale on which we are producing it, is simply not sustainable.
Q: Would you rather save the life of 1 horse-size duck or 100 duck-size horses?
A: An effective altruist would always prefer to save 100 lives rather than just one.
Q: How do you justify wearing anything but sackcloth, given that, by wearing it, you save money otherwise spent on clothes, money that can be donated to reduce the suffering of the extreme poor, a suffering greater than that of wearing sackcloth?
A: Look, in theory, we EAs ought to all be wearing sackcloth, except that that would ensure that there were very few of us. We want more people to join us, and doing absolutely everything that, in theory, we ought to do is not the best way to achieve that.
Q: In an interview you did with Tyler Cowen back when you wrote The Life You Can Save, you were asked what you think about immigration as an anti-poverty tool. At the time you said you need to think about it more. It seems to me that allowing more immigration may be the most effective political change we can make toward reducing poverty, so I’m curious if you’ve spent more time on that question since then and have an opinion on it?
A: Yes, I’ve thought about it some more, and looked at some of the arguments in favor of Open Borders. To me, though, the problem is that any political party that advocated this would lose the next election, and that election contest would probably bring out all the racist elements in society in a very nasty way. So until people in affluent nations are much more accepting of large-scale immigration than they are now, in any country that I am familiar with, I don’t think a large increase in immigrants from developing nations is feasible.
Q: My Fiancee tries to have cash to give to the homeless on the street. Would she be better off donating said money to a charity that assists them than to give them money?
A: Giving to the homeless in affluent countries isn’t the best use of your money. It”s really hard to make a significant difference to the lives of people who are homeless in affluent countries.
Q: It’s widely known that you’re a classical utiltiarian. But how do you make ethical decisions?
A: I try to do what will have the best consequences (i.e. do the most to reduce suffering and increase wellbeing). But I assume that following widely accepted moral rules will normally be the best way to do that, unless I have clear evidence to the contrary.
And if you just can’t get enough Peter Singer, here he is interviewed on HuffPost Live.