The Australian philosopher on "effective altruism," immigration points systems and defining philosophyby Alex Dean / July 5, 2016 / Leave a comment
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“A Swedish composer asked if he could use some words from my articles as lyrics for choral music. I said ‘fine,’ of course, and he went and composed it and it is somewhere online. I think on YouTube you can actually listen to it!”
Such is the influence of Peter Singer—arguably the best-known living philosopher. In an exclusive interview with Prospect the Australian thinker, now 69, mounted a defence of “Effective Altruism”—a movement he is the main proponent of.
Singer is a controversial figure—indeed, he has previously argued in Prospect that we should grant rights to the great apes. In our interview he offered his thoughts on the “Australian-style points-based migration system” championed by Brexiteers during the run-up to the EU referendum. “In Australia… I think the points system can work well. One issue is clearly ‘what points do you allocate for what?’… A points system may be fair or unfair depending upon how you allocate the points.”
Effective Altruism had its break-through in Singer’s 1974 work Famine, Affluence and Morality, recently republished. “It is both a philosophy and a social movement that’s concerned with being as effective as possible in making the world a better place” Singer explained. “It draws on evidence and reasoning to work out how best to do that.”
Singer recounted the famous “muddy trousers” thought-experiment from this work. “You are walking across a park and you see a small child who’s fallen into a pond. You know that you can safely rescue the child: there’s no danger to you, but there is a cost: you are going to ruin the clothes that you’re wearing for a special occasion. Most people when they hear this example will think to themselves… that the right thing to do clearly is to save the child.
“But if we ought to do it in the case of the child drowning in the pond.” Singer continued, “why wouldn’t it also be the case that we ought to do it for people who are dying of malaria or unsafe drinking water or any other number of easily preventable poverty-related conditions?”
In a new introduction to Famine, Affluence and Morality, Singer argues that Effective Altruism was a new way of doing philosophy—focussed on real-world moral problems. “When I was an undergraduate back in the 60s, English language philosophy was very much about analysis of the meanings of…