Peter Singer: My little-known family altercation with Freud

The philosopher answers Prospect's Brief Encounter questions, and tells us why he'd time travel to Germany in the 1920s
March 1, 2020
What is the biggest problem of all?

Given that I am based in Melbourne, and there was recently smoke in the air from the unprecedented bushfires hundreds of kilometres east, it’s hard to go past climate change.

What have you changed your mind about?

I ate meat until I was 24 because—incredible as it seems today—until then, I never even considered that it might be wrong to do so.

If you could spend a day in one place at one moment in history, when and where would that be?

If I could intervene and change the course of history, I’d go to Germany in the 1920s and kill Hitler. But then history would have been very different and it’s unlikely that I would have existed. So how could I do that? If I have to be merely a fly on the wall, observing but not changing anything, I’ll go to Athens, in the 5th century BC, and listen to Socrates interrogating his fellow Athenians about their understanding of ethics.

Which book are you most embarrassed to have never read?

I’m not so easily embarrassed. There are more good books than anyone can read.

What piece of music, play, novel or film last brought you to tears?

“Mayn Shvester Khaye” sung by Chava Alberstein.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” It’s from Burke, and applicable to what we ought to be doing about global poverty.

Who is the greatest ever philosopher?

Philosophers stand on the shoulders of their predecessors. Derek Parfit thought that the late 19th-century utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics was the best book on ethics ever written, even if earlier philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Kant and Bentham were more original. Limiting the question to the field I know best, ethics, I agree with Parfit that Sidgwick has a serious claim to be the greatest. By the same standard, though, Parfit himself, standing on Sidgwick’s shoulders, has advanced our thinking about ethics still further, so perhaps he is currently the greatest—until someone stands on his shoulders.

What is a fact about yourself that people might not know?

My grandfather, David Oppenheim, co-authored a paper with Freud called “Dreams in Folklore.” Before it could be published, Freud and his allies expelled Alfred Adler, best known for developing the idea of the “inferiority complex” as a source of neurosis, from the Wednesday Psychological Society to which my grandfather belonged. At that time, Freud insisted all neurosis was sexual in origin. My grandfather objected to this refusal to tolerate dissent, and resigned to join Adler’s group. Freud never spoke to him again, and the manuscript was not published until 1958, when both Freud and my grandfather were long dead.

Who would you like to spend a day in the shoes of?

I took up surfing too late in life to tackle big waves, but I’d like to be in the shoes of someone like Laird Hamilton (an American big-wave surfer) on a day with a huge swell—except he wouldn’t be wearing shoes.