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Why Peter Singer — The 'Drowning Child' Ethicist — Is Giving Away His $1 Million Prize

Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and bioethicist, is the winner of the 2021 Berggruen Prize. The $1 million award is given to an individual who has made major contributions to advancing ideas that shape the world. His idea for the prize money: give it all away.
Joe Armao
Fairfax Media via Getty Images
Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher and bioethicist, is the winner of the 2021 Berggruen Prize. The $1 million award is given to an individual who has made major contributions to advancing ideas that shape the world. His idea for the prize money: give it all away.

Say you're walking past a shallow pond and see a child drowning. Would you try to rescue the child?

That's the famous "drowning child" scenario that Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, presented in his 1972 article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality." He points out there could be some minor inconveniences — you'd get wet and muddy and would probably have to change your clothes. But, of course, you'd go for it.

This seemingly uncontroversial scenario has profound moral implications. Singer argues that if it doesn't cost too much for you to "prevent something very bad from happening" — no matter where it is taking place in the world — you are obligated to do it.

"It makes no moral difference whether the person I can help is a neighbor's child ten yards from me or a Bengali whose name I shall never know, ten thousand miles away," he writes.

Singer's pioneering work to encourage altruism is one of many reasons he is the winner of this year's $1 million Berggruen Prize. The honor goes to an individual who has made major contributions to advancing ideas that shape the world.

"His ideas have provided a robust intellectual framework that has inspired conscientious individual action, better organized and more effective philanthropy, and entire social movements, with the lives of millions improved as a result," said Nicolas Berggruen, the billionaire who is chairman of the Berggruen Institute, in a statement.

Singer is much admired — and sometimes reviled. He's known for his writings on animal rights and the global eradication of poverty — and his controversial views on the sanctity of life. He is the founder of The Life You Can Save, an organization that helps vet the most effective global charities, and a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. He splits his time between the U.S. and Melbourne, Australia, where his children and grandchildren live.

We spoke to Singer, who is 75, about his past (his parents emigrated from Austria to escape Nazi persecution), his statements on newborns with disabilities and his plans for the prize money. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Congratulations on the $1 million prize. You said you will give all the money away. Where is it going?

Half of it is going to help people in extreme poverty. A third of it is going to help reduce the suffering of factory-farmed animals. And [the rest] will go to other causes. Global poverty and reducing the suffering of animals are things I've worked on pretty much my whole adult life, and I continue to think that they are important objectives.

You're a proponent of "effective altruism." Can you explain that?

Effective altruism is a philosophy which says that one of the things we should try to do in life is try to make the world a better place, to do good for others. It's not saying that we should all be saints and devote ourselves to that all the time. That's not realistic for most people, but it should be something that is important to each of us, that we have a chance to do that. And when we do that, we should use our resources — which might be money or volunteering our time or skills — and try to get the most good out of them.

That idea has influenced foreign aid and international development — and the philanthropy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a funder of NPR and this blog), Warren Buffett and The Giving Pledge. How does it apply to regular people? Can ordinary folks make a difference with "effective altruism"?

They can make a difference by giving to the best and most cost-effective organizations that are doing good. Regular people do give, and that's great, but often they don't check the organizations that they're giving to. And there are enormous differences in how much good you can do, depending on the organization that you give to.

Did your upbringing affect your career and your views on human suffering? Your parents, who were Jewish and lived in Austria, left for Australia in 1938 as Nazi persecution of Jews mounted, and three of your grandparents were killed in the Holocaust.

Clearly, it gave me a sharp awareness of the potential of humans to inflict suffering on other humans and the dangers of racism and authoritarian rule and the dangers of suppressing freedom of expression and democratic procedures in electing leaders. All of that had an impact on me. But it's still a leap from the work I've done on global poverty or reducing the suffering of animals. To me, that seems something separate. But obviously, looking back, yes, I'm sure my family background did have some impact.

Is there one moment in your life that set you on this path?

There was one that happened when I was studying philosophy and ethics at Oxford University in 1970. A Canadian graduate student invited me to his college for lunch. The place was [serving] spaghetti with a brown sauce on it. My friend asked someone who worked there if there was meat in the sauce. He was told there was, so he took the salad.

I asked him why he asked that question about the meat, and he simply told me that he didn't think the way that animals were treated was right.

That was an important moment for me because it brought home the ethics I was studying. I was eating meat probably twice a day at that time. I didn't know much about how animals were treated then, but he told me a bit and I found out some more, and I agreed with him that I couldn't defend the way animals were being treated to be turned into meat. So I stopped eating meat.

That led me to think about other things I was doing, including spending money. Around that time, India was appealing for help. It had millions of refugees from what was then East Pakistan coming into the country to escape oppression. I thought, gee, I should be doing something about this. I've got money I don't really need. So I decided to donate 10% of my income to helping people in extreme poverty.

Your drowning-child thought experiment has been taught in classrooms all over the world. I always wondered why you chose that analogy of all things. It's a very powerful and disturbing image. And it's also prescient. It kind of reminds me of the little Syrian boy who drowned. A photo of the child inspired so many people to donate money, although the impact seems to have faded.

That was a tragic case, and the image did appeal.

So why did I choose that example? I wanted an example where people could see that it was wrong not to help, even though the person who they were helping was a complete stranger.

I also wanted a case where they could help at some cost to themselves but not endanger their lives or put themselves at any serious risk. That seemed parallel to the situation of people who have spare money to help those in extreme poverty. Yes, there's some financial cost to you helping, but it's not a great sacrifice. It's not like you have to break down the door of a burning building and rush in and grab a child where the roof could collapse and you could be caught in the fire.

So that was the kind of example I was looking for. I was a graduate student at Oxford at the time when I was starting to think about this question. And some of the colleges where I would have lunch would have little ornamental ponds. Perhaps some of those ponds were on my mind that made me think, "Suppose there was a child who had fallen in there."

You don't shy away from controversial views. In your 1979 book Practical Ethics, for example, you argue that parents should have the right to end the lives of newborns with severe disabilities. We had asked a reporter to interview you, and she refused the assignment because she is appalled by your stand on this issue. I'm sure you've had other harsh reactions. Have you rethought or changed your view?

If a newborn infant is likely to have a really bad life, then I think we shouldn't say this life must be preserved no matter what. Now, I'm not in a position to judge which infants are going to have good lives or bad lives. The parents of those children are in the best position to judge, provided they get accurate information on the prospects of their child and the impact the child will have on them and their family as well. This decision ought to be up to parents on the basis of consultation with their doctors, of course, but also preferably in consultation with other people who are familiar with that condition. Maybe people who have the condition that their newborn infant has or maybe people who are the parents of a child with that condition.

Have I changed my views on this? Not in the fundamentals. I used to say parents should consult with their doctors. I've been made more aware that some doctors may not be well-informed about the life prospects of children with disabilities. That's why I now add that parents should try to get information from organizations of people who either have or are the parents of people with specific disabilities before making these choices.

How do you distinguish between your view and the view of various political groups that have talked about terminating lives they do not see as having value or worth.

You may have been thinking of the Nazi policy of so-called euthanasia for what the [Nazis] referred to [in German] as Lebensunwertes Leben, "a life not worthy of living."

But they were applying racist and eugenicist principles to this — and many of the people that they killed were not suffering and were enjoying their lives, in fact. So I think that's the major difference. The other difference is that I don't want the state to make these decisions. I want parents to make these decisions.

How has the pandemic affected your worldview? Are people being more altruistic? Selfish?

The pandemic has brought out altruistic impulses in some people, and that's good.

Any examples?

When there were no vaccines around, [a younger neighbor] offered to do the grocery shopping for my wife and me because older people were at higher risk. I actually didn't accept that. I thought the risk was not that great and I could bear it.

But [these altruistic impulses] haven't been general. We're now talking about booster shots here [in the U.S.] when there are many countries where only 1 or 2% of the population have been vaccinated. That's not because they don't want to be vaccinated — that's because the countries don't have supplies of the vaccine. So I was pleased that President Biden said he's making another 500 million doses of vaccines available to some of those countries. But that isn't enough.

You've debated whether robots should have rights, for example. (Spoiler alert: You wrote that it depends if the robot "really was conscious, and not just designed to mimic consciousness"). Are there any other far-out ethical dilemmas you've contemplated?

One is to what extent we should take account of the long-term future. Some of my colleagues in the effective altruism movement say the most important thing to do is ensure our species survives for the next century or two, to a time when we will have got through the technological bottleneck of being just on this planet.

So ... you think we should move to other planets? Why is that important?

Being on one planet makes survival more risky. If we colonized other planets in space, then if something were to happen here — let's say a nuclear war or a pandemic that killed everybody — the species could still survive.

Some people think the loss of untold trillions, quadrillions, quintillions of people who will exist in the future is such a huge, catastrophic loss that even if the risk of us becoming extinct is relatively small, it should be our priority to make it even smaller.

So when you're talking about the long-term future, you're talking about the long-term future.

One of my colleagues, Will MacAskill, gives a lecture called "The Ethics of the Next Billion Years," so he's talking about much longer than that.

This year, you launched the Journal of Controversial Ideas. Tell me more about that project and what kind of contemporary controversial ideas you hope to tackle.

The Journal of Controversial Ideas is a reaction to the fact that we now have a number of academics who have been harassed in various ways or suffered damage to their careers by publishing articles that were well-argued, reasoned articles but were deemed politically incorrect.

One of the cases that influenced us was a young female philosopher called Rebecca Tuvel, who published an article in which she raised the question: Why do we think that everybody should be able to change their gender merely by saying they identify as a different gender, but we don't think anybody should be able to change their race by saying they identify as somebody of a different race?

You might remember there was a case of a woman who was working for the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal. She identified as an African American and wasn't in the biological sense. So Tuvel raised that question. She wasn't saying we shouldn't accept people who are transgender as whatever they say they are. But she was raising the question as to whether we should accept people who say that they're transracial. She really got vilified for that. Hundreds of academics signed a letter to the journal that published the article, saying it should be withdrawn.

And I and my colleagues, Francesca Minerva and Jeff McMahan, think that freedom of opinion is important. So we created the journal to make it possible for people to publish under a pseudonym if they wish, so they can get their ideas out there without fearing being harassed or intimidated or, in some cases, physically threatened.

You must spend many hours pondering these very serious topics. What do you do to recharge?

I get outside and do something physical, and depending on the weather and where I am, it's either hiking, preferably in some mountains, or surfing, if I'm down at the beach.

I read that you picked up surfing when you were 50.

That's right. Growing up in Australia, I did some body surfing, but I never actually had a board. I thought I was probably too old to start until I got some encouragement from a surfing instructor in Australia.

Anything else on your mind?

I hope that people who read this will be stimulated to think about their own lives. Are they living the lives they want to live, that are really in accord with their thought-out values? Or have they just kind of got into a rut through their career and they're doing something which might be OK, might pay them enough and so on, but maybe it's not really what they want to do.

Just as I took up surfing late in life, it's never too late to change what you're doing.

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.