Peter Singer Is the Philosopher of the Status Quo

Effective altruist Peter Singer argues that individuals should do more to alleviate the world’s poverty. But his emphasis on giving to charity disregards the structural causes of inequality, suggesting that nothing fundamental can be changed.

Peter Singer attends the Berggruen Prize Gala in Beverly Hills, California on May 4, 2022. (David Livingston / Getty Images)

At a recent lecture at Monash University in Melbourne, the Australian philosopher Peter Singer confronted a searing question from an audience member. After a lecture laying out an ethical doctrine for one’s individual duties to the poor, an undergraduate student raised the question of the material cause of poverty, that is, capitalist accumulation. In the context of the crimes committed under global capitalism, “Isn’t something like giving to charity something of a band-aid?”

Visibly uncomfortable, Singer replied by conceding that though the excesses of modern capital are contrary to his ethical commitments, these problems are too big, too overwhelming, for the present to tackle.

Though that he hoped future generations would come up with a way to overcome the current economic conditions, following his moral philosophy, he countered feebly, was an effective thing to do in the meantime. Most revealing was what he said next. He and many people he knew had tried to change the ways things worked when they were younger, and they had failed. In Singer’s own terminology, there had been no good consequences to their actions. An air of resignation hung over his words. As if to end this thought he pointed to the more contemporary example of the Occupy movement. When all was said and done, he suggested, Occupy had “no positive benefits that he could see.”

Bentham in the Antipodes

Singer came to prominence as a philosopher with the 1975 publication of Animal Liberation, a book that articulated the claims of a newly emergent social movement. Drawing on the eighteenth-century father of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, Singer argued for the rights of animals based on their capacity to experience suffering. After doctoral studies in Oxford in the early 1970s, Singer returned to Australia, where he founded the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash, where he worked until the late 1990s before accepting a role at Princeton. In 2021, he won the million-dollar Berggruen Prize.

A second landmark arrived with Practical Ethics, published in 1979. There, Singer outlined his moral philosophy, derived again from Bentham. Bentham had argued that ethical action should be understood in terms of minimizing suffering and maximizing pleasure. For Singer, however, the focus was on people’s preferences rather than their direct pleasure or happiness.

Singer argued that the basis of ethical thought is “putting myself in the position of others.” Specifically, one should take into account one’s “wants, needs, and desires,” from a neutral, universal point of view. My own preferences, the argument goes, “must be weighed (equally) against the contrary preferences of others.” The right ethical choice, in short, is an equation achieved by maximizing as many preferences as possible having weighed those preferences equally. This would be “the course of action that has the best consequences, on balance, for all affected.”

In terms of the ethics of meat eating, for instance, a chicken’s desire to live and not experience pain far outweigh my desire to eat chicken. Regarding our obligations to the global poor, to take another of Singer’s examples, my desire for the latest fashion is outweighed by the desires of someone to live a life free from hunger and poverty. More recently, Singer’s views have shifted toward a more traditional “hedonistic utilitarianism,” a product of his growing conviction that the minimization of suffering is a self-evident ethical truth, an axiomatic point of departure when weighing up all consequences.

Singer’s advocacy of philanthropy is drawn from these ethics. He makes sizable donations to charity himself, and encourages others to donate what they can in an effort to alleviate poverty. Shirking an analysis of the structural causes of inequality, Singer opts to target individuals who could do more if they really cared about poverty. This argument becomes destructive, since in effect, it ensnares many earnest readers and promotes the powerful — like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, admired by Singer for their charity work — who are the beneficiaries of global poverty.

For Singer and his brand of moral philosophy, nothing fundamental can be changed. The forces that are in control of our lives and the manner in which we live and work are too powerful to be brought down. All that is left is to save those who suffer the most. Moral reflection, and philosophy more broadly, is reduced to an administrative role: do the most good you can do within a world that is broken.

Singer’s Sidestep

Although Singer considers his moral approach to be grounded in the rational, unbiased concern for all, his brand of utilitarianism is inherently configured around the individual as the center of moral concern and action. According to Singer, the vast suffering of millions of people is only comprehensible as a multitude of individuals who have not had their needs met. If you care about poverty, it is your individual duty to donate now as much as you can, only stopping once you would have to sacrifice something morally significant.

Singer most famously outlined this thesis in his 1972 essay, “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Anyone who has studied undergraduate ethics will be familiar with the strange and seemingly compelling logic of Singer’s arguments. As he goes to great lengths to show, there is undeniably a vast amount of suffering in the world, experienced by both human beings and animals, and many of us in the developed world do not do enough to alleviate it.

Part of Singer’s aim is to present readers with a debt that they did not know they owed. When presented with this utilitarian equation, readers are generally attracted to its bold simplicity, a solution to the mess of moral problems they themselves may have grappled with. Others are openly hostile, anxious at the prospect of having to uphold a level of moral duty they feel is unfair or inaccurate. This latter group are usually onto something, even if they can’t fully articulate why. There is a sense that while each of Singer’s premises are reasonable, even self-evident (suffering is bad, so if we can help people we ought to, etc.), the conclusion has led us somewhere unexpected. Surely, the thinking goes, Singer has missed some crucial part of our moral lives, both as collectives and individuals.

Even if we accept Singer’s premise that moral problems can be reduced to some kind of equation, hasn’t he left out a part of the calculation? This general conclusion that each of us owes much more to those in need than we think is, of course, the Singer move par excellence: an imperative for individual responsibility that leaves unaddressed the question of how we might collectively begin to address the conditions that led to such suffering in the first place. In this view, the immediacy of poverty becomes a problem that is unmediated by social and collective justice.

Indeed, if there is something that distinguishes Singer’s work — his published books and essays as well as his public talks — it is its extraordinary ability to sidestep the genuinely philosophical element of each problem considered. Singer’s capacity to avoid the ethical question in favor of an administrative or technocratic one is both breathtaking as well as surprising, given these solutions require almost no philosophical argumentation. Serious moral concerns we might have about global aid, euthanasia, assisted dying, the ethical status of billionaires, or artificial intelligence (to name only some of the things that Singer is asked about) are simply dismissed as unserious, incoherent, or as so minor as to be not worth addressing.

Achieving the Good, Accepting the Bad

Why, then, does he enjoy such status and popularity? Singer’s utilitarianism has survived successive intellectual challenges simply because its logic is inseparable from the logic of capitalism. Good is something to be maximized and difficult decisions are made by a cost-benefit analysis. Maximizing pleasure accrues in the same way as profit, quantities of preferences that can be traded and consumed. For the utilitarian, just as for the capitalist, the means by which something is achieved is secondary as long as the ends are good. Utilitarianism proudly emerged with capitalism as the voice of liberal reform, and from its Panopticon, offered a view that ironically is unable to grasp itself historically.

With Singer’s argument, we lose sight of both the cause of inequality in global capitalism and the stakes of any realistic solution. Singer not only refuses to discuss the conditions that bring about global poverty, but his philosophy acts to obscure the dynamics of global capitalism that reproduce it.

But the power of his argument rests not so much on his ability as a philosopher, but just how closely his argument confirms a form of resignation that is entirely amenable to the status quo. In light of this, it might be surprising that Singer in fact wrote a book about Karl Marx, published in 1980 and still in print. His highly influential Marx: A Very Short Introduction provides a remarkably shallow reading, however. 

Singer’s critique rests on his account of Marx’s views on human nature, which he argues, “is not as pliable as [Marx] believed. Egoism . . . is not eliminated by economic reorganization or by material abundance.” Singer argues that “people want not simply clothes, but fashionable clothes.” The irony of this particular argument is that it betrays the logic of his position in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality.” Here, he appeals for individuals to not buy new clothing, to avoid the latest Yeezys, for example, and donate that money. Singer appeals to a notion of inherent selfishness, while making the basis of his moral philosophy the commitment to restrain such self-interest. If he thinks that human beings “simply” want these things, then it is hard to see how his argument for donation gets off the ground. For his philosophy to work, we must act against the very nature he faults Marx for failing to take seriously.

Further still, in Marx, Singer even appeals to the inescapability of hierarchy in nature, citing those seen in chickens, amongst others, since they peck at those lower in the hierarchy. Singer considers these kinds of things to be compelling evidence of “the failure of deliberate attempts to create egalitarian societies on the basis of the abolition of private ownership of the means of production and exchange; and evidence of the hierarchical nature of non-human societies.”

What is notable in these passages is his apparent satisfaction that the matter of human selfishness is settled by virtue of looking to hierarchies in the animal kingdom. Leaving to one side the basic point that animal hierarchies function as conduits for collective cooperation and tell us nothing about hierarchical relations between human beings in modern societies, it’s clear that Singer has betrayed even the most basic vestiges of moral seriousness.

Faced with what he considers the incontrovertible facts, he succumbs to naturalistic fallacy and gives up entirely on any kind of rigorous, normative account of how human life might be different. Seen in this light, we can see that utilitarianism, and its modern manifestation in the effective altruism movement, represents the total concession to the naturalization of hierarchy, and the naive ahistorical insistence that there is nothing new under the sun. His brand of realism is a dead end, a resignation from which the only ethical duty that emerges is the minimization of a suffering that can never be fully eliminated. This is, in essence, the mathematics of defeat.

Against Resignation

In T. W. Adorno’s essay “Resignation,” he addresses the role of thinking in a world where action is badly needed. Originally delivered as a radio address in 1969, “Resignation” sets out a challenge for any philosophy attempting to come to terms with social change and political action. For Adorno, thinking itself must be interrogated if action is to be meaningful. Thinking cannot be reduced to utility. Those who want to change the world cannot simply advocate a solution that requires individuals to change their subjective behavior in one way or another. This approach reduces activity and social change to an individual’s choice, and in doing so, excludes the possibility of collective action. For Adorno, resigned thought becomes a kind of service to oppression.

Thinking, Adorno recognized, must seek the possibilities beyond “the intellectual reproduction of what already exists.” The problem of action must be grasped in its complexity. Even if individual subjective action is “easier” than objective social change, Adorno shows that giving up on the hope of social change means sacrificing thought for promotion of the status quo. There is a through-line between Singer’s 1972 argument for individual donation and his sycophantic praise of billionaire philanthropists.

Singer ends “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” with a call to arms that echoes Marx’s insistence that the philosopher must, ultimately, change the world. What is the point, Singer asks, of doing philosophy, if we do not take the concrete implications of its conclusions seriously? “The philosopher who does so will have to sacrifice some of the benefits of the consumer society, but he can find compensation in the satisfaction of a way of life in which theory and practice, if not yet in harmony, are at least coming together.” It is clear that Singer is at least aware of the need for thought to relate to the world in a genuine way. But Singer, fundamentally, isn’t thinking.