Wednesday , November 13 2019
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Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Author: Ethics in the Real World, The Most Good You Can Do, Animal Liberation, The Life You Can Save

Articles by Peter Singer

Are Randomized Poverty-Alleviation Experiments Ethical?

6 days ago

When this year’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to three pioneers in using randomized controlled trials to fight poverty in developing countries, the choice revived questions about the ethics of the method. Three questions, in particular, need to be addressed.

PRINCETON – Last month, the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was awarded to three pioneers in using randomized controlled trials (RCTs) to fight poverty in low-income countries: Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, and Michael Kremer. In RCTs, researchers randomly choose a group of people to receive an intervention, and a control group of people who do not, and then compare the outcomes. Medical researchers use this method to test new

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Greta Thunberg’s Moment

October 7, 2019

No one could have predicted that a then-15-year-old Swedish girl would start a movement supported by millions of young people and gain a platform from which to address the world’s leaders. To avert an environmental catastrophe, we need many more like her.

PRINCETON – “This is all wrong!” These words begin the most powerful four-minute speech I have ever heard. They were spoken by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenage climate activist, at the United Nations Climate Action Summit last month, and followed a week of climate strikes and marches attended by an estimated six million people.
The Impeachment Trap

Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Why Climb Mount Everest?

September 5, 2019

The record number of deaths this year on the world’s tallest mountain underscores the immorality of seeking to reach the summit. But even if you are lucky enough to reach the top without passing a climber in need of help, you are still choosing your personal goal over saving a life.

PRINCETON – In 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest, I was seven years old. For a time, I was immersed in the stories of the epic climb. It seemed like an achievement for all of humankind, like reaching the South Pole. Would there still be any frontiers left, I wondered, by the time I grew up?
The Trump Narrative and the Next Recession

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Can Ethics Be Taught?

August 7, 2019

On a range of ethical issues, philosophy professors specializing in ethics have been found to behave no better than professors working in other areas of philosophy, or than non-philosophy professors. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that ethical reasoning is powerless to make people behave more ethically.

MELBOURNE – Can taking a philosophy class – more specifically, a class in practical ethics – lead students to act more ethically?
India’s Bad Bet in Kashmir

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What About Rochester?

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How Honest Are We?

July 5, 2019

It is common to hear people complain that we live in an era in which self-interest prevails, moral standards have collapsed, few care about others, and most people would steal if they thought they could get away with it. But a new study covering 40 countries provides solid evidence that the world is not nearly so bad.

MELBOURNE – You have lost your wallet. Inside are your business cards with your email address. How likely is it that you will receive a message telling you that it has been found? If the wallet has money in it, does that improve, or reduce, the odds that you will get it back, with its contents intact?
What’s Driving Populism?

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Rugby Australia’s “Own Goal”

June 11, 2019

If Rugby Australia had existed in the first century of the Christian era, and Paul had had enough talent to be a contracted player, the sport’s national governing body presumably would have ripped up his contract once his first letter to the Corinthians, with its injunction against homosexuality, became public. Just ask star fullback and born-again Christian Israel Folau.

MELBOURNE – There is no such thing as an own goal in rugby, but Rugby Australia, the game’s governing body in Australia, has done its very best to score one by terminating the contract of Israel Folau. In doing so, it has lost the services of a star fullback who has played 73 tests for Australia.
Europe’s

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How Many Lives is Notre Dame Worth?

May 9, 2019

Barely a day after the fire that damaged the famous cathedral, France’s wealthy had pledged more than $1 billion to repair it. If the rich can so easily give hundreds of millions to restore a building, they could just as easily have spent that money elsewhere in better ways.

PRINCETON – Just a little more than 24 hours after the fire that seriously damaged Notre-Dame de Paris, donations to rebuild the 850-year-old cathedral had passed €1 billion ($1.1 billion). Most of the money is coming from some of France’s wealthiest people. Untec, the national union representing construction economists in France, has indicated that the cost of the reconstruction is likely to be between €300 and €600 million, far less than the

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Who Needs More White Saviors?

April 3, 2019

Very few people in need care about the color of the skin of the people who direct the organizations helping them. If the goal is to help those living in extreme poverty, we need all the saviors we can find.

PRINCETON – Comic Relief is a British charity that raises money for disadvantaged people both in the United Kingdom and overseas. Every two years, it holds Red Nose Day, when supporters wear red clown noses. The day culminates in a TV extravaganza featuring comedians and celebrities. This year, Red Nose Day raised £63.5 million ($83.5 million) – a lot of money, but down nearly £8 million from two years ago.

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Beyond the Traditional Family

March 5, 2019

In many countries today, the traditional family consisting of a heterosexual married couple with children is becoming less dominant, as same-sex marriage, co-parenting, and single-parent child-rearing spread. Are these trends really as dangerous as a document signed last month by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar suggests?

MELBOURNE/WARSAW – Last month, Pope Francis traveled to Abu Dhabi, where he met Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar (Al-Azhar University is the leading Sunni institution for the study of Islamic law). The two religious leaders signed a “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,” calling on their adherents, as well as world leaders, to spread tolerance and peace and to

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Dirty Money and Tainted Philanthropy

February 6, 2019

The family that owns Purdue Pharma, which has fueled America’s opioid crisis, has used its wealth to promote the arts. Instead, they should be donating to groups that reduce suffering anywhere in the world, if possible on the same scale as the suffering brought about by the accumulation of their wealth.

MELBOURNE – In 2017, life expectancy in the United States fell for the third successive year. The decline is occurring because an increase in the death rate for middle-aged whites is offsetting lower mortality for children and the elderly. So, why are more middle-aged American whites dying?

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Too Much Gratitude?

January 9, 2019

Many people give from gratitude, not only to the universities they attended, but also to their primary and secondary schools, and to hospitals that treated them when they were ill. But grateful giving doesn’t necessarily do the most good.

PRINCETON – Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In

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The Lethal Consequences of Misclassifying Dolphins

December 12, 2018

Japanese law categorizes dolphins as fish, not mammals. As a result, for the past two months, commercial fishers have been herding dolphins into a narrow cove in Tajji and slaughtering them by the hundreds.

PRINCETON – The annual dolphin hunt in the Japanese town of Taiji began in September. By next March, despite global condemnation and mounting criticism from Japan’s own citizens, approximately 1,500 dolphins will have been herded into a narrow cove and stabbed to death.

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BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images

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Taiji is not the only place where dolphins are hunted. The Faroe Islands, Solomon Islands, Greenland, Russia,

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Are You Buying Oil from Saudi Arabia?

November 12, 2018

The strong response to Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder stands in stark contrast to the relative indifference the West has shown to the vastly larger number of victims of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen. To rein in the Saudi regime, the West must not only stop selling it arms, but also stop buying its oil.

PRINCETON – The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate on October 2 has focused attention on the Saudi regime, and especially on its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In large part, this is because Turkey’s government has kept the episode in the international spotlight.

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Choosing the Best Students

October 9, 2018

In sharply unequal societies, elite universities that receive government funds can properly be expected to play a role in fostering social mobility. But what does that obligation imply when these universities decide which applicants to admit?

PRINCETON – In different countries and for different reasons, university admissions policies are under attack. In a Boston courtroom on October 15, a judge will begin hearing a lawsuit claiming that Harvard’s admission process discriminates against Asian-Americans. In the United Kingdom, Member of Parliament David Lammy described Oxford and Cambridge as “fiefdoms of entrenched privilege” because of the many students they admit from private schools. In Japan, Tokyo Medical University has apologized for

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The Trial of the Century

September 12, 2018

Will 21 young plaintiffs ultimately be able to persuade a conservative-dominated US Supreme Court that the federal government is violating their constitutional right to a livable planet? It depends on whether the Court is willing to heed the scientific evidence.

PRINCETON – Next month, a judge in Oregon will begin hearing a case brought against the United States government on behalf of 21 young people, supported by the non-profit organization Our Children’s Trust, who allege that the authorities’ active contributions to the climate crisis violate their constitutional rights. The government defendants have repeatedly tried – so far without success – to have the case thrown out or delayed, and the trial is currently scheduled to start on

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Is Charity for the Poor Futile?

August 3, 2018

A group of leading economists recently criticized aid to the poor for failing to address poverty’s root causes. But while we wait for politicians to act – and it could be a long wait – it is important to concentrate our spare resources on effective aid that helps poor people lead the best lives they can.

MELBOURNE – In an essay published last month in The Guardian, 15 leading economists – including the Nobel laureates Angus Deaton, James Heckman, and Joseph Stiglitz – criticized what they call “the ‘aid effectiveness’ craze” on the grounds that it leads us to ignore the root causes of global poverty.

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The Migration Dilemma

July 6, 2018

Political leaders who want to act humanely towards asylum-seekers and other migrants now face a moral dilemma. Either they pursue border control that is strict enough to undercut public support for far-right parties, or they risk allowing those parties to gain more power – and challenge the West’s most fundamental values.

PRINCETON – The most heart-rending media story of the past month featured children crying after being separated from their parents at the border between the United States and Mexico. US President Donald Trump, after initially defending the separations, yielded to public pressure and signed an executive order ending it. In Europe, too, immigrants made headlines as the ship Aquarius, carrying 629 rescued

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Is Marx Still Relevant?

May 1, 2018

On the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete. So why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century?
MELBOURNE – From 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists triumphed in China’s civil war, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall 40 years later, Karl Marx’s historical significance was unsurpassed. Nearly four of every ten people on earth lived under governments that claimed to be Marxist, and in many other countries Marxism was the dominant ideology of the left, while the policies of the right were often based on how to counter Marxism.

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Crime and No Punishment for the Iraq War

April 6, 2018

It is unlikely that former US President George W. Bush or any member of his administration will ever stand trial for initiating a war of aggression in Iraq. But it is still worth recounting the illegality of that act, not least because it is directly relevant to official US thinking on Iran and North Korea today.
PRINCETON – Last month, the New York Times marked the 15th anniversary of the US-led war against Iraq with a poignant column by Sinan Antoon, an Iraqi novelist living in the United States, entitled “Fifteen Years Ago, America Destroyed My Country.” Antoon opposed both Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship and the 2003 US-led invasion, which plunged the country into chaos, inflamed ethnic tensions, and killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. By destabilizing the

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The Nation of Kangaroos

March 13, 2018

The naturalist Henry Beston once wrote that nonhuman animals are "other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.” We should take seriously the idea that taking land from wild animals is like invading another country.
MELBOURNE – The red kangaroo, the largest of all kangaroo species, is Australia’s national animal. Kangaroos appear on the country’s coat of arms, on its coins, on its sporting uniforms, and on the aircraft flown by Australia’s most popular airline. On a hike in Australia, seeing these magnificent animals bound across the landscape awakens my sense that I am in a unique country, with its distinctive flora and fauna. Yet, as the recent internationally acclaimed documentary “Kangaroo:

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Volkswagen’s Monkeys

February 5, 2018

Could the vehemence of the response to revelations of the carmaker’s experiments on the effects of diesel exhaust indicate a tectonic shift in ethical attitudes toward animals? To answer that question requires examining some details about the experiments and the reaction to them.
MELBOURNE – Late last month, the New York Times reported that researchers used monkeys to test the effects of inhaling diesel fumes from a Volkswagen. The research was commissioned by the European Research Group on Environment and Health in the Transport Sector, an organization funded entirely by three big German car manufacturers: Volkswagen, Daimler, and BMW.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine

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Prisoners of Pain

January 8, 2018

Whereas the quantity of available opioids in the United States is more than three times what patients in need of palliative care require, in India, the supply is just 4% of the required quantity, and just 0.2% in Nigeria. The reason is a misplaced fear that clinical use of opioids will fuel addiction and crime in the community.
PRINCETON – Last month, an Egyptian court sentenced Laura Plummer, a 33-year old English shop worker, to three years in prison for smuggling 320 doses of tramadol into the country. Tramadol is a prescription opioid available in the United Kingdom for pain relief. It is banned in Egypt, where it is widely abused. Plummer said that she was taking the drug to her Egyptian boyfriend, who suffers from chronic pain, and that she did not know she was

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The Man Who Didn’t Save the World

December 12, 2017

A Saudi prince has been revealed to be the buyer of Leonardo da Vinci’s "Salvator Mundi," for which he spent $450.3 million. Had he given the money to the poor, as the subject of the painting instructed another rich man, he could have restored eyesight to nine million people, or enabled 13 million families to grow 50% more food.
PRINCETON – Last month, “Salvator Mundi,” Leonardo da Vinci’s portrayal of Jesus as Savior of the World, sold at auction for $400 million, more than twice the previous record for a work of art sold at auction. The buyer also had to pay an additional $50.3 million in commissions and fees.

The Year Ahead 2018

The world’s leading thinkers and policymakers examine what’s come apart in the

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Hurricanes’ Unnatural Toll

October 13, 2017

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria were extraordinarily powerful storms, but the number of lives lost and the amount of damage caused were the result of human decisions. Two elements of human psychology sustain our irrational neglect of preventive measures, even as climate scientists warn that the risk of such storms will only continue to grow.
PRINCETON – The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially began on June 1 and will end on November 30, is likely to be the most expensive on record. Hurricanes have killed close to 300 people in the region this season, and damage estimates so far stand at $224 billion. On a scale that measures the accumulated cyclonic energy of hurricanes, this season is the first to have recorded three storms each rated above 40.

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Is Violence the Way to Fight Racism?

August 23, 2017

PRINCETON – Should rallies by neo-Nazis and white supremacists be met with violence?

That question was raised by the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. White supremacists held a rally to protest the planned removal from a public park of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederate army during the Civil War. A counter-protest was organized, and street fighting broke out. A woman, Heather Heyer, was killed and 19 people injured when James Fields, a white nationalist, drove his car at high speed into a crowd of counter-protesters.

At a subsequent press conference, President Donald Trump said that “both sides” were to blame for what happened. Trump’s apparent equation of racists and opponents of racism was condemned in the strongest terms,

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Trump’s Unethical Aid Cuts

July 11, 2017

PRINCETON – When Americans are asked what percentage of US government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answer is 25%. The correct answer is 1%. No wonder, then, that when President Donald Trump justifies cutting aid on the grounds that other countries need to step up because they are not paying their fair share, many people believe him.

The truth is that it is the United States that is not paying its fair share. Long ago, the United Nations called on rich countries to raise their foreign aid to 0.7% of their gross national income (which of course is very different from government spending). In 2016, according to OECD figures, the United Arab Emirates, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Germany reached that level. In contrast,

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Is the Paris Accord Unfair to America?

June 5, 2017

PRINCETON – When President Donald Trump announced that the US was withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, he justified the move by saying “the bottom line is that the Paris Accord is very unfair, at the highest level, to the United States.” Is it?

To assess Trump’s claim, it is important to understand that when we ask how much countries should cut their greenhouse-gas emissions, we are essentially discussing how to distribute a limited resource. It’s as if we were discussing how to divide an apple pie when more hungry people want a big slice than there are big slices.

In the case of climate change, the pie is the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb our emissions without triggering catastrophic change to our planet’s climate. The people wanting big slices are the

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Boycott America?

April 6, 2017

MELBOURNE – The catastrophic outcome of last November’s United States presidential election is now clear. President Donald Trump’s indifference to the risk of climate change, and the actions he is taking because of that indifference, are likely to have consequences that dwarf the significance of his executive order on immigration, his nomination of an archconservative to the Supreme Court, and, should he manage to achieve it, his repeal of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

With the exception of launching a nuclear war, it is hard to think of anything a US president could do that is liable to harm more people than last month’s order canceling rules issued under former President Barack Obama to freeze the construction of new coal-fired power plants and shut down many old ones. Trump’s order followed his pledge to rescind stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and his announcement that he wants to slash spending on climate science.

Although Trump did not announce the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement, his actions are likely to prove incompatible with the US government’s pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions to 26% below 2005 levels by 2025. The Paris agreement, signed by 195 countries, is our last real chance of keeping global warming to less than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels.

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A Life that Mattered

March 14, 2017

PRINCETON – On January 1, Derek Parfit, one of the greatest philosophers of my generation, died. Just a year earlier, in a poll on a leading philosophy website, Parfit had been voted the most important living Anglophone philosopher.

Of all the philosophers I have known since I began to study the subject more than 50 years ago, Parfit was the closest to a genius. Getting into a philosophical argument with him was like playing chess with a grandmaster: he had already thought of every response I could make to his arguments, considered several possible replies, and knew the objections to each reply as well as the best counters to those objections.

Parfit was not a household name. Few people outside the world of academic philosophy have read anything he wrote. Nor did he appear on television, although late in life, he spoke about effective altruism, and two of those talks can be seen online.

He also published very little before his first book, Reasons and Persons, came out in 1984, when he was 42 years old. His readers then had to wait another 27 years for his second book, On What Matters, unless they were able to read one of the drafts that Parfit circulated in order to receive suggestions for improvement.

To say that Parfit wrote only two books, however, is misleading. Reasons and Persons brings together novel ideas on three separate topics.

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Trump’s First Victims

February 1, 2017

PRINCETON – When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, I did not join those who took to the streets in protest. I thought it important to respect the democratic process, no matter how dismaying its outcome may be, and wait until the Trump administration had given us something to protest about.

It didn’t take long. Eight days after Trump took office, the first identifiable victims of his presidency were on all the major news outlets. Trump’s executive order suspending resettlement of Syrian refugees, temporarily barring new refugees regardless of where they are from, and banning all immigration from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen caused immediate harm to people already on their way to the US. The order has also prevented many more people from leaving for the US.

In justifying his policy, Trump said that he would “never forget the lessons of 9/11.” But that is exactly what he seems to have done. The 9/11 hijackers came from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all countries unaffected by the new rules.

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