Frequently Asked Questions
You have said that it is wrong to spend money on luxuries for ourselves when we could give the money to organizations working to help the world’s poorest people in developing countries. But shouldn’t we think of the poor in our own country first?
We should give where it will do the most good. There is no sound moral reason for favoring those who happen to live within the borders of our own country. Sometimes, just because they are closer to us and living within the same political system, they may be the people we can most effectively help. More often they will not be. If we live in a rich nation like the U.S.A., our money will go much further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations. About a tenth of the world’s population survives on the purchasing power equivalent of less than US$2 per day. For a more detailed statement of my views on this topic, see The Life You Can Save.
Are you living a simple life and giving most of your income to the poor?
I’m not living as luxurious a life as I could afford to, but I admit that I indulge my own desires more than I should. My wife and I give about a third of what we earn, both to organizations helping the poor to live a better life and to reducing animal suffering. I don’t claim that this is as much as I should give. Since we started giving, about forty-five years ago, we’ve gradually increased the amount we give. Giving half is the next target. At the nonprofit I founded, The Life You Can Save, we call this strategy of improving one’s giving behavior, "Personal Best."
To what organizations do you give?
You can see an indication of the anti-poverty organizations I support from the website of The Life You Can Save and its list of recommended charities. Another influence on my giving is research of the charity evaluator GiveWell.
When it comes to reducing the suffering of animals, I am influenced by the recommendations of Animal Charity Evaluators.
How is keeping these people alive going to help, in the long run, when the basic problem is that the world has too many people?
It’s not so clear that the problem really is too many people, rather than that some people have a lot more than they need, and others not enough. But that’s a large question that I am currently interested in investigating more deeply. I do agree that continued global population growth is likely to make the world’s problems more difficult to solve. One proven way of reducing fertility is enabling poor people, especially women, to get some education. Women with even just a year or two of primary school education have fewer children than women with no education. So development aid does slow fertility. But if you want to do something more directly related to population issues, you could give to organizations like Population Services International, or DKT International.
I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?
I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.
If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?
Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something — that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life — that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understanding this. Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a far greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse — for the human, it thwarts plans for the distant future, and it does not do that for the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates). That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
Is it true that you have said that an experiment on 100 monkeys could be justified if it helped thousands of people recover from Parkinson's disease?
I was asked about such an experiment in a discussion with Professor Tipu Aziz, of Oxford University, as part of a BBC documentary called “Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing" that was screened in November 2006. I replied that I was not sufficiently expert in the area to judge if the facts were as Professor Aziz claimed, but assuming they were, this experiment could be justified.
This response caused surprise among some people in the animal movement, but that must be because they had not read what I have written earlier. Since I judge actions by their consequences, I have never said that no experiment on an animal can ever be justified. I do insist, however, that the interests of animals count among those consequences, and that we cannot justify giving less weight to the interests of nonhuman animals than we give to the similar interests of human beings.
In Animal Liberation I propose asking experimenters who use animals if they would be prepared to carry out their experiments on human beings at a similar mental level — say, those born with irreversible brain damage. Experimenters who consider their work justified because of the benefits it brings should declare whether they consider such experiments justifiable. If they do not, they should be asked to explain why they think that benefits to a large number of human beings can outweigh harming animals, but cannot outweigh inflicting similar harm on humans. In my view, this belief is evidence of speciesism.
Even if some individual experiments may be justified, this does not mean that the institutional practice of experimenting on animals is justified. Given the suffering that this routinely inflicts on millions of animals, and the likelihood that very few of the experiments will be of significant benefit to humans or to other animals, it is better to put our resources into other methods of doing research that do not involve harming animals.
Incidentally, it is important that there be room in the animal movement for a variety of views about ethics, including views that are rights-based and views that are consequentialist. Debate over such issues is a sign of an open and sound movement. On the other hand, it is also important to focus our energies on attacking speciesism, and not those who, although opposed to speciesism, do not share the particular set of moral views we may hold.
I've heard about the possibility of growing meat in a laboratory, just by cells reproducing. Should this lab reared meat prove ecologically safe, cost and energy efficient and safe for human consumption, is this an ethically acceptable way in which animal meat can be developed and consumed? To avoid discrimination on speciesist grounds, providing the meat can be sufficiently engineered for safe human consumption taking into account the accusations aimed at cannibalism, would it be required that laboratories should also grow human meat for consumption?
Yes, growing meat at the cellular level would be ethically acceptable, because no animals would suffer or die to produce it. There's nothing wrong with meat in itself.
If people prefer the taste of meat grown from the cell of a cow to meat grown from the cell of a human, that's fine too. So there's no ethical requirement to grow human meat for consumption, just because we're growing meat from other animals.
You have been quoted as saying: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." Is that quote accurate?
I did write that, in the 1979 edition of Practical Ethics. Today the term “defective infant” is considered offensive, and I no longer use it, but it was standard usage then. The quote is misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics). I use the term "person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to her or his parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, but only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support — which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection — but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.
What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?
Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it. And that’s a good thing, of course. We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.
Elderly people with dementia, or people who have been injured in accidents, may also have no sense of the future. Can they also be killed?
When a human being once had a sense of the future, but has now lost it, we should be guided by what he or she would have wanted to happen in these circumstances. So if someone would not have wanted to be kept alive after losing their awareness of their future, we may be justified in ending their life; but if they would not have wanted to be killed under these circumstances, that is an important reason why we should not do so.
What about voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted dying?
I support law reform to allow people to decide to end their lives, if they are terminally or incurably ill. This is permitted in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Colombia, and in the form of physician-assisted dying, in Canada, too, as well as in several states of the US, including Oregon, Washington, California, Montana, Colorado and Vermont. I was very pleased when, in 2017, after extensive debate in the community and in parliament, physician assistance in dying was legalized in Victoria, where I am from. Why should we not be able to decide for ourselves, in consultation with doctors, when our quality of life has fallen to the point where we would prefer not to go on living?
What should I read to learn more?
You might like to start with one of the two collections of my work in print, Writings on an Ethical Life, or Unsanctifying Human Life. After that, your choice should depend on what particular issues most interest you. For my views about animals, see Animal Liberation. The fullest statement of my critique of the traditional doctrine of the sanctity of human life is in Rethinking Life and Death, and the most elaborated philosophical elaboration of my views is Practical Ethics, now in its 3rd edition (2011). My more recent books are described elsewhere on this website.
These books are in many libraries. They can also be ordered from bookstores, or from online retailers like Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
My views are not fixed. Many good philosophers disagree with me, and all philosophers should be open to changing their views on the basis of new arguments and objections. I am currently reconsidering some of the answers given above, especially those in which I regard the wrongness of killing as significantly affected by the capacity of those killed to see themselves as existing over time. This is a view that derived from my earlier acceptance of preference utilitarianism, but it does not fit well with hedonistic utilitarianism, which I am now more inclined to favour. (See Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe)