If philosophy is good at one thing, it’s pointing out things that seem so obvious we don’t even notice them…
Zan Boag interviews Peter Singer on the ethical issues that arise from travelling. Peter Singer AC is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. His books include How Are We To Live?, The Life You Can Save and The Most Good You Can Do. In 2012 he was named a Companion of the Order of Australia for his services to philosophy and bioethics. He was voted one of Australia’s ten most influential public intellectuals in 2006. Photo: A. Wilkinson, princetonportraitphotography.com.
Zan Boag: I’d like to start with a question about the ethical issues that arise from travelling in general, and tourism in particular. The distinction I’m making between the two is to say that travel has a purpose of some sort – be it work, visiting family, study, or educating oneself – whereas ‘tourism’ amounts to little more than hedonic pleasure trips simply for entertainment. If people are to journey as tourists, how can they maximise the benefit to those in need in these areas? Is it possible to be an ethical tourist?
Peter Singer: That’s something for people to think about: are they doing something significant, or are there causes more important than tourism? And where does the money you’re spending on tourism fit into that budget? I think that’s an ethical issue. You could travel ethically, but it’s complicated. You would need to think about who is actually getting most of the dollars you’re spending – obviously there’s tourism in poorer countries that provides valuable employment and that helps – but probably a lot of the money goes to whoever owns the hotel that you’re staying in, or the other facilities that you’re using. So if you really were serious about that you’d need to do some research about what people are paid and how beneficial it is to them. It’s obviously something you could do. But most of the holidays that people take as tourists – it’s a bit of a stretch to say, “this is justified because I’m benefiting the people of the country I’m visiting”.
ZB: In your book The Most Good You Can Do, you write about self-esteem – that “the most solid basis for self-esteem is to live an ethical life, that is, a life in which one contributes to the greatest possible extent to making the world a better place.” Looking at building self-esteem in this manner requires a global view, demanding that we look beyond our backyard to see – or perhaps I should say feel – the suffering of others. But can we truly take on the magnitude of their suffering without having been there to see it first hand? Can travelling to places where people are in need increase the likelihood of giving more, be it in cash or in kind?
PS: It can, there would be some cases in which that happens. I’m sure there are people who can say: “It wasn’t until I went there that I saw for myself that I decided I wanted to found an NGO that would do something about this.” I know people who have done exactly that and some of those NGOs have been quite successful – somebody went trekking in Nepal and founded an NGO that helps build schools in remote regions, and so on. Yes, it can happen, but it’s not necessary for you to do that to appreciate that people are suffering. We have an amazing array of information that we can get now, obviously visual information that we can select from online, reports of various kinds, we can hear people’s testimonies, we can look at what’s happening. In a way for some people first-hand experience may be necessary, but for most people certainly not – it’s enough to see the figures: so many children under five die from diarrhoea or measles or malaria. Perhaps you’re a parent, you know what it would be like to lose a small child, so you already know that – you don’t have to see a child dying from one of those diseases, and most tourists never will. But there may be some people for whom that makes a significant difference. The kind of people most attracted to the effective altruism movement that I discuss in the book don’t need that because they’re the kind of people who typically are moved by their head as much as by their heart.
ZB: What makes them different? What makes them react in this way, without having to see it first hand?
PS: I don’t know the answer to that question, my guess is that people are just born differently – some people are born with a different approach. Some people are more influenced by their emotions and don’t really grasp things in an analytical way, and some people do. Although of course it could have something to do with your upbringing and your education.
ZB: Is it something that can be learned?
PS: I think it can be, I certainly hope so because that’s part of what the effective altruism movement is trying to do: to spread the idea that you need to use your head as well as your heart to make sure that your donation is as effective as possible. Hopefully people can be brought to see that just because they feel strongly about something, it is not necessarily the best reason for supporting that particular cause. An example here would be: a lot of people feel strongly about dogs, so they think “I love dogs, I’m going to donate to an organisation that rescues stray or abandoned dogs”. But from talking to these people often you can get them to see that there are vastly more pigs being abused in factory farms than there are stray dogs… and also that we can do something about this more cost effectively than we can do looking after stray dogs. So even though they may not have any emotional attachment to pigs, they can understand the similarities, they can understand that pigs suffer as much as dogs suffer and they can say yes, they ought to support those organisations trying to stop the factory farming of pigs.
ZB: I’d like to come back to your book The Most Good You Can Do, in which you write about the choice you made many years ago when determining where to focus your efforts, where to direct your time, energy and abilities in favour of a cause. Rather than choosing the most urgent – that is the cause in need of immediate action – or the most important in your view, you thought about where you could make the most difference. You noticed that while there were many highly able people campaigning about global poverty, war and nuclear disarmament, there weren’t many focussing on advocating a change in the moral status of animals. For those who do wish to devote their time to a cause, how can they best determine where they can make the most difference?
PS: The first thing is to see that it is a good question to ask. And the reason that I had that section in the book is because I was responding to one of the world’s biggest philanthropy advisors, the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, who were saying in one of their pamphlets that it is the most urgent cause [you ought to work on]. And I was trying to make the point that it may not be the most urgent cause that you ought to be working on, but the cause where you can make the biggest marginal difference. And that – where we can make a difference – is something that a lot of people who get involved in charities or philanthropies don’t really consider. But once you do think about it, it seems obvious that is what you should do. But the answer will depend on your particular skill set. What can you bring to an area that it doesn’t have? What can you bring to a local group or organisation that it doesn’t have?
ZB: You use the example of global warming versus malaria – that there are many large organisations tackling the issues we face due to global warming, so although it’s an urgent issue, perhaps people would be able to make more of a difference by putting their energy into reducing the suffering caused by malaria.
PS: That’s just a possible example, I’m open to someone coming back to me and saying: “Here’s a great organisation that’s working to reduce climate change, or change the politics of climate change, and it’s got this strategy and I think this strategy could work.” If you’re in that situation and you think it’s a feasible strategy and you think you could make a difference to its chance of success – even if just a small chance because climate change is such a huge issue – then that might be worth doing. So, I’m not trying to exclude the idea that climate change might be a good cause, I’m just saying that you need to have thought out not just that climate change is an urgent issue, but that climate change is an urgent issue and here’s a possible way of having an impact on it.
ZB: I’d like to go back a few years to your 2009 book The Life You Can Save, in which you bring up the idea that travel shouldn’t be aimless, rather it should have a purpose, one of aiming to reduce human suffering. Must travel have a purpose?
PS: I think so. Again, we’ve just been talking about climate change, the fact that most of the travel we do involves burning fossil fuels – there’s another reason why you should have a purpose. People used to do this a lot, when I was a kid my parents did it, they would say: “It’s a nice Sunday, let’s go for a drive.” So, they would get in the car and drive out to the Dandenongs and maybe they would stop and go for a short walk somewhere but basically they were going for a drive. To me, nowadays that seems irresponsible. If you’re burning fossil fuels you’re contributing – it may be small, but you’re contributing – to climate change. There should be some reason for doing it, not just “this is something I enjoy”, when you could also enjoy other things like going for a walk without going for a long drive first. That would have less impact on climate change.
ZB: In the West, we view ‘travel’ as a rite of passage, as something from which we will learn, grow; something that will give us pleasure and fond memories. For many others, ‘travel’ takes on a very different meaning – one of escape from famine, war or persecution. This is a far cry from the pleasure trips of westerners. What responsibility do we have to refugees – forced travellers, that is – and what can we do to best assist them?
PS: I think we should be helping refugees to seek refuge from persecution, that’s something that Australia has a substantial responsibility to do, to assimilate a significant number of refugees. I think that’s an important responsibility. But you’d have to have quite a short-term historical perspective to think that there’s a difference between a ‘western’ view and ‘other’ views. There have been plenty of refugees in western civilisation quite recently, including my parents. It’s more or less a geographical issue, an accident of history at the moment that we don’t have a lot of refugees from western nations, whereas we have refugees from a number of other nations. That could change. I don’t think it’s distinctively a western theme, just the way the world is right at this moment.
ZB: I’d like to get your view on borders – clearly defined markers of territory on a map that keep people in or out. Are borders part of the reason for so much suffering – this distinction of ‘us’ and ‘them’?
PS: If we were living in an ideally rational world, the answer would be yes, we wouldn’t have borders, we would have open movement of people around the world. But I think that’s a fantasy at the moment. For the foreseeable future, people are not going to accept that. So, in practice, in the real world, borders are the cause of a lot of suffering, but if you didn’t have them there’d be a lot of other kinds of suffering. There would be fighting in the streets, people trying to keep ‘our’ country for ‘us’. We already see it in a number of countries, perhaps also in Australia to a certain extent. Certainly we see it in Europe with the rise of more right-wing groups.
It’s because they are wealthier, it’s also a question of values. To some extent it’s a question of ethnic connectedness to other people, depending on the country. I think the European Union’s expansion is certainly a positive thing. Some people would say that it has moved a little too fast for people to cope with and to absorb, and there’s a bit of a backlash now, but I certainly think that it has been very positive for many of the newly-admitted nations, the relatively newly-admitted nations to the EU. They’ve done much better than they could have and it’s seen the extension of some basic ideas of democracy, human rights and higher standards of animal welfare throughout the European Union in countries that otherwise would certainly not have had these standards. So while it’s imperfect in many ways, I think it’s desirable. And ultimately I hope that something like that can happen on a global scale. But as I say, I think that’s still some time away.
ZB: Your work takes you between Australia and the US, from one culture and climate to the other – do you feel that you are a different ‘Peter’ in each place? What effect does the movement and change of scenery have on you and your sense of identity?
PS: I don’t feel like I’m a different person, I feel like I’m the same person. I probably have different things to offer in different places because there is an intellectual context in the United States that is different than Australia – things that I say in the United States that may be more striking, more provocative there than they would be in Australia. To that extent, there are differences in what I say and the impact it has. Essentially I think that I’m the same person. I don’t feel completely disconnected. Maybe by moving to a more radically different culture than the difference between the United States and Australia, then I might feel differently about it.
ZB: I suppose it’s quite subtle, the difference between the two, although the influence of the media in each country has a part to play.
PS: Actually it’s less subtle than I imagined before I started. You think because you watch a lot of American movies and television and so on, that it’s similar, but there are differences – it’s a lot more conservative, it’s a lot more religious, there’s a lot more anti-government, pro-gun, there’s all sorts of things about America that really surprise you once you experience it first-hand. Certainly, Americans are very influenced by media they watch. Are they more influenced than Australians? I don’t really know… one difference is that it seems to me that American media is more partisan, so people who are conservative tend to watch [channels that are] extremely conservative – and so they get their ideas reinforced and there’s therefore more of a gulf between those right-wing conservatives and people who are – well, there’s hardly a left in America, but let’s say people who are in the centre – but that doesn’t happen quite to the same extent here in Australia. I don’t think we have an equivalent television channel here that is constantly putting out a narrow political line that people watch, so that’s a difference perhaps, but I assume that Australians are pretty influenced by their media as well.
ZB: Staying on this topic of your personal experience while travelling – which travelling experience has had the most profound influence on you?
PS: Well, if we’re talking about travelling in general and not just tourism, then undoubtedly the most significant travel for me was going to Oxford as a graduate student because that really transformed what I was thinking about philosophy and ethics. Most of the big, distinctive things in my philosophical view were things that I thought about at Oxford and particularly, thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals came from an encounter with other students studying at Oxford – not actually English students, but Canadians, although there were some English who were part of that group. I would not have met them if I had stayed in Australia and I would not have developed the views that I now hold about animals that I developed in conversation with them. And I think that would have affected my entire outlook, so I’m sure that the most transformative travel that I have had was going to Oxford to do my graduate study.
ZB: Is there anything else you’d like to add – some sort of advice you can give to those reading this interview?
PS: I think the emerging altruism movement is a movement of people who have found a way to give meaning to their lives, to give direction to their lives in a way that’s really important, and it is really making a positive difference to a large number of people. I see it like a secular alternative… I think people can give meaning to their lives by thinking about how they can do the most good in the world. I just hope that a lot of people are influenced to go out and do that.