Australian-born philosopher Peter Singer is frequently acknowledged as a major force in modern bio-ethics. The publication of his book Animal Liberation in 1975 is credited with launching the animal rights movement. He is currently a professor of bio-ethics at Princeton University and has taught at, among other schools, Oxford University, The University of Colorado, University of California and New York University. His Practical Ethics is one of the most widely used texts in applied ethics, and Rethinking Life and Death received the 1995 National Book Council’s Banjo Award for non-fiction. Peter Singer is also the co-editor of the journal Bioethics and a founding father of The International Association of Bioethics. His most recent book is Pushing Time Away. He currently lives in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey.
Pushing Time Away is partly a family memoir and partly an intellectual history. Peter Singer revisits the life and work of his maternal grandfather, David Oppenheim, who was a classical scholar, friend and some-time collaborator with Sigmund Freud. He served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army and went on to live in Vienna at a time that encompasses an incredibly rich and fertile period of creativity and intellectual activity, much of it connected to a group of Viennese Jewish thinkers and theorists. Singer explores the "unwavering faith in the triumph of humanism over the politics of destruction" his grandfather held and that ultimately precipitated his death in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1943.
His other books are: Democracy and Disobedience; Animal Rights and Human Obligations (with Thomas Reagan); Marx; Animal Factories (with Jim Mason); The Expanding Circle; Hegel; Test-Tube Babies (with William Walters); The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells); Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse); In Defence of Animals (ed.); Ethical and Legal Issues in Guardianship (with Terry Carney); Applied Ethics (ed.); Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide (with Lori Gruen); Embryo Experimentation (with Helga Kuhse, Stephen Buckle, Karen Dawson and Pascal Kasimba); A Companion to Ethics (ed.); Save the Animals! (with Barbara Dover and Ingrid Newkirk); The Great Ape Project (with Paola Cavalieri); How Are We to Live?; Ethics (ed.); Individuals, Humans and Persons (with Helga Kuhse); The Allocation of Health Care Resources (with John McKie, Jeff Richardson and Helga Kuhse); A Companion to Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Bioethics (ed. with Helga Kuhse); Ethics into Action; A Darwinian Left; Writings on an Ethical Life; Unsanctifying Human Life (edited by Helga Kuhse); and One World: The Ethics of Globalization.
Robert Birnbaum: In my reading I found that you are given credit for founding modern bioethics.
Peter Singer: Am I? I played a role in getting it going.
RB: Were there medieval bioethics?
PS: Yes there were actually. There was medieval casuistry. Theologians discussing things like abortion, for example. Or questions about life and death and what you may do with someone who is sick and what your obligations are. It wasn’t exactly bio-ethics but there were certainly earlier discussions of many the ethical issues that we are now talking about.
RB: I noticed in Pushing Time Away that there are sections where you describe walking around Vienna that are dated 1997 and 1998. So one could reasonably conclude that you began the book some time ago. How long did it take you to write Pushing Time Away?
PS: [It] probably took me a couple of years. But spread out a little bit. There was a time where it was my main project and I was doing very little teaching. There were other periods after I came to the United States, which was July, 1999, when I could only work on it in summer or briefly between teaching classes and doing different things. So it was dragged out and it went through a number of revisions too. At one stage it was twice as long as it is now. First my agent, then my publisher insisted that less was more, in this case.
RB: How many options did you give yourself in the way you constructed this book? How many narrative approaches did you consider?
PS: Right from the start I had this idea that I was going to be in it, to some extent. So things like the prologue where I describe myself walking through Vienna with my grandfather’s papers on my back—that was one of the early things that I wrote. And I always thought that that and other similar passages would be in it. Then the rest of the material was going to be what I could find out about my grandfather’s life. At one stage, someone reading in my agent’s office said there was too much of me and it should be much more like a standard biography. I thought about that for a while, but it didn’t really make sense to me.
RB: Yes, what would be the point?
PS: Yeah, exactly, what was the point? Why just a biography of this particular person that no one has heard of and who wasn’t one of the great neglected geniuses of the 20th century—even though he was my grandfather and an interesting person. But, yeah there wasn’t really a point in writing a straight biography. So I went back to the agent and said, "Look, I don’t think this is really the way I want to do it. I rather want to keep something like this." Once we got a publisher the editor at Ecco then said, "Well, I like the bits with you in it. Let’s put in some more of them." So it changed a bit there. The balance changed because some of the other material was cut. I was quoting more from some of my grandfather’s letters in the earlier versions. The editor thought that might slow it down and make it difficult to read because of the nature of the prose.
RB: What are you calling this book? Is this a memoir?
PS: I hadn’t used that term, actually, but it is on the cover of the Australian edition. I asked, "Isn’t a memoir when you are remembering someone?” They looked it up in a dictionary and said, "No, it can be used for this."
RB: What do you think?
PS: Well, I think of it more as a biography but a reflective biography by someone who has a close connection to the person that they are writing about.
RB: You have an agenda here.
PS: Yeah, I probably have more than one. Tell me the one that struck you.
RB: You wanted to assert the righteousness and purity of your grandfather’s intellectualism and also its connection to your own thinking—though you had not known or read his history before you embarked on your own course. It seems like you are investigating whether there was something genetic or a kind of deeper connection…
PS: Yes, certainly that was there from the start. I wanted to explore whether there was such a connection. I wasn’t sure that there was. I certainly wouldn’t say it was genetic. It may simply have been a cultural transmission via my mother. Yes, I was interested in the extent to which I could find precursors of my own thoughts in my grandfather’s work. That’s one thing. And the other, I did want to get to know my grandfather as much as I could, given that he died before I was born. So I wasn’t sure what I would find. I didn’t have a prior agenda to establish the purity of his intellectualism as you nicely put it. But I wanted to know what he was on about, and I did find in my grandfather and also in my grandmother, a serious intellectual pursuit of ideas.
RB: If you discovered that he was a duplicitous snake who was a backstabber of his intellectual peers, would you have written this book? (laughs)
PS: I might well have abandoned it. Or I might just have written down some stuff and handed it to my children and said, "Here. If you want to know where you come from this is the sorry story." Yeah, that’s true. What I found definitely encouraged me to think that it was something that I wanted to reach a wide audience.
RB: Last summer I talked to Nicholas Dawidoff [The Fly Swatter] about his grandfather, who was an émigré Russian Jew who spent an important part of his life in Vienna before he came to the US and ended up at Harvard and was looked upon as a significant intellectual figure. One thing (among others) that was fascinating was this period of Viennese history—from late 19th century through to the Nazi era. It was an amazing place. Can you think of another city that had that richness of intellectual, political and artistic activity?
PS: I don’t think so, actually. That was certainly an interest for me. I think that Vienna was unique. And in the way my parents spoke about that to me, I wanted to know what it was that had so excited them. Also why when things turned sour and they had to leave that was a terrible lose, that they never quite felt that they had recovered from— although Australia was a very friendly and welcoming place to them. Culturally Melbourne couldn’t compare with Vienna. It was clearly an exciting time in which there were a lot of ideas around and I think a real pulse that I have tried to convey in the book. But, of course, it’s very hard because I am really looking at the bit of it that my grandfather was involved in—and of the famous figures—Freud is the one he is most involved in and then Adler—but there are so many other things going on in music and theater and all the rest of it, philosophy too—the Vienna Circle is meeting there. So it’s hard to convey all of that. I suppose because it was a really multicultural city, as we would now call it, very cosmopolitan. The capitol of a large and very diverse empire and with the second biggest Jewish community in Europe and in contrast to the one that was larger in Warsaw, the Vienna one was fully integrated into the culture of Vienna. Where as in Warsaw because many the Polish Jews were Yiddish-speaking they had their own culture, which was quite separate from Polish culture.
RB: I had never heard of post-WWI Vienna referred to as "Red Vienna."
PS: It was a relatively brief period. I guess, 1918 to 1934, more or less.
RB: This was a period where the Social Democrats were in power, not Communists?
PS: It wasn’t like the brief Communist period in Budapest or something like that. It was the first major city to democratically elect a Socialist government. Depending on how you define Socialist, I guess. But I think these people were genuine democratic socialists. And because Vienna was a province as well as a city, they controlled the budget and they could do quite a lot there. And they were really enlightened and progressive and in some respects, they did better than we [today] in some of their social policies.
RB: Did you consider having a posthumous ‘festshrift’ for your grandfather, David Oppenheim?
PS: Usually a festshrift consists of scholars who have known the person to whom they are presenting this festshrift—writing about his work to. The people who were his colleagues are dead. So it would have to be people doing it at second hand, who were reading his work. It’s not an idea that’s ever occurred to me. If you could get the right people to read the different aspects of his of work—to read what he wrote about Adlerian psychology and what he wrote about literary works and the essay on Othello. And classical scholars to read what he wrote about the classics.
RB: Were you suggesting he was the first to see Othello from a racial perspective?
PS: I can’t say he was the first because I haven’t read all of the others. Particularly, I don’t know what else was being said in German and in French studies of Othello. But I did read the major literary critics of his time in the English-speaking world and Britain and they seemed at that time quite oblivious to the racial element in Othello. Now it’s amazing because it strikes us rather strongly that here is this black man who is being racially abused and that must have an effect on the action in the play. But the great scholars like AC Bradley and much later FR Leavis seemed to be pretty obtuse in picking that up.
RB: Was your grandfather a polymath?
PS: Actually, in one of his letters he contrasts himself with his uncle who was a great humanist scholar and was really up on the sciences. And also he writes to my grandmother, who was a student of math and physics, that he doesn’t cope with the abstract thought of the sciences very well, he rather like the concrete. He had a diverse range of interests and a broad range of interests but still basically on the humanities side.
RB: He knew a number of languages but had difficulty learning English.
PS: Yes that’s true. He only started seriously learning English when he was in his late ’50s and a terrible external world. On the other hand he almost had nothing else he could do, so he apparently spent a huge number of hours learning it. But it is harder to learn languages as you get older.
RB: Did you consider what your living relatives would think about this book?
PS: I talked to my sister and my cousin. There are three of us that are the grandchildren. I showed them particularly with the first lot of letters, obviously, raised the issue of sexuality. I talked with them to give them an opportunity to object. But they were quite comfortable with it being published. The only other thing that my sister read carefully was the discussion in the very last chapter about what my grandmother may have had to do to survive in Theriesenstadt, which is highly speculative.
RB: A section of your book is excerpted in Melvin Bukiet’s anthology Nothing Sets You Free. I read the introductory essay, none of which I disagreed with, but I really thought it was strident, bordering on belligerence. Were you able to read it before you allowed your inclusion in this anthology?
PS: No I hadn’t seen the introductory essay until I got the book in my hands.
RB: Any thought(s) on his introduction?
PS: Oh (long pause) I agree with you, it was fairly strongly written, but I don’t want to go into it…
RB: Did your immersion in this part of history and this part of the world change the way you saw Jewish history? Or the human condition?
PS: It strengthened my sense of the fragility of the values of civilization. That was part of the…the central interest in the book is the way in which here is someone who grows up in a very stable time when there is a strong sense that we are making progress in the right direction in becoming a more civilized world and becoming more tolerant in getting rid of those old barbaric tribalisms and things of that sort. And that goes on until he is in his ’30s and then that world crashes with the First World War. Still, there are hopes after the war that it will continue in some rather different way.
RB: I didn’t notice he has any objections to being in the army or fighting. In fact he thought there was something noble and cleansing.
PS: At first he certainly thought that, when the war broke out and even into 1915. When he saw the slaughter that went on I think he changed and he became, not exactly a pacifist but much closer to that and generally moved politically to the left. He had been politically quite conservative before.
RB: Was he chronically depressed after his wartime experiences?
PS: Yeah, I think he was never the same. That’s true. Yes, depression, nervous tension was part of that. He was much more moody; he would suddenly shout at people and so on. My mother certainly said that she had a different kind of father from the one her sister had. There was that. But, of course, it had this effect on European civilization as a whole. I wasn’t just thinking of him and all of these values and the idea of progress of European civilization spreading across the world in a benign manner crashed down. To some extent, we have tried to build them up again after the defeat of Nazism—and we have made some progress in that. But you do get the stronger sense that it is more fragile. From a high level of civilization, it did utterly collapse into the darkest forms of barbarism and therefore that could happen again. There is no real doubt that it’s a possibility, a lurking nasty possibility in human affairs.
RB: Why don’t you think it hasn’t happened again? In Rwanda, in Cambodia and East Timor…
PS: It certainly has happened again, in particular places. As I said I think the sense was that Europe in 1914 was very highly civilized, well educated, peaceful. People were not really poor, not starving. There were some poor, of course, but on the whole there was a higher level of prosperity than there’d been. Nevertheless it happened there. So I don’t think Rwanda and East Timor are exactly comparable. The comparison that is closer is former Yugoslavia.
RB: I am thinking not as a result if the internal dynamic of those communities but in a world that is much more closely connected people were not unaware of what was happening in Rwanda. It might as well have been next door. If the Western democracies aren’t doing anything about genocide, how different is that from the era of Nazi barbarism?
PS: Well, it’s just a little different. Apathy or not caring enough about people in Rwanda is still somewhat different than actually wanting to exterminate them. But, you aren’t going to get any defense from me for the policies of the West in regard to Rwanda.
RB: How does the writing of this book resonate with you? Is it done and are you on to the next project?
PS: For me it was a very important book to write. It was a significantly different book from anything that I have written before. I was more emotionally involved in it, to some extent, than many of my other works. So it’s an important book for me, but I don’t at the moment want to continue this particular theme. I may come back to it some years hence. But there are other things I’d like to do.
RB: So the mission is complete?
PS: Yes, as far as my grandfather is concerned, I think it is complete.
RB: Tell me about the public reception to your book?
PS: It was first published in Australia. I haven’t had much feedback in the US to be honest. It’s been extensively reviewed in Australia and New Zealand. The reaction has been terrific. I’ve been very pleased.
RB: Is there a large Jewish community in Australia?
PS: There is a significant but not large [community] —if you are coming from New York. May be sixty or eighty thousand, something like that. In Melbourne and Sydney, it’s a significant presence. Not anywhere else, really. A number of them came like my parents as refugees from Central Europe so there is certainly interest in that. One or two of the reviewers had that shared background. But there were a number that had nothing whatsoever to do with it. A lot of Australians come from all over the place and it seemed to resonate with them as well, which is good.
RB: Would this book have been published if you weren’t a successful and prominent intellectual figure?
PS: Probably not. Or if it would have been, it would have been a very small publisher rather than a major trade publisher.
RB: Was there any attempt to discourage you?
PS: I first presented it to one of my Australian publishers. My editor there didn’t like it. He looked at it for a while and in the end said, "I don’t think this is for us." By the time he had said that, I had already done a reasonable amount of work on it, and I wasn’t going to be that easily put off. And secondly, I had then accepted the offer from Princeton. So thought well, I’d like to try somewhere in the US, as I am going there, but I don’t really know who. I did have some US publishing contacts obviously, but they were not anybody I was really enthusiastic about. I decided for the first in my life to get myself a literary agent. A friend recommended Kathy Robbins at the Robbins Office. And she was the next person I talked to. She looked at it and I said, "I am really getting you specifically because I want to find a publisher for this book. And so if you don’t think you can publish this book don’t take me on." She said, "Yes, I’ll take you on." That was more encouraging than what I got before.
RB: How many books have you published?
PS: It’s in the twenties.
RB: Your CV scrolls on forever.
PS: There are a lot of articles as well.
RB: Is that what a philosopher does in the 21st t century?
PS: Most of them don’t write as much as I do.
RB: I take it you like to write?
PS: Yes, I find it a satisfying activity where actually you know something has been achieved at the end of the day when you have philosophical problems which are fascinating, but sometime at the end of the day you think well, what did I actually achieve? And of course is teaching is important and that is satisfying and rewarding, but I would rather write than sit and think or sit and talk.
RB: You are well known because you have ventured outside of the cloistered environs of academe. Why is that unusual? That is, why don’t other philosophers venture forth and like you write pieces in the NY Times?
PS: A lot of the don’t really have anything to say that would be of interest to the general readers of the New York Times because a lot of philosophy has become fairly ingrown, rather specialized. So that you take a particular problem, which might be a big issue that anyone can understand like, "What’s the mind and how does it relate to the brain?" A major problem, anyone can be interested in that. But then there is a particular theory; let’s say David Lewis has developed to answer that question. And then some one else says,"but here is an objection to the Lewis theory of the brain." And then someone else says, "but here’s a rejoinder that Lewis could make to the X objection." And this goes on for a few more moves, until it’s hard to keep sight of the large issues. And people who are working in this are simply communicating with their colleagues and they are not really communicating with a wider audience.
RB: In popular jargon I think that this is referred to as brain science —leaving out the philosophical issues—that Steven Pinsker writes on…
PS: They tend to be the scientists and sometimes I don’t know if you saw a review of Damasio’s Spinoza book. It was a very critical review. So here’s McGuinn, who’s a philosopher writing a critical review of Damasio, who is a neuroscientist, and there’s bit of a disconnect there, but suddenly —that’s the interesting thing that the ordinary person can grasp. You describe some experiment, somebody who has a brain injury— how does their personality differ? That’s okay. But the philosophers tend to be at a more abstract and theoretical level. And so they have more difficulty communicating what their theories and ideas are to the general public than the scientist describing their work with concrete cases.
RB: How is it that you have chosen a different path? Perhaps, because you are not an American? (laughs)
PS: I don’t think it’s that’s it. One difference is that I am interested in moral philosophy and ethics and because ethics has a more direct implication in what you ought to do in particular situations. It’s much more important that what you write should be accessible to a wider audience and also it relates more directly to particular problems. If you are doing bio-ethics, for example, there are doctors who have to make decisions about when to turnoff respirators or when to give a patient a dose of morphine that you for see will shorten the patient’s life. And then there are patients or relatives of patient’s who are interested in why doctors are doing this. So this is an issue that people are immediately concerned with and which I think it is possible to discuss in a way that is accessible to a wider audience.
RB: I agree. But these ethical issues could have been discussed before your arrival in America and they weren’t. It seems that philosophers have refrained from engaging in public discourse except for maybe the ordinary language types and they actually don’t seem to engage.
PS: No they didn’t. Ordinary language philosophy was very boring for the general ordinary person to read, actually. It’s true, what you say, and it’s partly this sense that a lot of philosophers have that what matters is the good opinions of their colleagues and so they are always a little bit worried about going down market and being seen to oversimplify or vulgarize…
RB: ‘Downmarket’ is another way of saying ‘dumbing down’?
PS: Yeah that’s right. There’s a bit of an implication that if you have written something for the NY Times you must have dumbed it down. Because the ordinary reader just couldn’t follow what we elite philosophers are really thinking and doing.
RB: Are there non-elite philosophers?
PS: I suppose there are people with philosophy jobs in community colleges or something. There are some that see their role differently.
RB: Are you here indefinitely?
RB: Do you expect to stay here indefinitely?
PS: I don’t expect to live indefinitely.
PS: There will be an end at some point.
RB: Would you prefer to live somewhere else?
PS: I still like Australia very much. I still think it’s a great country, a good society and I still have family and friends there. So I am a bit torn between being here which a very exciting place to live, sometimes a rather depressing place. But Princeton University is a wonderful university environment, one that you really can’t equal anywhere in Australia. Hardly equal anywhere else in the world, I think. So I am a bit torn between that and wanting to spend more time in Australia.
RB: I can’t help but think that had you been educated here, you would not have been as socially engaged.
PS: That’s quite possible.
RB: I see Australia as more egalitarian. And that since the universities can’t be as old as the one’s here and so there is no ivy curtain that separates them from society…
PS: I think that’s true. I think you are actually right about the egalitarianism. It’s a kind of a cliché of Australian life that if you are a single person getting into a taxicab you get into the front seat. You sit next to the driver. Whereas here that would be an odd thing to do. The driver would look at you, "What does this guy want?" Right? So I think there are ways in which Australia is egalitarian has a bit of disliking for people who are intellectual in the sense of giving themselves pretensions because of their status at a revered institution that they are better than some one else.
RB: What’s literary life like there?
PS: It’s very good actually. That’s something that has happened relatively recently. A lot more people writing, and small independent publishers still putting out good stuff. And we have very strong writer’s festivals. I spoke at one in Perth when this book came out in February. And Perth is one of the smaller Australian major cities, a city of about a million people. I spoke at a hall that held twelve hundred and they had turn three hundred away. There is fantastic interest in some of these cultural and intellectual issues.
RB: You did say a bit back that there were some things that were depressing about living here. Would you elaborate?
PS: I find Americans are not good at self-criticism as a society, as a nation. They have real difficulty in seeing how the rest of the world sees them in taking a kind of independent stance. And there’s a sort of suffocating patriotic assumption that if you criticize America that you are some how being unpatriotic. I think there is a lack of a dynamic strong political opposition, for example. And there is a lack of a real journalist tradition of real hard-hitting interviews and interrogations of political leaders.
RB: You should have been here in the ’60s.
PS: And yet there were large movements of opposition that don’t seem to have revived despite recent events. I was amazed that during the election—the most obvious thing that a journalist would have done is to take the candidates and sit down one-on-one, a one hour television interview, where you ask the hardest toughest questions you can. That doesn’t seem to happen in America.
RB: Why doesn’t that happen here?
PS: People are deferential. I see it even in my students here. I see it to myself. There is an attitude in Princeton students that they defer to me because I am a professor that my Australian students would never have done. This is part of the same syndrome as to why whoever it is would not be so hard-hitting in asking questions of political leaders.
RB: Why are Americans deferential?
PS: I don’t know. You would think that they got rid of the aristocracy in the Revolution, but I guess they never did to the same extent. I am not sure.
RB: Deferential or reverential?
PS: Both, of course. That’s the other aspect of the difference between Australia and the US. Australia is a much more secular society. Religion plays a vastly larger role in this society.
RB: Are you looking for new adventures? Any intellectual hang gliding?
PS: The last book before Pushing Time Away was a thing called One World, which was developed out of lectures I was invited to give at Yale, and I did look at some of these global political issues. I am interested in that because I do think, and maybe it relates to what we were talking about, that my perspective is a little different from the standard American one and also there is role to play for some ethical assessment of the policies of the US administration. So l am interested in taking that a little further—maybe one of the useful things I can do while I am here.
RB: Presidential administrations assemble brain trusts, but I don’t recall any philosophers being included…
PS: It’s not quite true because they have got an interest in bio-ethics and so Bush called in Leon Kass to head his Bio-ethics Institute, and there are a couple of others including Robert George from Princeton. So they do on those rather narrow issues where they can see this labeled an ethical issue.
RB: But not on geo-political issues.
PS: That’s because the realists have sway there. The idea that what you do is follow your real national interest and more narrowly that will mean the interest of the group in power.
RB: Isn’t the gross disconnect that in a country that wants to talk about its moral superiority that it would continue to employ policies that are at the very least banal and ordinary and mediocre. Wouldn’t the US be obliged to conduct itself in a better way?
PS: You would have thought so. Both from the religious posturing and from the democratic values of our founding fathers, etc., that we are supposed to be promoting. Yeah, but one of the interesting things is to hold up this rhetoric against what is actually being done and to say, "Look, you profess certain moral principles, what do the moral principles really imply?" With this administration there is an amazing amount of moral rhetoric that goes on all the time, not just on political issues but even Bush’s plea for the tax cuts on the basis of "it’s your money." Well, that’s a moral claim encapsulated in a certain idea of the right to take money or the right not to take money and the idea of a fair tax cut is where you cut a similar percentage off people among a million and off people earning twenty thousand or whatever. There’s a moral defense for almost everything that is done.
RB: What was the moral defense for not ratifying the International Criminal Court treaty?
PS: It was simply that Americans were likely to be victimized.
RB: I guess Henry Kissinger slept better after that.
PS: It would turn into a little group ganging up on America.
RB: Yea, right. Well, thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
PS: Right. Thanks.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing