Peter Singer

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Peter Singer in March 2009

Peter Albert David Singer (born July 6, 1946 in Melbourne , Australia ) is an Australian philosopher and ethicist .


Peter Singer's parents were Viennese Jews who emigrated to Australia in 1938 after the “ Anschluss ”. He lost three of his grandparents in the Holocaust . Singer has taught at Oxford , New York University and La Trobe University and was Professor of Philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne , Australia from 1977 to 1999 . In 1999 he was appointed DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University .

Singer has been married to Renata Diamond since 1968. The couple has three daughters.


Singer has long been an advocate of preferential utilitarianism . In this variant of utilitarianism , the evaluation of actions or rules of action should be measured by the fulfillment of the preferences of all those affected, which must be offset against each other in order to reach an ethical judgment. In The Point of View of the Universe (2014) he examined the positions of Henry Sidgwick , which were oriented towards classical hedonistic utilitarianism, and ultimately defended them for the most part, and joined the hedonistic view of classical utilitarianism.

According to Singer, a justification for acting morally at all is not possible with rational arguments - disregarding individual preferences and the respective nature of the individuals. Singer is known for his elaboration of the ethics approach he represents and for its diverse applications, including in various questions of bioethics . With The Point of View of the Universe he took on a position of ethical objectivism, according to which ethical judgments can objectively be true or false.

Singer is also an advocate of effective altruism and the founder of the nonprofit 'The Life You Can Save'.

The liberation of the animals

His book Animal Liberation , published in English in 1975, is considered to be an authoritative work in the contemporary discussion about the moral status of animals in the animal rights movement and ethical discussion. Together with Tom Regan , Singer is therefore considered to be the founder of modern animal ethics . In this book he describes the discrimination and exploitation of animal species based on the assumed primacy of the human species . Singer therefore speaks of " speciesism ". According to him, belonging to a species should not have any moral relevance for itself. The only criterion for ethical evaluations should and must be the ability to have certain preferences - and to this extent living beings, regardless of their species, should be included in the ethical calculation. For Singer, based on Jeremy Bentham, this already includes the ability to feel pain, with which the attribution of a preference for corresponding pain avoidance correlates. In mammals and birds in particular, there is sufficient evidence for the attribution of pain perception .

Among the consequences of this argument, the moral Recommendation is one of a boycott of products from almost all forms of animal husbandry , but especially the factory farming (for example, by vegetarianism or veganism ). Many animal experiments, according to Singer's results, have no rationally justifiable relationship to the suffering of the animals. Animal experiments are therefore largely morally wrong. However, there could be morally justified animal experiments, namely if more suffering is prevented as a result of these experiments (and thus more preferences for avoiding suffering are fulfilled) than is caused by the experiments themselves.

On the question of the cases in which the killing of animals is morally reprehensible, Singer hardly comments in Animal Liberation - The Liberation of Animals . He justifies this with the high complexity of this question and points out that the pain of animals in modern society alone requires a comprehensive change in behavior towards animals. The question of killing and the associated value of life is discussed in detail in his book Practical Ethics .

"Practical Ethics"

In his book Practical Ethics , published in 1979, Singer takes an even clearer stand and works out his form of preferential utilitarianism in general and applies it to various areas of applied ethics . In the general part of the book he takes a position on fundamental questions of normative ethics . Singer describes a principle of equal balancing of interests , which relates equality not to equal treatment , but to equal consideration of interests . There is no moral justification for disregarding interests. Also with the ability to feel pain and well-being, corresponding preferences (avoiding pain and achieving well-being) can be ascribed, which especially includes animals with such abilities in this utilitarian calculation.

Singer does not attach any moral relevance to the biological belonging of a being to the human species in itself. Only properties such as pain perception and self-confidence (which would be absent in some biological humans and on the other hand would be present in some non-human animals) are relevant. He describes a preference solely on the basis of a species affiliation as “speciesism”, which cannot be morally justified. As " persons " Singer understands beings who are aware of themselves in a temporal continuum. He ascribes a “special value” to these because of the further preferences that can be developed.

According to this approach, the moral evaluation of the killing of other living beings depends on their individual characteristics (and the characteristics of all other affected persons, e.g. relatives). The killing of another living being, according to Singer, is generally contrary to the living being's interest in wanting to continue living, and is therefore morally bad in most cases.

In this book, Singer also comments on abortions , the killing of newborns, and euthanasia . Further topics are global poverty, the asylum problem and topics of ecological ethics. In the third edition, Singer deleted the chapter on the asylum problem because, according to his own statements, he could not adequately address the issue to the extent required in a single chapter.


Singer's ethics are controversial and have provoked reactions outside of philosophical specialist publications. He has been criticized by theologians and representatives of the interests of people with disabilities (cf. Franz Christoph ). While in the Anglo-Saxon world his position was regarded as one legitimate among many, there were sharp reactions in Germany to the book Practical Ethics and to Singer's invitations to Germany. In special education journals in particular, there was fear of a “dam break of the actually indisputable” and the establishment of Singer's position as an acceptable point of view.

Singer himself attributes heated controversies to quotes taken out of context and a lack of overall understanding of his theses. In Writings on an Ethical Life , he therefore tried to summarize his views briefly. Quotations that did not come from Singer were also distributed. In addition, he attributes the attacks on his person and theses to the fact that certain normative requirements for his critics are not to be questioned, for example those that are nourished by religious convictions, for example when humans, but not animals, are assigned a soul. In the second edition of Practical Ethics , Singer describes the debate in the chapter How to be silenced in Germany from his point of view.

Organizations for the disabled are feared that (political) space and sometimes legal legitimation will be given to a mentality that could ultimately evoke attitudes towards people with disabilities, which in the past made possible the National Socialist euthanasia programs. Events at German universities that wanted to make Singer's theses the subject of philosophical discussion were therefore disrupted, prevented and the organizers threatened. Singer argues that parents, along with their doctors, should decide on the survival of an infant with an incurable disease such as anencephaly and whose life will therefore never experience the slightest satisfaction. He does not question the right to life of adult disabled people.

For some critics, the status of unarticulated interests or interests that can only be articulated later remains unclear. Singer himself agrees that interests should also be ascribed to a sleeping person and that these should be included in ethical considerations - since the person concerned would articulate them again after waking up. The latter would not be the case for comatose individuals; The attribution of interests to embryos also appears questionable, but on the other hand also the fact that, in principle, no rights can be attributed to embryos . Ethicists like Donald Bagley Marquis try, even in such cases - against Singer - to justify that interests should be ascribed and protected. Another problematic case is, for example, interests that cannot be articulated due to a lack of better insight or lack of freedom of the will, for example by drug addicts or in the case of temporary suicide wishes . Here, too, the persons concerned could be ascribed an interest worthy of protection, for example in the integrity of their own life.


Works (selection)

  • Animal Liberation. The liberation of the animals . Harald Fischer, Erlangen 2015, ISBN 978-3-89131-532-3 ( Original title: Animal Liberation , 1975 )
  • Practical ethics . 3rd rev. and exp. Aufl., Reclam, Stuttgart 2013, ISBN 978-3-15-018919-1 ( RUB , 18919) ( Original title: Practical ethics , 1979 )
  • Defend the animals . Neff, Vienna 1986, ISBN 3-7014-0225-6 ( original title: In defense of animals , 1985 )
  • Does this kid have to stay alive? The problem of severely damaged newborns (with Helga Kuhse ). Harald Fischer, Erlangen 1993, ISBN 3-89131-110-9 ( Original title: Should the baby live?, 1985 )
  • How shall we live Ethics in a selfish time . Harald Fischer, Erlangen 1996, ISBN 3-89131-115-X , or: dtv, Munich 1999, ISBN 3-423-36156-5 ( Original title: How are we to live? Ethics in an age of self-interest , 1993 )
  • Individuals, people, persons. Questions of life and death (with Helga Kuhse). Academia (Contributions to Applied Ethics, 5), St. Augustin 1999, ISBN 3-89665-096-3 ( Original title: Individuals, Humans, Persons , 1994 )
  • Writings on an Ethical Life . Ecco, New York 2000, ISBN 0-06-000744-3
  • Henry Spira and the animal rights movement . Harald Fischer, Erlangen 2001, ISBN 3-89131-404-3 ( Original title: Ethics into action: Henry Spira and the Animal Rights Movement , 1998 )
  • One World: The Ethics of Globalization . Yale University Press, New Haven 2002; Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2002; 2nd edition, Yale University Press, 2004; Oxford Longman, Hyderabad 2004, ISBN 0-300-10305-0
  • The President of Good and Evil. The ethics of George W. Bush . Harald Fischer, Erlangen 2004, ISBN 3-89131-413-2 ( Original title: The president of good and evil , 2004 )
  • My grandpa. The tragedy of the Jews of Vienna . Europa Verlag , Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-203-82012-9 ( Original title: Pushing time away. My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna , 2003 )
  • The Point of View of the Universe - Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics. (with Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek). Oxford University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-19960-369-5 .
  • Saving Lives: How To Eradicate Poverty - And Why We Don't . Arche, Zürich & Hamburg 2010, ISBN 3-7160-2629-8 ( Original title: The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty , 2009 )
  • Effective altruism. A guide to ethical living. Suhrkamp Verlag, Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-518-58688-4 ( Original title: The Most Good You Can Do. How Effective Altruism Is Changing Ideas About Living Ethically , 2015 ).
  • Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter . Princeton University Press, Princeton [et. a.] 2016, ISBN 978-0-691-17247-7 .
  • Hunger, prosperity and morality . With a foreword by Bill and Melinda Gates, Hoffmann and Campe, Hamburg 2017 ISBN 978-3-45500096-2 ( Original title: Famine, Affluence, and Morality , 1972 )
  • Left, hear the signals! Suggestions for a necessary rethink. Reclam, Ditzingen 2018, ISBN 978-3-15-019555-0 .


  • Till Bastian (Ed.): Think, write, kill. On the new "euthanasia" discussion and on Peter Singer's philosophy . Hirzel, Stuttgart 1990, ISBN 3-8047-1112-X .
  • Didi Danquart, Udo Sierck (Ed.): The Pannwitzblick. How violence against the disabled arises . Libertarian Association, Hamburg 1993, ISBN 3-922611-29-X .
  • Christoph Anstötz (Ed.): Peter Singer in Germany. To endanger the freedom of discussion in science . An annotated documentation. With a bibliography by Björn Haferkamp. Lang, Frankfurt am Main 1995 (2nd edition 1997), ISBN 3-631-48014-8 .
  • Bernward Grünewald : Peter Singer's objectivism and his hidden subject theory . In: Jahrbuch für Recht und Ethik / Annual Review of Law and Ethics, Volume 3 (1995), ISBN 3-428-08269-9 , (PDF)
  • Robert Spaemann : People. Try on the difference between "something" and "someone" . Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1996 (3rd A. 2007), ISBN 3-608-91813-2 .
  • Erika Feyerabend: The debate about Peter Singer in Heidelberg . In: Margret Jäger, Frank Wichert (ed.): Racism and biopolitics . DISS research report 1996, ISBN 3-927388-55-6 .
  • Dale Jamieson (Ed.): Singer and His Critics . Blackwell, Oxford 1999, ISBN 1-55786-909-X .
  • Martina Ahmann: What remains inviolable of human life? Critical analysis of the reception of Peter Singer's practical-ethical draft from a practical-theological perspective . LIT (Theology and Practice 11), Münster 2001, ISBN 3-8258-5333-0 .
  • Wojciech Bołoz, Gerhard Höver (ed.): Utilitarianism in bioethics. Its requirements and consequences using the example of Peter Singer's views . LIT (Symposion 2), Münster 2002, ISBN 3-8258-5895-2 .
  • Wilfried Härle : Being human in relationships. Studies in the doctrine of justification and anthropology . Mohr, Tübingen 2006, ISBN 3-16-148754-0 .
  • Alexander Lohner: Personality and Human Dignity. A theological examination of the theses of the “new bioethicists” . Regensburg 2000, ISBN 978-3-7917-1702-9 .
  • Alexander Schlegel: The identity of the person. An argument with Peter Singer . Herder (Studies on Theological Ethics 116), Freiburg im Breisgau 2007, ISBN 3-451-29393-5 .
  • Jeffrey A. Schaler (Ed.): Peter Singer Under Fire , The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics, Open Court 2009, ISBN 978-0-8126-9618-9 . Review by Fiona Woollard

Available online

Web links

Commons : Peter Singer  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Interview with Peter Singer in the FAZ on July 24, 2011 , accessed on July 25, 2011.
  2. ^ A b Stuart Jeffries: Moral maze . In: The Guardian . July 22, 2005, ISSN  0261-3077 ( [accessed April 6, 2017]).
  3. ^ A b Adam Ford: The Point of View of the Universe - Peter Singer. July 4, 2017, accessed on September 13, 2018 (see also the integrated interview with Peter Singer, from min. 2:30).
  4. Singer: "I don't think you can rationally prove an answer for everyone irrespective of their nature and their preferences, that shows that it's always rational for them to be moral." ( Video, 2: 17-2: 28 )
  5. ^ Peter Singer: The Why and How of Effective Altruism. In: TED. TED Conferences, LLC, accessed April 2, 2017.
  6. ^ Animal Liberation. The Liberation of Animals, 2nd edition, Rowohlt Verlag 1996: p. 41.
  7. Peter Heinrich: The scientific examination of the "practical ethics" by Peter Singer , dissertation, 2005. P. 204 f.
  8. ^ Danny Oestreich, 2014. Footnote 118
  9. Anstötz 1995.
  10. See Don Marquis: Why Abortion is Immoral. In: The Journal of Philosophy. Volume 86, No. 4 (April 1989), pp. 183-202; e-Text, different page counting (PDF; 212 kB).
  11. ^ Website of the Friends of the Peter Singer Prize for strategies to reduce animal suffering
  12. Despina Vertzagia et al. a .: Peter Singer: Ethics today. In: Conatus - Journal of Philosophy. 2016, accessed March 2, 2019 .