Claiming Darwin for the Left: an interview with Peter Singer
Peter Singer looks a very tired man. It’s not
so much the early morning start of the interview, but the weeks of media scrutiny,
misrepresentation and criticism, which seem to have taken their toll.
Singer came to England to talk about “A Darwinian
Left”, but no sooner had he stepped off the plane than the Daily Express
was reviving the old controversy over Singer’s view that in certain circumstances,
it may be better to end the life of a very severely handicapped baby in a humane
way, rather than use all modern medicine can do to let it live a painful and
often brief life. Singer tried to defend himself on Radio Four’s Today
programme, but in such a brief news item, his calm reasoning was always likely
to have less impact than the emotive pleas of his opponent.
So once again, what Singer really wanted to say
was overshadowed by his reputation. Which is a pity, because in
his LSE lecture, A Darwinian Left?,
which formed the centrepiece of his visit, Singer challenges a rather different
taboo: the exclusion from left-wing thought of the ideas of Charles Darwin.
Singer argues that the left’s utopianism has failed
to take account of human nature, because it has denied there is such a thing
as a human nature. For Marx, it is the “ensemble of social relations” which
makes us the people we are, and so, as Singer points out, “It follows from this
belief that if you can change the ‘ensemble of social relations’, you can totally
change human nature.”
The corruption and authoritarianism of so-called
Marxist and communist states in this century is testament to the naïveté
of this view. As the anarchist Bakunin said, once even workers are given absolute
power, “they represent not the people but themselves … Those who doubt this
know nothing at all about human nature.”
But what then is this human nature? Singer believes
the answer comes from Darwin. Human nature is an evolved human nature. To understand
why we are the way we are and the origins of ethics, we have to understand how
we have evolved not just physically, but mentally. Evolutionary psychology,
as it is known, is the intellectual growth industry of the last decade of the
millennium, though it is not without its detractors.
If the left takes account of evolutionary psychology,
Singer argues, it will be better able to harness that understanding of human
nature to implement policies which have a better chance of success. In doing
so, two evolutionary fallacies have to be cleared up. First of all, we have
evolved not to be ruthless proto-capitalists, but to “enter into mutually beneficial
forms of co-operation.” It is the evolutionary psychologist’s work in explaining
how ‘survival of the fittest’ translates into co-operative behaviour which has
been, arguably, its greatest success. Secondly, there is the “is/ought” gap.
To say a certain type of behaviour has evolved is not to say it is morally right.
To accept a need to understand how our minds evolved is not to endorse every
human trait with an evolutionary origin.
When I spoke to Peter Singer, I wanted to get
clearer about what he thinks Darwinism can do to help us understand ethics.
Singer is a preference utilitarian, which means he thinks the morally right
action is that which has the consequences of satisfying the preferences of the
greatest number of people. Singer seems now to be saying
that the importance of Darwinism is that if we take it into account, we will
be better at producing the greatest utility – the satisfaction of people’s preferences.
“That’s my philosophical goal,” acknowledges Singer.
“I was speaking more broadly for anyone who shares a whole range of values.
You don’t have to be a preference utilitarian. But I think it would be true
generally that anyone who has views about how society should end up will have
a better chance to achieve that if they understand the Darwinian framework of
Singer also argues that Darwinism has a destructive
effect, in that if you accept it, certain other positions are fatally undermined.
For example, the idea that God gave Adam, and by proxy, us, dominion over the
animal kingdom is a view “thoroughly refuted by the theory of evolution.” I
was unsure that those victories are always so straightforward. For example,
there are, presumably, many Christians who don’t buy the Adam and Eve creation
myth as literal truth. Nevertheless, can’t they live with Darwinism and have
“I don’t think Darwinism is incompatible with
any Christian ethic,” Singer is happy to allow, “except a really fundamentalist
one that takes Genesis literally. And it’s not even incompatible strictly with
the divine command theory, it just means the divine command theory is based
on all sorts of hypotheses which you don’t need because you’ve got other explanations.”
So how is the divine command theory undermined
by evolution? Couldn’t the Christian, for example, say, yes, evolution is how
man came to be, but given there is an is/ought gap, can’t the ethical commands
come from on high, as it were?
“Entirely possible. I was just saying that a lot
of the impetus for a divine command theory comes from the question ‘where could
ethics come from?’. It’s something totally different, out of this world, so
therefore you have to assume we’re talking about the will of God or something.
Once you have a Darwinian understanding of how ethics can emerge, you absolutely
don’t have to assume that, but it’s still possible to assume it. It’s really
the ‘I have no need of the hypothesis’ rather than ‘that hypothesis is hereby
The question of how far evolution can help us
understand the origin of ethics is perhaps the most contentious part of evolutionary
psychologists’ claims in general and Singer’s thesis in particular. Singer believes
Darwinian theory gives us an understanding of the origin of ethics, because,
for example, it gives an evolutionary explanation of how reciprocity came to
be. Put crudely, if you model the survival prospects for different kinds of
creatures with different ways of interacting with others – from serial exploiters
to serial co-operators and every shade in between – it turns out that the creatures
who thrive in the long run are those that adopt a strategy called ‘tit for tat’.
This means that they always seek to co-operate with others, but withdraw that
co-operation as soon as they are taken advantage of. Because this is the attitude
which increases the survival value of a species, it would seem to follow that
humans have evolved an in-built tendency to co-operation, along with a tendency
to withdraw that co-operation if exploited. Hence, it is argued, and essential
feature of ethics – reciprocity – is explained by evolution.
But, I put it to Singer, does the is/ought gap
reappear in a historical version if you follow that theory? When we give an
evolutionary explanation of how reciprocity came to be, so far we’re only describing
evolved behaviour, but it’s quite clear that what you think ethics is now goes
beyond a mere description of our evolved behaviour. So how, historically or
logically, is that gap bridged?
“It’s not bridged historically at all. Of any
culture and people you can describe their ethic, but that remains entirely on
the level of description. ‘The Inuit people do this and this and this, the British
people do that and that and that’. You can describe that ethic but you don’t
get from the answer to ‘what ought I to do?’ So the gap is a logical one and
it just arises from the fact that when we seek to answer the question, ‘What
ought I to do?’ we’re asking for a prescription, we’re not asking for a description.
Any description of existing morals in our culture or the origins of morals is
not going to enable us to deduce what ought we to do.”
But, I insist, doesn’t evolution then merely explain
the descriptive part of how certain behaviours came to be? It doesn’t really
explain our ethics, it explains social codes, rules of social conduct. If ethics
is a prescriptive field rather than a descriptive one, how does evolutionary
explanation of how merely described behaviour comes to be explain how ethics
came to be?
“I think in a way that’s so obvious that it doesn’t
need any explanation,” retorts Singer. “That’s just that we have the capacity
to make choices and that we make judgements which are prescriptive: first person,
second person or third person judgements. So, in a way, that is not what I’m
trying to explain the origins of, although you can see how if you add it to
the kinds of accounts I’ve given, we have language and we are a social animals
you can see why we end up talking about these things and discussing them. It’s
not something that I talked about. We know that we do that, and that’s a process
you would expect beings, once they had a certain degree of language, faced with
these choices, to do.”
The question is important, because some prominent
workers in the area of decision-theory and evolution argue that evolution explains
how it comes to be that we have social rules and that in fact understanding
these origins shows us that there’s no extra moral dimension to these things.
They are merely evolved and we deceive ourselves if we think there is an ethical
I tried to probe this apparent gap between evolution
and ethics by considering two of Singer’s examples of how our ethics must account
for our evolved human nature. If we take into account the fact that we feel
more protective towards our own offspring than towards children in general,
it’s a good rule that parents should take care of their children because there’s
a greater chance it will increase the general happiness. On the other hand,
the double standard towards female and male sexual behaviour, even though it
may have an evolutionary explanation, is something that should not be tolerated.
I put it to Singer that, it follows that the moral judgements that we’re going
to make are going to be of the sort, ‘If the evolved behaviour is going to lead
to the morally desirable result follow it and if the evolved behaviour does
not lead to the morally desirable result, don’t follow it’. So isn’t the observation
of what has evolved going to drop out of the equation? It’s not going to feed
at all directly into what our moral rules are going to be.
Singer’s answer reveals more precisely the limited,
but important role, he believes Darwinian explanations play in our ethics. “I
think the Darwinian is going to alert us to what rules are going to work and
what rules are going to meet a lot of resistance and I think we have to bear
that in mind. But always there’s a trade off between how important the values
are to us and the strength of the evolved tendency in our natures.”
Given Singer’s willingness to challenge established
views, I was a little surprised that he still talks in terms of the left and
right, particularly as it seems his conception of the left is a long way from
any traditional view. Singer characterises the left as being concerned with
eliminating the sufferings of others and of the oppressed. A lot of people on
the left would consider that quite a diluted view of the left, which is generally
thought to have something to do with common ownership. I wondered if it was
useful to maintain the label ‘the left’.
“The label’s kind of there to stay,” replies Singer.
“It’s been there so long. We’re not about to get rid of it. You would have to
be rather far on the left now to think that a lot of common ownership is a good
idea, beyond some major utilities. I wouldn’t say the left ought to be committed
to common ownership. Common Ownership is possibly a means to achieving the goals
of the left. That debate should continue. But I wouldn’t say it was a prerequisite
for being part of the left.”
But is Singer’s view really leftist at all? Take
what he says about tit-for tat, for example. He argues that tit-for-tat would
appeal to people on the left because it is a ‘nice’ strategy, but presumably
a lot of people who wouldn’t identify themselves as left-wing would be keen
on adopting what he calls nice strategies. And similarly a number of people
on the left might be against the nicer strategies – the more revolutionary left
wing, for example. So I’m left wondering if there really is a significant distinction
to be made between the left and other political stances that are committed to
the reduction of inequality.
But it’s quite clear that Singer, though keen
to identify himself as being on the left, isn’t as interested this particular
issue as I am. He simply replies, “I think there’s a lot less to the distinction
[left/right] than there was, undoubtedly.”
Singer’s interest in Darwin pre-dates the current
revival in evolutionary explanations, and goes back to his earlier work in animal
“It was there in the background. It wasn’t central
to it but I did talk about it a bit in Animal Liberation. I certainly
was interested in it before Wilson’s Sociobiology came out, but my interest
in it as an aid to understanding what ethics is really does date from Sociobiology
because I then addressed that in the Expanding Circle, which was published
in 1982, and that was explicitly a response to Wilson.”
What, I wondered, explains the current explosion
of interest in Darwin, particularly in philosophy and psychology?
“Well, Darwin’s been around for such a long period
of time but understanding Darwinian accounts of human affairs has not been about
for such a long time. It’s been neglected after Darwin himself. And then there
was this great taboo against applying Darwinian hypotheses to human social behaviour
until Wilson’s Sociobiology in 1975 and that was greeted with a huge
amount of hostility, which is evidence of the taboo. Even then a lot of people
shuddered because they saw it as something that was associated with nasty, right-wing
biological determinism, which is not really true. So it’s only more recently
than 1975 that the taboo has broken down and people have started to accept that
there are interesting and important insights into human affairs that come from
applying Darwinian thinking to human social conduct.”
Singer may feel that his new take on Darwin ought
to have been the main focus of his visit to London. But aside from Singer the
academic philosopher, there is also Singer the campaigner and polemicist. If
the media have focused on other things, it is at least partly due to Singer’s
own outspokenness about issues that matter to him.
One of the first controversies to blow up in the
press during Singer’s visit was his withdrawal of a lecture he was due to give
at the King’s Centre for Philosophy, because of its sponsorship by Shell UK,
and his very public letter to the Guardian explaining why.
Singer’s reason for pulling out is that, “I did
not really want to appear on a programme that says ‘supported by Shell’ and
is seen as therefore promoting the idea that Shell is a good corporate citizen.
It’s not that I’m against taking corporate money under any circumstances. I
think there are some circumstances in which I would take it, but I think that
you always have to be careful about taking corporate money. At present Shell’s
record, particularly in Nigeria, is really lamentable. I think that you can
see a connection between the money that is going here [to the King’s Centre]
and the profits made out of the extraction of oil in Nigeria, with all of the
consequences that has for the Ogoni people, both in terms of environmental damage
to their land, the way in which Shell revenues support the Nigerian dictatorship,
which is one of the most oppressive around. So I just didn’t want to be part
Interestingly, at one recent Environmental Ethics
conference, at which the Shell issue in particular was in the forefront of people’s
minds, a lot of the people who ran consequentialist arguments at the conference
actually came out in favour of taking the money because they felt that the benefits
of having the conference supported would outweigh the very marginal benefits
that Shell would receive for having its logo in the corner of the posters. People
said thinks like “It’s better this money is spent on a conference in environmental
ethics, which should be discussed, than the money should go to a big billboard
poster for Shell or something.” What does Singer, as a consequentialist, make
of this argument?
“The consequentialist could go both ways, I don’t
deny that. I don’t think it’s all that important to have another environmental
ethics conference frankly – there are plenty of environmental ethics conferences
and discussions about environmental ethics around. There’s certainly an argument
about what else would happen to the money. But I think that in fact it’s clear
that as far as my gesture of refusing to take Shell’s sponsorship is concerned
– and it was a gesture, there’s no doubt about it – it’s had worthwhile consequences.
What it’s meant is that there’s one lecture in my London programme that did
not go ahead as sponsored, but in fact that was made up for by the fact that
I gave a lecture organised at King’s College by some students who were opposed
to Shell’s sponsorship. So people at King’s still got to hear me give a lecture,
if that’s what the were interested in. Because I refused and because I wrote
a letter to The Guardian about my refusing to do so, there was a whole
lot more discussion of the issue, so people have again become more aware that
there is a real issue about corporate sponsorship and the question about Shell
in particular has got aired. So, it seems to me that’s clearly been a good thing.
In other words, it’s clear that I made the right decision on consequentialist
“But I think it’s important that people enter
some discussion, that it’s not just a silent gesture that I didn’t give a lecture
and no one ever heard about why I didn’t.”
Singer is always very open in showing the full
implications, consequences and ramifications of his viewpoint, which doesn’t
always make him popular. As a consequentialist, how does he feel about the argument
that the best way to bring about a better society from a utilitarian point of
view is not to advance complex utilitarian arguments but to appeal to more simple
“I think people are in different positions and
different roles. For a political heavyweight involved in strategies for a political
party to achieve office, it probably wouldn’t be possible to be quite so open.
But I think philosophers can have a role in clarifying people’s thinking, with
broader aims than simply saying ‘I want the political party with these view
to get into office and do this and that’.”
As an animal rights campaigner, I suggest, his
roles perhaps are more mixed and I asked Singer whether he felt that being so
open, and talking about the implications of his views on animals for mentally
handicapped children, has had the effect of blunting his points on animal liberation,
because people are inevitably not going to focus on his positive points about
animals, they focus on the perceived negative implications for the sanctity
“Maybe that’s true. It’s become a larger focus
in recent years. I’m not quite sure why, but I think that what you’d have to
say there was that if you take the line that that was a mistake to write Should
the Baby Live? back in 1985. It’s done now and I think the book’s done some
good in alerting people to the nature of that particular problem and making
parents of the disabled able to discuss it more openly. I’m not going to deny
that the conclusions still seem to be sound ones.
“I think you could say that politically it’s been
a mistake to accept invitations to debate it. What’s happened in Britain over
the last couple of weeks is that there was a rather silly article in the Daily
Express that raised this issue, which probably should have been ignored,
and I was called by the BBC for the Today programme and a lot of people
heard that, so maybe I would be more prudent to tell the BBC that I didn’t really
want to discuss that anymore and that wasn’t what I was coming here to discuss
“It’s very hard because on the other hand some
of the discussions were quite useful and it wasn’t all silly stuff as the one
on the Today programme I think was. So you have to say, well, it gets
more attention and more read about my views, maybe some of them will think,
‘Well, this is not so silly and bad, maybe I should look at some of his books’,
and maybe more people will get involved in it. It’s very hard to say, I think.”
Singer is always going to be a controversial thinker
because of his willingness to confront political and ethical issues without
being constrained by current orthodoxy. His application of Darwin to left-wing
thought is certainly not going to make him popular with the right, but it is
also likely to lose him some friends on the left, just as his measured contribution
to the issue of animal rights challenges society’s attitudes while not going
far enough to satisfy many activists.
Singer returned to his native Australia leaving
behind a big question and a tentative answer. Can the scientific theories of
Charles Darwin really contribute to our philosophical understanding of ethics?
Singer has tried to show how it can, but this is a debate which clearly has
a lot further to run.
This article was originally published in Issue 4 of The Philosophers’ Magazine.