Capitalism is very far from a perfect system, but so far we have yet to find anything that clearly does a better job of meeting human needs than a regulated capitalist economy coupled with a welfare and health care system that meets the basic needs of those who do not thrive in the capitalist economy.
His grandparents were less fortunate: his paternal grandparents were taken by the Germans Nazis to Łódź, and were never heard from again; his maternal grandfather David Ernst Oppenheim (1881–1943), a Teacher, died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Oppenheim was a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society and he wrote a joint article with Sigmund Freud, before joining the Adlerian sect. Singer later wrote a biography on Oppenheim.
Singer attended Preshil and later Scotch College. After leaving school, Singer studied law, history, and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, gaining his BA degree (hons) in 1967. He received an MA degree for a thesis entitled "Why should I be moral?" at the same university in 1969. He was awarded a scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, and obtained from there a BPhil degree in 1971, with a thesis on civil disobedience supervised by R. M. Hare and published as a book in 1973. Singer names Hare and Australian Philosopher H. J. McCloskey as his two most important mentors. Singer is an atheist.
Since 1968 he has been married to Renata Singer; they have three children: Ruth, Marion, and Esther. Renata Singer is a Novelist and author and she also has collaborated on publications with her husband.
Singer joined the Australian Labor Party in 1974, but resigned after disillusionment with the centrist leadership of Bob Hawke. In 1992, he became a founding member of the Green Party of Victoria. He has run for political office twice for the Greens: in 1994 he received 28% of the vote in the Kooyong by-election, and in 1996 he received 3% of the vote when running for the Australia Senate (elected by proportional representation). Before the 1996 election, he co-authored a book The Greens with Bob Brown.
Published in 1975, Animal Liberation has been cited as a formative influence on Leaders of the modern animal liberation movement. The central argument of the book is an expansion of the utilitarian concept that "the greatest good of the greatest number" is the only measure of good or ethical behaviour, and Singer believes that there is no reason not to apply this principle to other animals, arguing that the boundary between human and "animal" is completely arbitrary. There are far more differences, for instance, between a great ape and an oyster, for Example, than between a human and a great ape, and yet the former two are lumped together as "animals", whereas we are considered "human" in a way that supposedly differentiates us from all other "animals."
After spending two years as a Radcliffe lecturer at University College, Oxford, he was a visiting professor at New York University for 16 months. He returned to Melbourne in 1977, where he spent most of his career, aside from appointments as visiting faculty abroad, until his move to Princeton in 1999. In June 2011 it was announced he would join the professoriate of New College of the Humanities, a private college in London, in addition to his work at Princeton.
Singer's Practical Ethics (1979) analyzes why and how living beings' interests should be weighed. His principle of equal consideration of interests does not dictate equal treatment of all those with interests, since different interests warrant different treatment. All have an interest in avoiding pain, for instance, but relatively few have an interest in cultivating their abilities. Not only does his principle justify different treatment for different interests, but it allows different treatment for the same interest when diminishing marginal utility is a factor. For Example, this approach would privilege a starving person's interest in food over the same interest of someone who is only slightly hungry.
Singer has defended some of the actions of the Animal Liberation Front, such as the stealing of footage from Dr. Thomas Gennarelli's laboratory in May 1984 (as shown in the documentary Unnecessary Fuss), but he has condemned other actions such as the use of explosives by some animal-rights Activists and sees the freeing of captive animals as largely futile when they are easily replaced.
In 1985, Singer wrote a book with the physician Deanne Wells arguing that surrogate motherhood should be allowed and regulated by the state by establishing nonprofit 'State Surrogacy Boards', which would ensure fairness between surrogate mothers and surrogacy-seeking parents. Singer and Wells endorsed both the payment of medical expenses endured by surrogate mothers and an extra "fair fee" to compensate the surrogate mother.
In 1989 and 1990, Peter Singer's work was the subject of a number of protests in Germany. A course in ethics led by Dr. Hartmut Kliemt at the University of Duisburg where the main text used was Singer's Practical Ethics was, according to Singer, "subjected to organised and repeated disruption by protesters objecting to the use of the book on the grounds that in one of its ten chapters it advocates active euthanasia for severely disabled newborn infants". The protests led to the course being shut down.
In 1991, Singer was due to speak along with R. M. Hare and Georg Meggle at the 15th International Wittgenstein Symposium in Kirchberg am Wechsel, Austria. Singer has stated that threats were made to Adolf Hübner, then the President of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society, that the conference would be disrupted if Singer and Meggle were given a platform. Hübner proposed to the board of the society that Singer's invitation (as well as the invitations of a number of other speakers) be withdrawn. The Society decided to cancel the symposium.
On two occasions, Singer served as chair of the philosophy department at Monash University, where he founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996 he stood unsuccessfully as a Greens candidate for the Australian Senate. In 2004 Singer was recognised as the Australian Humanist of the Year by the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, and in 2006 he was voted one of Australia's ten most influential public intellectuals. Singer is a cofounder of Animals Australia and the founder of The Life You Can Save.
Religious critics have argued that Singer's ethic ignores and undermines the traditional notion of the sanctity of life. Singer agrees and believes the notion of the sanctity of life ought to be discarded as outdated, unscientific, and irrelevant to understanding problems in contemporary bioethics. Bioethicists associated with the Disability Rights and Disability Studies communities have argued that his epistemology is based on ableist conceptions of disability. Singer's positions have also been criticised by some advocates for disability rights and right-to-life supporters, concerned with what they see as his attacks upon human dignity. Singer has replied that many people judge him based on secondhand summaries and short quotations taken out of context, not his books or articles and, that his aim is to elevate the status of animals, not to lower that of humans. American publisher Steve Forbes ceased his donations to Princeton University in 1999 because of Singer's appointment to a prestigious professorship. Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal wrote to organisers of a Swedish book fair to which Singer was invited that "A professor of morals ... who justifies the right to kill handicapped newborns ... is in my opinion unacceptable for representation at your level." Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, criticised Singer's appointment to the Princeton Faculty in a banquet speech at the organisation's national convention in July 2001, claiming that Singer's support for euthanising disabled babies could lead to disabled older children and adults being valued less as well. Conservative Psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple wrote in 2010 that Singerian moral universalism is "preposterous—psychologically, theoretically, and practically".
Singer was inducted into the United States Animal Rights Hall of Fame in 2000.
In 2002 disability rights Activist Harriet McBryde Johnson debated Singer, challenging his belief that it is morally permissible to euthanize new-born children with severe disabilities. "Unspeakable Conversations", Johnson's account of her encounters with Singer and the pro-euthanasia movement, was published in the New York Times Magazine in 2003. It also served as inspiration for The Thrill, a 2013 play by Judith Thompson partly based on Johnson's life.
Some chapters of Animal Liberation are dedicated to criticising testing on animals but, unlike groups such as PETA, Singer is willing to accept such testing when there is a clear benefit for Medicine. In November 2006, Singer appeared on the BBC programme Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing and said that he felt that Tipu Aziz's experiments on monkeys for research into treating Parkinson's disease could be justified. Whereas Singer has continued since the publication of Animal Liberation to promote vegetarianism and veganism, he has been much less vocal in recent years on the subject of animal experimentation.
His own organisation, The Life You Can Save, also recommends a selection of charities deemed by charity evaluators such as GiveWell to be the most effective when it comes to helping those in extreme poverty. TLYCS was founded after Singer released his 2009 eponymous book, in which he argues more generally in favour of giving to charities that help to end global poverty. In particular, he expands upon some of the arguments made in his 1972 essay "Famine, Affluence, and Morality", in which he posits that citizens of rich nations are morally obligated to give at least some of their disposable income to charities that help the global poor. He supports this using the drowning child analogy, which states that most people would rescue a drowning child from a pond, even if it meant that their expensive clothes were ruined, so we clearly value a human life more than the value of our material possessions. As a result, we should take a significant portion of the money that we spend on our possessions and instead donate it to charity.
In 2010, Singer signed a petition renouncing his 'right of return' to Israel, which called it "a form of racist privilege that abets the colonial oppression of the Palestinians".
Similar to his argument for abortion rights, Singer argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood—"rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"—and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living". Singer has clarified that his "view of when life begins isn’t very different from that of opponents of abortion." He deems it not "unreasonable to hold that an individual human life begins at conception. If it doesn’t, then it begins about 14 days later, when it is no longer possible for the embryo to divide into twins or other multiples." Singer disagrees with abortion rights opponents in that he does not "think that the fact that an embryo is a living human being is sufficient to show that it is wrong to kill it." Singer wishes "to see American jurisprudence, and the national abortion debate, take up the question of which capacities a human being needs to have in order for it to be wrong kill it" as well as "when, in the development of the early human being, these capacities are present."
Singer's ideas have contributed to the rise of effective altruism. He argues that people should not only try to reduce suffering, but reduce it in the most effective manner possible. While Singer has previously written at length about the moral imperative to reduce poverty and eliminate the suffering of nonhuman animals, particularly in the meat industry, he writes about how the effective altruism movement is doing these things more effectively in his 2015 book, The Most Good You Can Do. He is a board member of Animal Charity Evaluators, a charity evaluator used by many members of the effective altruism community which recommends the most cost-effective animal advocacy charities and interventions.
Singer received Philosophy Now's 2016 Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity for his efforts "to disturb the comfortable complacency with which many of us habitually ignore the desperate needs of others ... particularly for this work as it relates to the Effective Altruism movement."
When writing in 2017 on Trump's denial of climate change and plans to withdraw from the Paris accords, Singer advocated a boycott of all consumer goods from the United States to pressure the Trump administration to change its environmental policies. During a San Francisco Review of Books interview from the same year, Singer said that, "the public face of America today is very different from what it was under President Obama. President Trump talks a lot about putting America first, and given the impact that our actions have on the rest of the world, that is not an ethical stance. We see it with regard to immigration, but we see it even more clearly with regard to climate change, which is probably the greatest single moral challenge facing the world in the 21st century. But is Trump part of a prevailing trend, or do his abysmal approval ratings show that he is a merely a blip on a line on chart that is moving in a different direction?"