Peter Singer Interviewed: Claiming Darwin for the Left


Julian Baggini interviews Peter Singer (1998) in The Philosophers' Magazine Online:

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.

More here.