Doing good in the world of politics

04 May 2017

On this week’s Policy Forum Pod, we’re talking ethics and politics with world-famous philosopher Peter Singer.

If you ask people about how notions of ethics shape their actions, many would talk about a desire to ‘do good’ in the world. Despite the disillusionment with the state of world politics today, politicians and policymakers are no exception – if anything they are more likely to talk about wanting to make a positive difference. So for those concerned with politics and policy, how are we to know where best to focus our efforts so we can be most effective in ‘doing good’? And what of the ethics of individuals in positions of immense political power, like the US President? On this week’s Policy Forum Pod, world-famous philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer discusses political ethics, Trump’s America, and the obligations of nation-states. Listen here:

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, and is also Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Animal Liberation, which has been widely credited with starting the modern animal rights movement, as well as the author of numerous books and articles on philosophy, morality, poverty, abortion, and euthanasia.

Peter Singer is one of the world’s most famous utilitarian ethicists. To put it simply, utilitarianism is about acting for the greatest good of the greatest number. It is an approach that focuses on consequences, and sees an action as ethical if it tends to maximise general wellbeing, and minimise suffering. Seeking to maximise one’s impact is a key idea underpinning the philosophy of ‘effective altruism’, as Singer explains.

“[It] is to regard doing ‘good’ in the world, making the world a better place, as an important life goal,” Singer says.

“To try to make the world a better place, you want to get the best value for that money or time and do the most ‘good’ that you can with them.”

How does this approach fit in the realm of politics, in which good policies are often left by the wayside in the name of compromise? As Singer explains, we must remember that politics is the art of the possible.

“Sometimes, it is right to work for a less than ideal outcome, if it is clear that an ideal outcome is not achievable and a less than ideal outcome is the best that you can achieve.”

For Singer, it is not just individuals who ought to be thinking about the universal good; nation-states also have obligations to make the world a better place. This means that states ought to be concerned with how their actions impact the welfare of those beyond their own borders.

“Firstly, they should refrain from actions that are harming other people, and emitting greenhouse gases is clearly one of those things. They also – I think wealthy nations, anyway – have an obligation to assist other nations that are less fortunate.”

While praising Norway, Sweden and Denmark as examples of more responsible nations in this respect, Singer rebukes Australia for its shrinking foreign aid contributions. “We give less than a third, for example, of the amount that the United Kingdom gives as a proportion of our gross national income. I think that is quite shameful.”

Perhaps an even more glaring example is the United States under President Trump. It is not just the language of ‘America first’ that sits at odds with a global approach to ethics, but also the ethics of the President himself.

“In so far as he talks about what is right or wrong, it is at the level of the tweet. It is not at the level of any kind of serious worked out statement. I do not think that Donald Trump is really interested in ethics at all. I think he is, basically, interested in himself.”

And with the world staring down the barrel of so many big political challenges, how are we to know where best to focus our efforts? It’s not an easy question to answer, but Singer does highlight a few issues as particularly deserving of attention.

“The whole thing is endangered clearly by climate change, because climate change will hit hardest among the poorest people… Of course, I think there is no doubt that the election of Trump heightens international tensions and raises the risk of great power confrontation and possibly even a nuclear confrontation,” says Singer.

“It means we have a lot to do. We cannot just ignore any of these areas.”

Peter Singer was in conversation with Policy Forum’s Nicky Lovegrove. This episode was produced and written by Nicky Lovegrove and Martyn Pearce. A special thanks also to University House for their logistical support.

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