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One of the founders of the Effective Altruism movement, Peter Singer has turbocharged entire movements with the sheer force of his writing. 

As he nears retirement, what lessons does his life have on how to do the most good we can?

Below is a story by Wayne Hsiung, my co-founder at The Simple Heart (an animal nonprofit), about the time he protested Peter Singer on-stage while he was a young law student at the University of Chicago. From Singer's response, Wayne saw first-hand the power of Singer's approach to criticism and quickly became one of his biggest fans.

It's an inspiring and useful story on how to effectively respond to criticism and challenge social norms.

Main points:

  • Speak truth, even when it’s hard.
  • Focus on systems rather than individuals.
  • Be guided by evidence.

For Bay Area people: Peter Singer and Wayne Hsiung are speaking live in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 30. Get 50% off tickets here with code SINGER50.

The Legacy (and Controversy) of Peter Singer

Few have had as much impact as the legendary author of Animal Liberation. As he tours the country and nears retirement, his life has lessons for us all.

In 2004, I had a confrontation with the most important philosopher in the world.

I was a young law student at the University of Chicago. And Peter Singer, who had recently been appointed to a distinguished position at Princeton University, was selected to give the law school’s distinguished Dewey Lecture. An array of the most influential figures in law, philosophy, and even business gathered to listen to Singer’s wisdom, including high level executives at Whole Foods, the newly-appointed CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, Wayne Pacelle, and the most cited law professor in the world, Cass Sunstein.

But I had a different agenda: I wanted to prove Singer was wrong.

While Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, was a formative influence on my views of animal rights, I had come to see him as a sell-out to the animal rights movement. My new champion, a fiery law professor named Gary Francione, regularly condemned Singer as a “partner” with animal-exploiting industries because of Singer’s support for animal welfare reforms. In Francione’s view, the endorsement of these reforms, such as taking mother pigs out of gestation crates, was white-washing an abusive industry. Even if mother pigs lived outside of cages, after all, they would still be tortured and killed! And, motivated by my youthful idealism, I agreed with Francione’s critique.

So, after much discussion and debate among my fellow vegans at the University of Chicago, I decided I would call Peter Singer out. I would condemn him publicly as a traitor to the movement.

Then something astonishing happened. Peter Singer defended me.

Nothing in my question would have predicted this outcome:

“Professor Singer, you’ve stated publicly that we have to accept that the public is only willing to give animals bigger cages. But isn’t that a betrayal of what animals deserve?” I asked. “If we truly believe in animal rights, shouldn’t we be thinking of what they would truly want: to be rescued, not put in a bigger cage?”

Before he could answer, however, another panelist, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, jumped in to defend the law school’s honored guest.

“What you are suggesting is profoundly anti-democratic. You do not get to impose your views on the rest of society, and Singer’s path is the right one.”

The University of Chicago Law School’s austere building was the site of a fierce debate in 2004.

“Would you also try to tell people what they can wear? Who they can love? What religion they can believe?” he added. The audience, which was mostly non-vegans, nodded and clapped.

My face went red. I had prepared my question for days, and thought I had framed it in a way that would convince everyone of the righteousness of my position — and the error of Singer’s ways. Instead, I was being condemned as a low-level bigot.

“No… I, uh… democracy isn’t…” I mumbled.

But then an unlikely person came to my aid: the subject of my critique.

“I don’t think that’s what he is saying at all,” Singer explained. “He is not sacrificing democracy for his moral views. He is saying that democracy depends on protecting the interests of those who have no power, such as animals. And he is right.”

My mouth went wide open, as I attempted to respond. But I wasn’t sure whether to thank him or continue my condemnation of him.

“There is room for the approach he’s suggesting we take. Civil disobedience has been crucial to well functioning democracies, and it may very well be crucial for animal rights. Would we know about the horrors inflicted on animals if not for people who take direct action to expose it? That is part of democracy.”

Suddenly, it was not me, but the Harvard professor who was red in the face. In that moment, Singer turned me, one of his fiercest critics, into one of his most devoted fans. And he taught me a crucial lesson: listen to your critics, no matter how convinced you are that you are right. You might just win some over to your side.

Three Waves of Animal Rights

But I’m not alone in being influenced by Singer’s incisive logic and clarity of thought. Looking back through history, there is no figure who has had a greater impact in the intellectual foundations of animal rights. (Only PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, in my opinion, rivals Singer’s impact. Unsurprisingly, she herself has long advocated for Singer’s work; PETA used to ship Animal Liberation to people for free in the organization’s early days!) Indeed, when we look back at animal rights history, we can see three distinct waves in animal rights, all of which were triggered by Singer’s work and thought.

The first wave was the birth of the animal rights movement as a true social and political movement. Animal protection efforts have existed for centuries, perhaps millennia. But until the publication of Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation in 1975, there was no true movement for animal rights. Indeed, those who loved animals lacked even the language to make their concerns a movement. Singer changed that with the first two paragraphs of his book:

This book is about the tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent years. Most readers will take what they have just read to be a wild exaggeration.

Five years ago I myself would have laughed at the statements I have now written in complete seriousness. Five years ago I did not know what I know today. If you read this book carefully, paying special attention to the second and third chapters, you will then know as much of what I know about the oppression of animals as it is possible to get into a book of reasonable length. Then you will be able to judge if my opening paragraph is a wild exaggeration or a sober estimate of a situation largely unknown to the general public. So I do not ask you to believe my opening paragraph now. All I ask is that you reserve your judgment until you have read the book.

When I read those words as a teenager, they shook me to my core. I was first flabbergasted, even stunned, by the clarity and harshness of his moral diagnosis. “Tyranny,” I thought to myself. “Does that mean I’m part of a tyrant class? That’s absurd.”

The original cover to Animal Liberation, published in 1975.

But then I took up Singer’s challenge and read the book. And it changed my life. The grim details of animals vivisected, skinned, or scalded alive moved me to tears. And combined with the powerful logic of “anti-speciesism” — the notion that discrimination against animals, based arbitrarily on their species membership, was a form of prejudice akin to racism or sexism — I was sold. I was convinced by Singer that the oppression of animals was one of the greatest crimes in history.

Why did the book work on me, and so many others?

The reason is that Singer spoke his truth directly, even when others were afraid. Singer, at the time, was a young and promising scholar who had just published one of the most notable papers in philosophy, and in one of the field’s most distinguished journals. He had a lot to lose by taking on a “weird” idea like animal rights. But Singer has never been afraid to follow the courage of his convictions, even when everyone else thinks he’s ridiculous or wrong. This gets him in hot water, regularly. Many students and activists protested his appointment to Princeton because of his views on disability, for example. But it is also why he has had such tremendous impacts. He follows his logic, wherever it might take. He follows his truth.

The power of his truth inspired a generation of activists, including Ingrid Newkirk herself, to speak our truth, too. And there is a lesson there for us all. Speak your truth, even when your voice shakes. Few, if any, of us will have the impacts that Singer had. But in a world where so many are living in fear, Singer teaches us to be honest and brave.

The second wave of animal rights was the shift towards systems over individuals. This might be surprising to hear, coming from me, as I have been a critic of many of the animal welfare reforms that Singer has endorsed. But the crucial insight that Singer reached, long before the animal rights and environmental movement understood it, was that focusing on individual consumer choices would inevitably backfire.

Singer, for example, was fond of arguing for the so-called Paris Exception. When traveling, often in defense of animal rights, he would make exceptions for dairy ingredients, and he advocated others do the same. Here is what he wrote to Satya in 2006:

Ah, yes, the “Paris exception.” I’m probably more flexible than that, in that it doesn’t have to be Paris. But also less flexible, because that guy was prepared to eat meat when in a gourmet restaurant in Paris. I’m not going to do that—I can’t imagine enjoying it, anyway. When I’m shopping for myself, it will be vegan. But when I’m traveling and it’s hard to get vegan food in some places or whatever, I’ll be vegetarian. I won’t eat eggs if they’re not free-range, but if they’re free-range, I will. I won’t order a dish that is full of cheese, but I won’t worry about, say, whether an Indian vegetable curry was cooked with ghee.

Most people saw this as an indulgence, or even a betrayal of the vegan identity. After all, if even the father of the animal rights movement felt it was sometimes ok to hurt animals, why should anyone listen? What I came to realize, however, was that Singer’s point was not really one about personal rectitude but strategic impact. Focusing too much of our effort on individual consumer choices would trigger stumbling blocks for the movement.

First, many people who might otherwise support a movement might be deterred from joining, if movement affiliation comes with stringent requirements. And the one overwhelming thing we know from social science is that more people equals more power. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, a focus on individual dietary change would distract the movement from systemic goals: changing policy, institutions, and social/cultural norms. And it is systems, not individuals, that are most crucial to effective efforts at social change, as I argued in a talk in 2014.

While I disagreed with some of the specific efforts Singer endorsed, then, his desire to build an inclusive movement focused on systemic change transformed animal rights. Beginning in the mid 2000s, when Singer wrote a famous (or infamous) letter to Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, the movement began to shift its focus from changing people, one by one, to harnessing powerful systems to change people en masse. That has been one of the most important shifts, not just in animal rights, but in activism more generally. (See, for example, the focus on systemic change in the mission of the climate movement Extinction Rebellion.)

How Extinction Rebellion Is Changing Its Climate Activism | Time
Extinction Rebellion brought a focus on systemic change to the forefront of climate justice.

The third and final wave in animal rights, triggered by Singer, has arguably been the most important: the shift towards evidence-based strategies. For the longest time, animal rights activists, like many social causes, relied almost entirely on emotion and intuition. This was true, for example, regarding which animals the movement sought to protect. The early days of animal rights were focused primarily on human-like species, such as primates, or particularly sympathetic ones, such as dogs and cats. But partly driven by Singer’s relentless logic — that we should care about the billions of chickens suffering much more than the thousands of dogs — there has been a sea change in animal rights. Farm animal advocacy is now probably the dominant paradigm in animal rights, and even the largest and most traditional animal protection organizations, such as the ASPCA or HSUS, have robust farm animal protection divisions. [1]

But the shift towards farm animals is simply one example of the major shift in animal advocacy towards effective, evidence-based approaches. While the role of so-called Effective Altruism has been highly contentious over the last decade, with many decrying the rise of a techno-libertarian elite not just in animal rights but in society more broadly, there is no question to me that looking at evidence has been crucial to our movement’s recent successes. For example, I believe that we would not have been able to pass a ban on fur in California without a relentless focus on the evidence and research on political persuasion.

This is also true at the micro level, with individuals and organizations. Research on goal-setting shows that setting a goal, then measuring evidence of progress, is crucial to success. But it is even more true of movements at large. Too often, advocates get lost in ideology and identity, and lose sight of what they are trying to achieve. But legendary activists, such as Evan Wolfson for gay rights (“We had great clarity about the vision. The goal… If you can’t say what winning is, you’re not going to able to get there as effectively as you need to”), or Marshall Ganz in the farmworker’s movement (“Regular reporting of progress to goal creates opportunity for feedback, learning, and adaptation”), have demonstrated that goal setting, and taking a practical evidence-based approach, is even more crucial for movements. Without the clarity provided by this approach, it’s virtually impossible for movements to make progress. We create a culture of posturing rather than progress.

I attribute much of my success as an activist to following in Singer’s evidence-based approach. While we have often taken on different roles in the movement — he as elder statesmen; me, as rabble rouser — what we shared is a keen focus on the world, as it is, and not as we’d like it to be. A focus on evidence. And the animal rights movement has been closely following Singer’s lead. There are entire organizations, today, focused on evaluating the evidence behind interventions to help animals. And while advocates for evidence-based animal activism often fall very short of genuine intellectual rigor — and in some cases, I would argue, are actively counterproductive [2] — the cultural shift towards evidence will, in the long run, make the movement much stronger.

For that, we have to thank Peter Singer.

What the Next Generation Should Learn

Singer is now going on tour to discuss his work over the last 50 years, as he retires from Princeton University. And I, for one, do not plan to miss it. I believe that Singer will go down in history as one of the most important philosophers, not just of modern times, but in human history. You will not want to miss the closing chapter of his career.

But even if we cannot expect to have the impact of Singer, we can borrow from the things that have made his work so powerful.

  • We can speak truth, even when it’s hard.
  • We can focus on systems, rather than individuals.
  • And we can use evidence to guide us.

But there’s one last lesson that I hope we can all learn from Singer. We need to see the importance of doing good for living a good life. I have been struck by the shift in recent years, especially among young people, towards a more self-focused mentality on ethics and life. So much of modern progressive thinking is organized around self-care, safe spaces, and making life as comfortable as possible for movement supporters – even activists and leaders! But what Singer’s life shows is that doing good, even if it hurts in the short term, is crucial to living a good life.

That was true when Singer chose the hard path of advocating for animals, when he had a professional future at risk. It’s been true of Singer’s admonition to all of us to give more; Singer himself has given a considerable portion of his income, throughout his life, to various charitable causes. And it’s true for you and I, as we decide what to do in the next day, month, or decade.

If you need the inspiration to do good — and make your life good, too — make it out on May 30 in San Francisco, or on another date in a city near you, to see Singer speak. (Preview: I may be joining him for a bit on stage!)

Perhaps, like a lost kid who tried to call out a legendary philosopher 20 years ago, his words will transform you — and give you a path toward making change.

  1. ^

    Indeed, there is an argument that this shift has gone too far, as there remains significant value in advocating for sympathetic species as a gateway into broader concern for animal rights. I have had many conversations with Ingrid Newkirk about this concern.

  2. ^

    I’ll save this discussion for another day. But many nominally evidence-based organizations use the veneer of “evidence” to justify ineffective and ideologically-based activism. One surefire way to tell is to ask how many times an “evidence-based” org points out its own failings, based on its review of evidence!





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I love the story and helpful summarization of Singer's mindset. His emphasis on the truth and listening to your detractors is an inspiration.

Reading an essay from him in college was my first step toward appreciating animal welfare and steering my life accordingly. I can't imagine how different my focus would be if it weren't for Peter Singer. 

Wayne's eloquence and storytelling ability shines through this piece and does justice to Peter Singer's influence. I remember when in the early 2010s, I associated DxE with a more extreme, personal purity-focused form of veganism, somewhat in line with Gary Francione's uncompromising style of advocacy and criticism. Yet, this piece makes it clear that there was far more strategy and thought behind the "It's Not Food, It's Violence" campaign than just a desire to express anger. Given DxE's recent successes, such as the open rescue legal victories, it's evident that non-traditional, assertive tactics can indeed effect change, proving that it's not always about "playing nice." This transformation and success is testament to the power of persistence, evidence-based strategies, and boldness in advocacy. Thanks for continuing to kindle the flame that Peter Singer started!

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