On polyamory, the migration crisis and right-wing populism

Peter Singer in conversation with Emilia Kaczmarek · 27 July 2017

We meet Peter Singer in a Warsaw bookstore. The biography of Singer’s grandfather, “Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna”, has just been translated into Polish. Although the story’s main focus is on the changing fortunes of Singer’s family, it is often only a springboard to broader questions about ethical challenges we face now. 


Emilia Kaczmarek: In “Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna” you revealed some very intimate facts about your family’s past. Your grandparent’s relationship started in a very unusual way. They were engaged in a relationship one would now call polyamorous. When I was reading your book, I had an impression that you were astonished by the lack of jealousy between them. Do you think it would be morally better if people could live in open relationships?
Peter Singer: I think it would. Certainly, people living in such relationships talk more openly about it than they used to, there is also more discussion about that in the media. It seems to work for some people, and I welcome that, but I’m not sure if it could work for everyone. I think that this feeling of jealousy might still sit pretty deep in a lot of people for reasons, which are rooted in our evolution.

So monogamy is rooted in nature rather than culture?
I am not sure if it’s more nature than culture, but there is definitely an element of nature in the idea that a man wants to know if the children he takes care of are actually his children, and in the fact that many women want to know if they can rely on their partner to help them provide for a child. In open relationships, the men can never be sure whose children they are raising.

Can you really explain people’s attitudes by this primal need to pass on their genes in times when so many of us decide not to have children at all, which leads to a serious demographic crisis in many developed countries?
What evolution has given us, is a strong drive for sex, not for having children. For 99.9 percent of human history, sex has led to reproduction. The desire for sex hasn’t gone away, but now we can have sex without reproducing. This is why it is completely understandable, from an evolutionary point of view, that nowadays people often choose not to have children. On the other hand, if men are going to care and support children, many of them do want the children to be theirs, in a biological sense.

So you don’t think that polyamory might provide a future model of love relationship in western culture?
I suppose it will become much more popular than it is nowadays, especially in advanced countries where societies aren’t very religious, but I would be surprised if it is adopted by more than, say, 25 percent of the population.

On the other hand, I don’t want to say that the current, typical model of a relationship will not evolve. The problem I mentioned before, the need to know who is the father, could be solved through genetic testing. So maybe in the future people will start to think: “Well, I don’t need to worry that she is having sex with other men because I can still find out whether her child is mine or not.”

Let’s leave the question of jealousy and move to another highly controversial contemporary issue, the story of Anna Stubblefield. It wasn’t discussed by media in Poland, so let me first summarize it. Anna Stubblefield, a former professor of ethics, was sentenced for having sex with a 29-year-old physically and mentally disabled man, who was recognized by the judge as intellectually incapable of consenting to sex. Recently, you and Jeff McMahan defended her in an op-ed published in “The New York Times”.
Yes, she was sentenced to 12 years in prison for, if we believe the prosecution, sexual relations with a person whose intellectual capabilities were similar to those of an infant. I should add that although you just described him as mentally disabled, that is precisely what was in dispute at her trial.

Don’t you think that the arguments you made in this case could also be used in defense of paedophiles?
No. A paedophile assaults sexually a child who may not be able to understand what is happening at the time of assault but will be affected by the results of this abuse in the future.

This case is different. According to the prosecution, the man Anna Stubblefield had sex with, was never going to be capable of understanding the significance of a sexual act. If there was no future harm, you have to ask: was he harmed in any other way? Most probably he wasn’t physically harmed, he wasn’t frightened, given that Anna Stubblefield was in love with him and had tried to help him communicate with others for a couple of years.

Should we take her intentions into account? A lot of sexual offenders may be in love with their victims.
I think that intentions can make a difference. Many rapists want to directly humiliate the women they rape and that should increase the severity of their sentence.

Isn’t that contrary to the utilitarianism you support and according to which we can evaluate human acts only by their consequences?
No, because one of the reasons you punish people is to prevent them from committing another crime. With certain intentions, it would be unlikely that a person will re-offend. But in this case, the most important question is what harm was done to the man, will he suffer or did he suffer? The prosecution never really explained in what way he had been harmed.

Would you assess this case differently if the victim was a woman?

Let me quote one of the polemics against your article: “There is a dominant cultural narrative that men are always interested in sex and that sex is always pleasurable for them. This narrative contributes to the popular perception that men cannot be raped1.” Maybe your assumption that the sexual experience of a victim was pleasant for him was caused by gender bias?
No, I think men and women approach sex differently. I do think that men are more interested in casual sex than women. How else can we explain the fact that there is a large market in many different cultures for female sex workers providing a service for men, whereas the market for male sex workers providing a service for women is much smaller?

But don’t you think that your reasoning may be used to justify a change in the law which would legalize sexual intercourses with people permanently incapable of giving consent?
No. In the section of our article that we are discussing now, we are not disputing the conviction; we are only saying that even if Stubblefield was rightly convicted, 12 years in prison is a sentence far too severe for what she did. We did dispute her conviction in a different section of the article, on the grounds that the judge did not allow the admission of evidence that tended to show that the disabled man was capable of consenting. Subsequently, a court of appeal agreed that this refusal to admit defence evidence was a mistake, overturned her conviction and ordered a new trial. Our argument about harm is used to dispute the severity of the sentence, not the conviction as such. The law warns people against committing a crime. In a situation like that, there would always be a risk of harm. So I think that if somebody engages in such activity, they break the law and should be convicted. It is up to the judge, however, to administer an appropriate sentence.

After your defended Anna Stubblefield in some articles, you were presented as a person eager to defend rapists. In the past, you were often called a fan of killing newborns… You are one of the most famous bioethicists of our times, but also an extremely controversial one. How do you feel with all this controversy around your person?
I don’t mind people disagreeing with me, but I really don’t like being misunderstood. This is why I try to write very clearly. Nevertheless, some people get a distorted picture of what I say. Sometimes it’s because instead of reading what I have actually written, they choose to read press articles written by journalists who want to have catchy headlines. I find it distressing. But I’m not very troubled by that, I think that the majority of people understand me.

You published “Pushing Time Away…” almost 15 years ago. At that time you were very optimistic about the future of the world. Today, Donald Trump is the president of the United States, the European Union faces an endless stream of political crises and at our borders, people die by the hundreds while trying to find a better life in the West. Are you still so optimistic?
It’s hard to be as optimistic with President Donald Trump as it was when Barack Obama held that office. Yes, I think it’s reasonable to be less optimistic now.

Do you think that we may be on the verge of a political disaster just as your grandfather was just before the outbreak of the World War II?
I would rather say that the risk of disaster has increased. When it comes to Trump, what makes me most pessimistic is the problem of climate change. Because of Trump’s presidency, we will waste at least another four years and we can’t really afford that. During all this time, the U.S. will do nothing significant to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. As a result in the future, there will be many more refugees fleeing their homes because of climate change. We’ll see people leaving their countries in Africa because they won’t be able to cultivate their land anymore. I’m not convinced that the worst-case scenario is going to happen, but certainly, there is a risk of it.

Are there any other political developments you find particularly worrisome?
I am worried about the risk of authoritarian right wing governments taking over in Europe or in the United States. Even in Poland, you have a much more conservative government than you have had before, just like in Hungary or Turkey. The consequences of the political right’s rise to power are not only the lack of any actions tackling climate change but also more restrictions on migration, on abortion, and so on.

What are the main reasons of this political retreat from liberal values?
As far as Europe and the United States are concerned, it seems clear that the fear of immigrants played a significant role. It was present during Trump’s and Brexit campaigns, and it has been used by the Polish and Hungarian governments. Right wing politicians are setting alight the flame of intolerance against some groups they can identify as the enemy – this is somewhat reminiscent of the 1930s. But I still don’t think that we are facing challenges as serious as for example Nazism.

Let’s talk about the current migration crisis. Do you think that it is somehow unjust that some European countries, such as Germany, are spending a lot of money on those who manage to come to Europe, whilst there are other refugees far away from here?
Yes, I think it is a problem. At one point, Angela Merkel seemed to suggest that because there is a right to asylum, we shouldn’t really take the number of refugees into consideration. If refugees come to Germany and their claims for asylum are justified, then Germany has to take them all. As a utilitarian, I don’t think that is the case. The crucial question is – how can the country do most good?

And how can we achieve this?
Certainly by taking a significant number of refugees, but I’m not convinced that we can do more good by simply taking people who have managed to set a foot on a given territory. There are other people waiting in refugee camps for years. I don’t see any kind of ethical basis for the idea of giving preference to the people who managed to get to your country. What is more, if you do accept mainly those who are claiming asylum by coming to your country, then others will take those risky journeys across the sea and many of them will drown.

I understand your point but what should we do with those refugees who are already here in Europe – deport them?
Actually, I think it would be a good idea. Of course, we shouldn’t deport them to the war zones but to the UN camps where they will be safe. And then we should start taking refugees from those camps. Only then people may realize that this is the way to get into wealthy countries – being in a refugee camp instead of getting into a boat. I also think that rich nations should increase their financial support for the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees so that the camps would offer people a decent kind of life.

In your book “Practical ethics”, you wrote that we have a moral obligation to accept refugees as long as it does not decrease the general sum of happiness. Is the global North wealthy enough to accept all those who want to live and work here?
All of them? There are more than 60 million of displaced people in the world and almost half of them are refugees. There are too many of them for us to let everybody in without giving rise to nationalist and populist political leaders and I don’t want to see those people getting to power.

Your ancestors also tried to escape from Vienna to Australia – do you support the current controversial migration policy of your own country?
Australia has been very harsh to asylum seekers by sending them to offshore immigration detention facilities. The conditions there certainly should be improved. There are children who have suffered great psychological stress through being there, adults as well. So I don’t support that. But the government’s policy is to not take people who try to come to Australia by boat. As I said, it would be better to take refugees from the UN refugee camps. Recently, there is also an increase in the number of refugees accepted by Australia, but the country still refuses to accept those who come by sea.

You are a supporter of a movement called „effective altruism”. Do you think that bioethicists – given the nature of their profession – are somehow more morally obliged to spend money on humanitarian organizations?
I think that anyone who has money to spare is morally obliged to help people in extreme poverty. Reflection about moral values could be a part of the motivation to live ethically. But I don’t think that bioethicists are more obliged than any other people.

In your opinion, what percentage of personal income should we spend on charity?
I can’t name a figure that applies to everybody. 10 percent could be a good starting point for many people. Some may not be able to afford that much, and they should start at whatever level they can, and then try gradually to increase that amount. But others can afford to give much more than 10 percent. I give much more than that.