Photo: Clarissa Bonet_City Space /

Urban altruism

An interview with moral philosopher Peter Singer on human altruism and its connection to inhabitable space

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An interview with Peter Singer

An interview by Alina Petrakova

Altruism is a phenomenon that regularly occurs in social space and affects our everyday lives, but it is something we do not normally put much thought in on a daily basis. Would we feel the urge to help more people if we were placed in different urban life conditions and reminded more often by our city about the importance of being there for our neighbors? If altruism was more widespread, could we feel safer in cities where we live and that we visit? Would people who are now surviving in harsh conditions have more opportunities to develop their settlements and cities? Peter Singer helps us to get a better understanding of human altruistic behavior, its development through time, connection to inhabitable space and sheds some light on the possible antidote to consumerism.

Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher. He is currently a Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and a Laureate Professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He approaches ethical issues from a utilitarian perspective and specializes in applied ethics.
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Professor, you study moral blindness. Could you please explain what it is and how it was created?

Moral blindness is something that has evolved because of the situation in which our ancestors, both human and non-​human primates lived. And we evolved in small groups… perhaps groups of between one or two hundred people, where we knew every individual. So we developed moral responses to helping other individuals we knew in our group, but we didn’t develop any kind of positive attitude to helping people in other groups.

Over the last couple of years we have lived in larger societies, and have only recently got the opportunity to help complete strangers far away due to new technologies. The problem is that we haven’t really developed moral emotions that would support us in helping strangers, helping people who are distant from us. The consumer society focuses on personal consumption, status, things of that sort, because people can take advantage of those desires in order to profit.

What effect do bigger cities have on people’s behavior?

In smaller cities, even though there might be many thousands, it is still possible to meet someone and have a long term relationship with them, help them today, and they’ll help you tomorrow. In bigger cities you encounter a stranger you can help, and there is a very small chance that you’ll meet them again, so we don’t have those kinds of responses.

People think that everything is going downhill, but on a larger scale we are making progress

Perhaps one way of stimulating people would be to create spaces in which they do get to know each other and meet each other, like small neighborhoods. In Life and death of great American cities Jane Jacobs talks about a lively Italian neighborhood where you go to buy food in a small grocery store. This preserves that sense of small community where you know those people. I think now this is less the case, partly because those small stores have been replaced and partly because half of the people on the streets are tourists. New York would be a classic example of how to preserve that sort of idea. Now that’s one way. I don’t know if there’s another way and that’s something I’m interested in doing in my work in which I advocate altruism to strangers.


Photo: Clarissa Bonet_​City Space /​lenscratch​.com/​2012​/​11​/​c​l​a​r​i​s​s​a​-​b​onet/​

Do you think we are heading in a positive direction?

I’m reasonably positive about the direction that we’re going. I know a lot of people find that surprising because the headlines are always about something bad happening. People think that everything is going downhill but, on a larger scale we are making progress in reducing, for example, the number of deaths of children under five of poverty. For 25 – 30 years it has been pretty steadily going down. So that’s good news.

I think we are making some progress, but nobody can be sure of the kinds of directions we’re going in. More people have achieved a reasonable level of security, that is, they’ve got enough income for themselves. They know that if they get sick there’s a state health service that will look after them reasonably well, that they won’t starve in their old age because of some sort of social security. Those people, I think, will find it easier to be altruistic if they look for a purpose in their life. Helping others, volunteering, being altruistic may be something that they reach towards.

How can technology be used to inspire altruistic behavior?

There are a lot of ideas out there​.It could be that every time you use your credit card to buy some luxury item, you get a message on your cell phone that reminds you about this or suggests that you donate a similar amount to some charity.There are a few ideas that are around that people have talked about. Basically, sending reminders like programs that would measure how well you’re doing in living a good life from that point of view.

How can we think about the preferences of people who haven’t been born yet?

It would be quite wrong of us to ignore or even to discard the interests of future generations. Assuming that there will be some future generations as we can all hope, I think that their interests will count as much as ours. If we think there’s some uncertainty about that, if we think that somehow our species might become extinct or also life on earth might become extinct. Then it’s reasonable to discount the interests of future generations by the degree of uncertainty about their existence.


Photo: Clarissa Bonet_​City Space /​lenscratch​.com/​2012​/​11​/​c​l​a​r​i​s​s​a​-​b​onet/​

People are consistently failing at what they set out to do. In this context, do you think we assume that our own preferences are the ones of the future generations and it is moral from our side to imagine a long way into the future?

I think we should try to keep options open for the future. One of the arguments for preserving endangered species, and preserving historical and cultural monuments is that if we don’t, we have closed off that option for future generations. It is far harder to predict what they will value. But keeping options open for them is clearly very important. We have to realize that needs will change, technology will change. So you’re always going to make mistakes. Take things around this university for example: tables have these little holes in them so that you could plug your cables in. That was only around for a few years when Wi-​Fi made it irrelevant. So, clearly, you can’t predict the way technology is going to go. Some mistakes are just going to be inevitable. Some of the basic things about human nature and about the things that what are fundamental human needs, I wouldn’t see this changing in quite some time.

What would be your advice to future urban planners?

Create cities that meet human needs and not only for the people that are living in them at the time, but also that meet the needs of others worldwide. Cities with a sustainability aspect in them, those that try to create better societies in which people are more aware of the needs of others both near to them and those that are far away.

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