There were tons of Peter Singer fans in the house. They were soaking it up; I was typing madly, trying to get it all. And here it is, as faithfully as I could reproduce it.
The theme of Singer’s talk could be: The Expanding Circle. He started with this quote from W.E.H. Lecky:
At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.
This expanding circle of concern for the welfare of others is very encouraging. We’re seeing a decline in violence. We are currently more peaceful, and less cruel than at any other point in human history. (Singer mentioned Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, which has been on my list for a while.) It may seem like there’s too much violence, and there is, but compare today to paleolithic times, when an estimated 1 in 7 human deaths were due to violence at the hands of other humans (based on markings of weapons on bones and other forensic clues). At one point, the Aztecs were sacrificing 5% of their population (cf Europe at its worst – 3%).
Why is violence less prevalent and less acceptable? One reason might be the trigger for the Enlightenment — the printing press. As the communication of ideas became cheaper, people began to criticise injustices, including torture, despotism, and slavery. Duelling became less common. People began calling for gentler and kinder treatment of animals.
There’s also been a rise in the awareness of the rights of women, children, gay people, and animals. Imagine this ad from the 50s running in a magazine today.
Singer likens this trend to an escalator. An escalator of reason. You start reasoning to advance your own interests, but then it can take you where you didn’t expect to go. you could fight the escalator and run the other way, but we generally don’t. We stay on the escalator of reason. However, in addition to our increased capacity for reason, we need to add empathy.