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Peter Singer

Peter Singer has made a career out of demanding that ordinary people take responsibility for the great power they wield. In a groundbreaking 1972 essay, Singer argued that when middle- and upper-middle-class people fail to donate their money to prevent children in the developing world from starving to death, they are guilty of a moral atrocity. Singer himself gives 20% of his Princeton professor salary to nonprofits, principally Oxfam. To lead an even minimally moral life, he argues, we’re all obligated to give at least that much.

This might be off-putting for those of us whose activism consists mainly of shaking our heads sadly at the misdeeds of presidents and corporate fat cats. Noam Chomsky encourages us to throng the streets of our cities protesting other people’s immoral behavior; Peter Singer tells us we must sacrifice the material privileges of our class if we wish to behave morally ourselves. No points for guessing who has a wider audience among the upper middle class.

The child of Jews who fled to Australia when Hitler’s army invaded their native Vienna, Singer's career has been marked by an obsession with the nature of morality and moral obligation. Ultimately, he narrowed his creed down to two overarching principles: “All beings with interests are entitled to equal consideration” and "If we can prevent something bad without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.”

Most famously, Singer has demanded that we forego the pleasures of our preferred diet. His latest book, The Way We Eat, looks at how our food choices damage other people’s lives. It’s a callback to his most famous work, Animal Liberation (1976), in which Singer posed the most strident philosophical argument for vegetarianism ever penned and single-handedly launched the modern animal rights movement. His bottom line: Sure, you enjoy meat; pleasure and moral integrity often conflict, and as an ethically sensitive person you are now presented with a painful choice. Sucks to be you. Being a good person isn't easy.

Next page: LGBT radical Faisal Alam

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