Faculty Author Q&A: Peter Singer on “Why Vegan?: Eating Ethically”

October 19, 2020

Peter Singer is Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values. His latest book is “Why Vegan?: Eating Ethically,” published by Liveright Publishing.

How did you get the idea for this project?

It wasn’t my idea. I received an email, out of the blue, from Simon Winder, of Penguin UK, saying he’d like to publish a short book of some of my previous published essays focused on one of my ideas. After some discussion, we came up with Why Vegan?  In the UK, Australia and everywhere else outside the United States, it has been published in Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which means that I am in good company — Aristotle, Epicurus, Sojourner Truth, Kropotkin, Nietzsche, Oscar Wilde, Hannah Arendt, Martin Luther King, among others — except that I’m the only one still alive. In the U.S., Norton has published it as a stand-alone volume.

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

Well, as all the essays were previously published, the only writing I did was a new preface, for Norton. Penguin didn’t want it, because it didn’t fit their format – dead writers don’t write prefaces. Apart from that, the only “research” was selecting the essays to include. Some, like my 1973 “Animal Liberation,” from The New York Review of Books, and the first piece I published on that topic, were obvious selections. Others I chose to show my more recent thinking on the impact of diet on climate change and — very recently — on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?

The project has made me sharply aware of the need for a fully updated edition of Animal Liberation. The book has been continuously in print since 1975, and I did fully revise the text in 1990, but after that I simply added new prefaces or postscripts. A complete revision is something I want to do, over the next year or two. 

Why should people read this book?

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. What we eat has an immense impact: on billions of animals, on the climate of our planet, and as we now see, by raising the risk of pandemics, on every aspect of our lives. It is difficult to avoid knowing that it is possible to live without eating animal products, and easier still to shift to a largely, if not exclusively, plant-based diet. Yet habit still plays a huge role in dietary choices, which means, conversely, that many people never examine what they eat through the lens of ethics. Why Vegan? provides that ethical lens, in a form that can easily be read in a single evening.

Peter Singer will be joined by Professor of Religion Andrew Chignell for a livestream discussion of his new book, hosted by Labyrinth Books on December 8, 2020.

Learn more about other recent publications by Princeton University faculty in the Humanities by exploring our Faculty Bookshelf.

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