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Annual Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture Awarded to Public Philosopher Peter Singer

Influential thinker whose practical ethics provided a framework for animal rights, effective altruism, and the global eradication of poverty

Published on September 08, 2021

Nicolas Berggruen, Chairman of the Berggruen Institute, announced the selection of moral philosopher and public intellectual Peter Singer as the winner of the 2021 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture. The $1 million award is given annually to thinkers whose ideas have profoundly shaped human self-understanding and advancement in a rapidly changing world. The Berggruen Prize Jury selected Singer for his widely influential and intellectually rigorous work in reinvigorating utilitarianism as part of academic philosophy and as a force for change in the world. Through his writings, Singer has helped shape the animal rights and effective altruism movements and has argued for more expansive socio-economic policies in emergency response and the eradication of global poverty.

The announcement was made during an inauguration ceremony for the Berggruen Institute’s newly acquired European center of activity, La Casa dei Tre Oci in Venice.

“Peter Singer has demonstrated the vital role of public philosophy in our world,” said Nicolas Berggruen. “His ideas have provided a robust intellectual framework that has inspired conscientious individual action, better organized and more effective philanthropy, and entire social movements, with the lives of millions improved as a result.”

Self-described as a consequentialist, Singer believes that actions should be judged by their predictable outcomes. His practical arguments are based on rigorous utilitarian reasoning, which views the welfare of strangers as being equally important to that of oneself and one’s own family. His elaboration of this philosophical approach has led toward his taking positions on issues ranging from factory farming to the global system that keeps billions in poverty.

With his influential paper “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (1972), Singer began a body of work on questions of global inequality that extended through books including The Life You Can Save (2009) and The Most Good You Can Do (2015). Each of us, Singer argues, both can and should seek to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty, not just in our own localities or countries but everywhere in the world. These philosophical arguments inspired the movement for “effective altruism.” Singer later founded The Life You Can Save to offer practical guidance for making contributions to global philanthropy. The organization has influenced the Giving Pledge, a philanthropic campaign launched by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.

In Animal Liberation (1975), Singer argued that the pain and suffering inflicted by the current treatment of animals in food production and research is morally indefensible. Once again, Singer went beyond argument to direct action. He co-founded the Australian Federation of Animal Societies, now Animals Australia, the country’s largest and most effective advocate for animals. Working globally, he became a major intellectual force in the modern animal rights movement and related campaigns against factory farming and in favor of vegetarianism.

Peter Singer was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1946, and educated at the University of Melbourne and the University of Oxford. After teaching in England, the United States and Australia, he has, since 1999, been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. With work that has been translated into more than 25 languages and has been incorporated into legislation in many nations, Singer has had a global impact, extending far beyond the English-speaking world.

“I am delighted that my work has been recognized by the Jury that awards the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture, and I thank Nicolas Berggruen for his commitment to honoring those who work in philosophy and the field of ideas,” said Singer. “I will donate half the Prize to The Life You Can Save, a charity I founded to spread the idea of giving to the most effective charities benefiting the world’s poorest people. Over the last three years, each dollar spent by The Life You Can Save generated an average of $17 in donations for our recommended high-impact, cost-effective nonprofits, which do tremendous work improving and saving the lives of people in extreme poverty.”

Peter Singer was selected from hundreds of nominees, including some of the world’s most renowned thinkers in the fields of philosophy, social science, economics, human rights and global justice, theoretical physics, and beyond. As the sixth winner, he joins a prestigious group of Berggruen Prize laureates, including Dr. Paul Farmer (2020), Former Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court of the United States (2019), Dr. Martha Nussbaum (2018), Baroness Onora O’Neill (2017) and Charles Taylor (2016).

“Few academic philosophers have ever had the impact of Peter Singer, who has been selected by the Berggruen Prize jury to receive its 2021 award,” stated Berggruen Jury Prize Chair Kwame Anthony Appiah. “We are pleased to honor Peter Singer as someone whose ideas have helped us find direction, wisdom, and improved self-understanding in a world being rapidly transformed by profound social, technological, political, cultural, and economic change.”

Singer will receive the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture in Spring 2022 in a ceremony to be held in Los Angeles. He will direct half the Berggruen Prize monies to The Life You Save with a significant portion benefitting organizations working to end animal suffering, particularly in factory farming. The work and ideas of Peter Singer will be celebrated in a program moderated by our event partners BBC News World Service.

“Industrialized animal production causes untold misery to tens of billions of land animals every year, and to even larger numbers of fish. It is also a disaster for our climate and provides an ideal breeding ground for viruses that could cause future pandemics,” said Singer.

The final donations will be announced during the Berggruen Prize year of activities and programs, 2021-2022. Singer plans to ask the public to help decide on part of the allocation based on the information about effective charities available at The Life You Can Save and the principles in his book The Life You Can Save, available as a free e-book and audiobook on the organization’s website.

Staff Writer