Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Kevin Wong ’17

Toronto • Philosophy View Profile

Thesis Season ... in October?!

Animals, philanthropy and philosophy

Ahhhh, thesis season. At Princeton, it’s a time replete with all sorts of contradictions: the joy of academic discovery coupled with the pressure of an impending deadline; a desire to enjoy the wonderful weather, but with the spectre of an empty Word document looming large. For many a Princeton senior — it is the best of times, it is the worst of times.

These are uncommon sentiments for this time of year, given that Princeton’s thesis deadlines aren’t typically until April or May. As it turns out, however, my thesis is due half a year early, which means I’m in the thick of thesis season right now.

This predicament is of my own making, but the more I think about it, the gladder I am that I’ve opted for this unconventional timeline. I have the enormous privilege of being supervised by the moral philosopher Peter Singer, who happens to spend the spring in his native Australia — hence, the early deadline. But it’s a trade-off well worth a busier-than-normal fall.

If you haven’t heard Singer’s name before, you’ve almost certainly encountered his work. Ethical vegetarianism, the burgeoning effective altruism movement and the celebrated tome "Practical Ethics" – are all the result of his startlingly productive career in the academy. Few philosophers have so concrete an impact on the world, and in a field widely considered the province of armchair theorists, Singer’s work stands out in brilliant relief.

During the past few months, I’ve come to deeply appreciate this practical facet of philosophy. Lost in the stacks of Firestone Library, it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of academia’s purchase on the world. But Singer’s work reminds us that many of our most pressing challenges are philosophical at their heart.

In its current state, my thesis focuses on the intersection of animal ethics and effective altruism, unsurprisingly, two major areas of Professor Singer’s present research interests. Effective altruists are a group of people dedicated to doing philanthropy right; through charitable giving, they hope to address some of our world’s gravest inequities: global poverty, neglected tropical disease and the stunning lack of economic opportunity in many areas of the world. The movement is new, but quickly growing; already, thousands have signed up to give away 10 percent of their income to worthy causes, for the rest of their lives.

What’s exciting about effective altruism is its focus on evidence and measurability. Effective altruists take a calculated approach to deciding where they ought to give: They consider things like how much a particular intervention costs, what kind of benefits a philanthropic contribution will bring about and which people have the greatest need. Often, their conclusions fall out of complicated models that mathematically determine the best giving opportunities.

I’m convinced, though, that this calculus may overlook one of the world’s gravest causes of suffering: the horrors of modern factory farming, which subjects billions of animals each year to inhumane, painful treatment. In my thesis, I’m developing a model that allows meaningful comparisons between human and animal interests, thus allowing philanthropists to think coherently about how to weigh human suffering against that of animals.

I’ll be presenting this work next month at the Symposium on Effective Animal Advocacy, an academic conference hosted right here at Princeton. If you’re around, drop by!