A chat to Peter Singer about veganism, Paul Simon and Melbourne’s coffee boom

A chat to Peter Singer about veganism, Paul Simon and Melbourne’s coffee boom

Words by Fergus Neal

We chat to revered philosopher Peter Singer in episode six of Beat’s Ferg Goes Live podcast.

Peter Singer AC might be a philosopher you’ve vaguely heard of alongside Socrates and Montaigne… but he’s perhaps the reason veggie burgers exist and is the direct lineage of Melbourne coffee royalty.

A professor of bioethics at Princeton University, Singer was ranked number three on GDI’s ‘world’s most influential contemporary thinkers’, and is the best-selling author of books such as The Most Good You Can Do, Ethics in the Real World, and the seminal Animal Liberation which spawned the worldwide vegan movement.

Singer’s Austrian parents immigrated to Australia from Vienna in 1939 when they fled Jewish persecution and landed in Melbourne. Money was scarce but in a moment of ingenuity, Singer’s father decided to start a coffee-import business, the first of its kind in the city, and in doing so prophesied the Melbourne culinary culture that seems so inherent to the city today. When asked if his father is responsible for all the delicious coffee along Brunswick Street, Singer can’t hold in a giggle.

“That probably gives him more credit than he deserves,” says the philosopher. “But it is true that before the war he had been involved in the coffee business in Vienna. When he came to Australia and said he wanted to start a coffee-import company people said, ‘You’re nuts, we don’t drink coffee we drink tea. That’s the Australian drink’.

“But he persevered. There are articles he wrote for The Australian Grocer telling people how to make a good cup of coffee and not to use coffee essence which people then bought. He told Australians to get real coffee and to ground it freshly, so he had some role in that. But I would say had it not been for the big influx of Italians in the 1950s he would not have succeeded.”

Singer has a high level of popularity regardless of people’s class or education, in a sense he has striven to make philosophy mainstream. This is done through his successful lecture tours, riveting performances on TV programs such as Q&A, and a view that philosophy should be comprehensible to people who are not philosophers.

“It’s an unfortunate thing. People write for their colleagues and their peers without trying to connect to a broader audience. There’s a lot of pressure to write the kinds of things that your academic colleagues will think highly of.

“There are far fewer rewards for writing things that the general public can read. But I think conveying important ideas in language that anyone can understand ought to be something that is valued by academics everywhere.”

The biggest laugh ever heard emanating from Singer might have occurred when asked what his favourite song is to kick back and relax to while having beers with mates before the triple j Hottest 100.

“A lot of my tastes go back a long way. I grew up with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, I still think their stuff is great. I was a Blondie fan for a while, I think that’s got a great beat to it. I like a song that makes you think.

“Paul Simon, who incidentally became a friend while I was living in America. I was a huge Simon and Garfunkel fan in my youth and happened to meet him at a dinner through his interest in philanthropy and we got along well.”

Listen to episode six of Beat’s Ferg Goes Live podcast below: 

Ferg Goes Live is now available via Spotify and Apple.

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