Cover Story: Peter Singer
Bob Abernethy
Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, September 10, 1999

BOB ABERNETHY: Now the controversial, for some shocking and threatening, ideas of Peter Singer. Singer is a world-renowned Australian philosopher who specializes in the ethics of life and death. Next week, he begins work as a professor at Princeton University, and his appointment there has provoked strong reactions.

On the eve of the new academic year, the serenity of the Princeton campus is misleading. Photographers, reporters, and demonstrators have been drawn here because of this man, Peter Singer, appointed this year to a prestigious chair at Princeton's University Center for Human Values. Singer has triggered controversy and protests because he denies that human life is sacred and argues that under certain circumstances, it would be moral to kill a newborn child.

Professor PETER SINGER (Princeton University): There are some disabled infants born with conditions so severe that doctors don't really try to keep them alive. They allow them to die essentially through benign neglect. But that can be a very slow process. In my view, if that decision is justified -- and I think it can be -- then with the consent and support of the parents, and only then, I think it would be justifiable to help that infant to die; in other words, to take active steps to end that infant's life more swiftly and more humanely.

ABERNETHY: Professor Singer believes that what defines and gives value to a person is not his or her intrinsic nature or having been made in the image of God, but the possession of certain specific qualities. Singer says newborns are not yet rational or self-conscious enough to qualify as persons; therefore, if the parents agree, in cases of severe disability, they can be killed.

Prof. SINGER: A human being doesn't have value simply in virtue of being a human; that is, just belonging to the species "Homo sapiens" isn't enough.

ABERNETHY: Singer also thinks whether an act is moral depends on its consequences, whether it best advances the interests of everyone involved. So to reduce the suffering of both children and parents, again only if the parents concur, Singer would permit infanticide in cases of spina bifida, Down's syndrome, and hemophilia. One reason Singer has reached these conclusions is that he does not accept the sanctity of human life.

Prof. SINGER: I don't believe in the existence of God, so it makes no sense to me to say that a human being is a creature of God. It's as simple as that.

ABERNETHY: One of Singer's strongest critics is another Princeton faculty member, Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence, who insists all human beings have a fundamental right to life, regardless of their age or qualities.

Professor ROBERT GEORGE (Princeton University): When we have agreed that it's all right to kill certain human beings because we think they're not fully rational, they're not fully developed, or they have some defect or retardation, once we've decided that, we've lost the only logical principle we have, the only warrant we have for believing that human beings have fundamental rights that deserve protection and respect, that they must always be treated as ends in themselves and not as a means to other people's ends.

ABERNETHY: The handicapped have been quick to protest other events they see as threatening, and they plan a demonstration against Singer. In fact, Singer strongly advocates more help for the disabled. Nevertheless, many of them fear if Singer's ethics had been applied when they were babies, they might have been killed. Mary Jane Owen is blind, partially deaf, and unable to walk. She heads the national Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities.

Ms. MARY JANE OWEN (Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities): At core, we're all at risk. When we start making those kind of judgments -- I don't care if they're babies, I don't care if they're young children, I don't care if they're old people -- when we make those kind of judgments, then I think that we, as a civilized society, have faced the end.

ABERNETHY: In Western Europe, especially in Germany, Singer's ideas about taking life have recalled the Holocaust and Hitler's practice of eugenics. Singer's European critics have prevented him from speaking. That his views should be compared to those of the Nazis seems to Singer a grotesque irony.

Prof. SINGER: I mean, I find the charge of some link with Nazi policies particularly offensive because my family suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis. I mean, three of my four grandparents died in Nazi camps, and my parents had to flee for their lives to Australia.

ABERNETHY: In his many books and articles, along with ideas that offend religious believers, Singer also preaches the golden rule, and especially the goal of reducing suffering.

Prof. SINGER: Some of these issues that I've talked about that have been controversial really all stem from this idea that we should reduce the amount of suffering in the world if we can do so.

ABERNETHY: So Singer advocates, among other causes, animal liberation. He says animals can feel pain just as humans do, and for humans to cause them to suffer in medical research and food production is a form of cruelty he calls speciesism and judges as bad as racism.

Prof. SINGER: Animals can feel. They have interests. There's no reason why we should give less consideration to their interests than we give to similar interests of our own.

ABERNETHY: Practicing what he teachers, Singer himself is a vegetarian, arguing that a diet of greens, tofu, and other nonanimal food is not only healthy and economical but moral. For the same reason, to reduce suffering, Singer thinks the poor of the world deserve much more generous help from the rich, and he gives a fifth of his income to international relief. As Singer begins his work at Princeton, he knows that whatever else he supports, his views on infanticide have made him a lightning rod, for he asks this question: "If bombing civilians in war is all right, if abortion and assisted suicide are permitted, why is killing a severely disabled infant fundamentally different?"

This term, Singer will teach a graduate course at Princeton called "Issues of Life and Death." A demonstration against his appointment is planned for Tuesday, September 21.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Cover Story: Peter Singer', by Bob Abernethy