Controversial Philosopher Questions PM's Ethics
Tom Noble
The Age, July 15, 2004

Only 36 hours back in Australia and Peter Singer - Princeton professor, philosopher and ethicist known for inciting passions and debate - has the Howard Government in his sights.

"I think it's a bit of a joke for the Howard Government to campaign on a moral agenda. Its global stance has been one, quite explicitly, of advancing Australia's national interests, not of taking an ethical approach to the world," he said.

Fresh from releasing a book on the ethics of US President George Bush, Professor Singer said Australia's support of the war on Iraq had been that of a cheer squad member for "the most unilateralist American administration we've had for many years".

"I think we need to put ethics back into our global stance, our international policies and, of course, the community and the schools," he said.

"It's about being concerned for the wellbeing of everyone and, in particular, those who are worst off in our community and in the world as a whole."

This includes asylum seekers, he said. "That's an area where the Howard Government cannot hold its head up high and say, 'We have taken an ethical stance here'. They clearly haven't in many respects."

Professor Singer is in Australia for five weeks to visit family and present a series of talks.

A professor by 30, he was appointed professor of bioethics at Princeton University in 1999, after 21 years at Monash University.

On his first day at Princeton, police arrested more than a dozen demonstrators, some in wheelchairs, who tried to block the controversial professor's entry in protest at his arguments for abortion, euthanasia and the destruction of disabled children. "It was a lively beginning," Professor Singer said.

His book on Mr Bush was inspired by the President's address to the nation on stem cells research, made weeks before the New York terror attacks of 2001.

Professor Singer sought to scrutinise Mr Bush's ethics and the result - The President of Good and Evil - spent time on The New York Times bestseller list.

In his early research, Professor Singer found an uncanny coincidence - both he and Mr Bush were born on July 6, 1946.

His five years in the US had allowed Professor Singer to identify religion, in politics and society, as a key difference between the countries.

"Religion plays a lot stronger role in America and in American politics," he said.

"Bush plays to that in many ways with his talk of good and evil and has blurred the line between religion and the state. That colours a lot of American politics and will be quite crucial in the coming election."

Professor Singer believes genetic technology will have a profound impact on society in the years to come, particularly the genetic testing of embryos, which is now done to avoid devastating disease.

"Our ability to discover more and more about the genetics of our future children is going to be very significant," he said. "Eventually it may be used for enhancement selection - for selecting the best embryo on a specific set of abilities that we can identify as being genetically influenced."

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Controversial Philosopher Questions PM's Ethics', by Tom Noble