The Ethicist
Christopher Shea
Princeton Alumni Weekly, January 26, 2005

By the time she was a senior, Lauren Turner ’04 was the self-possessed president of the Princeton Bioethics Forum, an undergraduate group that brings students and professors together to discuss issues like stem-cell research, cloning, and the moral implications of genetic screening for debilitating diseases. She could parse the distinction between life and “personhood” with the best of them, or debate the merits of consequentialism versus deontology. But back in 2001, Turner was just a freshman with a vague interest in bioethics, watching Peter Singer in action for the first time.

Then, 30 or so students were jammed into a seminar room designed for half that many. They were there to see the man who had inspired severely disabled members of Not Dead Yet to barricade administrators inside Nassau Hall the previous year and who prompted Steve Forbes ’70 to noisily snap shut his checkbook to Princeton. Singer, the Ira W. Decamp Profesor of Bioethics, was talking about his views of the moral status of newborns with catastrophic developmental problems, one of the issues that continually get him into trouble with right-to-life groups. In the worst cases, doctors often withdraw medical support and allow such babies to die, but Singer’s question was: Might it not be more merciful to kill them?

Singer didn’t go at the issue directly. “He started out by asking everyone who eats meat to raise their hands,” Turner recalls. “We all had to list the reasons for him why it was ethically OK for us to eat meat.” Tentatively at first but with building momentum, the students proffered reasons for why killing animals was not immoral — why it was different from what Singer proposed.

One student said: Animals are not self-conscious. But Singer pointed out that infants aren’t conscious in the way adult humans are either. Another suggested that animals aren’t part of the social contract, because they lack the ability to reciprocate in ethical agreements. But Singer pointed out that newborns can’t respond to ethical overtures either. “We probably came up with 15 reasons, and reason by reason he crossed them off the board, explaining why our logic failed,” Turner recalls.

“I knew what he was doing, and it frustrated me that, as a freshman, I couldn’t combat that,” she says. “I wanted to know how to combat that — how he was able to use other people’s logic to prove his own arguments. I find that absolutely brilliant.” That year, she started showing up at Singer’s office hours to talk, and, in turn, he started inviting her and a few other students to small dinners at Prospect House whenever a bioethics luminary came through town. “Those dinners were the best example of respectful intelligent dialogue into which I’d ever come in contact,” Turner says. Though she became an English major, she enrolled in his graduate seminar in bioethics.

Five years later — still far from a Singerian, philosophically speaking (“I should note that I disagree with much of what he writes”) — Turner is drafting policy proposals for the Bioethics Advisory Commission of Singapore after winning a Henry Luce Fellowship and considering graduate work in the field.

Evan Baehr ’05 also had a striking first encounter with Singer. A self-described Christian conservative, president of the Princeton College Republicans — and this fall a failed candidate for the Princeton Borough Council — Baehr had a dim view of the man before he met him. “Coming to Princeton as a freshman, I thought, ‘I can’t believe this crazy person is teaching here,’” Baehr says now. “I went into his class, ready to go to war. I wanted to hear the controversy and have him be as monstrous as I heard he was.

“I guess I was let down and relieved at the same time,” Baehr says. “He’s very humble and not nearly as controversial as I thought he was going to be.”

Singer is by an order of magnitude the most famous professor at the University Center for Human Values. He is also, it turns out, the one professor who religiously (or irreligiously, in the case of the atheist professor) attends meetings of the Human Values Forum, where undergraduates convene to discuss everything from racial justice to stem-cell research to the federal financing of the arts.

Baehr is an outspoken member of that group. And so it has come to pass that one of Princeton’s most prominent student conservatives gets along pretty well with the campus’s most famous apologist for infanticide.

When Peter Singer arrived in New Jersey five years ago, recruited from Monash University in Australia, proctors had to escort him around campus and yellow tape warded away visitors from 5 Ivy Lane, which houses his office, out of fear he’d be attacked. Today, he’s simply part of the Princeton fabric. “He’s been a tremendous force on the campus,” says Lee Silver, a molecular biologist who teaches bioethics in the Woodrow Wilson School. Debating the moral worldview of President Bush with the Christian-right journalist Marvin Olasky on the eve of the 2004 Presidential election; inspiring students to start a chapter of UNICEF, a charitable organization that helps the world’s poorest; commenting on the work of the visiting fellows in the Center for Human Values, a group of young academics (including, this year, journalist Robert Wright ’79) who come to Princeton to work on ethics-related projects — Singer is far more than a big name who lectures, leads a precept or two, then heads back to his books.

His encounter with the United States has also led to a widening of his own academic interests, from bioethics to, first, a book on the ethics of globalization, One World (2002), and then an analysis-cum-demolition of the moral worldview of George W. Bush, The President of Good and Evil (2004). (Singer arrived in the United States with a massive manuscript recounting the life of his grandfather, David Oppenheim, a classics scholar who perished in the Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt. After much whittling down, it was published in 2003 as Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. A New York Times reviewer said the book’s “calm, understated prose” and power reminded her of the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro.)

Just as he has become a fixture at Princeton and on the American political scene, however, Singer is taking an antipodean step away: Starting this year, he will teach at Princeton only half-time, spending each spring semester back in his native Australia, where he has three grown daughters. “I love Princeton and I really enjoy my work here,” Singer says, sitting in his airy office. “But on the other hand I love my children and my wife feels the same — and we don’t want to feel that we hardly ever see them.”

One suspects that there are morally traditionalist Princeton alumni who won’t shed a tear to hear that Singer’s time with students will be cut in half. But to focus on the radical places his philosophy sometimes leads him — “over a cliff,” as the New Yorker once put it — misses what he is like as a teacher and campus presence, many students say.

Singer has written or edited at least 30 books – most famously Animal Liberation, a bible of the animal rights movement published in 1975 — and scores of articles, but he is best known for two propositions. The first is that we — we humans — place too much emphasis on protecting human life and too little on preventing suffering among both human and nonhuman creatures. This proposition has two corollaries: Our treatment of animals is often outrageous, since animals can know fear and terror. And our respect for human embryos and fetuses (and sometimes even newborns) borders on the fetishistic, since they cannot.

In an introduction to the essay collection Singer and his Critics (1999), Dale Jamieson, a visiting professor in the Center for Human Values this year, puts the point somewhat glibly: “The character of Singer’s view can be brought out by saying that generally he thinks that you are more likely to do something wrong by killing a healthy pig rather than your severely handicapped infant; and if you are choosing between an early abortion and killing an adult cow, you should probably have the abortion.”

Singer also attempts to undermine the salience of physical distance and community in moral judgments. No doubt you think it would be outrageous to stroll past a child drowning in the fountain outside Robertson Hall. But Singer points out that writing a check to Oxfam or UNICEF causes just as little inconvenience for most Americans as wading into that fountain — and just as directly saves lives. He wants to challenge the intuition that saving a child you can see is morally imperative, while saving the one you can’t is an option to be put off until after you’ve bought the Lexus.

Singer doesn’t claim to be neutral when he teaches Princeton students. “I think for me to pretend that I was neutral would somehow imply that I don’t think that careful reasoning and argument about a particular moral issue is more likely to lead to one outcome than the other,” he says. “That’s not what I think.”

Yet he does not see his classroom role as that of advocate, especially since few Princeton students arrive on campus with experience in making ethical arguments. “I think they come into my class knowing that there are all of these ethical issues about abortion, or how much we should help the poor, or questions about war or euthanasia or stem cells, the environment, the treatment of animals,” he says. “But they tend to say, ‘Well, this is my opinion. That’s your opinion. And I respect your opinion.’ They tend to think there is not much that you can do after that.

“I want to show them that that is not the case. You can demand reasons for positions and you can then examine those reasons. And some positions turn out to be defensible and some turn out not to be defensible. Or they turn out to have implications that you find unacceptable.” (Michael A. Smith, a new hire in the philosophy department, says Singer encouraged him to ensure that the department regularly offered a course exploring various philosophical approaches to ethics — utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, virtue ethics, and the like — so students would be better prepared for Singer’s upper-level Practical Ethics. Smith taught such a course last semester and intends to push for its being offered each year.)

Singer’s personal example is also appealing to a certain type of student. He is a vegetarian of near-vegan strictness who also donates roughly 20 percent of his income to charity (and he is quick to concede his philosophy suggests he should give more). Talk to Singer’s former students and you soon hear anecdotes of vegetarian conversions and spikes, not always sustained, in charitable giving. “He definitely walks the talk, even if you don’t agree with everything he says,” says Page Dykstra, a junior and president of the Human Values Forum.

On a recent Tuesday night, 15 students in Singer’s freshman seminar, Ethical Choices, trickle into a small classroom in Wilson College’s Wilcox Hall. Then Singer himself arrives, a trim man of 58 — he shares President Bush’s date of birth — balding but with a crown of graying hair worn in classic professorial anti-style.

Discussing a visit by Zell Kravinsky the previous week is the first order of business. Kravinsky is a one-time Philadelphia real-estate mogul recently profiled in the New Yorker because of his prodigious — some, including his wife, might say “borderline insane” — charitable impulses. Kravinsky made $45 million buying and selling buildings, then gave all but a tiny sliver of it away. Then, racked that he still wasn’t doing enough for humanity, he donated a kidney at Philadelphia’s Albert Einstein Medical Center, over his wife’s objections — a rare case of an “undirected donation.” The organ, as Kravinsky had hoped, went to a poor African-American recipient who would have died without it.

More of a Singerian than Singer, Kravinsky goes so far as to say people who do not donate their “extra” kidneys are no different from murderers, since the operation carries no worse than a one-in-4,000 risk of death of the donor.

The students aren’t buying Kravinsky’s philosophy of radical selflessness. “I don’t see how our economic system could exist if everyone only helped people besides themselves,” says Lon Johnson ’08. Others point out that Kravinsky could save more lives by making more money in real estate and financing medical research.

Kravinsky had told the class he would consider donating his lone remaining kidney if, say, a brilliant cancer researcher with the potential to save thousands of lives needed one, and several students seize on that admission as exposing the fatal flaw in his worldview. “If you only consider ratios,” asks Sam Fallon ’08, “wouldn’t that imply that if you kill 10 people to save 80, you should do it? And if you don’t believe that would be right, doesn’t that imply that something else is more important than ratios – like human individuality?”

Singer, in a calm baritone, brings the argument back to the case at hand: Kravinsky saved a life by taking a one-in-4,000 chance he himself would die. What’s wrong with that?

“I don’t think my second kidney belongs to me,” says Lauren Tracey ’08. She says it belongs to her brother, and then to her parents, in case they should ever need it. In his own writings, Singer usually challenges this kind of moral favoritism, but he lets it go. Others ask: Should the standard of ethical behavior really be something virtually no one will achieve? After all, the self-abnegating Kravinsky still sees himself as falling far short of the ideal. (Jesus’ injunction to give away all of one’s possessions and live with the poor, much cited and rarely followed, comes to mind.)

After a break, the class comes back to discuss short literary excerpts — bits of Shakespeare, James Baldwin, and Vikram Seth, among others — that illustrate ethical conundrums involving sex and marriage. Is homosexual sex wrong? In choosing a spouse, is it reasonable to choose one’s family’s preferences and stability over passion?

Students often come out of Singer’s freshman seminars and Practical Ethics inclined to make changes in their lives. Field Kallop ’04 and Melanie Wachtell ’04, for example, became vegetarians — Singer’s simple argument is that by doing so one can reduce suffering, particularly in factory farms, at little personal cost — but more significantly, perhaps, they also formed a campus chapter of UNICEF. “We had lunch with him and he said he would give a big speech to kick off the group,” says Wachtell, now at Stanford Law School.

Singer did just that, in McCosh 10, and by the time Kallop and Wachtell graduated, the group was bringing in $6,000 a year, the most of any of UNICEF’s 65 American campus chapters.

Margo Lipman ’05, meanwhile, jokes that Singer was “my first intellectual crush.” When she took time off from Prince-ton not long after taking Practical Ethics, and backpacked through Central America, she toted along Singer’s book Writings on an Ethical Life — in hardback. “I was in a developing country” — Belize, at first — “and I come from a family of relative wealth. Upper-middle class. Middle class by Princeton standards. I asked myself, ‘How ethical am I? How often do I take ethics into account in my everyday life?’ Not so much.”

Now she is looking at graduate programs in agriculture and international development, and considering a career working for nongovernmental organizations, perhaps in Africa. “Everybody likes to think, ‘I’m an ethical person,’ but self-interest enters into the equation in arbitrary ways,” she says. “What’s important in Singer’s philosophy — and now mine — is the lack of boundaries,” Lipman adds. “It’s as bad to have someone dying of hunger in Africa as here.”

For Kai Chan *03, who got his Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology, the ethical self-examination prompted by working with Singer “was actually debilitating, in a sense.” Chan began to give 30 percent of his stipend to charity and grew obsessed about the ethics of each and every ex-penditure of money and energy. “That kind of an ethical awakening — the striving for selflessness — can really undermine the confidence and healthy sense of ego that is so necessary to achieve great things,” he says. He has since backed off a bit — more volunteering, less cash — but still says Singer had “a huge impact on my life.” His work with Singer also led to the publication of two highly technical essays in The Journal of Applied Philosophy on our duties to future generations.

To say the least, not everyone buys the notion of Peter-Singer-as-secular-saint. Four years ago, after a Daily Princetonian headline dubbed him Princeton’s “Moral Mentor,” Matthew O’Brien ’03 retorted in a letter to the editor: “Caring for the poor and rejecting materialism is nothing new. It’s been part of Christianity for the past 2,000 years.” And he continued: “What’s the result of Christian ethics without God? It’s the darker side of Singer – abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.”

In a recent profile in World, an evangelical Christian newsmagazine, Marvin Olasky, its editor, focused only on this “darker” side, holding Singer up as emblematic of “blue state” values. Singer told Olasky he thought necrophilia and bestiality were no doubt unfulfilling, but “not wrong inherently,” so long as pain wasn’t inflicted on another being. And he defended his argument that it might be morally acceptable to kill painlessly a 1-year-old with severe disabilities, though he said he would prefer it if the issue were “raised as soon as possible after birth.”

Some student fans point out that there are alternatives to Singer’s ethics classes, ranging from former president Harold Shapiro *64’s Bioethics and Public Policy to religion professor Eric Gregory’s Christian Ethics and Modern Society. Several student groups have tried to get Singer together on stage with Robert George, the conservative, anti-abortion professor who teaches popular courses on the Constitution and civil liberties, but George has so far declined. “I regret that he’s not prepared to do that,” Singer says. (George, who otherwise declined to be interviewed for this article, responded via e-mail that he dislikes “gladiatorial” encounters between scholarly opponents, which, he said, “do nothing to enhance understanding.” But he said he has discussed with Singer the possibility of co-teaching a seminar.) Other professors express some frustration that Princeton students sometimes seem to think ethics comes down to a choice between Singer and George — “as if there were a simple choice to be made between secular utilitarianism and natural law conservatism,” as religion professor Jeffrey Stout *76 puts it.

“I don’t agree with either of these ‘isms,’” says Stout, who teaches a seminar called Religious Perspectives on Ethics, “so I find it unfortunate when things are framed in this way.”

Singer accepted Princeton’s offer of a job because he wanted to join the conversation about ethics in the United States, and in this he has undoubtedly succeeded. Since his arrival, the New York Times Magazine alone has run three major articles either by him or about him — the most memorable being a first-person piece by Harriet McBryde Johnson, a quadriplegic and disabled-rights activist whom Singer invited into his Practical Ethics class to explain why she thought his views on the killing of disabled infants were so horrifying. “Singer is easy to talk to, good company,” she wrote, recounting her time on the campus. “Too bad he sees lives like mine as avoidable mistakes.” Joshua Geltzer ’05, a Woodrow Wilson School major and winner of this year’s Class of 1939 Princeton Scholar Prize and a Marshall Scholarship, calls the exchange between Singer and Johnson “one of the best academic experiences I’ve had at Princeton.”

Singer’s time in the States has also changed his work. Sitting in on discussions of global warming in the Woodrow Wilson School led directly to One World, his recent book on the ethics of globalization, he says. Those discussions were rife with policy and politics, but Singer explains, “I think that they completely skated over the fact that there’s a real ethical question about the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population, using 30 percent of the atmosphere’s capacity to absorb waste gases.”

“Essentially,” he says, “I see it as one of the wealthiest nations in the world taking from other nations what it has no right to take.”

Given the tenor of Singer writings, one might expect a touch of disdain toward Princeton’s famously wealthy, arguably pampered student body. But if it’s there, he keeps it well hidden. The students in his classes “show quite a lot of idealism, probably more so than you’d find in Australia or Europe.” Even a mention of the Prospect Street scene fails to elicit any indignation: “We all partied a bit in college, I guess.”

He may simply have mellowed with age: His activism is certainly less outré than it used to be. “He hasn’t put himself in a giant chicken coop in Times Square, which is something he did in Australia,” says Dale Jamieson, a longtime friend.

Still, there remains something inescapably paradoxical about Singer’s presence at Princeton. Here, after all, is the man who believes that excess wealth should be donated to the poor — teaching at a university that sits atop a $9.9-billion endowment.

Indeed, the Rutgers philosopher Colin McGinn once delivered what he thought was a death blow against Singer’s conception of our ethical obligations. If humans ought to forswear all luxuries in favor of helping the needy, McGinn wrote, not only would theaters and museums and orchestras disappear, but so would many forms of education: It would be impossible to justify the life of reading and reflection required to become a philosophy professor. Singer’s philosophy of charity, in sum, was not only misguided but also self-annihilating.

Asked about that argument in his Ivy Lane office, Singer doesn’t try to refute McGinn: He says he’s prepared to “bite the bullet.” With 1.2 billion humans living on the brink of starvation, this philosophy professor says: “Perhaps being a philosophy professor is a luxury we should not have too much of.”


Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'The Ethicist', by Christopher Shea