On Practical Ethics
Peter Singer, Gregory Pence & Peter Unger
Letters to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, October 15, 1998

How apt that you should have illustrated Naomi Schaefer's story on me ("Professor Pleasure -- or Professor Death?" editorial page, Sept. 25) with a picture of another person altogether! The incompetence of whoever chose the picture was fully matched by Ms. Schaefer: neither produced a recognizable portrait.

Here is one example of Ms. Schaefer's technique:

"In assessing which lives are pleasurable and which are not, Mr. Singer also accounts for the lives of other creatures in the animal kingdom. 'We should recognize that from the points of view of different beings themselves, each life is of equal value,' he writes. Mr. Singer is not convinced that just because 'a person's life may include the study of philosophy while a mouse's life cannot' that 'one is more or less valuable than the other.' "

This quotation occurs on p.105 of the second edition of my Practical Ethics. The paragraph in which it occurs begins with the words: "Some say that . . ." After further discussion of this view, I go on to say that it "is on very weak ground" and give reasons for rejecting it.

This is not the only example of a gross misrepresentation of my position. Both the heading of the article itself, and Ms. Schaefer's repeated description of me as holding that pleasure is the key criterion for whether a life is worth living, give a misleading account of my views. Again, in Practical Ethics I discuss hedonistic utilitarianism, as I discuss views based on theories of rights, justice, and so on, but I do not myself hold the hedonistic view. Hence when Ms. Schaefer writes, with regard to my views on euthanasia, "Mr. Singer bases his decision . . . on the notion that the overall sum of pleasure will be increased when an unhappy person dies," she is way off the mark. On the contrary, it is the fact that allowing euthanasia will best satisfy the considered preferences of those who are terminally ill that, in my view, makes it justifiable.

In regard to people with disabilities, Ms. Schaefer again gets me wrong when she says: "if handicapped people have lives that aren't pleasurable, Mr. Singer stands equally ready to have them killed." Where people suffering from incurable disabilities are capable of expressing preferences about whether they wish to continue to live, it is their considered preferences that should be decisive, not anyone else's judgment of whether their lives are or are not pleasurable.

There are only two possibilities. Either Ms. Schaefer has failed to read correctly a widely used undergraduate text that has been highly praised for its lucidity; or she has, for reasons I cannot guess, deliberately distorted my work. In neither case does her article do The Wall Street Journal any credit.

These gross misrepresentations aside, it is disappointing that neither Ms. Schaefer nor the anonymous author of your Weekend Journal Review & Outlook comment "Big Man on Campus" (Oct. 2) ever explore the problems which I believe force us to rethink our conventional ethical stance on issues of life and death. Five years ago, the highest court in Britain decided, in the case of a young man named Tony Bland who, as the result of an accident, was permanently unconscious, that his doctors could lawfully act to end the life of their patient, because its continuation was of no benefit to him. Does the Journal believe that Americans should not even discuss such ideas? Or that we should discuss them, but not at Princeton? Or that we should discuss them at Princeton, but only with professors who do not challenge accepted views?

The problem with the last of these positions is that there is no consensus on how we should make critical medical decisions about life and death. Should we use all the forces of modern medical technology at our disposal to keep every human being alive as long as possible, no matter how poor his or her prospects may be? Do your writers have solutions to the problem of how we are to decide which humans, incapable of expressing their wishes, should live and which should die?

Our increased medical powers mean that we can no longer run away from the question by pretending that we are "allowing nature to take its course." In a modern intensive care unit, it is the doctors, not nature, who make the decisions.

To pluck quotations out of context and use them to misrepresent someone comes cheaply; more difficult, but much more valuable, is proposing a coherent ethical approach to a difficult set of issues. Why don't your writers tackle that task?

Peter Singer
Centre for Human Bioethics
Monash University
Clayton, Victoria, Australia


Yes, Prof. Singer does defend a quality-of-life view in ethics and, yes, he does attack the traditional sanctity-of-life view. Ms. Schaefer makes it seem like doing so is unthinkable, even though it is by far the most common view of patients and physicians. For example, in some tragic cases, some human babies are born so impaired that some have argued, including Prof. Singer, that they would be better off dead. What is odd is that the Journal thinks it odd that such a view should be defended in a great university. What is even odder is that, during the Baby Jane Doe case of 1985, the Journal itself editorialized that (according to George Will's column of Nov. 17, 1985) Baby Jane's parents should have been allowed to let their baby die. The Journal then denounced the Reagan administration for "harassment" of parents and physicians and for "expanding the role of Washington in our lives."

Gregory Pence
Department of Philosophy and School of Medicine
University of Alabama
Birmingham, Ala.


Far from being a "somewhat obscure academic," as Ms. Schaefer describes Prof. Singer, this world-renowned Australian may well be the most prominent Professor his country has ever produced; by many measures, he's the most famous and influential ethicist alive. As one of the "experts in the Field of ethics . . . impressed with Mr. Singer," in my report to Princeton's dean, the Nobel Prize- winning physicist Joseph Taylor, I concluded that, as an original and influential moral pioneer, Prof. Singer surpasses any philosopher since Bertrand Russell.

The philosophy Ms. Schaefer attributes to Prof. Singer is like nothing so much, really, as the classical hedonistic utilitarianism of the great, and greatly mistaken, Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). Though they are discussed in many current textbooks on ethics, including Singer's Practical Ethics, Bentham's views aren't advocated by any prominent living moral philosopher.

Still, a mystery remains: How did Ms. Schaefer come to think Singer was a "somewhat obscure academic?" Brought to my attention by a philosopher who knows both Peter Singer and me, the most plausible hypothesis appears this: Ms. Schaefer confused Prof. Singer with me, Peter Unger; not only are our names so terribly similar but, as is well-known in philosophical circles, there's a certain similarity in several of our ethical views. Yet, as the 63 website matches for me on the Internet browser Yahoo! as compared with 733 for Prof. Singer indicates, I am a somewhat obscure academic, with hardly the world-wide impact of a Peter Singer.

Peter Unger
Professor of Philosophy
New York University

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'On Practical Ethics'