Philosopher: Peter Singer
Singer's parents were Viennese Jews who escaped the Anschluss to Australia in 1938. His father became a successful importer of coffee and tea, his mother practised medicine. Singer was born in 1946 in Melbourne, and went to Melbourne University, where he studied law, history, and philosophy, graduating in 1967. Having received an M.A. in 1969 (with a thesis on "Why should I be moral?"), he went on a scholarship to University College, Oxford to do the B.Phil., which he took in 1971. He was Radcliffe Lecturer at University College from 1971 to 1973, during which time he worked on a thesis under R.M. Hare on civil disobedience (published as his first book, Democracy and Disobedience, in 1973).
From Oxford he went to teach at New York University for sixteen months, during which time he researched and wrote his second book, Animal Liberation (1975). He then returned to Melbourne where, apart from numerous visiting appointments around the world, he's stayed . first as Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University, then from 1977 as professor of philosophy at Monash University. Since 1999 he's also been Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Centre for Human Values, Princeton University.
Not only are Singer's philosophical interests confined largely to the fields of ethics and politics, but even within those fields he's almost solely interested in practical problems such as abortion, euthanasia, and our treatment of animals. Despite this (or, perhaps, because of it), he's one of the best-known of modern philosophers, and certainly the most controversial. His greatest influence has been in the field of animal ethics.
His 1975 book Animal Liberation sets his agenda. In it, he argues that although human beings have a long history of mistreating animals, there is no moral justification for such behaviour. At the heart of morality is the wrongness of causing unnecessary suffering, but suffering doesn't come in different qualities, only some of which are morally relevant; we can't condemn the pain caused to members of one species while condoning the pain caused to members of another, any more than we can do so for difference races or sexes. The fact (in so far as it is a fact) that non-human animals lack our intellect and our moral understanding is irrelevant here; it's no more right to make a dog suffer than it is to do the same to a human imbecile or new-born baby.
The book contains not only philosophical argument, but also a great deal of evidence concerning such issues as animal experimentation and factory farming. What it doesn't enter into is the theoretical basis of his moral position, though his references to and quotations from Jeremy Bentham indicate the relevance of Utilitarianism; what makes an action morally wrong is its harmful consequences, the pain that it causes. He makes this Utilitarian foundation of his views more explicit in later works.
Singer's book had a tremendous effect — not only on individuals, bringing many people, philosophers and non-philosophers alike, to vegetarianism, but also on society. We now take the notion of animal liberation for granted as a respectable moral cause; when Singer was writing, it was widely seen as the concern of eccentrics and little old ladies with too many cats.
Life and death
Singer's notoriety stems mainly from his conclusions concerning abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. He argues that, although they can suffer, the unborn, infants and severely disabled people lack the ability to plan and anticipate their future; it's therefore morally permissible under certain circumstances, to end their lives. The proviso is important, as is his careful distinction between what should be said about voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Singer offers full and rigorous arguments for his various moral positions, but instead of debating the issues with him, many of his opponents (including, unhappily, some philosophers) prefer rhetoric, polemic, and even physical abuse. He has been accused of holding Nazi or near-Nazi views, and campaigners have tried to have his lectures and even academic appointments cancelled (and have sometimes succeeded; see, for example, "On being silenced in Germany", the appendix to his 1993 edition of Practical Ethics).
When opponents do address his arguments, they often do so on the basis of distorted and oversimplified versions — which is especially odd, given that he is one of the clearest of philosophical writers, with much of his work being aimed specifically at a lay readership. In researching the links given below, I found among the plentiful supply of on-line material expressing views critical of his position nothing that either avoided childish insult, gross misrepresentation of his position, or the use of journalistic rhetoric in place of argument. In the philosophical literature, of course, one can find proper debate; no philosopher, no matter how brilliant, gets it all right all the time. Perhaps it's a measure of Singer's success in offering strong arguments for his views that his opponents are forced to fight dirty rather than meting him in fair debate.
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