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Philosophy Under Fire:
The Peter Singer Controversy
By Dr. Steven Best
 

Peter Singer is arguably the most influential philosopher in the world today. His more than two dozen books include two international best-sellers, Animal Liberation (1975) and Practical Ethics (1979), which have been translated in 15 languages and taught in courses throughout the world. His work played a vital role in shaping the contemporary animal rights movement, and has influenced hundreds of thousands to become vegetarians. He is a leading scholar in the field of bioethics and the world's foremost proponent of utilitarianism. Aside from Jack Kervorkian (to whom Singer often is unflatteringly likened), no one has done more to challenge our long-standing Western views of life and death.

It is no accident that Singer also is one of today's most controversial thinkers. He has been shouted down in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, and is the subject of intense debate and protest in the United States due to his recent appointment to a prestigious chair in bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values. Not since 1940, when New York University tried to hire the atheist and sexual libertine Bertrand Russell, has the world witnessed such furor over the employment of a philosopher. Why all the fuss over a man so soft-spoken you have to lean in to hear? Singer first established himself as a bold thinker with his argument that animals share equal moral status with human beings (and that it therefore is unethical for people to kill and eat them). While many decried his animal liberation perspective, no one ever denounced him as a Nazi or led protest movements against him. Not, at least, until the summer of 1999, when his defense of euthanasia and infanticide for "severely disabled" human beings became widely publicized just as fall classes at Princeton were beginning.

President Harold Shapiro defended the choice to appoint Singer, but a wide gamut of organizations denounced Singer as a "Nazi," a proponent of "hate speech," and a "Dr. Mengele." As Not Dead Yet's president Diane Colman, sees it, "Peter Singer is attempting to establish a philosophical foundation for denying disabled people with the equal protection of the law and killing us for his version of the greater good." Not mincing words, one disabled rights activist branded Singer simply as "the most dangerous man in the world today."

While protestors claim that in hiring Singer, Princeton has violated its own "Commitment to the Community" policy, which demands respect for difference, diversity, and the disabled, Singer insists he is grossly misread, vehemently rejects any analogies between his views and those of the Nazis, and declares that his overriding moral concern has been to reduce needless suffering in the world.

So who is Peter Singer -- a moral monster or a man of compassion? Should his views be embraced as "controversial" and instructive for provoking dialogue on critical issues, or branded as a form of "hate speech" that no community should tolerate? Who is the greater threat to society -- Singer, or those who wish to silence him? Does it make sense to appoint an advocate of animal rights, euthanasia, and infanticide to a chair in a center for "Human Values"? And how is it that Singer defends the moral equivalence of animals and human beings -- thus opposing the killing of animals in almost all cases -- and yet banishes the disabled from the realm of "personhood"?

The key to understanding Singer is found in the utilitarian sensibility and assumptions that form the backbone of his work. Formulated first by 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism holds that the morally best action is that which brings about the greatest amount of pleasure or happiness to the greatest amount of people. This view says that the most important feature of an action is the consequences it brings about, rather than the intention or motivation behind it. Utilitarianism is defined against its major philosophical competitor, known as "deontology," a duty-oriented theory developed by the 18th eighteenth-century philosophy Immanuel Kant. For Kant, the consequences of an action are irrelevant (one can do the right thing for the wrong reasons); what matters solely is the intention of the agent and whether that agent is acting in accordance with reason and moral obligation.

Singer falls squarely on the utilitarian side of this philosophical divide. For him ethics should be rooted in the quality of life, rather than in hypothetical suppositions about is "sanctity" -- on real issues of pain and pleasure, rather than abstract principles of duty and obedience.

In Animal Liberation, Singer follows Bentham's view that, when thinking about the moral status of animals, "The question is not Can they reason? nor Can they speak?' but, `Can they suffer?" Cutting through the tangled web of human prejudices against animals, and the Western idea that reason forms the human essence, Singer argues that the ability of animals to feel pain and pleasure puts them on a plane of moral equivalence with us. Whether or not animals can author treatises on mathematics, they, like us, feel pain, and we therefore have an obligation not to cause them needless suffering. Uncovering irrational prejudices akin to sexism and racism, Singer denounces all forms of what he calls "speciesism," whereby human beings believe they can exploit animals merely because they do not belong to the species homo sapiens.

Singer's critics often fail to note the nuances of his position: in rare cases of substantive necessity in which human beings might have to harm or kill animals (as in some forms of animal experimentation), he grants a moral premium to human beings on the grounds that we are a more complex life form.

Singer's qualifications here foreshadowed his later attempt to distinguish between two different classes of life, not humans and nonhumans, but persons and nonpersons. Defining personhood as the possession of traits like the capacity to feel and reason, self-awareness and autonomy, and the ability to imagine a future, Singer finds cases of humans who are not, by this definition, persons (e.g., the comatose) and nonhumans who are persons (e.g., great apes and possibly all mammals). While all "persons" have (roughly) equal moral status (whether they are animals or humans), Singer values persons over nonpersons. It is this distinction that Singer's critics find so objectionable, not so much because he brings animals into the realm of personhood, but because he reads some humans out of it.

Against the standard Western belief that (human) life is "sacred" -- a deontological notion that each person has an innate value it is the inviolable duty of all others to respect -- Singer's utilitarian position focuses on the quality of a life based on the capacity to experience pleasure, happiness, and self-fulfillment. Life, in other words, is not inherently worthwhile, and some lives are better not being lived at all.

Suppose, for example, that parents knew in advance of a baby's birth that it would be born without arms and legs. In such cases, Singer supports the parents' right to terminate this life. His view becomes more controversial, however, when he argues that the same principle applies up to 28 days after birth. In the case of lives that would be irredeemably difficult and painful, Singer endorses not simply euthanasia of the unborn, but infanticide. What, asks Singer, is the difference between a seriously impaired fetus and a newborn? The mere fact that the latter is alive outside of the womb is trivial for him, since in either case this being has a painful life ahead of it that is not worth living.

Amid the overheated attacks on Singer, it is important to highlight what he is not saying: he does not advocate that the State begin to abort or kill any and all disabled fetuses or newborns; rather, parents, together with their physicians, should have the right to decide whether the infant's life will be so miserable that it would be inhumane to prolong it. Singer clearly is not offering carte blanch on killing babies: He would establish very strict conditions on permissible instances of infanticide, but these conditions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to any intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.

Nor, to be sure, is he bashing disabled people; rather, he wants them to have the choice to die with dignity if their suffering warrants it. He believes that "any disabled person should be supported in trying to live the best possible life that he or she can, as long as he or she wants to. It's certainly nothing against people with disabilities that motivates my position. It's rather a desire to avoid suffering."

But there is another case in which Singer supports infanticide that raises the blood pressure of his critics, one where he brings an impaired newborn into a cold calculation of pain and pleasure and concludes one life-form is exchangeable for another. "When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed ... killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all."

If Singer is trying to overturn outmoded beliefs in the unconditional sanctity of life, his critics argue that he errs on the opposite extreme, in seeing life as disposable when a greater utility (according to his calculations) will result. For Singer's critics, there are two disturbing assumptions here: the fact that for Singer a life can be sacrificed in an effort to bring about a greater good, and that he considers hemophilia, chronic urinary tract infections, and other conditions sufficiently debilitating so as to disqualify their victims from "personhood." Critics might wonder whether teenagers who dispose of their babies in garbage cans have read Practical Ethics, and whether Singer condones their actions. Singer denies that he would. Only in those cases in which it is reasonable to conclude that a child would lead a life devoid of pleasure does he support the right of the parents to terminate that child's life.

Singer's critics seize on what they find to be a suspect and dangerous opposition between person and nonperson to assign each individual to a hierarchy of value. But can we classify people in such a simplistic way? Who is Singer to decide what constitutes "normal" and what makes him think his criteria are foundational and universally valid? Who among us really fit Singer's ideal Ubermensch"? Aren't we all always a bit short of being healthy, rational, self-aware, and future-envisioning?

Is Singer oblivious to the socially constructed and variable nature of categories like "person," "nonperson," "intelligence," and "health"? And to the possibility that parents might come to kill children for increasingly frivolous reasons, influenced by prevailing, ultimately arbitrary social prejudices? In a society organized around consumerism, advertising, mass-mediated identities, and, now, genetic engineering, we are moving all-too rapidly toward a Gattaca-Like world that demotes, demeans, and destroys all groups perceived as inferior. Distinctions such as those Singer draws between "persons" and "nonpersons" are of potential use as a moral compass, but they come with their own dangers.

What alarms Singer's detractors the most is their sense that he is on a dangerously slippery slope, whereby today someone with Alzheimers disease fails to be a "person" and tomorrow someone with a bad memory; today someone in a wheelchair, tomorrow someone with a limp; today kill out of utility, tomorrow out of convenience. Singer believes, however, that we are already on a slippery slope: the moment we allow the termination of a pregnancy or the euthanasia of people with brain damage, we have already stepped from an unambiguous ideal of the sanctity of life down the slope of complexity, uncertainly, and flux.

The concerns of disabled rights activists are eminently understandable, for Singer is shuffling them into, or at least toward, a nonperson category. While it is crude and inaccurate to smear Singer as a Nazi, critics have pointed out that there are alarming parallels between his views and those of the Third Reich, where mentally and physically disabled people were special targets. Despite Singer's protest at these analogies, and his reminders to his audience that three of his grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps, his positions and language often sound like those of a eugenicist.

It is paradoxical that the utilitarian theory, ostensibly liberatory when applied to the domain of animals, has such problematic implications when applied to human beings. Disabled rights activist Sarah Triano says she is "absolutely confounded by the fact that Singer can so brilliantly make an argument for a social model of animal rights, but cannot seem to apply the same logic to disability. Is it impossible for him to imagine that certain humans might actually be subjected to the same kinds of oppression as animals?" If in describing the suffering of animals Singer calls for their liberation, not their euthanasia, why then, Triano wonders, does he advocate killing infants sure to experience suffering in their lives rather than advocate social changes that might minimize their pain?

It seems to many that Singer, having overturned the prejudice of speciesism, Singer creates a new one in its place -- call it (in an equally awkward neologism) "disablism." Disabled rights activists feel that the chauvinism Singer rejects in the case of animals resurfaces in the human realm where he devalues "nonpersons." Many are puzzled by the apparent contradiction of a warm-hearted person who gives one-fifth of his income away to famine-relief groups, and a cold calculator who gives a thumbs down to "nonpersons."

A recent article in The New Yorker shrewdly identified a key contradiction in Singer's approach to ethics. Confronting him with the fact that his own mother was dying of Alzheimer's disease, which rendered her, in Singer's scheme, a "nonperson," but that he had not euthanized her, Singer responded by saying it was "different" in the case of someone he knew and loved, and that he choose to care for her as long as possible, spending copious amounts on health care, albeit on someone doomed to die, rather than giving the money to aid those who could live. "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult." Betraying the abstract viewpoint that is an occupational hazard of the academic, Singer had no problem of prescribing euthanasia to imaginary others, but found it impossible to do in his own case with someone all-too concrete.

The Peter Singer controversy unfolds. Apparently ensconced at Princeton, it will be interesting to watch how he exerts his newly found prominence and infamy here in the United States, and whether or not constructive debates stem from his work and presence. For better or worse, Singer is now one of America's few public intellectuals. May his work help change the moral barriers in the way of ameliorating the suffering of human beings and animals.

 

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