[Note: Since my “On the Square” column today is about Peter Singer, and since few people are aware of how radical and influential Singer is in the field of ethics, I thought it would be worthwhile to dust off this post from last summer to shed some light what he believes.]
To give a representative taste of Singer’s thoughts, I’ve selected a few choice quotes from some of his most popular works. There is always the danger that taken out of context the quotes could be misconstrued, which is why I recommend that whenever possible the passages be read in their original. Taken in context only makes his positions appear even more disturbing and absolutely chilling in their banality.
On the Morality of Necrophilia and Bestiality
While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of “fully consensual” sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine.
For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, “There’s no moral problem with that.” Concerning bestiality (should people have sex with animals, seen as willing participants?), he responded, “I would ask, ‘What’s holding you back from a more fulfilling relationship?’ [but] it’s not wrong inherently in a moral sense.” (6)
On the Sanctity of Human Life
I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in Chapter 6, the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong. As I shall try to show in this chapter, however, this is not something to be regarded with horror, and the use of the Nazi analogy is utterly misleading. On the contrary, once we abandon those doctrines about the sanctity of human life that – as we saw in Chapter 4 – collapse as soon as they are questioned, it is the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, is horrific. (1)
On The Acceptability of Killing Newborn Infants
In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings. We saw in our discussion of abortion that the potential of a fetus to become a rational, self-conscious being cannot count against killing it at a stage when it lacks these characteristics – not, that is, unless we are also prepared to count the value of rational self-conscious life as a reason against contraception and celibacy. No infant – disabled or not – has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time. (1)
On How Killing a Sick Child Can Lead to Happiness
Given these facts, suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a haemophiliac. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child with this condition, are not anxious for him to live. Could euthanasia be defended here? Our first reaction may well be a firm ‘no’, for the infant can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby. The ‘prior existence’ version of utilitarianism sup- ports this judgment. The infant exists. His life can be expected to contain a positive balance of happiness over misery. To kill him would deprive him of this positive balance of happiness. Therefore it would be wrong.
On the ‘total’ version of utilitarianism, however, we cannot reach a decision on the basis of this information alone. The total view makes it necessary to ask whether the death of the haemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the haemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have if the haemophiliac child lives? If they would, is the second child likely to have a better life than the one killed?
Often it will be possible to answer both these questions affirmatively. A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of child-bearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, and then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a haemophiliac.
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. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him. (1)
How Buying a New TV is Like Selling a Homeless Kid’s Kidney
In the end, what is the ethical distinction between a Brazilian who sells a homeless child to organ peddlers and an American who already has a TV and upgrades to a better one — knowing that the money could be donated to an organization that would use it to save the lives of kids in need? (2)
Why Personal Wealth Should be Capped a $30,000 a Year
So how does my philosophy break down in dollars and cents? An American household with an income of $50,000 spends around $30,000 annually on necessities, according to the Conference Board, a nonprofit economic research organization. Therefore, for a household bringing in $50,000 a year, donations to help the world’s poor should be as close as possible to $20,000. The $30,000 required for necessities holds for higher incomes as well. So a household making $100,000 could cut a yearly check for $70,000. Again, the formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away. (2)
[Since Singer makes a salary of six-figure salary, has a trust fund from his father, collects book royalties, owns a house in Princeton, and has an apartment in Manhattan, the professor has plenty to give away. He readily admits, though, that he doesn't live up to the standard that he set for others.]
Why It’s Better to Experiment on Orphans Babies than on Animals
Would the abolitionist be prepared to let thousands die if they could be saved by experimenting on a single animal? The way to reply to this purely hypothetical question is to pose another: Would the experimenter be prepared to perform his experiment on an orphaned human infant, if that were the only way to save many lives? (I say “orphan” to avoid the complication of parental feelings, although in doing so l am being overfair to the experimenter, since the nonhuman subjects of experiments are not orphans.) If the experimenter is not prepared to use an orphaned human infant, then his readiness to use nonhumans is simple discrimination, since adult apes, cats, mice, and other mammals are more aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing and, so far as we can tell, at least as sensitive to pain, as any human infant. There seems to be no relevant characteristic that human infants possess that adult mammals do not have to the same or a higher degree. (3)
Why It’s Better to Experiment on “Retarded” Babies than on Animals
The same experiments performed on nonhuman animals would cause less suffering since the animals would not have the anticipatory dread of being kidnapped and experimented upon. This does not mean, of course, that it would be right to perform the experiment on animals, but only that there is a reason, which is not speciesist, for preferring to use animals rather than normal adult humans, if the experiment is to be done at all. It should be noted, however that this same argument gives us a reason for preferring to use human infants – orphans perhaps – or retarded human beings for experiments, rather than adults, since infants and retarded human beings would also have no idea of what was going to happen to them.
So far as this argument is concerned nonhuman animals and infants and retarded human beings are in the same category; and if we use this argument to justify experiments on non human animals we have to ask ourselves whether we are also prepared to allow experiments on human infants and retarded adults; and if we make a distinction between animals and these humans, on what basis can we do it, other than a bare-faced – and morally indefensible – preference for members of our own species? (4)
Why Killing Babies and Animals is Morally Equivalent
The preference, in normal cases, for saving a human life over the life of an animal when a choice has to be made is a preference based on the characteristics that normal humans being have and not on the mere fact that they are members of our own species. This is why when we consider members of our own species who lack the characteristics of normal human beings we can no longer say that their lives are always to be preferred to those of other animals. In general, though, the question of when it is wrong to kill (painlessly) an animal is one to which we need give no precise answer. As long as we remember that we should give the same respect to the lives of animals as we give to the lives of those human beings at a similar mental level we shall not go far wrong. (4)
The Goal of the Animal Liberation Movement
The aims of the movement can be summed up in one sentence: to end the present speciesist bias against taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals. (4)
How Freeing Animals is Like Freeing American Slaves
Within the animal liberation movement, some forms of direct action have widespread support. Provided there is no violence against any animal, human or nonhuman, many activists believe that releasing animals from situations in which they are wrongly made to suffer, and finding good homes for them, is justified. They liken it to the illegal underground railroad which assisted black slaves to make their way to freedom; it is, they say, the only possible means of helping the victims of oppression. (4)
On Why Bestiality is Not Innately Offensive
This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings. (5)
(1) Practical Ethics, 2nd Edition, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 175-217
(2) “The Singer Solution to World Poverty”, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, September 5, 1999, pp. 60-63
(3) “All Animals Are Equal”, in Tom Regan & Peter Singer (eds.), Animal Rights and Human Obligations, New Jersey, 1989, pp. 148-162
(4) “The Animal Liberation Movement”
(5) “Heavy Petting“, Nerve.com(6) The Blue-state philosopher, WORLD magazine