Bespectacled, balding, and thin, the Australian scholar Peter Singer has the looks of a stereotypical college professor. You would never be able to tell simply by his unassuming persona that his mind holds some of the most controversial ideas in American academia.
Singer has spent a lifetime justifying the unjustifiable. He is the founding father of the animal liberation movement and advocates ending “the present speciesist bias against taking seriously the interests of nonhuman animals.” He is also a defender of killing the aged (if they have dementia), newborns (for almost any reason until they are two years old), necrophilia (assuming it’s consensual), and bestiality (also assuming it’s consensual).
If he were a high school teacher, one might expect his views would raise parental concerns about his fitness to instruct on matters ethical. But Singer is a college professor, and so must wait the three months between high school graduation and college to begin proffering his worldview to students beginning to form theirs.
Academic ivory towers are increasingly tolerant of psychopathy masquerading as philosophy, which accounts for the Australian philosopher’s appointments at elite universities on three continents. He currently is the DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values.
Despite the fact that Singer champions an incoherent and inconsistent philosophy—he’s the Ivy League equivalent of Ayn Rand—he’s been eerily influential. He has served as editor for prestigious philosophy journals, appeared on numerous television programs, and even penned the entry on ethics for Encyclopedia Britannica. The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had “more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell,” and The New Yorker called him the most influential philosopher alive. His most dubious distinction, though, may be his inspiration of animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk to start People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). (The next time you see a celebrity posing nude to raise awareness about the dignity of chinchillas, you’ll know who to blame.)
Perhaps this unwarranted notoriety is why so many otherwise serious people—including far too many Christians—feel that Singer must be treated as a formidable thinker. The University of Oxford even held a conference last month called “Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer.” Had the conference title ended with “In a Bout of Zulu Stick Fighting” it might have worth attending. Instead, it offered the usual tropes of academic politics—engaging in conversation “at once charitable and candid with other traditions of religious and philosophical thought.”
The Guardian reports that the dialogue “was striking for its agreements, particularly the common cause that can be made between Christians and utilitarians when tackling global poverty, animal exploitation and climate change.”
However, it was on the last issue that the conference demonstrated real philosophical interest too. Singer admitted that his brand of utilitarianism – preference utilitarianism – struggles to get to grips with the vastness of the problem of climate change. Further, there is an element that comes naturally to Christian ethics that his ethics might need in order to do so. It has to do with whether there are moral imperatives that can be held as objectively true.
Climate change is a challenge to utilitarianism on at least two accounts. First, the problem of reducing the carbon output of humanity is tied to the problem of rising human populations. The more people there are, the greater becomes the difficulty of tackling climate change. This fact sits uneasily for a preference utilitarian, who would be inclined to argue that the existence of more and more sentient beings enjoying their lives – realising their preferences – is a good thing. As Singer puts it in the new edition of his book, Practical Ethics: "I have found myself unable to maintain with any confidence that the position I took in the previous edition – based solely on preference utilitarianism – offers a satisfactory answer to these quandaries."
One of the most “charitable and candid” things that can be said about Singer is that he may not truly believe some of his arguments’ conclusions. His decision to scrap his entire philosophical stance because it interferes with his views on climate change is just, one supposes, “Singer being Singer.” Tossing out a controversial premise but refusing to follow it to the rational conclusion is his modus operandi. It’s as if he enjoys the gasps of horror heard while he gives a sly wink that signals even he is not outlandish enough to believe such nonsense. For example, Singer has claimed that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person.” He later adds that this doesn’t mean that it’s all right to kill such a child. Killing a child, in his view, is only wrong inasmuch as it offends and hinders the wishes of its parents.
He also advocates euthanizing victims of dementia, since their care requires resources better used for more worthy purposes—perhaps honoraria for speakers at a conference on euthanasia. But when Singer’s own mother was stricken with Alzheimer's, he claimed her situation was “different”: “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult.”
What makes Singer not just controversial, but dangerous, is that he is allowed to clear a path for those who will not be so squeamish about following his arguments to their logical conclusions. Singer may now, at the mature age of 65, finally be adopting a view of morality that most of us learned in kindergarten. But other preference utilitarians may not be so flexible—or as hesitant to act on their beliefs. By treating Singer’s irrational, immoral, and psychopathic views as if they were positions held by reasonable people, we are helping to normalize anti-rational ethics.
A couple of weeks ago I argued that those who make excuses for Ayn Rand are creating a climate in which gullible people who don’t know better may fall under her spell. “Are we willing to be held responsible,” I asked, “for pushing them to adopt an anti-Christian worldview?”
Some of the same people who nodded in agreement at that sentiment will now sputter that Singer must be held to a different standard. But why is that the case? It can’t be because his philosophical views are worth taking seriously—even Singer seems to recognize that his premises often lead to untenable conclusions. Why then do his academic peers treat him as an intellectual and philosophical equal?
In the past, some people thought he was a person whose ideas needed to be challenged (for example, Fr. Neuhaus debated Singer in 2002). However, it has long since become evident that Singer is neither intellectually honest (see the post below by Princeton professor Robert P. George) nor worthy of engaging. I suspect that many Christians who still consider him to be a thinker rather than an entertainer do so simply out of fear of being unpopular.
Too many Christians in academia are worried that if they dismiss Singer as unworthy of serious consideration, they’ll find themselves on the margins of academic life. While they safely ignore the cranks on the fringe—racial supremacists, anti-Semites, Objectivists—they feel compelled to respect a man who holds views that, if realized, would make Saddam Hussein look benign. Would his peers treat him so if he held tenure at Podunk State rather than the alma mater of James Madison, John Rawls, and Brooke Shields?
While it is necessary to consider and debate unpopular views, there should be a minimum standard for ethical discourse whether on the elementary playground or in the lecture halls of Princeton. There are certain moral issues that are all but universally recognized as self-evidently wrong by those in possession of rational faculties. Rape is wrong, torturing babies for fun is objectively morally bad, and the Holocaust was not just a violation of utilitarian ethic, but an event of grave moral evil. If someone cannot meet this basic requirement, they can safely be ignored, regardless of where they received a paycheck.
For far too many years, Singer’s ill-conceived sophistry has been considered and debated by some of our country’s best minds. It’s time to end such silliness. Let’s assign a sophomore philosophy student to rebut his arguments and the rest of academia can move on to squashing the bad ideas being championed by morally and intellectually serious people.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
The Guardian, Without belief in moral truths, how can we care about climate change?
Marvin Olasky, Blue-state philosopher
Richard John Neuhaus, A Curious Encounter with a Philosopher from Nowhere
Robert P. George, I Was Wrong About Peter Singer...
Joe Carter, The Wit and Wisdom of Peter Singer