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I Was Wrong About Peter Singer

I have long been a defender of Peter Singer.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not defend Singer on infanticide. Like most people liberals and conservatives alike I reject Singer’s proposition that it can be morally right to kill newborns who happen to be afflicted by retardation, hemophilia, or even cleft palates. And I’m appalled by his claim that there would be nothing morally wrong with a society that chose to breed large numbers of children to be killed in infancy (painlessly, of course) in order to harvest organs for transplantation. Nor do I defend Singer on sexual morality. I reject his claims that there is nothing morally objectionable about people having sex with multiple partners, with animals (so long as the animals are not harmed or made to suffer in the process), and even with corpses.

So on what have I defended Singer?

Despite his views, I have insisted that he is a person of intellectual honesty and integrity. As I go around the country, people frequently ask me what it is like to be his colleague at Princeton. Many people assume that because of his views, he must be a monster. Not so. Despite his repugnant moral opinions, he is to be commended, I have said, for his willingness honestly to face up to the implications of his principles. He knows that his views on infanticide will cause many people to regard him as an ogre or dismiss him as a crank, but he does not shrink from stating them. Nor does he sugarcoat them by suggesting, as some of his defenders do, that his belief in the moral acceptability of infanticide applies only in “extreme” cases of severely damaged infants who are suffering intolerable pain. Nor does he pretend that a principled moral distinction can be drawn between abortion and infanticide. Nor does he hold back from stating the implications of his views about sexual morality, even when the subject is bestiality or necrophilia, Moreover, I have always said, Singer argues in a fair-minded way. He does not resort to smearing his opponents or distorting their views. He tells the truth as he sees it. He does not trade in evasions or half-truths. He possesses the virtue of intellectual honesty.

Or so I thought.

But now I see that Professor Singer has brought shame on himself precisely by an act of intellectual dishonesty. He has written a letter to the editor of The Nation magazine that by deliberately hiding from his readers a crucial fact is designed to lead them into believing something that is not true. As it happens, the letter concerns me. I know the facts and, happily, can document them with email messages between us that I have preserved. Here is the story.<

Recently, The Nation magazine published a cover story entitled “Princeton Tilts Right.” Its author tried to make the case that the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton that I founded and have the honor to direct represents an incursion by powerful conservative interests on academic freedom and other important values. (People can read the article and decide for themselves whether it has any plausibility.) In a subsequent issue of the magazine, Singer’s letter is published together with others reacting to the article. Here is Singer’s letter in full:

Great universities thrive on the contest between deeply opposed positions, so I welcome the presence of conservatives like Robert George on the Princeton campus. For Princeton’s undergraduates, a debate between someone like myself and George on whether human life is sacrosanct would be a stimulating educational experience. What a pity it is, therefore, that it has never happened. On several occasions over the past years, student organizations have tried to set up a debate between George and me. I have always accepted. George has always refused. Which of course makes me wonder: If George thinks it is so important to challenge the liberal hegemony at universities, why won’t he do it in the time-honored arena of a public exchange of ideas before the university community.

Now, that makes me sound pretty bad, doesn’t it? The reader is invited to conclude that I am unwilling to engage Singer in intellectual debate. He always accepts; I always refuse. The reader must be asking, “Why?” A reader might draw the inference that it’s because I’m afraid to engage in a serious intellectual exchange with Professor Singer, perhaps because I lack confidence in my own views or because I fear his formidable skills as a debater. That would be the charitable reading. A less charitable reader might suppose, as Singer’s letter slyly (as we shall see) insinuates, that I don’t really believe in the ideal of intellectual engagement “between people holding deeply opposed views,” by which, as Singer says, “great universities thrive.”

But here is where knowledge of the crucial fact deliberately omitted from the story by Professor Singer has its force. The question was never whether I would engage Singer in serious intellectual exchanges about the profound matters on which we disagree. The question was how our exchanges would be structured to ensure that they were truly academic enterprises, and not entertainments, exhibitions of rhetorical skill, or partisan contests.

On November 3, 2003, Professor Singer and I met for lunch at the Princeton faculty club for the express purpose of discussing how we could best engage our differences in the setting of the university. I explained that given the depth of our differences and the gravity of issues such as killing newborn babies, I did not think much was to be gained by a one-shot gladiatorial debate of the sort that had been proposed by student groups. I proposed what I regarded as a far superior approach, namely, that we teach a seminar together, preferably a graduate seminar (though undergraduates are permitted to enroll in graduate seminars at Princeton I had a dozen or so in the graduate seminar I just finished teaching this past semester). This would give us the opportunity to engage each other in intense discussion every week for the twelve weeks of the semester, as students pressed us and probed the foundations of our arguments. Each of us would be able to assign works that would help the other (and our students) to understand more fully the intellectual bases of the arguments we were advancing on, say, the nature of human dignity and the moral norms pertaining to the taking of human life. Each of us would also, I suggested, assign some of our own writings so that our arguments (stated as reflectively and carefully as possible) could be subjected to critical scrutiny.

Professor Singer agreed to co-teach a seminar of this type as soon as we could find a semester in which we could fit it in with our established teaching obligations. I was delighted. On Thursday, September 15, 2005, Singer sent me the following email message:

Dear Robbie:

I trust this finds you well. You may recall that when we lunched together at Prospect some time ago you indicated that you would be interested in teaching a graduate seminar with me. This would, you thought, be a more fruitful form of exchange than a single debate of the kind that various student groups have tried to set up between us from time to time. At the time, we both had various teaching commitments stretching some time ahead, so this idea of a joint graduate seminar was a distant prospect. But at least for me, the possibility is now coming closer I think we talked about doing it in the fall 06, and that would work for me. Are you still interested? Is that still possible for you?

Best wishes,
Peter Singer

I promptly replied:

Dear Peter:

Thanks for your kind message. Yes, let’s go forward with the seminar. I think it’s a great idea. 06-07 won’t work for me, though, as I’ve agreed to do a seminar with Cornel West on top of my other courses. Could you and I do a seminar together in 07-08? I’d be happy to propose this to my department to be cross listed with the UCHV [that is, the University Center for Human Values, the institute in which Professor Singer holds an appointment at Princeton]. Spring is better for me than fall because I teach Constitutional Interpretation in the fall and it is a large and all-consuming course. [I then go on to discuss some further details about what we might include in the seminar we would teach together.]

Best wishes,

In his letter to The Nation , Singer failed to disclose any of this to his readers. Now, he was careful to avoid saying anything that was literally untrue. Yet by a selective presentation that omitted the most important fact of all, he sought to produce in the minds of his readers an impression that was false. Under that impression, I would likely be regarded as someone who was unwilling to engage in serious intellectual exchanges with people with whom I disagree. Yet, as Singer knew, this is the very reverse of the truth. I am the one who proposed to him that instead of a single debate, we teach a seminar in which we could explore our differences in a context conducive to the most intense and serious scrutiny of each other’s ideas. Indeed, he knew that I was willing to do this not only with him but also with Cornel West. (Professor West will attest that it was I who initiated with him the idea of an exchange of any type, and it was I who invited him to teach a seminar with me. So much for Singer’s sly insinuation that I am someone who is unwilling to engage in serious intellectual exchanges with scholars with whom I disagree.)

Readers may be wondering where the matter of jointly teaching a seminar was left between Singer and myself. On November 17, 2005, Singer replied to my message, saying that he was glad I was still interested in co-teaching the seminar, “but it may not be easy to get the timing right.” He explained that he is currently in Princeton only for the fall semesters and that he spends the spring semesters in Australia. “I’m eager to get the university to extend the existing arrangement. Since we are talking some time ahead, we can wait and see if that happens.”

I’ve been waiting. I have heard nothing further from Professor Singer, but in the meantime the readers of The Nation heard from him. The trouble is that what he chose to tell them was a half-truth evidently designed to make them believe something false. Of course, Singer knew that he could count on some readers of The Nation to be prepared to think the worst of any conservative, including me. Such persons would read his letter and not ask questions. They would draw the inferences that his half-truth invited them to draw, and that would be that. And for those who might ask questions, he could always fall back on the fact that he hadn’t said anything that was literally false. He was even shrewd enough to weave into his letter the claim that it would be undergraduates in particular who could benefit from an exchange between us. That is obviously meant to give him a bit of cover with those who come into possession of the whole truth. He can say, “Well, the seminar that George and I were planning would be a graduate seminar. I didn’t mention it because it is irrelevant to my deep concern for undergraduates. That’s what my letter was about.” I’m content to let readers themselves decide whether this excuses Singer’s deliberate failure to disclose the central truth to his readers.

I agree with Singer that great universities thrive on the contest of ideas. That is why I proposed teaching a seminar with him. That is why I am teaching a seminar with Cornel West. That is why I have frequently appeared in classes and seminars taught by liberal and left-wing colleagues such as Paul Sigmund and Maurizio Viroli to present views that differ from theirs and engage them and their students in serious arguments. That is why I have served on panels at academic meetings and forums around the country with people who reject my positions on the great questions of law and morality of our day but share my belief in the free and open exchange of ideas as the best path to truth. That is why I have sponsored such panels at Princeton under the auspices of the James Madison Program and invited the participation of distinguished scholars and jurists from across the political spectrum. (Our latest guest was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.) That is why I have always sought to structure such exchanges to ensure that they are true academic enterprises, not entertainments or point-scoring contests. But a precondition of the fruitful engagement of ideas in any context is intellectual honesty and fairness. Without it, there is no bond uniting scholars who otherwise fundamentally disagree. Every scholar must tell the truth as he sees it and never fail to disclose crucial facts in order to mislead listeners or readers. When someone omits part of the truth in order to induce his listeners or readers to draw a conclusion that he knows to be false, he breaks the bond and alienates himself from the enterprise of truth seeking that is the defining mission of scholars. This is what Peter Singer has done. I’m afraid there is nothing left on which to defend him.

(Click here to email the author about this item. Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the First Things editorial board.)

In addition to which :

In the 164th edition of the ever-popular section called “The Public Square,” Father Richard John Neuhaus offers lively comment on, inter alia , why non-Christian intellectuals are blind to the social force of Christianity in America, the significance of the passing of William Sloane Coffin, Jr., the pity of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation , the surprising impromptu catechesis of Benedict XVI, Notre Dame’s problems with being Catholic, the dubious friends of Israel, how commentators are skewing the message of the encyclical Deus caritas est , flawed “scientific” measures of the effectiveness of prayer, what Catholic bishops got right and wrong on immigration policy, how to understand the hysteria of Kevin Phillips’ American Theocracy , Orthodox challenges to Catholic piety surrounding the Real Presence, the wrong arguments about capital punishment, the crackup of the Anglican communion, the mischief in the term “theocon,” and what Paul Hollander has taught us about “political pilgrims.” As Father Neuhaus is fond of saying, “When a magazine defines its scope as ‘religion, culture, and public life,’ there is almost nothing of interest that is not fair game.” Isn’t it time for you to subscribe to First Things ?

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