April 10, 1999
Princeton's New Philosopher Draws a Stir
By SYLVIA NASAR
ot since 1940 when City College tried to hire an atheist and advocate of free love, Bertrand Russell, has the appointment of an academic philosopher by an American university created such a commotion. The choice of Peter Singer, a world renowned animal rights advocate, for a chair in bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, has agitated the genteel college town as well as the field of bioethics.
Editorialists have compared Singer's hiring to that of a Nazi. A writer in The Wall Street Journal accused Princeton of "jettisoning . . . the understanding of man's dignity that has defined Western civilization for two millennia."
What has prompted such comparisons is Singer's defense, in certain circumstances, of euthanasia not only for terminally ill adults but also for severely disabled infants. Rejecting traditional moral absolutes on which American law and the Judeo-Christian tradition are based, Singer argues that "no conclusions about what we ought to do can validly be drawn from a description of what most people in our society think we ought to do."
In many ways the controversy over this 52-year-old professor is not just about a single university appointment; it also reflects deep divisions and even deeper anxieties over ethical decisions being made every day in clinics and hospitals.
Despite his obviously inflammatory ideas, Singer is not easily categorized. "The most dangerous man in the world today," as he was labeled by one disabled-rights activist, has an Oxford degree, a prodigious record of scholarly and popular publications, and a list of good works that includes founding the International Association of Bioethics, leading the great ape project to protect chimps and gorillas, and annually giving one-fifth his income to famine relief agencies. Not to begin teaching ethics at Princeton until the fall, Singer, the father of three children, is in Australia campaigning against the sale of eggs laid by cooped-up (as opposed to free-range) chickens and writing a biography of one of his three Viennese grandparents who perished in the Holocaust.
Princeton chose Singer, who currently teaches at the University of Melbourne, after a yearlong search that involved three committees of scholars from disciplines as disparate as molecular biology, Slavic studies, religion and economics, as well as 19 outside experts from around the world. "The letters said there was nobody better in the world than Singer," said Amy Gutmann, a committee member who is a former dean of faculty and head of the Center for Human Values. At every level, there was unanimous approval.
Even Singer's harshest critics, who range from foes of abortion to activists for the disabled, agree that his academic credentials are solid gold. If anything, it is his accessible eminence that worries them. David Oderberg, a philosopher at Reading University in England and a former Singer disciple turned critic, says his main concern is that "he's one of the most popular, charismatic, influential and accessible thinkers" in the field of bioethics.
This appointment by one of the world's most prestigious universities gives Singer an even bigger platform and more authority than before.
He makes a point, for instance, of avoiding euphemisms like "death with dignity" or "helping to die." Helga Kuhse, his co-author on several books on life-and-death issues, says, "Peter's greatest 'offense,' and mine, is that we do not beautify or desensitize issues."
Singer is a follower of utilitarianism, which was inspired by the 19th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. For utilitarians, the morality of an action depends chiefly on its consequences rather than on its intrinsic rightness. "He's committed to these philosophical principles of achieving the greatest good for the greatest number," says Christina Hawke Smith, a conservative philosopher at the American Enterprise Institute who once studied under Singer. "He goes where that leads him, and it leads him to some unusual places."
A lot of the things Singer talks about sound like applications of the Golden Rule. He insists that people are duty bound to relieve suffering with no regard to race, sex, nationality or even species. That means one shouldn't eat animals or experiment on them, that people should give a significant slice of their income to relieve poverty around the world.
These views do not in themselves inspire vehement reactions. Where Singer has drawn fire, though, is when he has applied this reasoning to the beginning and end of life, to severely disabled newborns and terminally ill patients. His ethics are concerned with the quality of life, which he believes is based on rationality, self-awareness and empathy; not the sanctity of life, as many religions teach.
Thus he would allow parents and doctors to kill newborns with drastic disabilities (like the absence of higher brain function, an incompletely formed spine called spina bifida or even hemophilia) instead of just letting "nature take its course" and allowing the infants to die. To Singer, a newborn has no greater right to life than any other being of comparable rationality and capacity for emotion, including pigs, cows and dogs. "Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self-conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing nonhuman animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here, too," he has written.
There are qualifications. Despite charges from critics that he would have approved the killing of a Helen Keller or a Franklin D. Roosevelt, Singer makes clear, for instance, that killing a disabled person who wants to live is never justified and that in the case of infants or others who can't make their will known, such choices are for parents and doctors to make, not the state.
Singer contends, with some justification, that his views are more nuanced than some people make them out to be. To him there is no moral distinction between allowing an infant to die -- say by withholding a life-saving operation to a newborn with severe spina bifida -- and killing it by legal injection. Indeed, in that instance, he says, killing may be more moral.
His critics see it differently. "Singer's views virtually amount to an incitement to murder," Oderberg, the Reading University philosopher, says. Others warn that condoning killing of any kind puts society on a slippery slope; by deciding that some people's lives are simply too miserable and hopeless to live, are we devaluing the lives of all people? "We're all damaged in one way or another," said John Dolan, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota.
And to many people, the notion of equating babies with chimps or dogs is just plain loony.
Singer has won few converts on these issues, particularly in respect to infants. Nonetheless, even those skeptical of his theories give him credit for clarifying issues that have often been handled sloppily. Ms. Hoff-Summers at the American Enterprise Institute said: "He's not a firebrand. He's very thoughtful and careful." George Kateb, a political scientist at Princeton, puts it more broadly: "Moral philosophy is nothing but a tangle of troubles. We must praise anyone who can make arguments that are rigorous, principled, clear and are open to rebuttal."
The son of Viennese Jews who escaped to Australia in 1938, shortly after Hitler's invasion, Singer grew up amid the meat-eating, God-fearing, Union Jack waving Australia of the 1950's. At Melbourne University he first studied law but got bored and switched to philosophy. He credits his wife, Renata, a wide-ranging reader and lively conversationalist, with waking him up to the pleasures of philosophy, "considering issues for the sake of the issues themselves."
At Melbourne he led an antidraft organization and wrote his thesis on civil disobedience. In 1971 he went to Oxford to study philosophy and decided that to be taken seriously, philosophical conclusions had to be reflected in action.
"From when I first saw pictures in newspapers of people starving, from when people asked you to donate some of your pocket money for collections at school," he said. "I always thought, 'Why that much, why not more?' "
Two years later, he wrote an essay, "Animal Liberation," which later grew into a book of the same title. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In the essay he argued that specie-ism -- that is, assuming that human beings are superior to other species -- was as outdated as racism, that raising animals for food or experimentation was as bad as slavery.
Conversations with fellow students at Oxford who were moral vegetarians led him to those ideas. One day, someone asked him, "Why do you think it's terribly wrong to treat humans in certain ways and not to take account of animals in your moral calculations?" he recalled. "It wasn't flaky. I had no good answer about why not being a member of our species left them out of our moral calculations."
He remembers taking long walks with his father along a riverbank on weekends. Ernst Singer, who had asthma, used to point to the fishermen sitting on the banks and the fish gasping next to them. "He used to say how cruel that was," Singer said. "He didn't understand how people could think it was fun. That made me aware, though I never drew logical consequences.
"When we're dealing with individuals, should we give great weight to the species that the individual belongs to, or should we give weight to the characteristics of that being, characteristics like rationality, self-awareness, the ability to think morally or to respond emphatically?" he asks. "Thinking about the fact that we would never do to infants what we routinely do to animals made me realize that there is a prejudice going on here."
While his views have enraged many people, they have also helped create the animal rights movement and persuaded hundreds of thousands to become vegetarians. With his Oxford credentials, Singer helped legitimize concerns about the treatment of animals as a philosophical issue.
By the end of the 1970's, he got involved in medical ethics. At the time, Ms. Kuhse said, philosophers were debating whether there was a meaningful distinction between killing and letting people die, particularly when people are in great pain and dying takes a long time.
Of course, Nazism and eugenics movements have cast a long shadow on today's debates on genetic engineering, abortion and the like. So far the most ferocious opposition to Singer has been in German-speaking countries where advocates for the disabled have labeled his views "fascist and murderous." Meanwhile, some English academics have argued that academic freedom doesn't protect patently false beliefs and approve of protesters who would prevent him from lecturing. Jenny Teichman, a philosopher at Cambridge, for example, argues that "false philosophy can be dangerous and . . . if circumstances prevent its being refuted in print, it is probably all right, in extreme cases, to silence it in other ways."
Overall, the response in the United States has been more muted, although there have been demonstrations, a flurry of letters and angry editorials. Antiabortion activists have promised to picket his classes and called for the university to dump Singer. Princeton's president, Harold T. Shapiro, has defended the appointment in the college newspaper, and the university is not considering rescinding the offer.
Singer, whose course will be called questions of life and death, says he is looking forward to being where the action is and says he will engage anyone who wants to argue with him. Anthony Grafton, a historian of debates in academe, says that's the right attitude: "If you take positions on animals or human embryos, you'd better be willing to accept a fair amount of heat."
A Bioethical View: When It's Right to Kill an Infant
This sample of the thinking of Peter Singer, the bioethicist, is an excerpt from "Practical Ethics" (Cambridge University Press, 1993), a book he will be assigning for his course at Princeton.
Suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a hemophiliac. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child in 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 worth living, even if it is not quite as good as a normal baby. The "prior existence" version of utilitarianism supports this judgment. The infant exists. His life can be expected to contain a positive balance between happiness over misery. To kill him would deprive him of this positive balance. 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 hemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the hemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have had if the hemophiliac 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.
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 hemophiliac infant has no adverse effects on the others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him. The main point is clear: killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.
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