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August 23rd 2012 print

James Franklin

The Lethal Philosophy of Peter Singer

In the 2012 Queen’s Birthday honours list, Australia’s highest honour went to the philosopher Peter Singer. The citation was for “eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare and the human condition”.

Singer is certainly an effective communicator of ideas. He has been described as “the most influential philosopher alive” and “almost certainly the best-known and most widely read of all contemporary philosophers”. But not everyone was happy with the award, especially Christians and those of similar views who were outraged by Singer’s view that the infanticide of healthy babies is permissible.

It is hard to believe that most of those who have awarded Singer this and other honours have really understood what he has said. That is not due to any obfuscation or obscurity on Singer’s part. He has been perfectly clear and has never changed or qualified his opinions. It is his readers who have not been prepared to face his absolute clarity. Surely he must have been talking about severely disabled babies who might be better off dead? Well, no …

So who is Peter Singer, and what exactly are the views that make him both celebrated and reviled?

Singer’s maternal grandfather, whose biography he has written, was a classical scholar of Enlightenment views and a close associate of Sigmund Freud in Vienna. In 1911 he co-authored with Freud an article on erotic dreams in folklore, unpublished at that time because of a dispute between the co-authors. He died in the Holocaust, as did both Singer’s paternal grandparents. His grandmother survived the camps and brought to Australia the manuscript of the then unknown work by Freud and her husband.

Singer was a philosophy student at Melbourne University in the 1960s. Like many, he turned away from “rather fruitlessly analysing the meaning of words” to involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement and other issues of the time. He wrote a thesis, “Why Should I Be Moral?” before leaving for Oxford. He soon achieved fame with his argument that as long as people in the Third World are starving, it is immoral to buy ourselves new clothes and cars. At Oxford he fell in with vegetarians, and finding he could not answer their arguments, became one. He then wrote his hugely successful book Animal Liberation, which has sold some half a million copies and been translated into most major languages.

Singer’s distinctiveness does not lie in his concern over cruelty to animals, which is widely shared. His fame stems from the reasons he gives. He conceives animal liberation as a successor to the liberation movements of blacks and women. Why not for animals as well? He wrote: “A liberation movement demands an expansion of our moral horizons and an extension or reinterpretation of the basic principle of equality.” Equality of moral consideration does not imply exactly equal rights; pigs will not be given the right to vote, because they can’t vote. But in explaining why moral consideration does not extend beyond animals to, say, stones, Singer asserts that equality of consideration requires the possession of sentience. “Capacity for suffering is the vital characteristic that gives a being the right to equal consideration.” This sentence, without the “equal”, might be agreed to by many. It takes the “equal” to make a breaker of conceptual boundaries and eminent philosopher.

If there is a choice between killing an animal and killing a human, we may prefer to save the human, Singer says, but the reason for this is simply that humans have more preferences: 

taking the life of a person will normally be worse than taking the life of some other being, since persons are highly future-oriented in their preferences. To kill a person is therefore, normally, to violate not just one but a wide range of the most central and significant preferences a being can have.

Singer wonders whether the carnivores might not be better eliminated. He rejects the proposal, but only because he lacks confidence in the capacity of humans to manage the ecology.

The impact of Animal Liberation on farming practice and medical research on live animals has been substantial, and this is what is meant by the claim that Singer is the most influential philosopher alive. The bona fides of the research in Animal Liberation were attacked much later by some Californian biologists, who claimed that the chapter dealing with research on animals presented misreferenced and distorted views of that research. US researchers in paediatric surgery, which is particularly dependent on animal experiments, doubted the ethics of the alternative—experimenting directly on children. But it was far too late to shut the stable door.

On the strength of the success of Animal Liberation, Singer was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Monash University in 1977, aged thirty. He became a well-known public figure and showed some flair for publicity by getting himself arrested at the piggery formerly part-owned by Paul Keating, and standing as a Senate candidate for the Greens (though he received only 2.8 per cent of the vote). He founded and became first director of the Monash Centre for Human Bioethics. The Centre took advantage of the upsurge of interest in bioethics created by the new medical techniques like in vitro fertilisation, in which Monash University doctors were world leaders. The researchers at the cutting edge found the support of philosophers a comfort. One said,

I had to sort myself out in the early days just like anyone who works in a new area involving something like human embryos. If we hadn’t had Peter Singer around in those days I think we might not have pursued some things to the extent that we have. 

Bioethics is an area where theory quickly turns to practice.

The basis of Singer’s ethics is very clear, as he explains in his immensely successful textbook, Practical Ethics. He is a “preference utilitarian”, meaning that he holds that what is right is what maximises the satisfaction of preferences (or interests). All interests are equal: “an interest is an interest, whoever’s interest it may be”. Thus, an animal’s pain is entitled to the same consideration as equal pain in a human, but since trees do not have feelings or sufferings they do not have to be taken into moral account. This principle is very different from a principle of equality of people, the principle that underlay the traditional utilitarian dictum of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (and also underlay liberation movements). That principle counts people as equal, but Singer’s position is the equality of preferences, in abstraction from the beings that have the preferences.

Given the difference of starting point and the unusual conclusions to which it will lead, one would expect Singer to defend his axiom at some length. Surely debate about the foundations is what philosophy is all about? That is not the case. In Practical Ethics the first chapter approves the idea of universalisability in ethics—the notion, supported by Kant and many others, that ethics must respect a symmetry between me (and my interests) and other people (and their interests). That is normally taken to mean that all people have equal moral standing. But when Singer takes up the thought again in the second chapter, he writes:

We saw in the previous chapter that when I make an ethical judgment I must go beyond a personal or sectional point of view and take into account the interests of all those affected. This means that we weigh up interests, considered simply as interests and not as my interests, or the interests of Australians, or of people of European descent. This provides us with a basic principle of equality: the principle of equal consideration of interests. 

That’s it. The argument is not expanded there or elsewhere. The slide from equality of persons to equality of interests is simply asserted. That is extraordinarily thin as a justification for a revolution in ethics.

Naturally, this theory leads to the classic problems for utilitarians over whether the preferences of many override the preferences of one. If it is just total preference satisfaction that counts, why not, if possible, load all the pain onto one scapegoat so the rest of us can live in comfort? Singer was tackled about this is an interview:

Interviewer: There’s something I don’t understand about preference utilitarianism. Let’s say there are 11 beings, and 10 of those beings want to kill one of those beings. Do the intense preferences of those 10 outweigh the intense preference of that one?

Singer: Numbers matter, but I’d assume the preference of that one being not to die is much more intense than the preferences of the other ten to kill it. You’d have to actually live all 11 of those lives to know for certain.

Interviewer: Right—so how can you evaluate the intensity of a preference from the outside?

Singer: It’s very hard … In general, most people have a very serious, intense preference to live that outweighs almost any other preference. But these rules don’t have absolute moral status.  

Of the many novel and controversial doctrines advanced by Singer, none has created more anger than his assertion that babies up to about the age of four weeks have no right to life. He is not here dealing with the genuine problem of severely deformed babies, but is speaking of normal babies. He writes in Practical Ethics:

In thinking about this matter we should put aside feelings based on the small, helpless and—sometimes—cute appearance of human infants. To think that the lives of infants are of special value because infants are small and cute is on a par with thinking that a baby seal, with its soft white fur coat and large round eyes, deserves greater protection than a whale [gorilla in the second edition], which lacks these attributes. If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants. The indirect, classical utilitarian reason does not apply, because no one capable of understanding what is happening when a newborn baby is killed could feel threatened by a policy which gave less protection to the newborn than to adults. In this respect Bentham was right to describe infanticide as “of a nature not to give the slightest inquietude to the most timid imagination”. Once we are old enough to comprehend the policy, we are too old to be threatened by it.

Similarly, the preference utilitarian reason for respecting the life of a person cannot apply to a newborn baby. A newborn baby cannot see itself as a being which might or might not have a future, and so cannot have a desire to continue living … If there were to be legislation on this matter, it probably should deny a full legal right to life to babies only for a short period after birth—perhaps a month … If these conclusions seem too shocking to take seriously, it may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Judaeo-Christian attitude … We should certainly put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide; but these restrictions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.

It is here that the consequences of preference utilitarianism, with its doctrine that all preferences are equal whoever or whatever has them, become most obvious. As Singer puts it under the heading, “Does a person have the right to life?”: “the wrong done to the person killed is merely one factor to be taken into account, and the preference of the victim could sometimes be outweighed by the preferences of others”.

Naturally, one would like someone to ask Singer about his own children. An interviewer did so, and Singer was happy to answer: 

Interviewer: How would you behave given a dire situation involving your own offspring?

Singer: I have three grown daughters. It is important to remember that I have never said that it is OK, or a trivial matter, to kill newborn infants in normal circumstances, that is, when they have loving parents who care for them. My point is that the wrong done is really, at that stage, a wrong to the parents rather than to the infant who has no awareness of its own existence. So, of course, I cared for and loved my children, and would have been deeply upset if they had died, but that is really because of my feelings, and those of my wife, not because of what they were at that moment. So I don’t think it is true that I don’t take emotions into account.

A remarkable number of commentators have accepted at least Singer’s assertion that babies are not rational and that they have no awareness of their own existence. Of course they cannot write books or give lectures, but a baby learns more in a day than a philosophy professor does in a year. The wonderful book How Babies Think, by Alison Gopnik and others, starts with research on videotapes from the labour ward: at birth a baby is already remembering, expressing surprise, reacting with pleasure and displeasure to different things, and so on. Why is that not enough to be “rational and self-conscious”, in the words Singer chooses to describe things that may not be killed? He does not say. His claim that “Killing a snail or a day-old infant does not thwart any desires of this kind [for the future], because snails and newborn infants are incapable of having such desires” is simply false (of infants), and he does not defend it with any evidence. He does know, of course, that the potentialities of snails and babies are different, but that is not relevant, according to him: only properties a thing actually has now can be relevant to its rights. As Jacqueline Laing points out, this is a worry for anyone in a temporary coma, or even asleep. She wonders, too, if the only reason Singer gives for not growing deliberately brain-damaged babies for organ harvesting—that it would damage our “attitude of care and protection for infants”—is quite in logical accord with the rest of his pronouncements.

Still, that sort of point-scoring is not going to make much impact on Singer’s position. If he is wrong, a moral revulsion must be more relevant than fancy intellectual footwork. Raimond Gaita, Australia’s pre-eminent moral philosopher, holds that the act of discussing seriously the permissibility of infanticide is itself corrupt:

Only twenty years ago it was believed that the conclusion that infanticide was permissible was a reductio of any argument that led to it. In particular, it was agreed by all that abortion would be inconceivable if it were shown to be (morally) the same as infanticide. Today there are philosophers who believe that infanticide is permissible under much the same conditions as is abortion; and philosophy students the Western world over who are taking courses in practical ethics, think that it is at least arguable. Amongst philosophers it is thought to be perfectly proper to argue that infanticide is an evil but it is thought to be improper to say that conjecturing whether it is permissible is itself an evil to be feared. If a philosopher were to say that students were liable to be corrupted by those who invite them to seriously consider whether they may kill six-week-old babies for the same kinds of reasons that will procure an abortion, then most of his colleagues would judge that he had shown himself to be less than a real philosopher, less than a real thinker.

These considerations lead up to the most savage of Gaita’s condemnations of the kind of applied ethics that Singer and his colleagues pursue:

They have extended the arrogance and insularity of the worst kind of academic professionalism beyond the academy. Generally they show no fear or even slight anxiety at the responsibility they have assumed; they have no sense of awe in the face of the questions they have raised, and no sense of humility in the face of the traditions which they condescendingly dismiss. They are aggressively without a sense of mystery and without a suspicion that anything might be too deep for their narrowly professional competence. They mistake these vices for the virtues of thinking radically, courageously and with an unremitting hostility to obscurantism.

Singer has shown no tendency to acknowledge that kind of attack, or any sign of understanding it (indeed, his failure to engage with counter-arguments is nearly absolute). His opponents have wondered if he was perhaps lacking something in the area of emotions. The relation of the emotions to ethics is a vexed issue, but it certainly seems that anyone who does not have an immediate emotional reaction to pictures of genocide is lacking a perception of something important to ethics. It is strange that Singer goes out of his way, in the passage quoted above about infanticide and seals, to recommend the putting aside of the “emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects” of killing babies. Nor does he notice that seals are cute because they look like babies. At one point, he almost admits to a lack of relevant emotions, at least in the past; the total effect of his admission is decidedly odd:

Interviewer: What do you think has been added to the animal rights movement by the feminist critique of animal oppression?

Singer: The feminist critique has, perhaps, made some of us who are inclined to look at things in a rational way realise that we have not given enough attention to emotional connections to animals and to caring attitudes towards them. We should try to extend people’s emotional attachment and commitment to animals, and we ought to try to get people to empathise more with the less charismatic, less attractive animals. 

Opposition to Singer’s views has taken the form of more than mere words. After the German weekly Die Zeit published two articles on Singer’s views, the leader of Germany’s “Cripples Movement” chained his wheelchair to the doors of the editorial office. When Singer rose to speak on animal rights in Zürich, part of the audience began to chant “Singer raus! Singer raus!” He writes: 

As I heard this chanted, in German, by people so lacking in respect for the tradition of reasoned debate that they were unwilling even to allow me to make a response to what had just been said about me, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was what it must have been like to attempt to reason against the rising tide of Nazism in the declining days of the Weimar Republic. The difference was that the chant would have been, not “Singer raus”, but “Juden raus”.

One protester tore off Singer’s glasses, throwing them on the floor and breaking them.

In his account, Singer speaks throughout as if his opponents are in favour of the absolute sanctity of life of all human beings, while he is in favour merely of killing severely deformed babies. That is disingenuous, to say the least, even though it was principally disabled babies that were the concern of the German adult disabled. Singer also says that euthanasia as he understands it has nothing to do with the Nazi murder of “people considered unworthy of living from the racist viewpoint of the German Volk”. That is true, but a dangerous thing for a preference utilitarian to call attention to, given that his theory implies that sufficiently strong desires by sufficiently many Nazis would make the genocide of a sufficiently small Jewish race right.

The wounded tone of his complaints about the suppression of free speech, and his attacks on defenders of “the conventional doctrine of the sanctity of life” prompted the philosopher Jenny Teichman to wonder if Singer “adheres to the conventional doctrine of the sanctity of free speech”, and to add: “if human life itself has only conventional importance it becomes terribly hard to see how Singer’s wish to speak at conferences could have any importance whatsoever”. Gaita writes, “some of the people in wheelchairs may have had a point. They must have realised that if their mothers had believed what Singer does, then they would almost certainly be dead.”

Singer’s appointment in 1998 as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values sparked more protests from the disabled. There were more protests at his first lectures and a major donor threatened to withdraw funding, but controversy then died down. He has added to his Princeton position a Laureate Professorship at the University of Melbourne. In recent years he has concentrated more on issues of world aid than on bioethics.

In early 2012, there was a media furore at the publication in the Journal of Medical Ethics of a paper, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?” by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, of the Monash Centre for Human Bioethics and Melbourne University respectively. They argue that “what we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”. The paper was widely reported in the world press and there were complaints and abuse from the usual Christian bloggers.

Julian Savulescu, the Journal’s editor (whose PhD was supervised by Singer) vigorously defended his decision to publish. His first line of defence was that the arguments are “largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer [and others]”. Further, “the goal of the Journal of Medical Ethics is not to present the Truth or promote some one moral view. It is to present well reasoned argument based on widely accepted premises.” Nevertheless, he does express moral outrage himself:

What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited. More than ever, proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat from fanatics opposed to the very values of a liberal society.

The essence of his defence is that Peter Singer’s views on the permissibility of infanticide of healthy babies are now widely accepted in ethical discussion. He is able to take it for granted that the values of our liberal society include respect for free speech but not for the lives of babies—that is the province of Christian fanatics.

Now we understand why our liberal society felt it was safe to give Singer its highest award.

 James Franklin is the author of Corrupting the Youth: A History of Philosophy in Australia (Macleay Press).