Reviews > Culture

Professor Death

Culture | Princeton hires a pro-death ethicist vilified by the rest of the world

Issue: "Putting Kyoto on ice," Aug. 8, 1998

Australian ethicist Peter Singer at least minces no words when he argues that the disabled and the unwanted should be killed. Not just passive euthanasia, but active, eugenic euthanasia for infants, the sick, and the elderly-everyone, to use his words, whose "life is not worth living."

No wonder he is so controversial in Europe and his home country that his speaking appearances are accompanied by angry protests from those he thinks are better off dead and those who care about them. In Austria, a major philosophy conference had to be canceled due to protests and threats from disabled groups. In Germany, he is compared to Hitler's theorist Martin Bormann. In Australia, he has been called the country's "most notorious messenger of death." Wherever Mr. Singer speaks, protesters in wheelchairs chain themselves to the barricades that have to be erected around his lecture sites.

In the United States, however, Mr. Singer is given an endowed chair at Princeton University. He has just been appointed to the Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values. This is a prestigious position at one of America's most prestigious universities, joining a faculty that once included Jonathan Edwards and J. Gresham Machen.

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British philosopher David S. Oderberg reported in The Washington Times the significance of this particular appointment. According to Mr. Oderberg's summary of his thought, Mr. Singer believes that since infants are not "rational and self-aware," they should not be considered human until they are at least one month old. Up to that time, they could be killed. Newborn babies have, to use his analogy, the same moral value as snails. As "non-persons," they are "replaceable," much like chickens and other farm animals. That is, if parents chose infanticide for a "defective" child, say, with hemophilia, and later gave birth to a healthy baby, the total amount of happiness would be greater and thus their act would be moral.

Mr. Singer's ethical theory seems to be based on a curious quasi-mathematical attempt to calculate the sum total of human happiness that would result from a particular decision or policy. On this basis, he claims to be able to show not only that voluntary euthanasia (such as physician-assisted suicide) and non-voluntary euthanasia (for the mentally incapacitated who cannot decide for themselves) are morally justified. He also believes that involuntary euthanasia for anyone who has become a burden to society is a moral act.

Not only is Mr. Singer purportedly an expert in bioethics; he is a major theorist for the animal-rights movement, the author of Animal Liberation and Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Although he defends animals, strictly speaking, he does not believe in "rights" (as in "human rights") at all: He dismisses them as "a convenient political shorthand" with no basis in any kind of divine or natural objective moral order. Nevertheless, it is ironic that while Mr. Singer equates the life of a newborn baby with that of a snail, he would be likely to urge that the snail not be mistreated.

Not that Mr. Singer isn't qualified to be a bioethics professor at Princeton, at least according to the prevailing academic standards. Research content seldom sparks controversy-unless it leans in conservative directions. What counts more in American academia is the amount and the "importance" of one's publications. The online bookstore Amazon.com lists 38 books published by Mr. Singer. These include, significantly, a number of introductory overviews and edited collections of readings used as college textbooks.

Universities responding to the call for "values education" and liberal arts colleges trying to replace their old theology requirements are now instead requiring a course in "ethics." Very likely, they are using Mr. Singer's textbooks.

America is having to wrestle more and more with ethical dilemmas, especially those posed by the new medical technologies. Since religious teachings are ruled out of bounds by policymakers, our country is turning to secular experts for guidance on moral issues. Hospitals set up "ethics boards"; bureaucrats hire consultants to draw up policies; and universities such as Princeton establish a Center for Human Values and bring on recognized authorities such as Mr. Singer.

The mere invocation of "ethics" may do more harm than good, serving as a process of rationalizing what is actually profoundly unethical. The value of "ethics" depends on the worldview upon which they are founded.

There was a time when Christians and non-Christians alike could agree that certain moral truths are "self-evident," that human beings have been "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." Today, with the very concept of a Creator jettisoned by the intellectual establishment, these truths are not self-evident at all, but in fact are coming under harsh attack.

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