Professor Death

National | New Princeton ethicist holds shocking views, but no one should be surprised by his appointment

Issue: "Worldview warehouses," July 17, 1999

By the time you read this column, Peter Singer will have assumed his new position as the Ira B. DeCamp professor of bioethics at the University Center for Human Values, Princeton University. Around the country, many people have been shocked by his appointment. I'm not.

Don't misunderstand: The honor paid Mr. Singer by Princeton soils every scholar everywhere. This is the man who says newborn babies are replaceable-his term; the man who says that they have no more value than snails-his comparison; the one who thinks people who burden society should be murdered-but he calls it "involuntary euthanasia." As he explains, the fact that a being is human is "not relevant to the wrongness of killing it."

But why should anyone be shocked? The universities have been nourishing such abominations for years.

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Once at an academic convention I was the designated "respondent" to a talk by another scholar about ethics. First he criticized theistic religions for being "biased" in favor of God. Next he criticized Enlightenment thinkers for having been "biased" in favor of man. Rejecting "bias," he proposed equal respect for all living things.

This was my question: "I am driving in my automobile. A little girl darts into the road from the right, and at the same moment two dogs dart into the road from the left. Should I swerve to the right to miss the dogs and hit the girl? After all, they have equal rights, and there are two of them and only one of her."

His reply? "I admit that there are some unresolved problems in eco-centric ethics."

In the early 1980s a young nihilist interviewed for a position at my own university. His lecture maintained that human beings just make up the difference between good and evil, and that nobody is responsible for what he does anyway. Within a short time he was in the classroom, teaching the young. The reason I remember that case is that the young nihilist was me.

No one found fault with my views until a few years later, after my conversion, when I had realized that good and evil are real and not made up. I landed in the soup when I opposed the hiring of someone much like my former self, a scholar who held that logical reasoning is obsolete. For this I was attacked as "intolerant," and the applicant was hired-only to be snapped up by another university a few years later, to head up a prestigious scholarly institute.

Now put all these examples together. The "eco-ethicist" found the question of killing too difficult to answer. Peter Singer believes killing the helpless is right. I used to believe right cannot be distinguished from wrong. Finally, the nihilist after me believed true cannot be distinguished from false. The first two views make sane ethical thinking impossible; the third makes ethical thinking impossible; and the fourth makes thinking impossible. Yet all these views are welcomed on the modern campus.

The only thing unwelcome is opposing them. New York Times reporter Katherine Zoepf quotes the president of the student Bioethics Forum, expressing surprise that the Singer appointment has aroused protests: "I never thought Princeton could react like this." A molecular biology teacher remarks, "I think it's a brilliant appointment. I don't know any professor at the university who's against it." He continues, "I think there's been some amusement at the reactions this has been getting, the attacks from both the far right and the far left."

Yes, how amusing that anyone would think that ethics is about protecting the weak and the helpless, instead of getting them out of the way.

But Princeton has merely acted as most universities do today. The big question is what to do about them. There is no point hoping for them to change themselves, for they are already changing themselves-in the wrong direction. Nor can we expect outside pressure to change them, because in a culture of death, most of the pressure is for them to stay on their present course.

Christians both inside and outside the universities must think hard about what it means to bear witness today: to love God not only with all our hearts and with all our strength, but with all our minds. Two generations ago, one could be excused for considering "the life of the mind" just a figure of speech. Today it is plain that the integrity of the intellect is truly a matter of life and death.


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