Parental warning: This article refers to infanticide and some abnormal sexual activities.
PRINCETON, N.J. - Many Christians and conservatives are still celebrating this month's reelection of George W. Bush, and that's a fine thing to do. But a deeper cultural current rolls on, and its representative here in this blue state is Peter Singer.
Many readers may be saying, "Peter who?"-but The New York Times, explaining how his views trickle down through media and academia to the general populace, noted that "no other living philosopher has had this kind of influence." The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had "more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior" than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell. The New Yorker called him the "most influential" philosopher alive.
Don't expect Peter Singer to be quoted heavily on the issue that roiled the Nov. 2 election, same-sex marriage. That for him is intellectual child's play, already logically decided, and it's time to move on to polyamory. While politicians debate the definition of marriage between two people, Mr. Singer argues that any kind of "fully consensual" sexual behavior involving two people or 200 is ethically fine.
For example, when I asked him last month about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, "There's no moral problem with that." Concerning bestiality (should people have sex with animals, seen as willing participants?), he responded, "I would ask, 'What's holding you back from a more fulfilling relationship?' [but] it's not wrong inherently in a moral sense."
If the 21st century becomes a Singer century, we will also see legal infanticide of born children who are ill or who have ill older siblings in need of their body parts. Question: What about parents conceiving and giving birth to a child specifically to kill him, take his organs, and transplant them into their ill older children? Mr. Singer: "It's difficult to warm to parents who can take such a detached view, [but] they're not doing something really wrong in itself." Is there anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale? "No."
When we had lunch a month after our initial interview and I read back his answers to him, he said he would be "concerned about a society where the role of some women was to breed children for that purpose," but he stood by his statements. He also reaffirmed that it would be ethically OK to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be "raised as soon as possible after birth."
These proposals are biblically and historically monstrous, but Mr. Singer is a soft-spoken Princeton professor. Whittaker Chambers a half-century ago wrote, "Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness," but part of Mr. Singer's effectiveness in teaching "Practical Ethics" to Princeton undergraduates is that he does not come across personally as beastly.
C.S. Lewis 61 years ago wrote That Hideous Strength, a novel with villainous materialists employed by N.I.C.E. (the National Institute of Coordinated Experiments): They were to be officed in a building that "would make quite a noticeable addition to the skyline of New York." But Mr. Singer sits in an unostentatious office at Princeton's Center for Human Values, which is housed in a small and homey grayish-green building with a front yard that slopes down the street. The Center even has a pastoral-sounding address: 5 Ivy Lane.
Who is this influential philosopher who seems nice? Although Mr. Singer and President Bush are clearly not soulmates separated at birth, they were born on the same day, July 6, 1946. Mr. Singer did not have a future president as a dad and a U.S. senator as a grandfather: He was born in Australia soon after both his grandfathers and one grandmother were killed in Nazi concentration camps. The grandmother who survived observed Jewish dietary laws before the war but in 1946 said she would no longer do so, because "if God allows such a good man as my husband to die, I don't have to follow His laws."
Two of Mr. Singer's great-grandfathers were rabbis. He says that he grew up "very aware of the Holocaust," learning from his parents and his parents' friends, who "came from similar backgrounds." He claims that his atheistic and culturally extreme views are the result of pure intellectual labor, but he acknowledges that he was "impressed early on with my grandmother's argument: How could there be a God who would let the Holocaust happen?"
Mr. Singer said his father went to the synagogue occasionally on major holidays, and he remembers going "once or twice" as well, but "my parents were keen for me to have entrée into the best professional circles" in Australia. That meant sending him to a private school under liberal Presbyterian auspices. Christian beliefs were not integrated into the subject matter of academic courses, but he did attend a chapel service twice a term and a "religious assembly" each morning that included the singing of hymns and recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
The assembly was "sometimes a bit boring," Mr. Singer recalls, and he would "flip through bits of the Bible during it." To this day he can toss into a discussion accurate references to Israelites wiping out Midianites. A chaplain offered some sort of religious instruction once each week. The teachers did not espouse any consistent theology, Mr. Singer says, and he was more influenced by reading Bertrand Russell's The History of Western Philosophy. During his teenage years Mr. Singer developed a "skeptical view" that he has retained, as well as an evident pride in his ability to reason out every matter.
When I noted that some of the most intelligent English-speaking philosophers of the 20th century have been adult converts to Catholicism-Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Geach, John Finnis, Michael Dummett, and Nicholas Rescher all emphasized the intellectual basis for their conversion-Mr. Singer said, "I find it extraordinary that anyone would have an intellectual conversion to Roman Catholicism."
When I spoke of other highly intelligent people who became evangelicals with the belief that the Bible is God's Word, he stated that "an intelligent person could not come at [that understanding] based on impartial critical analysis. People might have psychological needs." Under questioning he discounted the psychological need for autonomy that he and other atheists may have.
He does try to live consistently within the commandments he has written for himself. As befits a thinker who first became famous three decades ago for intellectually jump-starting the animal-rights movement, his office displays neither leather chairs nor briefcases. Instead of leather belts or shoes he favors plastic (aptly, since he sees human nature as plastic and malleable). On neither Oct. 12 nor Nov. 9 did he wear a belt, but his khakis always stayed up. At lunch he ate vegetables.
Interviewers have probed his life for inconsistencies, and several have stated that they found one: Although he favors legalized euthanasia for persons with Alzheimer's who cannot converse or recognize their children, he allowed his mother, Cora, to live out her natural life. Not so fast, he says: Mr. Singer's sister and other family members were involved in the decision, and had it been up to him alone she might have died earlier.
Mr. Singer has had a consistent life of academic attainment and theoretical discussion. He doesn't display diplomas on his wall, but he could show a prestigious one: Ph.D. from Oxford University. He was the founding president of the International Association of Bioethics and has written books and articles that have appeared in 19 languages. Among his books: Animal Liberation, Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, and (most recently) The President of Good and Evil, a book attacking George W. Bush.
He has consistently tossed aside the Declaration of Independence concept that all of us are created equal. Instead, the worth of a life varies according to its rationality and self-consciousness, with no essential divide between animals and humans. For example, given a choice between keeping alive an adult chimpanzee and a human infant, the chimp should beat out the child. He has also thrown out the historical distinction between liberty and license (as in, licentious behavior): Any activity is ethical as long as it is consensual.
Mr. Singer's emphasis on consent differentiates him from some current liberals and makes him a critic of judicial imperialism. He of course favors abortion on demand, but agrees with Robert Bork that the question "should have been left to legislatures." He calls Roe vs. Wade "a piece of judicial legislation" and says it's "undemocratic to take major decisions like this out of the hands of people."
C.S. Lewis's N.I.C.E. leaders are totalitarian. They use media control and a police force to push opponents into submission. Mr. Singer says he's not totalitarian because he accepts debate and says that "people can draw the line anywhere." But, within Singerism, should they? He scorns attempts to set up standards of good and evil that go beyond utilitarianism, and hopes to convince people willingly to do it his way.
How can Christians and others combat Singerism? Some have tried to run him out of town or silence him in other ways, but that is ethically troublesome in our American liberty theme park and practically unrealistic, given the support his ideas already have among leaders in media and academia.
Besides, his flat-out statements push students who flock to his courses and others who hear him to ask on what basis they might disagree with him: Aesthetic repugnance? Social science data? Other methods of reasoning? Natural law? Biblical revelation? A combination of the above?
Christians should not shy away from such debates, especially since, under questioning, Mr. Singer reveals that he lives in an ivory tower. Since he has resided in the United States for only five years after a lifetime in Australia, he shows little understanding of American culture. He writes about U.S. poverty but acknowledges that he has spent little time talking with the poor. He approves of polyamory in the abstract but in his own life, to his credit, he has been married for 35 years to one woman, Renata Singer. (He notes that they have three daughters in their 20s, all vegetarians.)
Beyond even an inherent selfishness disguised as altruism, Mr. Singer's proposals for consensuality suffer from a lack of realism. While even the voluntary standards he proposes sound beastly enough, he does not recognize that bullies would soon give them preferred status or make them compulsory. If "voluntary euthanasia" became common, the pressure would grow on the elderly or the disabled to get out of the way rather than use up resources. If infanticide under "strict" conditions were legalized, the conditions would soon be loosened, reporters would discover inequities where it was allowed in some circumstances and not others, and soon infanticide on parental demand would become standard. That's what happened with abortion.
Mr. Singer's "consensuality" seems like a far cry stylistically from the social engineering of N.I.C.E., but the social revolution in Lewis's work also begins relatively nicely, with press articles ridiculing the opposition. Mr. Singer purposefully wants to use persuasion and debate to substitute his own ethics for biblical ones, but the debate is hardly a fair one given that leading universities typically have Singeristic "ethics programs" funded by big corporate and alumni donors.
Those programs assume that man without God is a wonderful brain, not a beast, and their academic authority receives bulwarking from media allies who quote academic ethicists liberally and lambast other ways of arriving at decisions. Few university funders have taken the stand Steve Forbes did in 1999, when he pledged that he would not send money into his alma mater's coffers "so long as Peter Singer remains a tenured professor there."
Mr. Forbes's stand was right under the circumstances, but if the Princeton administrators were willing to have ideological diversity, it would be better to facilitate a real debate. Funders could pressure Princeton to appoint a professor with biblical values to teach a parallel course in Practical Ethics, so that students would have the opportunity to hear the major alternative to Singerism.
A good but small program in "American Ideals and Institutions" has gained a foothold at Princeton, but no course directly opposes Mr. Singer's, and for many students the melody of this Pied Piper remains undisturbed in their brains, influencing their votes on same-sex marriage and the startling issues to come.
This is important not only for Princeton and similar institutions but for all of American society. In the absence of debate at our leading universities, each election is an attempt by people connected to biblical ethics to hold off an onslaught by those who have imbibed Singerism and try to win by ridicule what they cannot achieve by honest reporting of reality.