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Blue-state philosopher

"Blue-state philosopher" Continued...

Issue: "Iraq: Fallujah's fallen," Nov. 27, 2004

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.

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