Columnists > Voices

Singer's soaped slope

A theoretically virulent look at the sanctity of life

Issue: "Malaria: Kill or be killed," Oct. 29, 2005

Just in time for scary Halloween masks, Princeton professor Peter Singer-notorious for his approval of euthanasia and some kinds of infanticide, bestialism, and necrophilia-is at it again. He predicts in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Foreign Policy that by 2040 "only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct."

Mr. Singer's support for killing the very young and the very old has led some WORLD readers to wonder whether his views resemble those of the Nazis who were responsible for murdering three of his grandparents (see "Blue-state philosopher," Nov. 27, 2004). I e-mailed him their questions, and America's "most influential philosopher" responded, "There is a vast difference between what I am suggesting and what the Nazis did."

Mr. Singer pointed to his words in Writings on an Ethical Life, where he notes that the Nazi program was racially based and designed to eliminate "social ballast" and "useless mouths," whereas the euthanasia he advocates is chosen freely by either ill adults who prefer to die, or by parents who say their disabled children are better off dead.

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The two positions are different, but they have a common denominator: It's OK to kill socially inconvenient people. Hitler said government should decide who's convenient and Mr. Singer wants individuals to decide, but the slope is slippery. Already we're seeing government hospitals ceasing to treat the elderly or ill unless someone objects loudly. When health care is government-paid, demands for "cost containment" by euthanasia will grow.

Mr. Singer, after disassociating himself from the Nazis, counterattacked by reminding me that he "gives 20 percent of his income to organizations that provide aid for the poor." I responded by suggesting inconsistency: "Your philosophy is not sympathetic to the most powerless in our society-the very young and the very old-so why should you give money to help the next weakest group, the poor?"

He replied, "It's a direct implication of my utilitarianism that if a dollar will do more to satisfy preferences or reduce suffering if I give it to someone else than if I spend it myself, then I ought to give it."

My response questioned utilitarianism: "How can you objectively calculate what will be the greatest good for the greatest number, when definitions of good vary so enormously? In practice, doesn't this result in either every person becoming a god unto himself, or the powerful attempting to decide for everyone? You don't like the utilitarian calculations that [President Bush] makes, as he thinks that an Iraq war will make things better for the world, because you disagree with his judgment. But why should you be trusted to get the calculations right?"

Mr. Singer replied, "Of course, calculations are difficult, but we attempt them all the time. It's a matter of doing our best to get them right. And couldn't I say the same about you, or other Christians? Who decides that what is important is protecting embryonic life, or stopping gay marriage, when Jesus never spoke about these issues, rather than giving everything you have to the poor, which Jesus did explicitly urge?"

My response was that Jesus confirmed His support of Old Testament commandments against murder and adultery, and that the Bible elsewhere also provides a standard given by God, not calculated by man. I added that Jesus did not tell everyone to give everything to the poor, only the rich young man-because Jesus knew how hard that would be for him. Others may need to engage in tasks that are hard for them; for example, Christ might have asked a professor to cease lecturing impressionable students about how merciful it is to kill the helpless.

Our correspondence for now ended at that point, and I do wonder what to make of Mr. Singer's Foreign Policy predictions. It's true that those who share his worldview have often been wrong. (Example: One pro-abort 35 years ago predicted that by now abortion would receive virtually universal support and we'd have 4 million per year.) But since past, present, and future are in God's hands, we can afford to give our theoretically virulent but personally nice professor the last word: "During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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