Peter Singer -DeCamp Professor Princeton University Center for Human Values

One of the most prominent, influential and controversal philosophers in the world today, especially in the area of bio-ethics. His social theories have attracted outrage from 'pro-lifers- and disabled groups.
  • Singer's philosophical worldview is athestic utilitarianism and how it should be applied.
  • His more controversial ideas are currently socially unpalatable and morally unacceptable.
  • He is often accused of resurrecting Nazi "sub-humans" ideology.
  • Singer says it's OK to kill disabled babies as their disability puts them on a par with apes.
  • He rejects birth as a relevant dividing line between persons and non-persons and sees no real difference between the fetus and the newborn.
Australian philosopher Peter Singer is perhaps the most notorious, admired, famous and controversial modern thinker in bio-ethics. He goes where others fear to go, attracting outrage from pro-life groups and the disabled, with his cutting edge, Darwinian and Utilitarian social theories.

Regarded as the guru of the modern animal rights movement, Peter Singer received international eminence with his 1998 appointment to Princeton University as the DeCamp Professor in the Center for Human Values.

The appointment was hugely controversial. In response Princeton's President Harold Shapiro (chairman of President Clinton's Bioethics Commission) defended his credentials in their Weekly Bulletin (December 7, 1998)

"His books, including Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, have been translated into 15 languages and have been widely taught in ethics classes throughout Europe and the United States, including here at Princeton. He is a gifted teacher, whose clarity and originality have made ethical issues come alive to a broad intellectual audience."

"When faculty members associated with our University Center for Human Values - including eminent humanists, social scientists and scientists - conducted a world-wide search for an exceptional teacher and scholar to hold the DeCamp Professorship, Peter Singer ranked first on their list. Their judgement was strongly endorsed in the letters we solicited from scholars at other universities, who also are leaders in this field."

As a student at Oxford University, Singer became a vegetarian and in 1975, wrote his best-selling "Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals".

...the greatest happiness of the greatest number, should be the sole end of public action and policy...
His philosophical worldview is atheistic utilitarianism (the doctrine that actions are right because they are useful. That the greatest happiness of the greatest number, should be the sole end of public action and policy: Oxford University dictionary), and how it can and should be applied to the hard questions of life in the modern world.

Utilitarianism originated with the 19th-century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who believed that maximizing overall happiness should be society's goal. Singer extends this concept to maximizing happiness by removing "suffering".

A number of Singer's admirers argue that utilitarianism is now the mainstream of secular public policy in America and the western world. Singer's more controversial ideas are logical conclusions from an atheistic worldview, but are currently socially unpalatable.

Singer's critics argue that he makes "palatable", ideas that could become morally unacceptable public policy.

Shelly Kagan, a Yale University philosopher, on the other hand, defends Singer and argues that his critics make the mistake of seeing his apparently absolutist position, as the only option he believes in.

"In fact, Peter Singer's work is unusual in the room it allows for exceptions. What most of us philosophers believe, is that certain actions are morally offensive, even though more good would be done. Now that view doesn't into the classical utilitarian picture. But Singer leaves room for that in his official pronouncements. He is more interested in debating the issues than in enforcing other's adherence to his line of reasoning."

Singer's exposition of his ideas and ambition
Johann Hari's (Young Journalist of the Year 2003, Britain) interview with Peter Singer was published in the Independent on 1st July, 2004.

Hari noted that Singer is often accused of resurrecting Nazi "sub-humans" ideology. Ironically his Jewish grandparents died in the Holocaust.

He has been described as 'a public advocate of genocide and the most dangerous man on earth'.
"The Wall Street Journal recently compared Singer with Hitler's deputy, Martin Bormann. A US Congressman described him as 'taking the Joseph Mengele chair in bio-ethics.' Diane Coleman, the leader of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, describes Singer as 'a public advocate of genocide and the most dangerous man on earth'."

Singer recalled being invited to Germany in 1989, to speak at a conference organised by the parents of disabled children. "There were so many protesters - saying that I was trying to revive eugenics and so on - that the invitation was cancelled." At another German lecture his glasses were broken during a melee with a mob chanting 'Singer raus! Singer raus!'

'Peter Singer takes the most basic human instincts and tries to reason them out of existence. What does he expect us to do, hug him?'
"His enemies put it bluntly. Singer says it's OK to kill disabled babies. Singer says seriously damaged human beings are on par with apes. Singer says it would have been OK to kill his own mother (she recently died from Alzheimer's Disease). One theologian I spoke to, said contemptuously, 'Peter Singer takes the most basic human instincts and tries to reason them out of existence. What does he expect us to do, hug him?'

"But Singer is not a drooling, swastika-waving eugenicist, whatever his foes say. He identifies as a man of the left, a campaigner for progressive politics. At 58, he is still best known as the author of Animal Liberation, the 1975 founding text of the animal-rights movement. Most of his writings these days concentrate on the desperate moral case for redistributing the wealth of the West to the starving nations of Africa."

"So why do they hate him? He has a simple explanation. 'We are living in an incredible time of transition,' he whispers. 'In the West, we have been dominated by a single tradition for 2,000 years. Now that whole tradition, the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality, is terminally ill. I am trying to formulate an alternative. Some of what I say seems obscene and evil, if you are looking at it through the prism of the old morality. That's what happens when morality shifts: people get confused, angry and disgusted."

Utilitariamism has one basic idea: to be moral, you must do whatever will satisfy the preferences of most living things.
"Singer's moral system is called preference utilitarianism, and evolved from the 19th century philosophy of John Stuart Mill. It sounds convoluted, but many people in the post-religious societies of Europe take its central premise for granted. It has one basic idea: to be moral, you must do whatever will satisfy the preferences of most living things. Morality doesn't come from heaven or the stars; it comes from giving as many of us as possible what we want and need."

"This isn't some dry academic theory. It affects the most important decisions in every person's life. Say you are old and sick and want to die. Under the old Judaeo-Christian ethic, you have an immortal soul given to you by God, and He will reclaim it from you when He's good and ready. Under preference utilitarianism, your preference - which harms nobody else - should be met, with a lethal injection from a friendly doctor if necessary."

"The scale of Singer's intellectual ambition is staggering. He is trying to lead an ethical revolution unparalleled since paganism was beaten and banished by the Judaeo-Christian ethic. "You can't expect such a radical shift,' he says dryly, 'without a few fights.'"

"Thus far, most British atheists like me can travel along Singer's philosophical path - goodbye God, hello utilitarianism - without stumbling. But then we get to animals, and disabled babies are just a few steps away. 'You shouldn't say animals,' he says in a level tone when I raise the topic, 'to distinguish between humans and non-humans. We are all animals.'

He thinks there is nothing special about being human. 'You shouldn't say animals to distinguish between humans and non- humans. We are all animals.
"This objection captures Singer's thoughts in a neat sound bite. He thinks there is nothing special about being human. 'Every living thing has preferences, and those preferences need to be taken into account,' he says. 'Non-human animals can't be left out of utilitarian equation..'"

"For Singer, this isn't so radical. 'All we are doing is catching up with Darwin,' he explains. 'He showed us in the 19th century that we are simply animals. Humans had imagined we were a separate part of Creation, that there was some magical line between Us and Them. Darwin's theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe. Yet for a century, we've carried on like nothing happened, abusing animals in the most terrible way. The idea that humans are special and can tyrannise animals as much as we like, is about to fall.'"

"So Singer advocates a new type of equality. It's not the equality of human beings - he attacks that, saying that a person in a vegetative state on a life-support machine, is 'obviously not equal to a healthy person'. No, he advocates the equality of anything that is capable of feeling pain and having preferences. 'Look: pain and suffering are bad and should be prevented or minimised, regardless of the race, sex or species of the being that suffers. It's a simple fact that a three-year-old human has pretty much the same self-awareness, rationality and capacity to feel pain as an adult ape. So they should be given equal moral consideration.'"

Singer reveals he has never been an animal lover. "I just came to be persuaded that animals should be treated as independent, sentient (having the power of sense perception) beings, not as means to human ends. It was a rational choice, stripped of emotion."

The controversial killing of babies is explained. "When Singer compares severely disabled babies to animals, he seems - out of context - to be insulting the disabled. In fact, he is trying to make us take cows, pigs and dogs far more seriously. He believes that severely disabled or defective animals who cannot live except in terrible pain, can legitimately be killed. Why, he asks implicitly, should this not be the case for human babies?"

"...it is logical to now start thinking about severely defective babies, and whether it is always wrong to kill them."
"'Almost everybody accepts that some people can be killed,' he says blankly. "The concept of brain death' - the belief that people on respirators can legitimately be killed - shows that. We have begun to think in terms of quality of life, instead of all life equally being sacred. That's why it is logical to now start thinking about severely defective babies, and whether it is always wrong to kill them."

"He continues: 'All I say about severely disabled babies, is that when a life is so miserable it is not worth living, then it is permissible to give it a lethal injection. These are decisions that should be taken by parents - never the state - in consultation with their doctors.' This is, he believes, already happening.

'What do people think amniocentesis and the selective abortion of Down's Syndrome foetuses are? All I am saying is, why limit the killing to the womb? Nothing magical happens at birth. Of course, infanticide needs to be strictly legally controlled and rare - but it should not be ruled out, any more than abortion.'

Dealing with his mother's Alzheimer's disease
Hari questions Singer about his mother Cora, who had recently died after long years of Alzheimer's disease. "By Singer's logic, she was worth considerably less than a normal pig or cow." He was obviously distressed by her plight and admitted that a legal injection might have been justified, but his sister and other family members would have been opposed.

Reason shapes my thought
"The Nazi euthanasia programme was not euthanasia at all," he says. "It did not seek to provide a good death for human beings who were living a miserable life."
"And so we are back full circle to the Nazi accusations. 'The Nazi euthanasia programme was not euthanasia at all,' he says with a slight note of irritation. 'It did not seek to provide a good death for human beings who were living a miserable life. It aimed to murder people because they were so-called useless mouths, and 'reducing the quality of the Volk'. I asked how the murder of his grandparents had affected him.

'I guess it gave me the sense that there were terrible ideas out there in the world and terrible people who would carry out these ideas.' He rejects that these ideas shaped his philosophy. 'No, reason shapes my thought."

"Singer," writes Hari, "Is pure, disembodied rationality - the Enlightenment made flesh. He measures pain and capacity to suffer in neat units, and disregards old-fangled notions such as species or emotion. He discusses killing babies or his mother, with the passion of a speaking-clock. Give me Singer over the Vatican-style superstitions he is trying to dispel any day; and yet, as I leave the interview, I can't shake off a strange - Singer would say sentimental - anxiety."

Fear and distrust
Jeff Sharlett, writing in The Chronicles of Higher Education (March 10, 2000) "Why Are We Afraid of Peter Singer? The world's most reviled philosopher just wants more happiness for everyone", says that Singer freely admits his best ideas were spelled out a century ago. He likes to take an argument as far as it will go. It does not seem to occur to him, that people could get hurt along the way, even by intangible ideas.

Singer is widely distrusted by those who believe that human nature is inherently flawed, and that the unknown future could be a dangerous place for the weak and vulnerable, if reason alone is to be humanity's guide.

What are Singer's most controversial ideas?
Singer espouses a doctrine known as functionalism, the belief that what defines human persons 
is, what they can and cannot do.
In his critique of Singer's ideas, "Death with a Happy Face", Scott Klusendorf, a Christian and director of bio-ethics, says that Singer espouses a doctrine known as functionalism, the belief that what defines human persons is, what they can and cannot do.

He quotes from Singer's 1979 book "Practical Ethics":
"Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons, therefore the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee."

In 1993, Singer suggested that no newborns should be considered a person until 30 days after birth, and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot.

He rejects birth as a relevant dividing line between persons and non-persons, agreeing with pro-life advocates that there is no ontological (nature of being) significant difference between the fetus and the newborn.

There are differences of size, location, dependency, and development, but these are morally irrelevant.

Singer downgrades the newborn to the status of non-person, because newborns like fetuses are incapable "of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time." They are not rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to live.

"...killing a newborn or foetus, is not the same as killing a person. In fact, some acts of infanticide are less problematic than killing a happy cat."
Since "personhood" hinges on these factors, killing a newborn or foetus, is not the same as killing a person. In fact, some acts of infanticide are less problematic than killing a happy cat. If, for example, parents kill one disabled infant to make way for another baby, that will be happier than the first, the total amount of happiness increases for all interested parties.

Singer's logic says that until a baby is capable of self-awareness, there is no controlling reason not to kill it, in order to serve the desires of the parents.

He contends that a variety of non-human animals are rational, self conscious beings that qualify as persons in the relevant sense of the term. Consequently, it is morally indefensible for humans to value their own species above other sentient animals. The doctrine of the "sanctity of human life", is nothing but "speciesism", an irrational prejudice rooted in outdated religious traditions.

In effect, dogs, cats, and dolphins are persons, while fetuses, newborns, and some victims of Alzheimer's disease are not.
Some human beings are incapable of reasoning, remembering and self-awareness, so they cannot be considered persons. In effect, dogs, cats, and dolphins are persons, while fetuses, newborns, and some victims of Alzheimer's disease are not.

More rationales for infanticide
Infanticide may be wrong in some cases, but only for its impact on other interested parties. If the parents want the newborn, it is wrong to kill the baby because the act deprives them of happiness. Parents need a post-birth assessment period of perhaps a week or a month, during which, in consultation with their physician, they may legally kill their disabled child, if doing so would increase the total happiness of all interested parties.

If God does not exist, there is no justification for treating humans as inherently more valuable than other sentient beings.

Peter Singer and bestiality
In early 2001, Peter Singer reviewed Midas Dekker's book "Dearest Pet: On Beastiality". His review "Heavy Petting" caused a furore among Christian commentators and Animal Rights activists alike. Singer appeared to be condoning sex with animals under certain conditions.

He noted that: "our physical similarities with other animals are so strong that the taboo on bestiality, stems not from physical differences, but from our desire to differentiate ourselves from animals.."

Singer's view was that humans and non-humans may enjoy sexual contact as part of "mutually satisfying activities".

The Animal Rights argument was that Singer was damaging their cause as the founder figure of the movement. An animal cannot give any meaningful consent to sex.

Peter Singer was given the opportunity to explain his views during a visit to Australia. He was interviewed on television by Jana Wendt on SBS's Dateline (8th August, 2001).

Wendt: "Let me ask you about something that caused another storm, that comes out of your view on our relationship with animals. You said that bestiality should not be the taboo that it is. Can you explain?"

Singer: "I was asked to review a book that looked at the history of bestiality or human sexual relationships with animals. I wanted to raise the question as to why, when a lot of other taboos about sex have disappeared, but sexual relations with animals are still, I think, you know, very much taboo. Just as much taboo as they ever were."

"And yet some of them...you know, some of them obviously should be considered wrong because they involve cruelty to the animals. They involve coercing the animal, forcing the animal. But, you know, without going into details, it's not too hard to imagine sexual interactions - not necessarily sexual intercourse - between humans and animals, that don't involve coercion or cruelty to the animal, and yet they're still very much taboo, they're still in many jurisdictions, criminal."

"...we still want to see ourselves as very different from and, of course, much superior to all non-human animals."
"And so I guess, I was just raising the question as to why that should be. I was suggesting that maybe its something to do with the way that we still want to separate ourselves from animals. We're disturbed that anyone might want to have sexual contact with animals, because we still want to see ourselves as very different from and, of course, much superior to all non-human animals."

Wendt: "Alright. Well, you realise that's the kind of view that sends people crazy, because it's so controversial. Does it bother you that that's the response?"

Singer: "Well, I am bothered by the response, in fact. The response, of course, in a sense reinforces exactly what I was saying - that is that we still have a huge taboo about this. And I'm bothered by the fact that when you raise some question about sexual morality like that, you know, obviously people's emotions rush to the fore, and they don't ask themselves the question, 'Well, who exactly is this harming? Should we have crimes on the books that... where there is really no harm to anyone?'

"You know, that is the kind of attitude that I would like people to be able to discuss a little more calmly than they seem to be able to discuss this topic."