Slippery Slopes 

Peter Singer’s Ethical Life


It’s so damn easy to hate the philosopher Peter Singer. Those who do, and their number is legion, have a seemingly endless stock from which to refuel their fires of wrath. Take Singer’s pronouncement that “The life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” Quoted out of context, this statement reads appallingly. It is just this kind of misrepresentation that propelled Singer to compile his latest volume, Writings on an Ethical Life, a compendium of key writings over the past 30 years as a pioneer in the field of “practical ethics.”

Most contemporary philosophers incite nothing more strenuous than yawns, but when Singer arrived at Princeton University in September 1999 to take up his new position as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, the outcry of protest was so vociferous the university was compelled to hire special security. So outraged was then–presidential candidate Steve Forbes, he threatened to cut off donations to his alma mater until the university got rid of Singer.

A mild-mannered Australian, Singer rose to prominence in the 1970s as the author of Animal Liberation, the book often cited as the inspiration behind the animal-rights movement. It remains by far his most successful work, with more than half a million copies sold to date, and even its author acknowledges it has given him an influence beyond the wildest imaginings of most contemporary philosophers. But while Singer’s views on the rights of animals infuriate his opponents, among them scientists whose research is thrown into question by his moral scrutiny of animal experimentation, it is his ideas about the sanctity of human life that have put him at the center of a whirlwind.

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The protesters at the gates of Princeton could not have cared less about his opposition to the Draize test (in which potentially toxic compounds are sprayed into the eyes of captive rabbits), or to factory farming (Singer is a vegetarian who condemns the practices of modern agribusiness), or to his blistering critiques of global economic injustice and his indictment of First World wealth in the face of vast Third World poverty. What they loathed was his blunt rejection of the ethic that holds human life to be intrinsically sacred and may not be taken under any circumstance. Singer can imagine many circumstances in which it would be morally justifiable to end the life of a human being.

One is when the person in question is terminally ill and wants to die. Voluntary euthanasia is hardly a universally accepted concept, but neither is it any longer an especially controversial one; what really infuriated those protesters at Princeton was Singer’s advocacy of the right of parents to terminate the life of a severely deformed infant. We are not just talking abortion here — selective abortion of the malformed being already a widespread practice — but the calculated killing of an innocent baby.

In Germany, where Singer is especially loathed, his presence at conferences incites waves of public indignation sparking comparisons with the Nazis. Both in Germany and in the U.S., groups of the disabled and their advocates have decried Singer’s utilitarian ethic, claiming it is the first step down the slippery slope to Third Reich–style ethnic cleansing — in other words, eugenics. And put baldly (out of context and stripped of their full argumentation, as his views so often are), Singer’s ideas cannot fail to shock. But that is the last emotion he aims to induce. What Singer wants — and a full reading of this book bears out his sincerity — is a long, thoughtful and, he would be the last to deny, painful reassessment of an ethics that for all practical purposes has become untenable.

In the age of modern medicine, when we can keep patients in an irreversible coma alive for decades, when prenatal genetic diagnosis is routine and organ transplants are a standard procedure, Singer argues that traditional pronouncements about the sanctity of life have become a farce. Indeed he says, “the sanctity-of-life ethic” is “terminally ill,” representing nothing more than a convenient fiction we hide behind in order to avoid facing up to the realities of what we are already doing.

Consider the revolution over the past 30 years in our definition of death. Following the famous Harvard Brain Death Committee report of 1968, the U.S. (and since then most other countries) has adopted brain death, or permanent loss of all brain function, as the criterion for declaring a person legally dead. This radical change in our definition, which had previously held that death occurred when the heart stopped beating, transpired with almost no opposition despite its revolutionary nature, and has been hailed as one of the great achievements of bioethics. What is not so widely known, Singer points out in one chilling chapter, is that this redefinition coincided historically with the advent of organ transplants — just nine months before the Harvard report came out, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant. This change in the definition of death has meant that “warm, breathing, pulsating human beings” can have “their hearts and other organs . . . cut out of their bodies and given to strangers.”

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