Peter Singer Comes to Princeton

By Pollitt, Katha | The Nation, May 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Peter Singer Comes to Princeton


Pollitt, Katha, The Nation


You can't say the New York Times lacks a subtle sense of humor. On April 10, for example, editors placed side by side on the front page these major stories: serbs seal off 700,000 refugees who face starvation, us says, and princeton's new philosopher draws a stir. The ironic reverberation between these items derived not just from the juxtaposition of dreadful news from Kosovo with an academic teapot tempest: 700,000 Albanian lives equals one Ivy League hiring fuss. It was that the philosopher in question was Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, a founding document of the animal rights movement; co- author of the frequently assigned Practical Ethics; and defender of abortion and, under certain circumstances, of parent-requested euthanasia for severely disabled newborns and voluntary euthanasia for the terminally ill. These stances have called down on Singer, and now on Princeton, where he is to begin teaching at the Institute for Human Values next fall, the combined wrath of the antichoice and disability rights movements. The world may be screaming in madness and drowning in blood, but let a philosopher look cross-eyed at a baby-and the right- to-lifers will shower his campus with hate mail and threaten to picket his classroom.

What is it about babies that drives so many people so wild? Not real babies, mind you-the kind that need houses and health insurance and safe neighborhoods and loving, responsible, nonviolent families and other expensive things-but theoretical babies, philosophical-construct babies, the kind that star in extreme bioethical dilemmas pitting one large abstract idea against another. On behalf of real-life disabled babies-not to mention their older brothers and sisters-the "pro-life" movement has yet to stir a finger. But Peter Singer's books-now there's a real threat to infant well-being!

What makes this so strange is that Singer's views are held by millions of laymen and many other philosophers (Singer's mistake, one ethicist joked, is that he writes so clearly). Utilitarianism, the philosophical strain to which Singer belongs, is 200 years old. In my view, utilitarianism-too simply, the belief that the correct ethical decision is the one that maximizes the greatest happiness for the greatest number-is unsatisfactory. You can't measure pleasure and pain from one individual to another-it's hard enough to do so even for oneself. And even if you could prove that, say, human sacrifice and capital punishment benefited more people than they harmed-by deterring demons or criminals, by making people feel safe, by preserving a sense of social or natural order-I would still want to argue against them.

Utilitarianism may have problems, but it's hardly a thought crime. Indeed, most people are utilitarians at least some of the time, for example when they approve of bombing Serbia because it will supposedly prevent some greater disaster. Unless you're a radical egalitarian, anarchist, small-c communist, vegetarian pacifist who lives in a tree, you have to accept that sometimes the end does justify the means-the question is when, and which ends and which means. In real life people find themselves easily able to justify a wide range of appalling activities-letting mentally ill people live on the streets and forage for food in garbage bins, for example-partly because those things are seen as part of the social background, not aspects of individual morality.

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