Life and Death at Princeton: Prof. Peter Singer Is Pro-Choice and He Is the Abortion-Rights Movement's Worst Nightmare

By Will, George F. | Newsweek, September 13, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Life and Death at Princeton: Prof. Peter Singer Is Pro-Choice and He Is the Abortion-Rights Movement's Worst Nightmare


Will, George F., Newsweek


Princeton, N.J.--The university's motto, "Dei Sub Numine Viget," does not say, as some Princetonians insist, "God went to Princeton." It says, "Under God's Power She Flourishes." As the academic year commences, Peter Singer comes to campus to teach that truly ethical behavior will not flourish until humanity abandons the fallacy, as he sees it, of "the sanctity of life."

He comes trailing clouds of controversy because he argues, without recourse to euphemism or other semantic sleights-of-hand, the moral justification of some homicides, including infanticide and euthanasia. He rejects "the particular moral order" which supposes that human beings are extraordinarily precious because God made them so. He also rejects secular philosophies that depict human beings as possessing a unique and exalted dignity that sharply distinguishes them from, and justifies their "tyranny" over, other species of animals.

The appointment of the 53-year-old Australian philosopher to a tenured professorship of bioethics was unanimously recommended by a Princeton search committee and was approved by President Harold Shapiro, who chairs the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

Princeton's position is that Singer's copious publications are serious scholarship; that he has helped to shape debates, worldwide, concerning animal rights and the ethical dilemmas posed by new medical technologies that blur the boundaries between life and death; that universities do not endorse views by permitting the teaching of them; that Singer's views can be rationally defended; that intellectual diversity is a good thing and (in Shapiro's words) he "challenges long-established ways of thinking."

Critics of the appointment argue that 150 years ago slavery was defended no less rationally, given certain premises, than Singer defends his views, and the slavery proponents had premises not more repellent than Singer's. Critics note that a university's passion for intellectual diversity is today much more apt to encompass advocacy of infanticide than of protection for the unborn. They argue that a great university exists not only to provoke students to think about difficult matters, which Singer certainly will do, but also to transmit, down the generations, sustaining precepts of our civilization, some of which Singer wishes to extirpate. And they argue that the derivative prestige that Singer's views will gain from his Princeton connection will weaken respect for life and for the rights of the severely handicapped.

The critics are mostly correct. However, their worries about Singer's potential influence on students and public policy are excessive. He will be, on balance, a useful stimulant at Princeton. And he will be particularly useful to his most adamant critics. He appalls the right-to-life movement but actually he is the abortion-rights movement's worst nightmare. The logic of moral reasoning often is that he who says A must say B. Singer and other pro-choice people say A. But he then says: A entails B, and B includes infanticide.

Singer subscribes to utilitarianism, which holds that there is a single goal for human conduct--satisfaction of preferences and avoidance of suffering. Hence the foundation of morals is the obligation to maximize the satisfaction of preferences and minimize the thwarting of them. Like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founding father of utilitarianism, Singer believes that "pushpin is as good as poetry"--that one pleasure is as good as another. And Singer, the principal progenitor of the animal-rights movement, says the pleasures and sufferings of other species are not necessarily of a moral significance inferior to those of humans. To say otherwise, he says, is "specieism."

Regarding humans, he says that assigning intrinsic moral significance to birth is arbitrary and logically indefensible. Birth is morally insignificant because a newborn, like a fetus, is incapable of regarding itself as "a distinct entity with a life of its own to lead.

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Life and Death at Princeton: Prof. Peter Singer Is Pro-Choice and He Is the Abortion-Rights Movement's Worst Nightmare
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