Magazine article History Today

Return to the Planet of the Apes?

Magazine article History Today

Return to the Planet of the Apes?

Article excerpt

In 1989, a philosophy professor at a German university announced a new course based on a book called Practical Ethics by the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer. The course was repeatedly disrupted by organised protests and had to be cancelled. Singer was about to lecture in Dortmund and take part in a private symposium at Marburg, speaking on the desirability of consensual infanticide for severely disabled newborn children. But before he had even boarded a plane for Germany, the public character of the lecture in Dortmund led to the withdrawal of the invitation to Marburg. Protests and hostile articles in Der Spiegel soon led to the lecture's cancellation too.

An alternative lecture, hurriedly organised in Saarbrucken by Singer sympathisers, was repeatedly disrupted by catcalls and whistles. Serious attempts were made to engineer the dismissal of the professor who had invited Singer to lecture at Dortmund and he was obliged to explain to his employer, the government of Nordrhein-Westfalen, why he had issued the invitation to Singer.

Finally, Singer attempted to lecture at the Zoological Institute of the university of Zurich. Again this had to be cancelled, after protests which included someone tearing off Singer's glasses and smashing them on the ground. What lay behind the kerfuffle and the attendant academic jiggery-pokery?

Peter Singer is not Ernst Nolte (the complex and controversial Berlin historian whose car was blown up in connection with the views he expressed on the causal links between socialism and Nazism during the 'historians' debate' in the mid-1980s), and nor is he an extreme-right self-publicist in the mould of Britain's own David Irving. On the contrary, Singer is a widely respected moral philosopher, with 'right-on', rather than 'Right-wing' views on 'animal rights' (the field he established his academic reputation in), and on the moral necessity of the affluent peoples of the Earth to help the starving, an imperative he equates with our obligation to save a child from drowning, and whose neglect he equates with murder.

Animal rights go to the heart of Singer's utilitarian philosophy, which in rejecting the Christian doctrine of the sanctity of human life, seeks to redraw the line around our species to include such creatures as dolphins or higher primates, while disputing the human attributes, or 'personality', of certain categories of defective, nonselfconscious humans. Reading Singer is actually quite amusing, with his impassioned attacks on human 'speciesism' sounding like an ape ideologist (if there were such a being) from the 1968 science fiction film Planet of the Apes, in which an American astronaut, inevitably played by Charlton Heston, finds himself back in the future on an Earth ruled by similar scientists. Among professional philosophers at least, no one apparently takes exception to these views when Singer airs them in Australia, Britain, or the Netherlands.

But Germany is another matter. Clearly shaken by his experiences there, Singer transformed them into a general jeremiad regarding the alleged curtailment of academic freedom and rational debate in that country. Writing first in the specialist journal, Bioethics, and then in the New York Review of Books, an august organ perennially concerned with any form of intolerance, Singer observed:

There is, however, a peculiar tone of fanaticism about some

sections of the German debate over euthanasia that goes

beyond normal opposition to Nazism, and instead begins to

seem like the very mentality that made Nazism possible.

More accustomed to being attacked by conservatives or religious fundamentalists in the Anglo-Saxon countries, Singer was surprised to be assailed from the German Left. Rejecting the, totally erroneous, charge that he is some sort of fascist, with the non sequitur that three of his Austrian-Jewish grandparents died in Nazi concentration camps, Singer argued that left and right wing extremists are temperamentally, if not ideologically, interchangeable when he claimed that cries of 'Singer raus! …

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