Magazine article The Human Life Review

Professor Pleasure-Or Professor Death?

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Professor Pleasure-Or Professor Death?

Article excerpt

When Princeton University's Center for Human Values offered Peter Singer the Ira W DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics, the center's leaders may not have realized what they were getting. A somewhat obscure academic at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Mr. Singer is well known in his field for an uncompromising philosophy that pulls together the disparate strands of abortion-rights proponents, animal-rights activists and advocates of euthanasia. His philosophy may unintentionally do more damage to liberal pieties than a thousand Alan Blooms ever could.

Give Mr. Singer his due. The soft-spoken Australian has a simple and clear principle to apply to all these moral debates: "The most obvious reason for valuing the life of a being capable of experiencing pleasure or pain is the pleasure it can experience." So, he goes on to explain, in order to increase the "total sum" of pleasure, we can either bring into the world more beings capable of experiencing pleasure, increase the pleasure of already existing beings or remove what he calls "miserable beings."

If cows lead pleasurable lives, Mr. Singer is for saving them from the butcher's knife; if handicapped people have lives that aren't pleasurable, Mr. Singer stands equally ready to have them killed. Thus Mr. Singer supports all forms of euthanasia, voluntary or not; abortion and infanticide; and rights for animals. And who decides which lives are pleasurable? Presumably people as enlightened as Mr. Singer.

There is an impressive, if lunatic, consistency to his arguments. Unlike many pro-choice, animal-rights, or "death with dignity" advocates, he does not feel compelled to hide his views behind euphemisms. Indeed he makes no compromises at all for traditional notions of morality. Mr. Singer claims that the problem with the way most professors teach ethics is that they "assume that the point of moral philosophy is to provide a theory that meets as many moral intuitions as possible."

"But," he told me in an interview, "many of our considered moral intuitions are formed for selfish reasons, or for religious reasons which were once strong but are now outdated." For instance, we justify killing animals because we want to eat them, he argues, and we prevent some women from choosing abortion merely because the pope tells us to. Mr. Singer wants to take us into a brave new world where these traditional notions don't apply.

So what is Princeton, one of the most prestigious universities in the country, doing giving Mr. Singer a platform? Justin Harmon, the university's director of communications, notes Mr. Singer's degrees from Oxford and Melbourne Universities and his publication of more than 10 books, and assures us that "experts in the field of ethics have been impressed with Mr. Singer." Mr. Harmon allows that "many of the faculty who participated in the search process disagree with his conclusions and the process by which he comes to those conclusions," but adds: "It's not the university's position to make people comfortable."

It would be interesting to know just how comfortable Mr. Singer makes his new colleagues at Princeton. He certainly causes discomfort on the left, since his arguments expose the inconsistencies many of them would rather paper over.

Consider Mr. Singer's stance on abortion. …

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