Philosopher Peter Singer Believes the Terminally Ill and Severely Handicapped Have Less Right to Life Than Animals.But What Will He Do Now That His Own Elderly Mother Is Dying of Alzheimer's Disease?

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), September 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

Philosopher Peter Singer Believes the Terminally Ill and Severely Handicapped Have Less Right to Life Than Animals.But What Will He Do Now That His Own Elderly Mother Is Dying of Alzheimer's Disease?


Byline: SHARON CHURCHER

His critics nickname him 'Professor Death' and it is a sobriquet Peter Singer, the world's most controversial philosopher, has done much to earn.

The genial-looking Australian-born and Oxford-educated university teacher is perhaps best known for his suggestion that it may be more compassionate to use human embryos or disabled babies than healthy rats for medical experiments.

His first book on the topic, Animal Liberation, has sold half-a-million copies and was a huge influence on the international animal rights movement with its claim that 'adult chimpanzees, dogs, pigs and members of many other species' deserve the same rights and, in some cases, more rights, than humans. But it is his sequel, Practical Ethics, that lays out his manifesto in explicit detail.

The most successful philosophy text ever published by Cambridge University Press, it essentially argues that the world would be a happier and more just and prosperous place if it was legal to kill off people who are severely handicapped, senile or terminally ill.

'These human beings. . . are not self-conscious, rational, or autonomous, and so considerations of a right to life. . . do not apply,' Singer says.

They are 'non-persons' and as such their lives 'have no intrinsic value', and therefore it is morally

justifiable to terminate them with 'non-voluntary euthanasia'.

An imposing man, who speaks in a charismatically deep baritone, he also defends the Chinese practice of killing unwanted baby girls.

Newborn children are 'clearly not' people 'in the ethically relevant sense', he has declared.

To Singer's critics, there is a familiarity to his views. The Wall Street Journal recently reminded its readers that the Nazis shared his love and respect for nature. It has compared him to Hitler's ideological henchman, Martin Bormann.

For Singer's disciples, however, many of whom are young people with little sense of history, it is his extremism that makes him so seductive.

His worldwide following has grown from vegans and laboratory saboteurs to millions of college students for whom his books have been made required reading by liberal faculties that regard him as one of the most important philosophers of the age.

And last week he started work in America as the first professor of bioethics at Princeton, New Jersey - the Ivy League university which counts Albert Einstein among its former staff members.

It is a job at the very heart of the political and academic establishment and it has given him the greatest and potentially most authoritative platform of his career. He will be one of the principal advisers to the Clinton administration on medical ethics.

And with health care resources stretched as never before, there is every prospect that his proposals for eliminating all those 'non-people' occupying hospital and nursing home beds will find new support.

He will be in 'the front line of battle', he declared as he prepared to leave his native Melbourne to take up his new post.

But in a supremely paradoxical twist of fate, Singer finds that just as his controversial philosophy has brought him the ultimate in academic respectability his very beliefs have been undermined by a simple but tragic fact: his mother has been stricken with Alzheimer's disease.

Cora Singer, who is in her eighties, has been reduced to a state of such mental infirmity that she no longer recognises her 53-year-old son or his three daughters. She has become a 'non-person' and candidate for the 'non-voluntary euthanasia' that Singer advocates in his most popular textbook, Practical Ethics, and which he will assign as reading material to his Princeton students.

The book suggests that not only is it morally permissible to kill 'non-persons', it is potentially immoral for families to spend (or, as Singer would would see it, squander) money on taking care of them. …

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