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J.L.A. Garcia

Professor of Death

Peter Singer and the scandal of "bioethics."

In 1998, after a long search, Princeton University announced the appointment of the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, effective July 1, 1999, to fill a newly established chair as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the university's Center for Human Values. To many observers, the appointment recalled the perverse logic of Jonathan Swift's "Modest Proposal." The DeCamp Professor of Bioethics is in fact an implacable enemy of life, going further than most of his colleagues in his enthusiasm for our society's "little murders" (mercy killing, assisted suicide, abortion, infanticide, etc.), and decrying our tendency to regard life as sacred. As for "Human Values," he has little use for most of the central elements of ethical sensibility and compunction, seeing rights and virtues as mere instruments in the service of maximizing the satisfaction of interests; and indeed he vigorously rejects the notion that there are distinctively human values—a view he dismisses as the pernicious consequence of "speciesism."

Singer's appointment provoked a flurry of protest and a number of articles in the popular press, pro and con. Before long, the furor died down with little apparent consequence, though Singer credits the controversy with inspiring his most recent book, Writings on an Ethical Life, in which he has compiled a representative selection of his writings.

Almost a decade before this American controversy, Singer was confronted in Germany by activists for the handicapped, who were appalled by his views that brain-damaged and otherwise disadvantaged individuals might be subpersonal, without rights, and entitled to little protection against being put to death for what others perceive as their interests or others'. The German protesters' refusal to let him address a conference led to a physical scuffle in which Singer's glasses were broken, an incident he describes, not without indignation and self-pity, in his essay "Being Silenced in Germany," first published in The New ...

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