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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 York Review of Books and reprinted both in the second edition of his notorious book, Practical Ethics, and in Writings on an Ethical Life.

Princeton has, predictably, defended his appointment on the grounds of academic freedom (which doesn't really reach the issue of whether he is a suitable person to hold such a chair) and, more to the point, by pointing out the quantity and prominence of Singer's professional work. Certainly, Singer has been both active and productive. A founder of the chief international professional organization in bioethics and also founder of one of the field's major journals, Singer is a prolific author as well, with more than two dozen books and scores of articles to his credit. In fact, he has enough terrible ideas to fill all these and many more volumes that are sure to come. Here is a sampling:

  • Your Alzheimer's-stricken grandmother isn't a person, but her healthy cat is. Grandma stopped being a person, for Singer, when she lost her sense of herself as someone who endures through time. She doesn't think (certain things), so she isn't, in a kind of parody of Descartes. If the family hasn't enough money to support both the grandmother and the cat, you can see whom it's more efficient, rational, and therefore, in Singer's view, more moral to put down.
  • Parents of defective newborns should be granted an indefinite waiting period (perhaps a month or more, constituting what Singer considers the infants' "pre-personal" stage), during which to decide whether to kill them and try again later in hopes of doing better.
  • We ought to do more to distribute usable organs to those likely to benefit most from them, even if that means killing me, once my prospects get quite poor, and transplanting my vital organs to you. Yes, that will shock when we kill some to help others, but as we move in a direction Singer regards as progress, he reminds us that we'll need to leave behind the doctrine that human life possesses a distinctive sanctity and, with it, the "dead donor" rule requiring us to take transplant organs only from those who have died (without our killing them).
  • We should experiment even lethally on brain-damaged people rather than healthy higher animals. Singer is a moral vegetarian, but one who has no strong objection to your eating a dead animal you happen across. His kind of utilitarianism is willing to embrace worse futures (e.g., aborting a healthy fetus for the mother's convenience) because of its favoring a restrictive notion of existent persons' "interests," not those of persons who might come to be (if we didn't, for example, kill this fetus or use these contraceptives).
  • In Singer's worldview, your not giving away all your money to the world's neediest till your plight approaches theirs is morally equivalent to your nonchalantly reading your newspaper beside a pool while ignoring the screams of a drowning child. (Indeed, he thinks it morally equivalent to drowning the child yourself.)

And so on. In this context, one might wonder how Singer's professional colleagues in moral philosophy and medical ethics react to his views. The 1999 volume Singer and His Critics is instructive—and disappointing. Some books are more interesting for what's not in them than for what is, and this book is notable mainly for what it is not. That is not to take anything away from the group of first-rate British, American, and Australasian philosophers whom editor Dale Jamieson has assembled to discuss Singer's work, nor from the essays they have written, some of them quite thoughtful, intricate, intelligent, and all of them unfailingly professional. Rather, it is the professionalism of this book that gets it into trouble and makes it the curious work it is.

One philosopher points to difficulties in Singer's view that moral judgments are more like imperatives than like statements describing the world. Another, one of Singer's Oxford teachers, defends his own "demi-vegetarianism," which permits him a little meat-eating here and there—for example, when abstinence might be socially awkward—against Singer's more stringent regimen. A third takes Singer to task for restricting his extension of moral status only to sentient animals, therein missing virtues the "critic" thinks he has found in the concern "deep ecologists" have for plants and other parts of nature. Others treat more intricate matters, such as the kind of impartiality best suited to utilitarianism or certain difficulties in Singer's claim that neglecting Third World starvation is morally equivalent to shooting its victims. The book concludes with a long final word from Singer himself, responding to his colleagues' theoretical critiques.

Of course, there's nothing wrong when philosophers, writing in a philosophy book, engage chiefly in philosophical criticism. This is as it should be. However, philosophers are also humans, and moral philosophers should be especially sensitive to the inhumanity of the views they discuss, and willing to provide moral criticism of the act of saying certain things as well as criticism of the logic and conclusions of what is said. There are too few charges here stronger than the contention that this or that position of Singer's is counterintuitive.

Not all of Singer's fellow philosophers have been so limp in their criticism. Jenny Teichman, for example, has published stinging critiques, as witty as they are devastating. [1] She has pointed out important similarities between some of Singer's doctrines and those of the Nazis, while also acknowledging differences. But Jamieson includes no essay from Teichman, nor any critique like hers. Instead, in his introductory essay, Jamie-son rages over Teichman's comparing what Singer calls his German "silencing" to someone's not getting a letter to the editor printed. (But he was invited! Jamieson insists, as if that were enough to make it clear Singer was the victim there.)

Any suggestion that Singer has gone too far and needs moral reprimand is beyond the pale, in Jamieson's view. He is in high dudgeon that the editors of an experimentalists' journal, annoyed by Singer's support for the animal liberationists who make life hard for them, allow contributors to "abus[e]" Singer by saying, among other things, that he "presents himself as an ethicist and moralist." Jamieson fumes, "it is clear that no scientific journal would publish such an abusive article on any other subject. Nor would the editors of a scientific journal treat other authors who were under attack so cavalierly."

The experimentalists' exasperation with Singer—and Jamieson's exasperation with them—contrasts illuminatingly and disturbingly with most philosophers' blase reaction to the Singers in their midst. There have been a few high-profile criticisms of Singer's views in non-academic media, but some of them were off-target. For example, a minor (and largely wrongheaded) fuss followed the revelation in The New Yorker of Singer's practical inconsistency in providing a comfortable trust-fund for his daughters and making intercontinental visits to see them (when, say, Oxfam could have done more good with the money), and in his spending money on care for his sickly and irrational mother, though the latter may no longer qualify as a person by his ethical theory.[2] Even the academic writer Peter Berkowitz picks up this theme in the very title of his New Republic article, "Other People's Mothers," as if the problem were Singer's favoritism toward his own family.[3]

George Will complains about utilitarianism's hedonism, apparently unaware that Singer, with most recent utilitarians, wants to maximize not pleasure but the satisfaction of preferences. He also chastises Singer and other utilitarians for a shallow view of life, which denies it meaning.[4] Again, this is not quite right. Singer's view is shallow not for denying that life has any meaning, but in its account of that meaning. In How Are We to Live?, Singer maintains that the meaning of a person's life comes from commitment to any of a wide variety of causes "larger than oneself" and one's own happiness. However, he recognizes that this is a claim only about human psychology—about what makes life "feel" meaningful to someone—and that he has no real rebuttal to the charge that such an account invests comparable meaning in evil lives dedicated to evil causes and in silly lives committed to silly causes.

The New Yorker's quotations from thinkers who insist that humans cannot live up to Singer's strict principles seem to suggest we ought to read Singer's own inconsistent behavior as evidence these criticisms are correct. Yet one man's behavior must be weak evidence for so sweeping a conclusion. After all, thousands of Buddhist and Catholic monks (to mention just these obvious examples) are ample proof that at least some human beings are capable of going well beyond Singer's demands for self-denial, personal sacrifice, willed hardship, subordination of appetites to a higher cause, and service to strangers.

These complaints miss the real point. The problem is not that Singer doesn't always live by his principles. Often, that would mean living down to them. Nor is it that doing so would be very difficult for most of us. Nor that he is uninterested in whether they can provide us meaningful lives. The problem is those principles themselves, and their implications.

Consider, for example, Singer's program of medicalized homicide—of abortion, of assisted and do-it-yourself suicide, of euthanasia, of parents free to kill off their disabled children for their (the parents') benefit, and so on. In Singer's scheme, such behavior is not uncharitable; rather, it is compassionate. But the chief way in which medicine reflects charity or love or compassion is in its essence as the practice and art of healing. (This is a point dear to the heart of Leon Kass, Edmund Pellegrino, and a few other beacons in the night of contemporary medical ethics.) That is the mission that historically has defined and characterized medicine. Even in this time of everyday miracles, there will be circumstances in which the physician can no longer heal, and then all she can do is to provide care. That there is nothing she can do to enhance health offers no rationale for trying to destroy it. Yet that is precisely what she does when she aims to put her patient to death or help facilitate the patient's suicide.

When some, like Teichman, have gone so far as to compare Singer's views with Nazi practice and rhetoric, he and his defenders have pointed out that Singer's own (Jewish) grandparents were put to death under the Reich. Yet our bearing that in mind, as we should, ought not silence the legitimate criticisms or the hard questions. It can still be asked, with due sensitivity: Did he learn the important lessons from their tragedy, and from the larger atrocity of which it was a part? Did he learn that every human life is sacred? That no one's life is "unworthy of life"? That minorities have rights that may not be sacrificed to the interests of majorities? That the value of a human being cannot be reduced to how much value others place on her? That the neediest and most defenseless people must be protected even against their own despair? That no one is to be put to death simply because of her condition? That living morally is more a matter of protecting the vulnerable from others' preferences than of maximizing the satisfaction of our (and some animals') preferences?

No one who knows Singer's ideas can think he has learned these lessons. His skepticism about the very language of human rights; his insistence that the severely brain-damaged, the unborn, the persistently comatose, and the unborn have no value beyond others' interest in them; his single-minded emphasis on the preferences the majority of people happen to have (and those he imagines animals to possess); his preference that the least healthy be killed for some supposedly greater good—all these views and more serve to place his ideas at the service of our society's victimizers rather than its victims.

Indeed, the philosophers' relative silence about Singer and his views—their curious lack of affect—points to larger problems afflicting the realm of mainstream practical ethics, especially "bio-ethics," in the United States. Elsewhere in the university we hear calls for a new sensitivity to the marginalized and the voiceless. It is a sad and revealing irony that it is precisely in university bioethics programs, centers, and institutes that we still hear some people derided as "vegetables," others classed as "marginal humans" or (in Singer's terminology) as "defective infants."

Singer objects to those who still complain that in the original (1979) edition of Practical Ethics, he called some severely handicapped children "defective infants." That's "unfair," he says, pointing out that for the 1993 edition "the language has changed to 'disabled.'" He's not insensitive; he knows that "fashions change in terms of the language you use."[5]

Perhaps it is worth recalling that the context of these discussions of handicapped children is Singer's doubt about whether there is much reason not to kill them. Compare chapter 7, "Taking Life: Euthanasia," in the first edition of Practical Ethics with chapter 7, "Taking Life: Humans," in the second. The former includes Singer's line that killing such infants is not like killing persons: "Very often it is not wrong at all." The language has changed in the second edition, but one would be hard-pressed to see the latter as evidence of a changed heart, of a reformed and refined moral sensibility. Singer's own remarks make it plain that any change is purely cosmetic, restricted to terms of expression, not of substance. He refers to lives "not worth living" (and, by implication, not worth saving), and suggests that we should vivisect those in a so-called "persistent vegetative state."

Some years ago, the then-Surgeon General of the United States coarsened the tone of discourse with her sneer that those disturbed by atrocities against the unborn should give up their "love affair with the fetus." If medical ethics and, more important, ethical medicine are to survive in this moral sewer, they must consciously swim against the current. Certainly, the public is poorly served when it entrusts policy and decisions over life, death, health, and justice to a clerisy of academic elites trained to evaluate moral positions mainly for the cleverness, rigor, and originality with which they are formulated, oftentimes with scant attention paid to the indecency of their conclusions and the moral poverty of the thought that informs them. This danger is acute today, when medical insurers exert pressure to cut costs and to maximize "efficient" use of resources.

In a decent society, those who speak for ethics would respond to such a context by taking up the cause of the despairing against those whose idea of mercy is to "assist" them in suicide, the cause of the unwanted against those eager to dispatch them before birth (and, like Singer, even a little after), the cause of the severely brain-damaged against those who can see in them only nonpersons fit for unconsented-to experimentation or a speedy death. They would champion the cause of panicked poor women against those who offer them the cruel "choice" between the Republicans' reduced public assistance and the Democrats' state-subsidized abortions, the cause of human dignity against those bent on subjecting human life at its earliest, most malleable, and most vulnerable stages to destructive, degrading, and sometimes literally monstrous experiments.

In our society, unfortunately, the academy's most celebrated ethics specialists are sure to weigh in on the other side, brushing off the lives and needs of the least fortunate and the voiceless with condescending rhetoric about people whose lives are of insufficient "quality," with rigged and insulting criteria of "personhood," with an assortment of specious "principles," with hubristic fantasies of "autonomy," "human enhancement," and "self-creation," and with the rest of the intellectual apparatus that those privileged in health and education employ as they vindicate our victimizing and destroying the worst-off.

Singer was right when he wrote in The New York Times Magazine, almost three decades ago, that "philosophers [were] back on the job." He meant the job of evaluating the social world in which we live and helping design and defend programs of reform. More recently, in an interview in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Singer sees himself as fulfilling "the philosopher's role. … of challenging society to think clearly about some things it might take for granted. … Their role is to get people to question things that they might not otherwise have questioned." (In contrast, he tells his interviewer, "Religion has a major impact—basically in stopping people from thinking.")

Singer and other like-minded thinkers have certainly been "on the job." Can we say the same for the defenders of life? Views which were widely regarded as outrageous when Singer first proposed them three decades ago now command wide assent. This is evident in the recent demand for assisted suicide not just from some of the nation's most prominent moral theorists but also from many prominent physicians—and in surveys indicating substantial physician support for such assistance in theory and practice. The contamination of contemporary medical ethics has already escaped the seminar room to infect the air of ICUs, maternity wards, and neonatal wards. This is a challenge for philosophers, theologians, lawyers, physicians, and others working in the field to address in their own professional and personal lives. It is also one for the directors of bioethics institutes and think tanks to address, along with their superiors in academic administration, on boards of directors and trustees, and for donors as well.

We all need to avoid self-righteousness. Few of us can claim to have done enough to protect the most innocent and victimized—the brain-damaged, the un- and newly born, the persistently comatose, and the others—from their victimizers. Still, fear of appearing self-righteous can itself be a way of abdicating our common responsibility to face down evil and call it by its name.

J.L.A. Garcia is professor of philosophy at Boston College.

Books discussed in this essay

Practical Ethics, by Peter Singer (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1979, 1993).

How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest, by Peter Singer (Prometheus, 1995).

Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer (Ecco Press/HarperCollins, 2000).

Singer and His Critics, edited by Dale Jamieson (Blackwell, 1999).


1. See for example Jenny Teichman, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The New Criterion, October 2000, pp. 64-67.

2. Michael Specter, "The Dangerous Philosopher." The New Yorker, September 6, 1999, pp. 46-55.

3. Peter Berkowitz, "Other People's Mothers: The Utilitarian Horrors of Peter Singer." The New Republic, January 10, 2000, pp. 27-37.

4. George Will, "Life and Death at Princeton." Newsweek, September 13, 1999, pp. 80, 82.

5. Kathryn Federici Greenwood, "Dangerous Words: An Interview with Peter Singer." Princeton Alumni Weekly, January 26, 2000, pp. 18-20.

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