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To Die For

Superstar ethicist Peter Singer brings his controversal credo to UVM


Published October 6, 2004 at 4:00 a.m.

Eli Clare was born with cerebral palsy. Because he was slow to walk and talk, doctors followed up that diagnosis with another: mental retardation. But they were wrong about his cognitive abilities, as is immediately obvious after five minutes on the phone with the activist and administrative assistant, who works for University of Vermont's disabled students services program.

Clare speaks with difficulty, but perfect eloquence, against an upcoming appearance of philosopher Peter Singer. Along with philanthropy, animal rights and organ donation, the Australian ethicist supports infanticide for certain severely disabled humans. He believes parents of children with major health problems should have the right to eliminate their offspring -- up to 28 days after birth.

Clare finds that notion personally "threatening," so he's helping to organize a protest at Singer's Thursday lecture at the University of Vermont. "I wouldn't have made Peter Singer's criteria," Clare observes, noting that non-disabled people typically undervalue the "quality of life" of those with severe handicaps. "How would Peter Singer's thinking be turned into policy?" he worries. "And how would that policy have impacted my early existence on the planet in 1963?"

Singer has plenty of detractors. According to The New Yorker magazine, he's perhaps the "most controversial philosopher alive. He's certainly among the most influential." When Princeton University hired him on as a professor of bioethics in 1999, a group called Not Dead Yet circulated a petition in opposition, characterizing his views as a "blatant violation of Princeton University's policy of respect for people with disabilities."

Singer, who is an atheist, responds to his critics with dispassionate reason -- and, at least for his Vermont visit, police protection. With books that are as well researched and rigorous as they are accessible and jargon-free, he lays out an argument for a new, improved ethic that "provides practical solutions to problems we now find insoluble." He asks that his views "be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended." Many have been convinced, judging from his book sales all over the world.

"Singer's made an effort to reach out, and he's been very successful in that," says UVM philosophy professor Don Loeb. "That's his greatest contribution."

In conversation, too, the world-renowned ethicist is generous and articulate. When Harriet McBryde Johnson first met Singer in 2001, she was prepared to hate him. Instead, the severely disabled lawyer chronicled her exchange with "The Evil One" in a remarkable article for The New York Times Magazine. "Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can't help being dazzled by his verbal facility," she wrote last year. "He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I'm not exactly angry with him."

Armchair ethicists, and teachers, may have a tougher time getting through to Singer. His email generates an automatic response that graciously directs them to his website. The "frequently asked questions" section offers succinct Singer statements on three general subjects.

Under "affluence and poverty," he outlines the problem of global economic disparity and the responsibility of first-world citizens to correct the imbalance. He promotes the utilitarian position of "giving where it will do the most good" -- even if local causes are equally compelling. "Our money will go much further, and help more people, if we send it to an organization working in developing nations."

Singer's concern extends to all creatures, and his arguments to that effect have brought intellectual oomph to the animal-rights movement. He argues "pain is equally bad, whether it is felt by a human being or a mouse" and rejects the idea of Homo sapiens being at the center of the universe. In his book Animal Liberation, he equates "speciesism" with racism and sexism.

Singer has also written on the ethics of globalization, guardianship and George W. Bush. His latest book, The President of Good and Evil, examines the moral philosophy of our commander-in-chief. Forthcoming is a book about lessons in literature, entitled The Moral of the Story. But of the various topics Singer offered to address, Loeb chose the one likely to generate the most heat for UVM's annual Zeltzerman Lecture: "Ethics and the Sanctity of Human Life."

"After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed," Singer asserts in an excerpt from Rethinking Life and Death. Even without referencing Florida's Terri Schiavo case, which involved Gov. Jeb Bush, he comes up with plenty of end-of-life absurdities, including a comatose son liberated from the respirator by his gun-toting father.

Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer a long and painful death will likely be nodding in agreement -- until Singer lets go one of his shocker lines, such as "Modern medical practice has become incompatible with belief in the equal value of all human life." He makes the distinction between humans and persons, defining the latter as possessing qualities such as rational thinking, self-awareness and a concept of the future.

Singers asserts that the lives of those who lack these aspects of "personhood" may not be worth living -- be they brain-damaged accident victims, pain-addled cancer patients or severely disabled infants. In some cases he sanctions killing them -- a practice that already goes on routinely, he points out, as a result of fetal detection. He makes a logical argument that anyone who is "pro-choice" should also be pro-infanticide.

Singer takes no prisoners when he considers the world's most vexing problems. His ethical inquiries transcend politics and religion. "People have changed their lives as a result of reading his works," Loeb suggests, "whether it's becoming a vegetarian or giving more to particular kinds of charities." If they read enough Singer, they may choose, also, to change their deaths.

SEVEN DAYS: Are most of your detractors religious?

PETER SINGER: A lot of them are, but not all of them. I mean, Harriet Johnson is an example, you know, to the extent that she is a detractor and she certainly disagrees vigorously with some of the things that I've said. She's not religious.

SD: Is your philosophy compatible with religion, do you think?

PS: I think it's compatible with it, but it would be an unusual religious belief and probably not one widely held. But there certainly have been religious people who thought, essentially, God is a utilitarian who wants to maximize happiness. That was a view held a long time ago in the 18th century by a theologian called William Paley... Generally I do see my ethics as an alternative, at least to the standard conventional religious views.

SD: You even update the Commandments to better guide us through a world complicated by modern medicine. When the Bible was written, we didn't have prenatal detection, organ donation or artificial resuscitation.

PS: That's right, yes, obviously. There are a whole lot of new problems. People trying to deal with them just from the basis of scripture, I think, really have a hard time. For some reason, they tend to take a pretty conservative stance about it -- not all of them, but most of them.

SD: Why are you so attracted to these hot-button issues: abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, George Bush's ethical life... I mean, most philosophers tend to contemplate less controversial topics.

PS: I think that precisely because they are out there in the community, and they matter, and there are public policies and laws being drawn up about them, it's important to get some clear thinking going. That's what I'm trying to do. That's what I think philosophy can contribute where people have not been thinking very clearly, or have simply automatically assumed religious premises... I think that philosophers have a role to step in and try to argue a little more rigorously.

SD: In your Vermont lecture, you're talking about changing attitudes toward the sanctity of human life. You make the point that our standard view of the ethics of life and death is "morally incoherent." Doctors will remove a feeding tube, but they won't administer a lethal injection to someone who is begging for it. A woman can choose to abort a fetus diagnosed with Down syndrome, but a severely disabled newborn has a right to life. How did we end up in this predicament, surrounded by all these ethical contradictions?

PS: What happens is, you get a basic ethic about taking lives and killing and so on, which works pretty well -- or reasonably well, I guess -- in circumstances that existed a hundred years ago... Babies born with some of the conditions I talked about didn't have a chance of living anyway. So then modern medicine comes along and gives us all sorts of powers to keep people alive in situations where previously they would have died, or it forces us to refine our understanding of when a being comes into existence... an embryo in a lab that's viable... is something you couldn't have 30 years ago. It forces us to make these decisions, and our older ethic, which was rather simple, just doesn't handle these things very well. It gets us into trouble.

SD: You talk about the British House of Lords decision to end the life of Tony Bland -- a young soccer fan who was critically injured in a human stampede. Ethically speaking, why was that such a landmark case?

PS: It was a landmark case because the British courts were quite open in acknowledging that the course of action that they were approving was intended to bring about Tony Bland's death. There was no disguising it, or euphemisms to dress it up -- as American courts, for example, have done -- saying, well, we're merely respecting the person's wishes, or we don't have the right to provide medical treatment without consent, or something of that sort. There was no real debate about what his wishes were: He had not expressed any wishes, nobody knew, but the courts accepted on the basis of the evidence that his continued life was of no benefit to him, and that the doctors could proceed with a course of treatment that was designed to end his life. So here are the courts actually saying, you know, straight out, it can be right to take the life of an innocent human... the continuation of life can be of no benefit to the person whose life it is.

SD: One of your central premises is that all human life is not of equal value. Isn't there a societal benefit -- even from a utilitarian point of view -- in having severely disabled people amongst us? Their struggles are living proof of what the human can accomplish. That's inspiring for everyone.

PS: If we want the human will to struggle to overcome adversity, there are lots of unfortunate people in our society already that we can help. Unfortunately, millions of them never really make it. If that's what you want to do, there's no shortage of people out there.

If a family said, "We want our severely disabled child to live. We think that struggle will be ennobling for us," I wouldn't stand in their way of doing that. I just think another family that says, "No, that kind of struggle would ruin our family life and be devastating to our existing children and... our relationship" -- I just think they should have a different choice.

SD: Do you support stem-cell research?

PS: I think if it's as promising as the scientists tell us, it's something we should be going ahead with. I think the objections that Bush and his supporters are making are not valid ones, and I've argued that in more detail in President of Good and Evil. Research should be funded on its scientific merits, not on whether embryos are destroyed to obtain the stem cells.

SD: Some won't like the logic that opponents of late-term abortions should also be vegetarians.

PS: Yeah, well, if they are going to describe themselves as pro-life, then it's hard to see why they are causing death just because they like the taste of a certain product.

SD: Did you read The New Yorker piece about the guy who claims to have been inspired by you? He gave away millions, then donated a kidney to a poor black woman against the advice of his own wife and family. Now he's talking about giving up a lobe of a lung or part of his liver.

PS: Actually, I've invited him to one of my classes next week.

SD: Which class?

PS: I'm teaching a freshman seminar called "Ethical Choices."

SD: The guy, Zell Kravinsky, suggests that anyone who doesn't donate their spare kidney is essentially a murderer. Do you agree with that?

PS: I don't think there's much point in saying you're a murderer if you don't donate a kidney... But if you say, look, you have to accept the fact that there may be someone who dies because of your refusal to donate a kidney, which you could give at very little risk to yourself, then he's probably right. That's a sobering thought to reflect on.

SD: What's your view on the buying and selling of organs?

PS: I used to be firmly opposed to that. I guess I've shifted a little bit now, because other efforts to increase the supply haven't been successful enough. I've started to think that under certain reasonably strict regulation, it could be a good way of increasing the supply, and could even bring about a benefit to people who need money more than they need two kidneys.

SD: Do you think your scholarship is actively changing policy?

PS: The area where it's changed it the most has probably to do with animals... A broader movement has taken up some of the things I have written. They've made a difference in a number of areas -- particularly, say, in Europe, which is far in advance of the United States in terms of its concern for animal welfare and its laws about it. In other areas, it's harder to say.

SD: What about life-and-death issues?

PS: I think my work has raised a lot of questions for discussion and made it possible for people to be more open about some of the things they were doing. But I'm not sure that it's really changed our laws or public policies very much.

SD: Is that your ultimate goal?

PS: I guess my goal is to influence the way people think about this. In democracies, the way people think ... should be translated into public