The ethics of baby-killing

His protesters call him a Nazi, a hater and a snob, but the most interesting truth about Peter Singer is that there are many more like him.

By Jason Zinoman
July 2, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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On a gray Saturday morning in April, two vastly dissimilar groups congregated in front of Nassau Hall at the center of Princeton University's campus. A band of handicapped protesters, who had come to New Jersey to rally against the appointment of the new Ira W. De Camp professor of bioethics, Peter Singer, stood 40 feet from a neat circle of prospective parents, eagerly listening to undergraduate David Beal sell them on the virtues of the Ivy League school.

Beal, a red-faced enthusiast with a surplus of school spirit, lectured
loudly about the glorious diversity of Princeton University: All 50 states
are represented in the student body, he explained, and public figures like
Toni Morrison and Dan Quayle come to speak. As he spit out his practiced
speech, a bitter-looking disabled man who learned about Peter Singer that
day began a lonely chant: "Hey hey, ho ho/Peter Singer's got to go./Hey
hey, ho ho..." Although a few parents turned their heads, most of them didn't
seem to notice at all.

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An accomplished scholar and intellectual pioneer, Peter Singer first gained
attention with his book "Animal Liberation," which sparked the animal
rights movement. More recently, the Australian philosopher has been
attacked for his rigorously utilitarian views on the sanctity, or lack
thereof, of human life. His most controversial stance is his belief that
it's not always morally wrong to kill a severely disabled infant who is not
rational, self-aware and autonomous -- the three morally significant
qualities, he argues, when considering the life of a sentient being.

In a recent New York Times article, Sylvia Nasar compared the controversy surrounding Singer to the one that flared when City College hired Bertrand Russell in 1940, only to later rescind the offer because of the philosopher's liberal views on
premarital sex. But nobody thinks that Princeton University will rescind its offer to Peter Singer. Princeton's president has consistently
defended Singer, and the faculty and alumni, like those prospective parents, have studiously ignored the controversy.

Buoyed by newspaper articles and outraged editorials, however, a small anti-Singer group on campus planned an early morning protest to boost its cause. The anti-Singer rally featured about 200 sign-toting protesters, several of whom made short, orchestrated speeches. From their
commentary, it appeared that few had read more than brief excerpts from Singer's writing; they had a wildly sinister view of his philosophy.
Many of these veteran activists were part of New Jersey Right to Life, which had held a smaller demonstration at Princeton months before. The pro-lifers were joined by a smaller crowd of handicapped-rights activists, led by contingents from Disabilities in Action and the Illinois group Not Dead Yet, whose president, Carol Cleigh, has been quoted as calling the professor "the most dangerous man in the world today."

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The protesters carried signs with slogans like "Go Back Down Under"; the smattering of speeches were laced with lines like, "I'm not a philosopher or an ethicist but I do know what is right and wrong." The general message: Singer is an arrogant, elitist intellectual who has come to America to poison the minds of our Ivy League youth. The protesters called him a killer, a Nazi, a hater and, perhaps most telling of all, a snob. One sign proclaimed, "Dr. Singer: the new Dr. Mengele." Murray Sabrin, a New Jersey Republican candidate for Senate, accused Singer of advocating "infanticide as a mainstream philosophical premise" and joked, "This proves that anything is believable, especially in
higher education."

Oddly, when people attacked Singer, many started talking about the danger
he posed to them personally. "I'm elderly," moaned Jon Rutkowski. "So what
are we going to do next, kill the old people? I think I'm valuable to
society."

In the most dramatic example of this kind of personalized
politics, the burly ex-captain of the Princeton football team spoke to the
assembled crowd. A big fellow with a small voice, the quarterback touched on everything from the abomination of homosexual acts to the immorality of premarital sex (no
doubt he would have been keen to protest Bertrand Russell as well). The hiring of Peter Singer was just the last slide down the slippery, tie-dyed slope of moral relativism. And no one was spared blame.

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"We're all cowards," he shouted. "Let's admit it. At school, I didn't speak
up because I thought I'd be laughed at. At work, I don't speak up because I
don't want to be fired."

The crowd madly cheered for their own cowardice,
raising the rally to a feverish pitch. Yet conspicuously absent from this
event was any substantial student or faculty presence. Chris Benek, founder of Students Against Infanticide, which organized the rally, explained away the low student turnout as just another reflection of youthful apoliticism. "Students here are ridiculously apathetic," he said. "They're just more interested in
academics." Yet it wasn't just students who ignored the rally. Although organizers sought appearances from every single Republican presidential candidate -- a pool of people presumably out searching for viable political issues to endorse or condemn -- all declined the invitation.

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After such heartfelt recriminations from so many varying special interest
groups, why hadn't the protest inspired a more robust response? Had this
odd coalition of conservatives, disability activists and euthanasia opponents
failed to create a coherent enough message? Or had the media blown the
whole controversy way out of proportion?

Despite all the alarmist profiles and editorials, it's doubtful that Singer
holds any real threat to our nation's children. He isn't advocating that
the government or doctors make life-and-death decisions instead of parents;
in fact, he wants parents to have more power to make these decisions. Nor
is he taking an active role outside the academy like the recently convicted
Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He's simply pursuing the logical conclusions of his
utilitarian philosophy -- a philosophy that happens to constitute a
perfectly mainstream field of thought within contemporary academia.

According to Dale Jamieson, a philosophy professor at Carleton University,
there are several prominent philosophers -- from Dick Hare at Oxford to the
University of Wisconsin's Dan Wikler -- who are "generally on the same
side of these issues [infanticide and euthanasia]." So why is Singer the
only one who gets protested?

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In part it may be his own willingness to enter the fray of public debate.
As New York University philosophy professor Peter Unger argues: "People
have gotten the idea that he is a guy who just gets protests." With his
1991 essay for the New York Review of Books chronicling the banning of his
work in Germany, Singer cemented his reputation as one of philosophy's only bad boys.

Some might argue that such moves reveal that Singer invites notoriety, but
what finally makes Singer unique and controversial is not what he says, but
how he says it. Not only does Singer write more lucid and cogent prose than
most philosophers, but he also doesn't mince words. He can turn a glib
phrase as well as the next media personality, and drive a polemical point
home like a seasoned rabble-rouser. One of the chapters in his book
"Practical Ethics" is titled "What's Wrong With Killing," and he begins
"Animal Liberation" with this ringing accusation: "This book is about the
tyranny of human over nonhuman animals. This tyranny has caused and today
is still causing an amount of pain and suffering that can only be compared
with that which resulted from the centuries of tyranny by white humans over
black humans. The struggle against this tyranny is a struggle as important
as any of the moral and social issues that have been fought over in recent
years."

It is such direct, jargon-less prose that sometimes leaves him open to popular attack. Singer obviously wants to be part of the public discourse on these issues. In an e-mail, he admits that protests "can be constructive, if people are willing to discuss the issues openly and honestly." While this is undoubtedly true, Singer, familiar with the hyperbole and distortions of political protests, was quick to add, "Unfortunately, often they are not."


Jason Zinoman

Jason Zinoman is a writer living in New York City.

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