In defence of Peter Singer


Peter Singer / photo by Leif Tuxen / petersinger.info 

Australia’s most famous – or most notorious – philosopher, Peter Singer, has been de-platformed in New Zealand. He was scheduled to speak about “effective altruism” at an event in Auckland in June. The disability community was outraged.

The venue, SkyCity, a casino and entertainment venue, released a statement saying, "Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity." The organisers are scrambling to find a different venue.

The anger of the disability community is hardly surprising. Singer is a utilitarian ethicist and contends (this is a very rough summary) that consciousness is the touchstone of dignity. This compels him to support the infanticide of disabled infants. In a book that he published in 1979, Practical Ethics, he wrote:

[Being a member of he species] Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings … (Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. p 182)

If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee is to the nonhuman animal. (p 169)

Singer is and always has been an uncompromising opponent of the unique sanctity of human life – which is why the disabled community in New Zealand opposes his presence. Even back in the 1990s Singer was persona non grata in Germany and Austria. After the Holocaust, medical experimentation by Nazi doctors and involuntary euthanasia, his ideas were unspeakably repugnant there.

But why shouldn’t Singer be allowed to speak? I have no sympathy for Singer’s ideas. In fact, I have published about a dozen articles in MercatorNet critiquing them.

But denying him the freedom to express his abhorrent ideas will only give them more credibility. For some young people, there is nothing more attractive than transgressive ideas expressed with his serene logic (however specious). And Singer is transgression on steroids. Take this excerpt from an interview with a Swiss newspaper a few years ago:

Would you go as far as to torture a baby if this were to bring about permanent happiness for the whole of mankind?

Singer: … I may not be capable of doing it, as it is in my evolutionarily developed nature to protect children from harm. But it would be the right thing to do. Because if I didn't, thousands of children would be tortured in the future.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If Singer’s ideas are deplorable, surely it must be possible to demonstrate that they are. De-platforming people for expressing wicked ideas is nearly always a wicked idea.

“Diversity and inclusivity” is meaningless wokery to mask the fact that the casino is worried about reputational damage, aka losing money. But there is no one more inclusive than Peter Singer – and that’s partly why his ideas are dangerous. He wants to include animals like the great apes, pig and dolphins in the expanding circle of beings whose lives we value.

In any case Singer was not invited to Auckland to defend his ideas about abortion, euthanasia or infanticide. The organisers of his tour asked him to speak about “effective altruism”, his plan for saving the world from poverty. I heard him spruik effective altruism in Melbourne a few years ago and I left the lecture room thinking that it was such an implausible parody of Christian charity that it called his whole ethical theory into question.

Besides, Singer, however awful his ideas, is consistent. He defends free speech not only for himself, but for his opponents.

Consider this. In 2012 students at the University of Sydney tried to prevent a pro-life club from starting up on the campus. They wrote to Singer to enlist his support, no doubt expecting him to damn their opponents. But Singer declined.

"I have been an advocate of legal abortion since I was an undergraduate myself, when abortion was illegal; but I am also a strong supporter of freedom of speech," Singer wrote. "A university, in particular, should be a place where ideas are able to be freely expressed. Students should be challenged to defend the ideas they take for granted."

I sympathise with New Zealand’s disability advocates. But de-platforming Peter Singer can only harm their cause.

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge.   




MORE ON THESE TOPICS | disability, effective altruism, peter singer

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