Peter Singer's Views Deserve Scorn, Not Awards

Wesley J. Smith
Center for Bioethics and Culture Network
June 26, 2012
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Denise Applewhite/Princeton Universi

It is a disturbing sign of the times that Princeton’s notorious bioethicist Peter Singer has been awarded Australia’s highest civic award “for eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare and the human condition.”

This is a disgrace. Would the promoter of racial bigotry ever receive such a prestigious award? No matter how eloquently communicated or elegantly written, not a chance in the world. But as we will see below, Singer’s views are just as discriminatory as racial supremacism. Indeed, considering the potentially dire consequences to the medically vulnerable in specific, and universal human rights in general, perhaps even more dangerous.

Singer adamantly opposes human exceptionalism, that is, he denies the sanctity of life ethic and the existence of intrinsic human dignity—the backbone of Western freedom. Not only that, but Singer claims that holding the lives and well being of humans to have greater import than those of animals is immoral discrimination against animals—a concept known as “speciesism.”

To avoid the odor of speciesism, Singer advocates that we eschew the principle of universal human equality in favor of judging the value of individuals—be they human or animal—individually. Specifically, Singer wrote in Animal Liberation:

To avoid speciesism we must allow that beings who are similar in all relevant respects have a similar right to life—and mere membership in our own biological species cannot be a morally relevant criterion for this right . . . A chimpanzee, dog, or pig, for instance, will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of senility.

Singer thus proposes a radical departure in the morality of society: individuals with higher cognitive capacities or abilities would have greater moral worth than those with lower acumen. Singer calls this the “quality of life ethic,” and he proposes that it explicitly replace the sanctity of human life view. This would mean that the right to life (as just one example) would not be inherent but would vary individual by individual and moment by moment.

Singer claims that personhood should replace humanhood as the measure of highest value. In this view, individuals who are not self-aware are not “persons,” and thus have lower value—to the point that so-called human non persons can be killed. In this regard, Singer made an explicit moral equivalency between some people and mackerel in Rethinking Life and Death, writing “Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is a person the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person.”

Singer’s infamous pro infanticide views are well known. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. For example:

• Singer supports using the disabled in medical experiments: In 2006, Singer enraged animal rights activists over the use of monkeys in researching cures for Parkinson’s disease. But he would have said the same thing about using human “non-persons.” In fact, he often has. For example, when asked by Psychology Today about the benefits that chimps provided in developing the hepatitis vaccine, Singer said that disabled humans should be used in such research instead.

• Singer is pro-medical discrimination: Singer supports health care rationing, writing in the July 15, 2009, New York Times, “The debate over health care reform in the United States should start from the premise that some form of health care rationing is both inescapable and desirable.” Singer prefers the “Quality Adjusted Life Year” (QALY) approach that has been used for years by the United Kingdom’s socialized National Health Service. QALYs give greater value to the lives of the able-bodied and young than to people with disabilities and the elderly (which are “adjusted” down based on low “quality”) when determining whether the cost of a treatment is worth the price.

• Singer has defended bestiality: Singer positively reviewed a book celebrating the history of bestiality, and concluded that the proscription against sex with animals was merely a vestigial “taboo” from a more sexually repressed era. Indeed, he extolled a woman for being unconcerned at the prospect of forced sexual intercourse with an orangutan, on the basis that “We are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.”

• Singer Co-Founded The Great Ape Project (GAP): The GAP was the brainchild of Peter Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri, and seeks “equality beyond humanity.” Realizing that obtaining equal moral consideration for all animals will be a multi-generational project, Singer and Cavalieri decided to “break the species barrier” by obtaining legal recognition that all great apes—us, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and bonobos—are a “community of equals.” In what could be construed as a parody of the Declaration of Independence, Cavalieri and Singer identified three rights—not intended as an exhaustive list—to which all members of the community of equals are entitled: 1: The Right to Life, 2: “The Protection of Individual Liberty;” and, 3: “The Prohibition of Torture.”

A Peter Singer world would be profoundly immoral. It would be a society in which babies that did not suit the interests of their parents could be killed. It would be an era in which the most vulnerable human beings—living fetuses, unwanted infants, people with profound cognitive impairments—could be used in medical experiments of the kind decried by the Nuremberg Code and/or be subjected to death by organ harvesting. It would be a world in which universal human rights would have been discarded and replaced by a society in which our rights were subject to revocation based on our quality of life.

And yet, despite these and other awful consequences, he’s the most celebrated bioethicist and moral philosopher of our times.

Here’s the hard truth: The problem isn’t Singer. The real source of the moral collapse comes because too many of us are unwilling or unable to defend the intrinsic dignity and importance of human life.