Not Your Usual Ethics Professor Peter Singer, Who Heads Princeton University's Center For Human Values, Is Sure That Animals Have Rights. He's Not So Sure That Disabled Infants Do.

Posted: September 21, 1999

PRINCETON — Always, it comes back to the baby with hemophilia.

Mention Peter Singer, and his detractors - who are many and very vocal - will take you directly to the chapter in his Practical Ethics entitled "Taking Life: Humans," and this startling passage:

"When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.

"The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him."

Singer, 53, is the new head of Princeton University's Center for Human Values, and there are those who say that to put his name in any kind of proximity to the phrase "human values" is a perversion; that, in fact, the two words that go best with Peter Singer are Adolf Hitler.

Ever since Princeton announced last fall the appointment of the Australian philosopher as its first Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, demonstrators have picketed the school, powerful alumni have halted donations, and one of the wealthiest and most prominent alums of all, Republican presidential hopeful Steve Forbes, has added his voice to those who demand that the university remove Singer.

That quest kicks into high gear today - when Singer is scheduled to begin teaching his Questions of Life and Death course - with a protest by disabled-rights advocates at the university's main gate on Nassau Street.

"I cannot think of a similar controversy about an individual's scholarship of this magnitude," said Princeton spokesman Justin Harmon.

It is tough to pigeonhole Peter Singer. Although his views are often reduced to outrageous sound bites, his ideas are more nuanced than his critics let on. His view on the hemophiliac infant does not imply "that no people born with severe disabilities should survive," he says. Principles of equality forbid "any discounting of the interests of people on grounds of disability," he writes.

While Singer has been demonized for his views on euthanasia and infanticide, he first gained prominence as an advocate of profound compassion - toward animals.

"He is probably the most important thinker in animal rights in this century," said Arthur Caplan, head of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Singer - who was unavailable last week for an interview - grew up in a largely non-observant Jewish household in Australia and studied philosophy at the University of Melbourne. He didn't know any vegetarians until he moved to England to study at Oxford. Within a week of meeting a vegetarian, he told the New Yorker magazine, he and his wife quit eating meat.

His 1975 Animal Liberation, in which he graphically details factory farming and animal testing, is one of the seminal works of the animal-rights movement. Singer, who rejects leather footwear in favor of canvas tennis shoes, often is called the father of that movement.

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was 21 years old and the proud owner of a fur coat when she encountered Animal Liberation. "Only when I read Singer's book did I think, 'Hang on a minute. Maybe being kind within the context of using animals isn't correct. Maybe it's about reexamining the relationship [with animals]. . . and recognizing them as animal nations.'

"They may have different cultures, different languages, different habits, but they have the same desire to stay alive, experience joy, and love their young."

Singer's position on animal rights extends his belief in equal rights for all humans.

If we accept that belief, he writes, "we are also commited to accepting it as a sound moral basis for relations with those outside our own species - the non-human animals."

"This suggestion" he adds, "may at first seem bizarre."

Indeed, his friend and fellow ethicist Caplan thinks so, saying that "this notion that somehow animals are equivalent to us is ga-ga nuts."

What does impress Caplan is Singer's commitment to people. Singer gives one-fifth of his income to famine-relief groups, and argues, most recently in the New York Times Magazine, that those of us among the world's affluent citizens are morally obligated to give, too.

In that essay, he cites New York University philosopher Peter Unger's calculation that it only takes $200 to transform a sickly 2-year-old in a poor country into a healthy 6-year-old, and lists phone numbers for UNICEF and Oxfam America.

Singer's critics say that throwing thousands of dollars a year at charity doesn't compensate for an ethic that permits killing disabled infants.

"There are all of these humanitarian things about him that people would perceive, yet he believes these atrocious things to be good," said Christopher Benek, a second-year student at Princeton Theological Seminary who formed Princeton Students Against Infanticide in response to Singer's appointment.

"It's great if he wants to give to charity, it's great that he cares about animals. But he's not a great human-values chairman if he advocates killing certain people for who they are."

To be absolutely clear: Singer says the decision to kill a desperately ill newborn should be allowed on a case-by-case basis, by the baby's parents in consultation with a physician. He cites the fact that many parents now choose to abort fetuses when tests indicate birth defects.

"There is only one difference, and that is a difference of timing - the timing of the discovery of the problem and the consequent killing of a disabled being," Singer writes.

"It is . . . characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference," Singer writes. "Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings."

Even Singer's staunchest advocates find that notion pretty difficult to accept.

"All of his arguments are very carefully crafted, very powerful and compelling," said Dan Powell, 21, a Princeton senior who is pursuing a major in bioethics, "but some of them are a bit radical."

Then Powell said something that has become a mantra for Singer supporters. "We're a university. We're here to learn. We hope that students who come here are able to engage their professors in dialogue even when they disagree."

In Germany, when Practical Ethics was included on a reading list for a course at the University of Duisburg, protests were so vociferous the course was dropped. So were later conferences and lectures in and around Germany, Australia and Switzerland that included discussion of Singer's philosophy - or an appearance by Singer.

Singer attributes the outcry in German-speaking countries to sensitivity over Germany's Nazi past, with its emphasis on eugenics and medical experiments on human beings. Singer, three of whose grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, is frequently likened to Hitler and Josef Mengele, the doctor notorious for his brutal experiments on inmates at Auschwitz.

Harmon, the university spokesman, responded: "Peter Singer is so evidently working toward a vision of the common good that any comparison with a person like Hitler is just on the face of it absurd.

"Yes, Singer's ethics lead to some conclusions that the average guy on the street may find extreme, and even some non-average folks. . . . That's true. So what?"

Princeton president Harold Shapiro, who heads the President's Commission on Bioethics and who helped lure Singer away from his post at Melbourne's Monash University, where he edited the magazine Bioethics, has repeatedly voiced his support for the appointment.

The anti-Singer campaign has attracted lots of attention off-campus. Antiabortion and disabled-rights activists such as Not Dead Yet, based near Chicago, have alerted like-minded groups about today's protest.

But at Princeton, the atmosphere just a few days before the rally was tantamount to a shrug.

Campus kiosks bore notices about debates on the crisis in East Timor, and on the teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools, but nothing about Singer.

Really, said Penn's Caplan, the fuss over Singer "is just a hoot. . . . He is so mild-mannered that if you talk to him, you should bring some caffeine. . . . He's gonna stink at being on The McLaughlin Group."

And then he related a story about his friend, about how he likes to hit Singer with the sort of hypothetical situation, involving all sorts of conditions, that philosophers enjoy tossing around:

"I'd say, 'If you were in the back of an airplane coming back from Australia, and they served you meat, and no one knew who you were, would you eat it? After all, it's already dead.' "

Caplan said his friend replied that - given, of course, all of those conditions - he'd probably go right ahead and eat that hamburger.

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