Indefensible Ethics: Debating Peter Singer



Editor's Note 1: This article originally appeared in the Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 2002 issue of Dignity, the Center’s quarterly publication. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.


Editor's Note 2: On June 7, 2002 in Oakland, CA, Nigel Cameron debated Peter Singer on the topic of what it means to be human. Videotapes of the  debate are available. Contact The Center for Bioethics and Culture ( at (510)594-9000. In the February 2002 issue of First Things, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus reflects on his own recent debate with the man he has dubbed the "philosopher from no-where." The following material has been adapted from those reflections.


One could hardly imagine a more civilized setting. A crisply sunny November afternoon at Colgate University, its campus of handsome nineteenth-century buildings tucked into the cadenced hills of upstate New York, all covered with the last fine glow of autumn foliage. The four hundred bright-eyed students, along with faculty and townsfolk, filled the auditorium, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. The great attraction, I was well aware, was Peter Singer. "The controversial Peter Singer," as he is routinely called, holder of a chair in bioethics at Princeton's University Center for Human Values. He and I were to debate the question, "Who Should Live and Who Should Die?"

I had not met Professor Singer before, although I had of course read a good bit of his work. After all, the New Yorker declares him to be the world's "most influential living philosopher," and even in the guild of professional philosophers there are some who agree with that estimate. In addition to the two hours of public exchange, we spent several hours in conversation, and I confess that there is much about him that one cannot help but like.

He is a bright, articulate, and very personable bloke, as they might say in his native Australia. For him philosophy is clearly not defined, as the classical authors would have it, by the love of wisdom but by, as he is prone to putting it, getting people to think for themselves. In his book Rethinking Life and Death, Singer states, "The views I put forward should 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."

Central to Singer's system of ethics is the principle that each person is to count as one and no person is to count as more than one. The ethical goal is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Utility, equality, universality, and individual choice--these are the dogmatic points of reference in a scheme presented as the enemy of dogma. This is pretty conventional stuff in some circles of academic philosophy, but in the utilitarian tradition Professor Singer has gained fame and notoriety by drawing from it some unusual conclusions, or at least by promoting his conclusions with unusual candor.

Rights, Animal and Human

In our opposing positions, we were fairly pitted against one another. I defended the proposition that civilization is marked by an expansive definition of the human community for which we accept common responsibility, which requires, in turn, the uncompromisable rule that it is always and in every instance wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being. I began with the rule that we are always to care and never to kill, and then considered "hard cases" in the light of that rule.

Professor Singer began with the hard cases, contending that they discredit this rule and defending the proposition that the ethical goal is to reduce suffering and respect preferences, which may at times permit and even require the killing of the innocent. Of course he agrees that we are always to care; it is only that sometimes caring means killing. He does not object to my saying that he is a proponent of the kindness that kills. In his view, what matters is the kindness.

To be sure, Singer's argument has important qualifications. Not all who are biologically human beings should be counted as human beings, and some human beings are more human than others. The unborn, the newborn, the anencephalic, and those in a vegetative state, for instance, do not count, or at least do not count fully, as human beings. The other qualifying prong of Singer's argument is that it is not rational to draw a hard and fast line between human beings and other forms of animal life. To do so is an instance of what he calls "speciesism." Professor Singer's book on animal liberation has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and scholars in law schools today are developing a legal framework for the defense of animal rights based on his work. The natural result of Singer's argument is to shrink the circle of those protected by virtue of human rights, and to expand the circle of beings protected by rights deemed to be superior to the rights of some human beings.

Theory and Practice

Professor Singer's endorsement of the principle that each person counts as one and no person counts as more than one has led him to insist again and again that, from an ethical viewpoint, our duties to friends and family are no different from our duties to strangers. That is part of what he means when he says his ethical theory is universal. One has no more ethical duty, for instance, to one's own daughter than to a girl of the same age ten thousand miles away in Bangladesh whom one has never seen and whose name one does not know. In a long and generally sympathetic interview in the New Yorker, the question came up about Singer's devoting many thousands of dollars and elaborate nursing care for his own mother who had Alzheimer's. In the interview, Singer is reported to have explained, "Perhaps it's more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother."

Professor Singer's critics understandably have seized on this blatant contradiction. Peter Berkowitz, writing in the New Republic, said: "The ethicist's innocence, at this late date in his career, of the most elemental features of his subject matter boggles the mind. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the well-heeled and well-ensconced academic discipline of practical ethics than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline,...should reveal, only as the result of a reporter's prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mother's suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex."

In my opening presentation, I suggested that Professor Singer's claim to "neutrality," to representing the rationality of "the disinterested observer," was a kind of "view from Nowhere," and I pointed out that nobody actually lives in Nowhere. In doing so, I referred to the public discussion of Singer's very preferential treatment of his mother. I said he was to be commended for what he did, but that it is a cockeyed ethical theory that is embarrassed by a son's caring for his elderly mother. While Singer later attempted to explain the inconsistencies between his often-touted theory and practice, Berkowitz's criticism remains in force. After all, Singer himself wrote in his book Practical Ethics that, "Ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse of this is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgment is to guide practice."

Not Christian Altruism

It is not only in relation to his mother, however, that Professor Singer's practice clashes with his theory. His view from Nowhere prescribes a universal and radically egalitarian altruism that is a formula for living a life of unappeasable guilt. He is reported to give away one-fifth of his very considerable income, mainly to organizations feeding the hungry around the world. He readily admits that he could give more, that some children are dying every day because he does not give more. Singer's ethic is a form of "angelism," meaning the human aspiration to an angelic status that is not and cannot be ours. The Christian ethic, in sharp contrast to the view from Nowhere, underscores that we are "situated" creatures with duties framed by specific place and time and possibility. The vaulting ambitions of Professor Singer's concept of "a morally decent person" are implausible in theory and impossible in practice. He says he is proposing an ethical ideal, but it is, I believe, not an ideal but a delusion induced by moral hubris. He believes that his view from Nowhere is a view from Everywhere, but just as nobody actually lives in Nowhere, so nobody actually lives in Everywhere. In this version of a universal ethic, Nowhere and Every-where are synonymous. Both result in an ethic for a world that does not exist.

When Singer defended his long-standing argument that it is sometimes permissible, even ethically required, to kill children after they have been born, his chief point was that neither he nor Fr. Neuhaus nor anyone else has a right to tell parents what is best for their own children. Or to tell old people how or when they should die (although, he added, such decisions should be made with medical advice). He most particularly admires the progressive attitudes and practices of the Netherlands, where euthanasia has been legalized and each year thousands of old people are sent to their final rest, with or without their consent. Ethical progress, he notes, always meets with resistance from alarmists who go on about a supposed slippery slope. Yet the Dutch are still a morally decent people; in his view, more decent since they abandoned outmoded religious inhibitions against doing the rational thing. And so he continued in a tone so reasonable and reassuring. Slippery slope? What slippery slope? Happily sliding downward, he invited the students to follow, and some were obviously asking that most insidious of moral questions, Why not?