Faculty appointments seldom create an uproar. But when Princeton hired Australian philosopher Peter Singer away from Monash University in Melbourne and appointed him as DeCamp professor of bioethics at the university's Center for Human Values, his controversial views on infant euthanasia became more widely known in this country, and the press, some alumni, and certain special-interest groups reacted loudly. Disabled-rights and pro-life activists protested his first day of class. And the university has taken precautions to protect his safety, routinely stationing security guards at his public speeches on campus and putting packages with unfamiliar return addresses through an airport-style scanner before he opens them.
One of the most influential philosophers alive, Singer, 53, is a utilitarian specializing in applied ethics; he studies issues relating to health care, animal suffering, the poor, and the environment, and is the author or coauthor of more than a dozen books. Singer, who gives 20 percent of his income to famine-relief agencies, tries to live what he preaches. In an essay in The New York Times Magazine, he argued that the ordinary American who has the money to spare on luxuries is obliged to give most of it away to help people suffering from poverty. He recently spoke with Kathryn Federici, a staff writer at Princeton Alumni Weekly, to elucidate his views.
Were you surprised by the tumult over your appointment?
I expected some. I guess it was slightly more than I expected, and particularly the media response to it was larger than I expected.
Why have your views received so much attention?
It's the issues I discuss. It's the fact that I discuss them in clear and plain language--I don't try to dress it up in jargon. And it's the protesters. You might ask, why did the protesters pick on me? That relates to the plain language--they can easily pull sentences out of books and then think they understand the meaning. The sentences may be out of context, and people may not understand the quotes, but the words look clear enough.
How did you become interested in issues about disabled infants?
When I learned that it was common practice for doctors to take infants with serious disabilities and deal with them by withholding life-prolonging treatment but not doing anything to actually hasten their deaths.
|"Babies become persons when they develop some kind of awareness of themselves as existing over time. ... I would say it happens sometime during the first year of life but not in the first month of life."|
The upshot was that, depending on the nature of the condition, the infants might live for weeks or months or even years, not being treated but not dying either, sort of in a halfway state. That seemed to me to be just a pointless prolonging of suffering. I came to the conclusion that it would not be right to try to prolong the life of every child. So it must be justifiable, in some cases at least, to end the child's life swiftly and painlessly.
Are you trying to make the point that doctors already are determining which lives are worth living and when it's time to let people die?
Yes. People sometimes say you shouldn't judge the quality of life. To which I respond, well, doctors already do that every day in every major intensive care unit when they make decisions about what treatment to give or not to give. We're already well down this road. It's not a question of whether to go down it or not. So let's do it openly. Let's talk about where we are, where we're going, and what's the best way to ensure that we don't go where we don't want to go.
What are the range of views you cover in the seminar you're teaching on Questions of Life and Death?
The views that the students are asked to read range from mine to those of Germain Grisez and Joseph Boyle [in their book "Life and Death with Liberty and Justice"], who present a viewpoint that is consistent with that of the Roman Catholic Church. What I want students to go away with is a sharper sense of what the issues are and what the arguments for and against different viewpoints are in the areas we're discussing.
Clarify for me when you believe a baby becomes a person, as you define "person," and therefore has a right to life?
Babies become persons when they develop some kind of awareness of themselves as existing over time. That is, when they can grasp that they are the same being who existed previously and who may exist in the future. As for saying exactly when that happens, I can't. I don't think anyone can. Though I would say it happens sometime during the first year of life but not in the first month of life.