Singer, best known as an animal-rights advocate, questions the widely held precept that human life is sacred. His views outrage some religious leaders. Demonstrators in wheelchairs protested his appointment to Princeton, where he began teaching last fall. Editorial writers have said he's Nazi-like. Yet Singer is a natural hero to followers of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the animal-rights group, and many ethicists--even some who disagree with him--say that he's a moral man.
Singer reaches a popular audience through his books, among them "Animal Liberation" and "Rethinking Life and Death." His most contentious views, however, center on euthanasia. He believes that euthanasia should be an option for terminally ill people and supports it, in some instances, for severely disabled infants.
The Judeo-Christian belief in the "sanctity of human life," he says, is a "medieval" concept. He questions whether life is necessarily of value just because it's human in an age when technology can keep people alive after they've irrevocably lost consciousness. To him, an animal life could be just as valuable as that of a human being.
During an interview at his Princeton office, Singer was soft-spoken and courteous. A native of Melbourne, he is the child of Viennese Jews who fled Austria in 1938. Three of his four grandparents died in the Holocaust. He studied philosophy at Melbourne University and later at Oxford University in England.
Like many students in the late 1960s, Singer didn't want learning to be merely academic. "I was influenced by the Vietnam War, which spurred student activism," he said, adding that at Oxford, "students challenged me to justify what I was eating. I found I couldn't do it."
The experience, he said, convinced him that ethics must relate to practical issues, like poverty, animal rights, or bioethics. Most philosophers didn't share Singer's view of ethics at the time he entered the field. "By the mid-20th century, philosophers had lost track of issues which people think are important," said Dale Jamieson, a professor of philosophy at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, and the editor of "Singer and His Critics." "With the coming of age of the baby boomers, there was a shift in philosophy toward moral issues like civil rights."
Singer was instrumental in creating the shift, said Jamieson, who compared him with the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill. "Mill wrote on issues affecting society, like the subjugation of women," Jamieson said. "Peter is the Mill of our time. Peter is revered for his role in founding practical ethics."
Singer holds a view of ethics known as preference utilitarianism, an ethic that judges right or wrong by the long-term consequences of actions. "What I think ought to be maximized is the preferences of all those beings who are affected by your actions," he said. "What I think ought to be minimized is the frustrations of those preferences. I have an interest in trying to change situations that cause needless suffering where no one benefits from it."
Euthanasia in the case of terminally ill people "seemed to be one of these situations," he said. "They're in pain. They don't want to go on living for whatever time's left to them. So why do they have to?"
More controversially, Singer argues that some animals are more "self-aware" than some severely disabled infants. To him, it might be humane to euthanatize a severely disabled infant but wrong to experiment on some kinds of animals.
Aware that many abhor his views, Singer tries to outline his positions carefully and with nuance. He said he started thinking about infanticide and severely disabled newborns some years ago, "when I learned about some cases where doctors had decided that it was not in the best interest of a newborn baby for it to live."
Two things disturbed him about these cases, he said. "The doctors stopped treating these infants but did nothing to hasten their death. So many died from pain because they weren't treated for infections or illnesses." Singer said he also felt that the infants' parents should be involved in these decisions. In such cases, he said, he believes it would be better to "hasten the baby's death" by euthanatizing the infant than letting the newborn "die in pain."
"I'm concerned about the suffering of the infant," he said. "If the infant can have a life where he or she isn't going to suffer a great deal, if there are people who will look after it, that's fine." Then, he added, "parents should be persuaded" to raise the infant.
But in instances when an infant would suffer unbearably and no one could care for it, Singer believes euthanasia should be an option. "Parents and doctors," he said, "should make the decision as soon after birth as possible."
Richard Doerflinger, of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks for many who find Singer's views horrific. "Singer sets aside the religious tradition of the sanctity of life for his own dogma," he said. "He thinks rights depend on cognitive ability, on the ability to experience pleasure or pain. This demeans the disabled, the elderly, the comatose, the unborn healthy infants. It's against not only the Judeo-Christian tradition but the democratic tradition of human rights."
Singer, however, suggests that his critics are their own worst enemies. "A lot of people say what I'm saying is terrible," he said. "That every life is precious. But most people aren't doing anything to help these infants."
Singer labels himself an atheist but says, "I have religious friends." He adds: "The only God I could believe in would be a bumbler. How could an omnipotent, omniscient being permit so much suffering in the world?"