2016-06-30
From Princeton Alumni Weekly

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.

That's why I've suggested putting a clear boundary on the time within which it is justifiable to kill a severely disabled infant. At one point, I suggested a 28-day boundary. But I no longer think that will work. It's too arbitrary. I don't think you would get people to recognize that there's a big difference in the wrongfulness of killing a being at 27 or 29 days. So what do you do? I think you need to look at it on a case-by-case basis, given the seriousness of the problems, and balance that against the age of the child.

Have you ever received letters from parents of children born with severe disabilities who had to make difficult decisions about their care?
I've had letters from people who were worried about whether they did the right thing. I've also received letters, including some just recently, from parents who have read my work and are now more angry than they were before at what the doctors did in keeping their children alive. Some parents said the doctors basically had given them no choice about whether to operate on their child. The parents used language like, "They got to play with their toys"--meaning their medical equipment--"and left us with a child who has a terrible life."

You've said that the U.S. seems to be a less caring society than every other economically developed society in the world. Why do you think that?

It may be that the American tradition makes people think in terms of their rights, rather than their responsibilities or obligations to others. And that makes the community a more individualistic one. The clearest figures are the foreign-aid figures where the U.S. is at the absolute bottom of economically developed countries in terms of what it gives as a percentage of gross national product.

In terms of the lack of care for American citizens, the figures are a little harder to pick out. I guess I'm aware of two things: most obviously, that there is no national health insurance, and that you see more homeless people sleeping rough in New York City than you do in any Australian city, for example. So something is going on here.

What are your observations about people in the U.S. and our treatment of animals?

America is really falling behind the rest of the civilized world in its care of animals. Europe is now moving forward in eliminating the most confining forms of factory farming. They're phasing out the battery cages for hens, which means that European hens will be able to stretch their wings, walk around freely, lay their eggs in a nest. American hens will still be trapped in little wire cages, unable even to stretch their wings.

Why do you think we're behind the mark on the care of animals?

The American political system is unresponsive to concerns like this that do not have a lot of money behind them and that face politically influential groups such as agribusiness that have billion-dollar corporations with millions of dollars to spend on congressional lobbyists.

Would you like to clarify any of your views that you feel have been misrepresented?

There was a letter in a recent Princeton Alumni Weekly that again quoted this line about "defective infants." It's the emphasis on "defective" that I find really unfair because the letter writer is quoting from a book published in 1979. If the writer bothered to look at the 1993 edition of "Practical Ethics," he would find the language has changed to "disabled." It's a little like accusing someone of having a negative attitude to African-Americans because they used "Negro," quoting a speech from the 1950s. Martin Luther King Jr. used that word. The fashions change in terms of the language you use.

"Religion has a major impact--basically in stopping people from thinking."

Another important point is that people sometimes say that I have more compassion for animals than I do for humans. I have an essentially unified position: I am opposed to unnecessary suffering, whether it's a human or an animal. A lot of the suffering we inflict on nonhuman animals is unnecessary and in some cases pointless. And I want to put a stop to that. The same is true in regard to human beings.

Have you ever been faced with making a life-and-death decision for a loved one?

My mother has Alzheimer's. I guess it's reaching the point where I have to think about what treatment I would provide for her if she were to become physically ill and in need of life support.

Do you see any conflict between your spending considerable money on the care of your mother and your principle of spreading out wealth to help the most people?

Yes. In a sense, my spending money on my mother's care is in conflict with that principle. But so is the fact that I flew back to Australia to visit my daughters at Christmas. That money could also be better spent elsewhere. I've never claimed that I live my life perfectly in accordance with those principles of sharing my money as much as I should.

What role do you see yourself playing in society?

I see the philosopher's role as one of challenging society to think clearly about some things it might take for granted. In that way, philosophers are gadflies. Like Socrates, they run the risk of being condemned for it. Their role is to get people to question things that they might not otherwise have questioned.

What changes do you hope to effect?

I would like to see concrete progress in the U.S. of the kind that is happening in Europe in terms of recognizing that farm animals ought not to be deprived of the ability to move around or stretch their limbs. In the area of bioethics, I would like to help develop alternative approaches to some of these end-of-life decisions. Generally, I would like to stimulate some reexamination of the idea of the sanctity of human life so that people are not locked into particular positions but can look at cases in a more flexible way that will lead to better outcomes.

Do you think religion affects people's ethical reasoning?

Religion has a major impact--basically in stopping people from thinking. This is not true of every religion--it's a generalization--but there are some religions, some ways of interpreting religions, that give you the sense that you know the answers. You've got them laid down as dogma or revelation or what your minister or priest or guru tells you, and you stop thinking. That's a bad thing.

Do you think your being an atheist affects your philosophy?

It probably does, although there are some theists who would reach the same conclusions. But it's certainly easier to reach them if you are not religious. And probably people who are strongly committed to the traditional religions like Christianity would not be likely to come up with the same views that I hold.