The Philosopher as Provocateur

Bioethicist Peter Singer is an Equal-Opportunity Offender, Stirring Emotions on Topics Ranging from Euthanasia to Animal Rights to World Poverty

Josh Getlin, Times staff writer

For a man who's been called a Nazi and a baby killer, a speaker who's been shouted down at universities and had his glasses ripped off in public, Peter Singer is something of a disappointment in person. But the wry, soft-spoken professor shuffling papers on his desk at Princeton University prides himself on being a heretic who inspires heated emotions.

"I'm a philosopher," Singer declares. "And that's someone who makes others uncomfortable. Someone who asks them to consider the unthinkable."

In an often superficial, anti-intellectual world, Singer is a thinker with considerable impact: A vegetarian who believes animals have the same rights as humans, he's the intellectual godfather of the animal liberation movement. A professor at Princeton's Center for Human Values, he questions whether all life is sacred and advocates euthanasia for the severely disabled. A critic of the affluent, he argues that if enough people donated 20% of their salaries to charity and gave up their sybaritic tastes, poverty could be eliminated.

As he wraps himself in a cardigan on a chilly day, Singer, 55, comes across as a dry, introspective scholar, a quiet family man. He loves intellectual combat but is offended by what he sees as vitriolic distortions of his character and views. For Singer, leading an ethical life is paramount, and he is inspired by the writings of 19th century utilitarian philosophers like Jeremy Bentham, who insisted that people should make life decisions only after taking into account the interests of all those affected by them.

Controversial? Not on its face. Until Singer gets into the details: Humans are not morally superior to animals, he claims, debunking a central tenet of Judeo-Christian thought. And the decision to terminate life, he argues, should focus less on the intrinsic worth of humans than the quality of life they might enjoy on Earth.

Yet who makes the decision? And how do we define quality of life for someone other than ourselves? Not surprisingly, Singer's views have been attacked by a host of critics--ranging from abortion opponents to disabled-rights organizations to academics who believe his research is shoddy.

His books, including the popular "Animal Liberation" (Random House, 1975), have sparked death threats, sit-ins at Princeton when he was appointed last year and even a vow by former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes to freeze his donations to the school until Singer leaves. In a petition circulated by students opposed to his 1999 appointment, the professor was excoriated for views that "encourage the propagation of infanticide" and demean the disabled.

Singer says the acrimony has died down in recent months, enabling him and his wife, Renata, also a teacher, to pursue their careers in relative quiet. After a period of protests, his classes are now crowded and popular but no longer lightning rods for demonstrations. The debate over his views, however, is likely to heat up with the publication last month of "Writings on an Ethical Life" (Ecco Press), a collection of Singer's most provocative essays.

An engaging, 350-page compendium, the book is divided into sections on animal liberation, euthanasia and the moral obligation to eliminate poverty. It begins with Singer's essays from the mid-1970s and includes material from 11 books, plus recent media interviews and several magazine articles.

Reading Singer can be unsettling, because he is an equal- opportunity offender. On abortion, he ridicules abortion supporters' view that there is a moral dividing line between a fetus and a newborn baby. Yet Singer ultimately backs abortion rights, saying no fetus has the same claim to life as a person; he sees a troubling inconsistency in those who oppose abortion yet dine on the bodies of chickens, pigs and calves.

"On any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure, pain and so on," he writes, "the calf, the pig and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy."

Singer, who taught at the University of Melbourne before coming to Princeton, says he published "Writings on an Ethical Life" to calmly present his views, without media distortion. Yet the book hums with the tension between his academic repose and the harsh acrimony that he has generated in the real world.


It still shocks Singer when the furor becomes personal. He remains horrified by the memory of his 1991 appearance at the University of Zurich, when he tried to explain his belief that parents should have the right to end the lives of disabled infants. He was shouted down by protesters who likened his ideas to Nazi edicts on euthanasia. "Singer Raus! (get out) Singer Raus!" they yelled at this Jewish scholar whose family fled Austria during World War II, and who lost three of his grandparents in Hitler's concentration camps.

It was an ugly scene, but the crowd was reacting to one of Singer's most controversial statements, that "killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often, it is not wrong at all." These words, however much Singer says they were taken out of context, have come back to haunt him like an old scandal, surfacing publicly again and again.

"Those incidents in Europe made me most uncomfortable," says Singer, in an uncharacteristic display of emotion. "Because they gave me a sense of what fanaticism is, what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such behavior. Those people wanted to shut me up, to keep me from publishing."

Given his impact and ambition as an author, that's not likely. Peter Unger, a distinguished philosophy professor at New York University, says that Singer "is one of the most influential ethicists and philosophers of the last 30 to 40 years. While he has not achieved the stature of a Jean-Paul Sartre or Bertrand Russell, he's just about the closest thing we have to someone on that level, in a world where philosophers don't play much of a role."

Unger believes Singer's chief accomplishment has been in mobilizing public opinion, as well as academic colleagues, over the issues of animal rights and the obligation to eradicate poverty. But a host of critics say that his influence and high profile flow as much from media exposure as the integrity of his views and that other U.S. academics have expressed similar ideas more cogently.

Adrienne Asch, a professor of biology, ethics and human reproduction at Wellesley College, argues that Singer's work "is not that important in the field of bioethics itself, yet he manages to get a lot of press attention. He puts out the dreadful notion that disabled lives are not worth living, but Dr. Jack Kevorkian has been putting this idea into action for years."

The dirty little secret, she adds, is that "many people secretly share his views. They just aren't interested in saying them publicly because of the heat they'd take."


Few would have guessed that Singer was headed for a life of controversy when he began his academic career. His parents fled Austria in 1938, soon after the Nazi invasion, and he grew up in Australia, first studying law at the University of Melbourne and then switching to philosophy. Singer studied at Oxford in the early 1970s, and while it was a time of intense radicalism, friends describe him as a pensive type, someone with a penchant for rigorous philosophical thinking instead of sweeping political action.

If there was an epiphany, Singer recalls, it came one day in the cafeteria when he was having lunch with a fellow student who asked if there was meat in the spaghetti sauce being served. His vegetarian friend opted for a salad instead, and the two began an intense debate over animal rights: Why, the friend asked, should so many animals be slaughtered--often under appalling conditions--simply because humans had a taste for animal flesh?

Unlike activists converted by the stench of a slaughterhouse or the pain in animals' eyes, Singer decided to forgo meat for intellectual reasons. Carnivores justify their tastes based on the idea that humans are a superior species who can do what they want, he postulated. As a result, millions of animals are slaughtered with no regard for their feelings. How different is that, he asked, from slaveholders who believed Africans were inferior and shipped them to America to be sold like cattle?

Singer also criticized the painful experiments carried out on animals, whether to test cosmetic products or conduct medical research. He called such behavior "species racism," and his career was launched in 1975 with "Animal Liberation," a hugely influential manifesto for animal rights.

"This book makes no sentimental appeals for sympathy toward 'cute' animals," he wrote. "I am no more outraged by the slaughter of horses or dogs for meat than I am by the slaughter of pigs for this purpose. When the Defense Department finds its use of beagles to test lethal gases has evoked a howl of protest and offers to use rats instead, I am not appeased."

Singer believes the movement has won big victories. Today, he notes, some of the most gruesome experiments, such as those testing cosmetics on animals, have been suspended. And McDonald's has agreed to enlarge the cramped areas in which hens lay eggs for company products. The recent move "is a relatively minor thing, but it is perhaps the largest single step forward for the rights of animals since the book appeared," Singer said.

Animal liberation protests have often been contentious, and the author disavows those which include violence or physical coercion. "When people have done things like sending letter bombs or putting razor blades in someone's mail, that's a mistake and a tragic one," he says. "But to the best of my knowledge, no one has been killed in any of these protests."

Singer's writings questioning the sanctity of human life have generated even more fireworks. Beginning with "Practical Ethics" (Cambridge University Press, 1979), he argued that parents and other caretakers of the incurably ill should have the right to pull the plug on artificial-life support systems. The notion that doctors can let nature take its course is absurd, he believes, because medical technology can keep gravely disabled people alive indefinitely.

"People who want to say that every human life has independent value are now hard-pressed to say this," he says. "Because when you stand at the bedside of a newborn child and the doctor says: 'This child has no cortex and will never even get to the point in life where it could smile when its mother leans over the crib,' do you really want to keep that child alive at a cost of $ 1,500 a day for a year, or for 10 years or more?"

Critics say Singer has contempt for human dignity, because he concludes that a disabled life is horrible and somehow not worth living. Asch charges that Singer falsely assumes "disability will stunt the life prospects of the individual and burden the family with no redeeming other benefits.

"It simply is not true. If he had really been spending a lot of time with families and infants and young people, even with what he wants to describe as 'severe cognitive impairments,' he might be writing different things."

The debate is never-ending: Advocacy groups for the disabled, such as Not Dead Yet, have continued to protest Singer's academic appointment. Firing back, Singer says his views have been distorted. Beginning with the incendiary quote about killing "disabled" infants, he notes that the comment came at the end of a lengthy philosophical passage. The larger point, he said, was that a fully developed human being with a conscience, aspirations and a functioning brain is not equivalent to a deformed infant.

Moreover, he adds, "there are no fixed standards here. People are always asking me on radio shows, 'Well, when do you think a baby should die?' and my advice has always been, 'I don't know.' I think that the parents, in consultation with doctors, should have the right to make that decision."


Singer grants little ambiguity, however, on the issue of whether affluent Westerners gulping Cabernet can escape responsibility for world poverty.

In a parable originally conceived by Unger, he tells the story of an antique-car owner who realizes that only by pushing a prized auto in the path of a runaway train can he save a child on the tracks. Most would agree, Singer suggests, that by refusing to do so, the man has blood on his hands.

But how different is that collector's behavior from that of people who earn good salaries and give virtually none of their money to worthy charities, while children around the world die of hunger and disease? Aren't they just as responsible?

In a 1999 essay for the New York Times Magazine, Singer advocated that people should give 20% of their income to charity, or if that proves too painful, then 10%. By his calculation, a person earning $ 50,000 could easily live on $ 30,000. In recent years, Singer says, he has contributed one-fifth of his salary to Oxfam Australia, and now to Oxfam America, both prominent international relief agencies.

Ethical behavior requires sacrifice, he acknowledges. But it may come as a shock that there is at least one scenario in which Singer says values don't matter. Picture a world, he's asked, where only one human being remains, and no sentient animals are left alive. In such a world, are ethics important?

"Hmmm," he says. "I'd have to think, in that case, they aren't. Now, instinctively, you could say, there will still be forests and trees, and will it make a difference if you set fire to them, before you go?

"I'd have a repugnance to doing it, but I can't see why it would be wrong. I don't think you can wrong a mountain by turning it to gravel."

Wouldn't environmentalists attack that statement?

"Of course, of course," he says. "And they'd have a point."

(Los Angeles Times, 8. Januar 2001)

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