Generating a storm over ethics

Sun Journal

Professor: With his appointment to Princeton University, Peter Singer's unorthodox moral positions have sparked an emotional debate.

November 20, 1999|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

PRINCETON, N.J. -- Peter Singer is the very picture of the avuncular professor. The gracious, soft-spoken manner, the corduroys and roomy sweater, the wispy gray hair and hopelessly unstylish oversized eyeglasses. It just happens that some folks make him out to be a monster.

The trouble is that the newly appointed Princeton University philosophy professor doesn't believe in the sanctity of human life or in several other views cherished in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Singer says, for example, that parents of a severely disabled newborn should, if they so choose after consulting doctors and if willing adoptive parents cannot be found -- be allowed to kill their baby. He poses disturbing questions, such as: If a chimpanzee is a suitable subject for laboratory experimentation, why not a severely retarded human?

Singer, 53, has been saying such things for more than 20 years, but he has been making news since his appointment as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton's Center for the Study of Human Values. The appointment was approved unanimously by a Princeton search committee and by the university president, who heads the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

Many disabled people, their advocates and others who believe in the sanctity of human life say the appointment validates Singer's views in a way that is unconscionable.

Singer has been welcomed to his new position by hundreds of protesters, many from the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet; by hundreds of e-mails and letters, some threatening; by demands for his ouster, some by people likening him to Josef Mengele. A security guard stood watch as the fall term began and Singer began teaching his course "Questions of Life and Death."

He has found it all unsettling and odd, but expected.

"I guess the bad side is there's a lot of things that have been written about me that I find very misleading, distort my views," says Singer, who attended the University of Melbourne and Oxford University. "I guess the good side is it does give me an opportunity to talk about other things as well that are more important to me than the issue of the treatment of disabled newborns. As, for example, the article I had in the New York Times magazine in September about world hunger and what we should be doing about it."

The magazine article questions the moral distinction between, on the one hand, refusing to sacrifice a valuable material thing, an antique car in the hypothetical example, to save a child from death by runaway train, and, on the other hand, refusing to sacrifice a material thing, money for nonessential purchases, to save children overseas from death by starvation.

Singer also questions the use of animals as food and in experiments. He asked the readers of his 1975 book "Animal Liberation" to recognize "that your attitudes to members of other species are a form of prejudice no less objectionable than prejudice about a person's race or sex."

Neither of these subjects has stirred protests and angry editorials.

The uproar surrounds Singer's approach to bioethics, in which the wisdom of philosophy, law, theology and medicine is brought to bear on dilemmas in hospitals, laboratories and nursing homes.

The field has grown rapidly in the past 30 years as medical technology presents an expanding array of choices between what doctors and researchers can do and what they should do. Or, as Singer puts it in his book "Practical Ethics," conflicts between "the sanctity of human life and the goal of reducing suffering."

Singer, who is married and has three daughters, approaches these emotionally charged questions with emotional detachment. How else, he asks, can you reach defensible ethical positions?

Philosophically, Singer leans toward utilitarianism, which evaluates actions in terms of their consequences. The utilitarian says it is possible to calculate happiness and suffering on a grand scale. English philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote in 1776 that the "fundamental axiom is that it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

Singer has set himself apart in bioethics by virtue of "his extreme consistency with utilitarianism," says Bonnie Steinbock, a bioethics specialist who chairs the philosophy department at the State University of New York, Albany.

In his open support of active infant euthanasia, Singer stands outside the mainstream of bioethics, says Mary Faith Marshall, director of bioethics at the Medical University of South Carolina and immediate past president of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.

It's not hard to see how Singer's logic takes him to supporting infant euthanasia.

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