I say tomato, you say ... child slayer

October 22, 1999

Jennifer Wallace talks to ethics professor Peter Singer, whose views on disabled babies have brought him death threats in the land of the free

Come to my office at about three and I will give you an interview, provided you can reach me," ethics professor Peter Singer says when I call him from Manhattan. I am somewhat mystified. Hurricane Floyd has hit America four days earlier, and I know that much of New Jersey, home of Singer's new employer, Princeton University, is under water, but surely transport cannot be that bad.

When I arrive at Princeton the following day, the reason for Singer's inaccessibility becomes clear. It is the day of his first class and a protest rally is gathered outside Nassau Hall, Princeton University's central building. The clapboard house on Ivy Lane, where Singer's office is, is cordoned off with a permanent police guard. Students are turned away unless their name appears on a list of approved people. I show my ID to the police, who escort me into the building and pass, en route to Singer's office, the new x-ray machine, not yet operational, that will in future screen visitors' bags.

The reason for all the security is the series of death threats Singer has received since leaving Australia to take up the Ira W. DeCamp chair of bioethics at Princeton. His beliefs that not all human lives are equally valuable and, in particular, that disabled newborn children should often be killed rather than allowed to live a life of suffering, have incensed pro-life activists and disability support groups in the United States. One woman in California is reported to have sent a death threat via email, and asked Singer's secretary to forward it.

The university seems to be relatively calm about the situation, despite the withdrawal this week of the financial support of magazine publisher Steve Forbes, whose family has in the past given millions to Princeton. "Nobody in the philosophy department is very bothered about him," I am told over lunch with two graduate students, described to me as "two rising stars" of the department. "Singer is a standard utilitarian. Why make a fuss when Godwin and Bentham were saying the same things 200 years ago? His philosophy is just adapted to new technology and new situations."

But the protesters, who, apart from Princeton's "Students Against Infanticide", are drawn from outside the university, think differently. One of the main campaigning groups is Not Dead Yet, a disability rights organisation. "Professor Singer's statements about the lesser quality of life he claims people with disabilities experience and his encouragement of policies that would enable some of them to be killed, can only be understood as 'demeaning' and 'threatening' to 'handicapped' people," their leaflet declares.

So what does Singer think of their views? Will he be persuaded to change his mind? "Philosophers are moved by arguments. They are not moved by placards," he tells me once I have reached the protected quietness of his office. "There's nothing that has been said that is going to change my mind. I have learnt from conversations with disability groups over the years, but not because 300 of them protest outside university buildings. That is not a persuasive argument."

Surprisingly, he admits he actually shares some philosophical common ground with the pro-life activists who oppose him. "They have been saying for years that the line of birth is not a morally crucial demarcation, that there is something wrong about the idea that until a foetus is born it is fine to kill it, but as soon as it is born its life is as precious as any other human life can be. Whereas what they say is 'therefore human life is equally precious from the moment of conception', I say 'therefore human life is not as precious immediately after birth as it becomes later'."

Much of Singer's work is devoted to showing that what we hold to be precious is dependent on unthinking assumptions and prejudices that are motivated by instinct or emotion and have no rational basis. There is much uncertainty and incoherence in late 20th-century ethical life, he believes, and in its place he puts forward what he sees as a watertight system where values can be measured and priorities determined by logically derived definitions. It has been called a kind of moral economics.

Most significantly it manifests itself in Singer's work for animal rights and his publicly discussed vegetarianism. But it also influences his views on abortion and euthanasia. The life of a human is not qualitatively different from the life of an animal (or non-human person, as he puts it), since both are capable of feeling suffering. This means we should think in terms of why we are killing animals for food, for example, and what criteria determine our assumptions that all human beings should continue to stay alive whenever possible.

Singer's belief that we are fundamentally rational beings and must lead our lives according to logical considerations of what will cause the least suffering to others means that he has to live what he considers an ethical life and practice what he preaches (his best-selling book is called How are We to Live: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest). He is concerned about social injustice and the gap between rich and poor countries and so gives away 20 per cent of his annual income to third-world charities such as Oxfam. He says: "If you write about ethics and you do not do anything relating to what you write about, it is mere words. I cannot reject the idea that my own life should be subject to scrutiny."

This raises the question of why he chose to live in the US, which, as he admits, gives one tenth as much government aid to overseas countries as Denmark. A nation that is one of the most materialistic in the world and one of the most dominated by Christian fundamentalism does not seem the most obvious, or the easiest, place for somebody with Singer's beliefs to live. Why did he accept the post?

"I feel that being here enables me to perhaps stimulate more people to think about these issues of injustice and unfair distribution, and nowhere do they need to be thought about more than here," he says. "It is a land with a large contingent of people who are opposed to my views. But it's also a land that is having these debates, and I felt that I could have a role to play in these discussions."

He admits that the fact that his ideas were likely to provoke a lot of people was actually an incentive to come to the US. The heated furore surrounding his appointment has led to increased sales of his books and, because of the protests sparked by his arrival, he was invited to write an article expounding his ideas about giving aid to the third world in The New York Times magazine. Suddenly, he was able to reach millions of readers, something that was not possible in Australia.

The dispassionate and logical system that Singer puts forward can be exasperating. Wondering where the limits of his certainty might lie, I ask him about God (he does not believe in God); about whether he feels guilty living a comfortable life in the richest university in America ("I guess I'm not a person who allows himself to be particularly tortured by guilt"); and about, given his views on the relative value of life, how he knows which people should live and which should die. When is it wrong to kill people? "When you deprive them of that future that they've envisaged for themselves. And you render meaningless what they've done in the past."

A recent article about Singer in The New Yorker claimed to have found a chink in his armour. His mother is suffering from Alzheimer's disease and is unable to look after herself. Singer is spending a lot of money hiring home help to care for her. This, The New Yorker gleefully implied, was inconsistent with Singer's utilitarian ethic. But Singer rejects the charge. "I don't think my mother has the same right to life as you or I. But that's a different matter from saying that she ought to be killed. She's not suffering."

What about the death threats, I ask, finally. After all, abortion-clinic killer Eric Rudolph is on the FBI's top ten list of most wanted fugitives. Is Singer not a little nervous? "No," he replies. "If I'm to be a professor at Princeton I can't live like Salman Rushdie. I would not say it never enters my consciousness, but at the same time, I am not so terrified that I am going to dramatically change the way I live."

Jennifer Wallace is director of studies in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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