Forbes fights Singer's new Princeton post

August 13, 1999


The appointment of philosopher Peter Singer to a prestigious seat at Princeton University has provoked national demands for his dismissal - from, among others, Steve Forbes, a multimillionaire Republican presidential candidate and member of the Princeton board of trustees.

In the autumn, Dr Singer, whose critics label him "Professor Death", is to take up the post of professor of bioethics in the university's Center for Human Values. Since his appointment, he and Princeton have spent much of their time defending him against calls for his dismissal.

Mr Forbes, for instance, has equated Dr Singer's works with Nazism for advocating giving parents and doctors the right to kill newborn children with severe birth defects, for arguing in favour of considering euthanasia for the elderly, and for comparing the treatment of animals to human slavery.

The appointment, Mr Forbes said, "sends a dangerous and debilitating message that anything goes, that there are no bounds". He said Dr Singer's philosophy "fits right in with the thinking the Nazis used to justify their euthanasia programmes on the physically and mentally handicapped".

Dr Singer, who lost three grandparents in the Holocaust, said the analogy is superficial. He said Mr Forbes is misinterpreting his work on such topics as medical ethics, civil disobedience, the treatment of refugees and animal rights. His books include the influential Practical Ethics, Should the Baby Live (which he co-wrote), and Rethinking Life and Death.

Dr Singer has argued that cruelty and suffering should be minimised in animals and in humans. He advocates giving parents and doctors the right to kill babies born with severe defects such as spina bifida or Down's syndrome up to 28 days after birth, arguing that infants are not yet self-aware. Dr Singer also believes that euthanasia should be considered for elderly people or accident victims who permanently lose consciousness of themselves.

"Obviously, most of these matters are controversial," Dr Singer said. "At Princeton, as throughout my teaching career, I hope to challenge my students and stimulate them to form their own conclusions. In my students, I look for the ability to think independently, and I assess my students on the quality of their argument, not on whether I agree or disagree with the conclusions they reach."

Princeton's president, Harold Shapiro, also has said Dr Singer is misunderstood. "Some of the controversy arises from the fact that he works on difficult and provocative topics and in many cases challenges long-established ways of thinking - or ways of avoiding thinking - about them," Dr Shapiro said. But "an important part of our purpose as a university is to ask the most difficult and fundamental questions about human existence, however uncomfortable this may be".

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