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More on Professor Death: Peter Singer and the Danger of the Humanities

Wesley J. Smith


I have little regard for the so-called thinking of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. With rare exceptions, he generally spouts simplistic bromides with little foundation in reason or fact.

That is why he has long extolled Princeton’s Professor Death, Peter Singer, for his animal liberation advocacy. He did so again the other day in a flaccid column about why the humanities still matter. From the column, "Don’t Dismiss the Humanities":

Peter Singer of Princeton University has pioneered the public discussion of our moral obligations to animals, including those we raise to eat. Singer wrote a landmark book in 1975, "Animal Liberation," and cites utilitarian reasoning to argue that it’s wrong to inflict cruelty on cows, hogs or chickens just so that we can enjoy a tasty lunch.

It has long been recognized that we have some ethical obligations that transcend our species; that’s why we’re arrested if we torture kittens or organize dog fights. But Singer focused squarely on industrial agriculture and the thrice-daily question of what we put on our plates, turning that into not just a gastronomical issue but also a moral one.

I’m not a vegetarian, although I’m sometimes tempted, but Singer’s arguments still apply. Do we skip regular eggs or pay more for cage-free? Should I eat goose liver p�t� (achieved by torturing geese)? Do we give preference to restaurants that try to source pork or chicken in ways that inflict less pain?

Kristof takes a tiny corner of Singer’s advocacy and acts as if all Professor Death cares about is improving animal welfare, which is a reasonable concern — ask Temple Grandin. Is Kristof really that dim? 

Singer demonstrates what has gone so badly wrong in the humanities at today’s elite universities. He is profoundly subversive of the idea of human exceptionalism and is distinctly and expressly opposed to the unique value of human life. Indeed, Singer thinks being human per se is morally irrelevant.

The following is just a sampling of some of the pernicious ideas advocated by Singer over the years. Let’s start with Animal Liberation, with which Kristof claims familiarity:

Singer believes that "specieism" is akin to racism: Singer popularized the concept of "specieism," that is, denying greater value to humans as "discrimination" against animals. He wrote on page 18 of Animal Liberation:

Adult chimpanzees, dogs, pigs, and members of many other species far surpass the brain-damaged infant in their ability to relate to others, act independently, be self-aware, and any other capacity that could reasonably be said to give value to life. … The only thing that distinguishes the infant from the animals, in the eyes of those who claim it has a right to life, is that it is biologically, a member of the species Homo sapiens. … But to use this difference as the basis for granting a right to life to the infant and not to other animals is, of course, pure specieism. It is exactly the kind of arbitrary difference that that the most crude and overt kind of racist uses in attempting to justify racial discrimination.

Singer is pro-infanticide: On page 186 of his book Practical Ethics, he opines that infants are "replaceable" and that a disabled baby can be killed to pave the way for a happier life for a sibling — even if that brother or sister hasn’t yet been born:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.

Singer supports using the disabled in medical experiments: In 2006, Singer enraged animal rights activists by justifying the use of monkeys in researching cures for Parkinson’s disease. But he would have said the same thing about using human "non-persons." In fact, he often has. For example, when asked by Psychology Today about the benefits that chimps provided in developing the hepatitis vaccine, Singer said disabled humans should be used in such research instead.

Singer is pro-death panel medical discrimination: Singer supports health care rationing, writing in the July 15, 2009, New York Times:

The debate over health care reform in the United States should start from the premise that some form of health care rationing is both inescapable and desirable. Then we can ask: What is the best way to do it?"

Singer prefers the "Quality Adjusted Life Year" (QALY) approach that has been used for years by the United Kingdom’s socialized National Health Service. QALY gives greater value to the lives of the able-bodied and young than to people with disabilities and the elderly (which are "adjusted" down based on low "quality") when determining whether the cost of a treatment is worth the price. 

Singer has defended bestiality: Singer positively reviewed a book celebrating the history of bestiality, and concluded that the proscription against sex with animals was merely a vestigial "taboo" from a more sexually repressed era. Indeed, he extolled a woman who was unconcerned by the prospect of forced sexual intercourse with an orangutan:

As it happened, the orangutan lost interest before penetration took place, but the aspect of the story that struck me most forcefully was that in the eyes of someone who has lived much of her life with orangutans, to be seen by one of them as an object of sexual interest is not a cause for shock or horror. The potential violence of the orangutan’s come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not. That may be because Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.

There is much more that could be written about this, and I often have. It is a sign of our times that Peter Singer is probably the most influential bioethicist working today.

But that doesn’t make him worth extolling as an example of why the humanities still matter. To the contrary, these days, the humanities can be very dangerous. Kristof should get a clue. 

Photo: Peter Singer/Wikipedia.

Cross-posted at Human Exceptionalism.

Wesley J. Smith

Chair and Senior Fellow, Center on Human Exceptionalism
Wesley J. Smith is Chair and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. Wesley is a contributor to National Review and is the author of 14 books, in recent years focusing on human dignity, liberty, and equality. Wesley has been recognized as one of America’s premier public intellectuals on bioethics by National Journal and has been honored by the Human Life Foundation as a “Great Defender of Life” for his work against suicide and euthanasia. Wesley’s most recent book is Culture of Death: The Age of “Do Harm” Medicine, a warning about the dangers to patients of the modern bioethics movement.