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Peter Singer

Peter Albert David Singer is an Australian philosopher and currently a professor at Princeton University, USA. He works in practical ethics, and treats ethical issues from a utilitarian (specifically preference utilitarian[?]) perspective.

He almost single-handedly jump-started the modern animal rights movement in 1975 (second edition 1990) with his book Animal Liberation[?] in which he argues against what he calls "speciesism": the discrimination against certain beings based only on their belonging to a certain (almost usually non-human) species. He holds the interests of all beings which are capable of suffering to be worthy of equal consideration, and concludes that the use of animals for food is unjustifiable because it creates unnecessary suffering. He therefore considers veganism as the only justifiable diet.

His most comprehensive work, Practical Ethics[?] (1979, second edition 1993), analyzes in detail why and how beings' interests should be weighed. He states that a being's interests should always be weighed according to that being's concrete properties, and not according to its belonging to some abstract group. He concludes that the right to physical integrity is grounded in a being's ability to suffer, and the right to life is grounded in the ability to plan and anticipate one's future. Since the unborn, infants and severely disabled people lack the latter (but not the former) ability, he states that abortion and painless infanticide and euthanasia can be justified in certain circumstances, for instance in the case of severely disabled infants whose life would cause suffering both to themselves and to their parents. He wrote "I think that a chimpanzee certainly has greater self-awareness than a newborn baby. There are some circumstances...when killing the newborn baby is not at all wrong... not like killing the chimpanzee would be. Maybe it's not wrong at all."

Singer's position has been vigorously attacked by right-to-life activists and advocates for the disabled, who argue that Singer is in no position to judge the quality of life of the disabled. Lectures by Singer have been disrupted, especially in Germany, where his position has been compared to the Nazi practice of murdering "unworthy life." Singer attributes these attacks to "Christianity that makes a huge gulf between humans and animals, saying humans have souls but animals do not. That kind of attitude is a problem in getting people to think of animals as objects of moral value."

Singer's fundamental principles are shared by many philosophers, but his conclusions based on these principles in controversial areas such as abortion and euthanasia, and his refusal to hide his conclusions behind euphemisms, help explain why his works have attracted particular attention.

On the controversy surrounding him, Singer observed that many people judge him based on secondhand summaries and short quotations taken out of context, not his books or articles. (To make his writings more accessible, Singer has collated the most important into a single book, Writings on an Ethical Life.)

Singer experienced the complexities of these questions in his own life. Singer's mother had Alzheimer's disease, which rendered her, in Singer's system, a "nonperson". He did not euthanize her, commenting that it was "different" in the case of someone he knew and loved. "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult." Singer continues to hold that euthanasia can be justified in certain cases. This has led to accusations of hypocrisy. Yet, most critics forget to mention that Singer's mother could not consent to euthanasia, and therefore killing her would have been a case of non-voluntary euthanasia, which Singer distinguished from the voluntary ones. Singer only makes this distinction when it deflects criticism; neither he nor his supporters address the supposed difference between his mother's inability to consent and the inability to consent of the disabled infants he wishes to kill.

Singer laments the injustice of some people living in abundance while others starve and argues that everybody able to do so should donate at least 10% of their income to hunger relief and similar efforts: the good to be done with this money greatly outweighs the lost happiness of the donor. Singer himself donates a large part of his salary (20-30%) to Oxfam and UNICEF.

Singer served as chair of philosophy at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and founded its Centre for Human Bioethics. In 1996 Singer ran as a Green candidate for the Australian Senate but failed to be elected. In 1999 he was appointed Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics of Princeton University's Center for Human Values, and relocated to the United States.

In a 2001 book review, Singer stated that humans and animals can have "mutually satisfying" sexual relationships. Bestiality should remain illegal if it involves cruelty, but otherwise is no cause for shock or horror, writes Singer, because "we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes." Thus, Singer concludes, sex between humans and non-humans, while unnormal, "ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."

See also: Vegetarianism, Henry Spira[?], Utilitarian Bioethics, R. M. Hare

Further Reading

  • Peter Singer, Animal Liberation, 2nd edition, New York: Avon, 1990.
  • Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life, New York: Ecco, 2000.
  • Peter Singer, 'Review of Dearest Pet: On Bestiality by Midas Dekkers (http://www.nerve.com/Opinions/Singer/heavyPetting/main.asp)'.

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