Life And Death At Princeton

Princeton, N.J.--The university's motto, "Dei Sub Numine Viget," does not say, as some Princetonians insist, "God went to Princeton." It says, "Under God's Power She Flourishes." As the academic year commences, Peter Singer comes to campus to teach that truly ethical behavior will not flourish until humanity abandons the fallacy, as he sees it, of "the sanctity of life."

He comes trailing clouds of controversy because he argues, without recourse to euphemism or other semantic sleights-of-hand, the moral justification of some homicides, including infanticide and euthanasia. He rejects "the particular moral order" which supposes that human beings are extraordinarily precious because God made them so. He also rejects secular philosophies that depict human beings as possessing a unique and exalted dignity that sharply distinguishes them from, and justifies their "tyranny" over, other species of animals.

The appointment of the 53-year-old Australian philosopher to a tenured professorship of bioethics was unanimously recommended by a Princeton search committee and was approved by President Harold Shapiro, who chairs the National Bioethics Advisory Commission.

Princeton's position is that Singer's copious publications are serious scholarship; that he has helped to shape debates, worldwide, concerning animal rights and the ethical dilemmas posed by new medical technologies that blur the boundaries between life and death; that universities do not endorse views by permitting the teaching of them; that Singer's views can be rationally defended; that intellectual diversity is a good thing and (in Shapiro's words) he "challenges long-established ways of thinking."

Critics of the appointment argue that 150 years ago slavery was defended no less rationally, given certain premises, than Singer defends his views, and the slavery proponents had premises not more repellent than Singer's. Critics note that a university's passion for intellectual diversity is today much more apt to encompass advocacy of infanticide than of protection for the unborn. They argue that a great university exists not only to provoke students to think about difficult matters, which Singer certainly will do, but also to transmit, down the generations, sustaining precepts of our civilization, some of which Singer wishes to extirpate. And they argue that the derivative prestige that Singer's views will gain from his Princeton connection will weaken respect for life and for the rights of the severely handicapped.

The critics are mostly correct. However, their worries about Singer's potential influence on students and public policy are excessive. He will be, on balance, a useful stimulant at Princeton. And he will be particularly useful to his most adamant critics. He appalls the right-to-life movement but actually he is the abortion-rights movement's worst nightmare. The logic of moral reasoning often is that he who says A must say B. Singer and other pro-choice people say A. But he then says: A entails B, and B includes infanticide.

Singer subscribes to utilitarianism, which holds that there is a single goal for human conduct--satisfaction of preferences and avoidance of suffering. Hence the foundation of morals is the obligation to maximize the satisfaction of preferences and minimize the thwarting of them. Like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the founding father of utilitarianism, Singer believes that "pushpin is as good as poetry"--that one pleasure is as good as another. And Singer, the principal progenitor of the animal-rights movement, says the pleasures and sufferings of other species are not necessarily of a moral significance inferior to those of humans. To say otherwise, he says, is "specieism."

Regarding humans, he says that assigning intrinsic moral significance to birth is arbitrary and logically indefensible. Birth is morally insignificant because a newborn, like a fetus, is incapable of regarding itself as "a distinct entity with a life of its own to lead." Because there are, he says, degrees of personhood, the intrinsic moral significance of the taking of the life of an individual gradually increases, like the physical being of the individual, from near nothingness in infancy.

With muscular candor, Singer faces biological facts: he does not deny that killing a fetus or a baby involves killing a human being. He has contempt for mincing, flinching language. (In an example of that, Kate Michelman, the abortion-rights advocate, has spoken of an aborted fetus "undergoing demise.") Singer says infanticide is not necessarily more morally important than abortion, which is morally negligible. In fact, some infanticide is not even as important as, say, killing a happy cat. (A cat can be self-conscious, and thus has a degree of personhood. Hence his use of the political category, "tyranny," to describe Homo sapiens' treatment of animals.) Killing an infant is never killing a person and is morally permissible in at least two kinds of situations.

One is when a handicapped baby faces a life in which suffering will predominate. Singer has cited Down's syndrome and spina bifida babies. However, he, like most people, is not well-informed about Down's syndrome citizens, some of whom are taxpayers who read the sports pages on the way to work. And spina bifida can involve a wide range of affliction. Singer's response to these facts is that sparing a Down or spina-bifida baby's life should be based on a utilitarian calculation with reference to the baby's projected quality of life, and the impact of the baby's life on others, all of which will depend on the severity of the disability.

Another situation when infanticide is justified is when parents with a handicapped baby--Singer's example is a hemophiliac--will, if relieved of the burden of the baby, have another baby which will be happier than the handicapped baby would be, and will bring the parents more happiness. By one form of utilitarian calculation, concerning which Singer is agnostic, the arithmetic is easy: the "total amount" of happiness would be increased.

Actually, the logic of his position is that until a baby is capable of self-awareness, there is no controlling reason not to kill it to serve any preference of the parents. Indeed, he has proposed (but is rethinking) a one-month postnatal period for legal discretionary infanticide. During the Senate debate on partial-birth abortion--in which procedure all of a baby except the top of the skull is delivered from the birth canal, then the skull is collapsed--two pro-choice senators were asked: Suppose the baby slips all the way out before the doctor can kill it. Then does it have a right to life? Both senators said no, it was still the mother's choice. Told of what the senators said, Singer says briskly: "They're right."

Singer's vocation is the important one of thinking about various choices forced upon us by modern medicine. What care is owed to anencephalic babies (born, essentially, without brains but with some brain-stem functions) or to persons in a persistent vegetative state? What is the moral importance of the distinction between "allowing nature to take its course" with the terminally ill and intervening to accelerate the course of nature?

But proximity, even familial attachment--these are moral irrelevancies in Singer's analysis of one's obligations to others. Should one spend a sum to ease the suffering of a family member or send the same sum to ease the sufferings of 10 Sudanese? Singer is consistent: In the Sudan the money will better serve the world's total amount of happiness. To his credit, he does not practice what he preaches. He told a New Yorker magazine interviewer that money he spends on nursing care for his mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, at least "does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they're doing."

Thus were debutante parties rationalized during the Depression. The New Yorker's interviewer calls Singer's rationalization "a noble sentiment." However, utilitarianism has no place for nobility, which presupposes the upward pull of a thoughtfulness that is higher than the low, common calculations of pain and pleasure, or of satisfying preferences and avoiding suffering.

Singer may fancy himself the advance guard of the future, but the trend of intellectual life is away from him. Medicine's multiplying capacities for therapeutic intervention in utero is changing how people think about the moral claims of fetal life. And there is a growing recoil from philosophies that misdescribe human beings as utterly autonomous individuals, "unencumbered" selves living in splendid self-sufficiency. There is heightened receptivity to philosophies that recognize that dependency on others is a universal and permanent fact of every life, throughout life. Dependency varies in kind and degree as people pass from birth to death, but can never of itself be a reason for denying personhood.

Singer's defenders say that some of his most arresting statements have been stripped of nuance by being taken out of context. There is some truth to that. However, while utilitarianism has interesting permutations, nuance is never its strong suit. Which is why Singer probably will not be a powerful shaper of Princeton students or public discourse.

Powerful teachers are unfinished products, combining certainties with a capacity for uncertainty and revision. Singer enjoys the intricacy of applying his utilitarian calculus to thorny practical problems. But on matters more fundamental than applications of his calculus, his thinking is as fixed and lifeless as a fly in amber. Although he says startling things en route to shocking conclusions, his work lacks the real drama of the life of the mind. He seems to be a strangely unreflective--almost unphilosophic--philosopher. He does not really worry about the deep questions of meaning and value that are behind the questions of life and death. For utilitarians, there can be no truly deep questions because human beings are no deeper than Bentham's depiction of them as under the sovereignty of pains and pleasures.

Given utilitarianism's unnaturally tidy conclusions about the human condition, utilitarian thinking serves a simple, even simpleminded, imperative--adding pleasures and subtracting pains in this or that situation. The result often resembles mere logic-chopping, without the risks of more wide-ranging reasoning about the deeper ambiguities surrounding life's possibilities. When moral reasoning is reduced to arithmetic--quantification involving categories as crude as pain and pleasure--moral reasoning is no more complex or interesting than the grinding of an adding machine.

A thoroughgoing utilitarian has the unlovely security and unenviable serenity of an inmate in what Chesterton called "the clean, well-lit prison of one idea." Singer's utilitarianism is so dry and desiccated that it drains the drama from philosophy. Gone is the juice of life that human beings seek in poetry or religion or the poetry of religion. Students may, at first, experience a flush of fascination with Singer's rigor in applying his rules to recalcitrant reality.

Still, Singer, three of whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, brings to his vocation the earnestness of one who knows that ideas have consequences. He is engaging, accessible and, unlike most contemporary philosophers, he is determined to bring philosophy to bear on urgent practical questions. He will do more to stimulate serious reflection--and more to stimulate opposition to his (literally) homicidal ideas--than he will to make his ideas acceptable.

Which is to say, Princeton can justify his appointment by utilitarian arithmetic. Such arithmetic has its uses, but not Singer's uses.

Join the Discussion