Living and Dying With Peter Singer
Interviews Peter Singer, director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia, on animal rights. His views on how his family history influenced his choice to be an ethicist; Influence of his book 'Animal Liberation,' on the rise of animal rights movement; Analysis on the rights of people who are considered brain dead.
By Neale Duckworth published January 1, 1999 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The Australian Ethicist who fathered the Animal Righs Movements is coming to the U.S. Brace yourself for a storm of Controversy.
He has been called a "notorious messenger of death" in his hometown of Melbourne, Australia. The British media have denounced him as "the man who would kill disabled babies," and in Germany he's been compared to Hitler's henchman Martin Borman. Protesters in wheelchairs have fought his appearances, chained themselves to barricades and smashed his glasses.
He's also been called the most influential philosopher alive.
Now, with Peter Singer's upcoming appointment as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values, controversy is erupting in the United States as well, sparking editorials in newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal, and prompting Commentary magazine to compare his philosophy to the "life unworthy of life" eugenics program of the Nazis.
Who is the man behind all the furor? Peter Singer, director of the Centre for Human Bioethics at Monash University in Australia, is a 52-year-old Australian Jew whose grandparents, ironically, were victims of the Holocaust. In person, he's tall, slender, soft-spoken, even affable.
His most famous book, Animal Liberation, published in 1975, jumpstarted the entire animal rights movement, converting many readers to lifelong vegetarianism and inspiring reforms in humane treatment for laboratory animals and livestock. But animal liberation is only one facet of Singer's ethics. Indeed, his goal is to reconfigure our entire moral landscape.
According to Singer, religion's 2000-year domination of morality ended early this decade, specifically in 1993, when British law ruled that a comatose man named Anthony Bland could be killed by his doctors. That decision, he maintains, dealt a "mortal" blow to the unquestioned sanctity of human life.
Singer argues that ethics today should be guided by a particular brand of utilitarianism: he calls himself a "preference utilitarian." In classic utilitarianism, what is good is defined as what brings happiness. But happiness is hard to measure. Singer proposes instead that good be defined by "preference." Under this philosophy, moral decisions are based on the most intense preferences of a given individual or group.
Thus, claims Singer, many times animals will be more deserving of life than certain humans, including disabled babies and adults who are brain-injured or in vegetative comas. Presumably, a healthy chimp's preference for life is more intense than a disabled infant's. This philosophy would rule out most medical experimentation on animals, as well as the breeding of animals to provide organs for human transplants.
Even more radical, Singer suggests that since preference is influenced by self-awareness, babies should not be considered "persons" until they are one month old. Before that time, parents and their doctors should be free to kill a baby if, for instance, it has Down's syndrome and the parents don't wish to raise it.
Though many people will find Singer's proposals deeply troubling, he defends his points with powerful arguments, as PT's Jill Neimark found when she caught up with him recently in his 19th-century row house on the water in Melbourne, Australia.
PT: One of the great ironies connected with your work is that your ideas are continually compared to those of the Nazis, although you yourself are Jewish and your parents escaped from Vienna just before the Holocaust. Do you feel misunderstood?
PS: In those instances, very much. My entire philosophy is shaped by an abhorrence of suffering and cruelty. My grandparents actually went through the concentration camps, and my grandfather died there.
PT: Do you think that your family history influenced your choice to be an ethicist?
PS: It probably did, though I don't know exactly what the link is. I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement: are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak.
PT: Can you sum up your philosophy?
PS: I want us to have a graduated moral approach to all sentient beings, related to their capacities to feel and suffer. If the being has self-awareness, we ought to give it even more rights. I'm not a biological egalitarian. I do not think that all nonhuman animals have the same claim to protection of their lives as humans do. I don't think it's as bad to kill a simple animal, like a frog or fish, as it is to kill a normal human being.
You have to ask yourself what actually makes it worse to kill one being rather than another, and the best answer I can come up with is one's sense of self, that you are alive and have a past and future. And apart from the great apes, I have made no claim that any other nonhuman animals are definitely capable of the self-awareness that I think gives humans, beyond the newborn stage, a more serious claim to protection of their life than other beings. But I would give animals of some other species the benefit of the doubt where that is possible.
PT: One of the aspects of your philosophy that is most galling to some people is that you don't view human life as sacred. According to you, since a person in a vegetative coma is a being without self-awareness, he or she should be accorded fewer rights than a fully-aware chimpanzee. Needless to say, you've enraged a bunch of religious and disabled folk.
PS: But you really have to question human superiority What justifies the things we do to animals? What justifies keeping a person in a vegetative coma alive? There are two basic views that support cruelty to animals: either you accept the Aristotelian view that the universe has a purpose and the less rational are here to serve the more rational, or you believe the Judeo-Christian view that God has given us dominion over the world. But once you get away from those two worldviews, there just isn't a basis for drawing a sharp moral boundary between us and them.
PT: But you are still drawing a boundary Why draw one at all? Aren't you still guilty of human arrogance in saying apes deserve human rights, when other animals don't? Who are we to decide?
PS: That's absolutely true, and what we really have is an infinite range of gradations of awareness. But if you are trying to shape policy, you need to draw lines somewhere.
PT: Let's take a specific case. Research on chimpanzees led to the hepatitis B vaccine, which has saved many human lives. Let's pretend it's the moment before that research is to begin. Would you stop it?
PS: I'm not comfortable with any invasive research on chimps. I would ask, Is there no other way? And I think there are other ways. I would say, What about getting the consent of relatives of people in vegetative states?
PT: That would cause a riot!
PS: Well, if you could really confidently determine that this person will never recover consciousness, it's a lot better to use them than a chimp. I agree, it doesn't go over well, and people throw up their hands in shock and horror. But I'd like them to explain why it's better to lock a fully-conscious, self-aware chimp in a seven-foot cage in solitary confinement than to experiment with someone lying unconscious in a hospital ward.
PT: How do your views differ from those of Aristotle, aside from your use of the word "sentient" in place of the word "rational?" It still seems you're placing humans right at the top of the so-called Great Chain of Being, as the most sentient and self-aware creatures.
PS: But there's a huge difference. Aristotle attributed purpose to the universe, and I don't. He was wrong to think that the universe is constructed on some teleological principle.
PT: You deal in great depth with the issue of medical ethics and people in vegetative comas in your book Rethinking Life and Death. You point out that when we call people brain dead, we're arbitrarily marking the moment of death because they're not literally dead.
PS: My point is that we shouldn't pretend breathing human beings are dead when they're not.
PT: We should say they're alive but nonetheless their life is not viable.
PS: Right. They're alive but that life is not worth living.
PT: Do you think we're avoiding a difficult moral dilemma by calling them brain, dead, so that we can, for instance, feel it's acceptable to harvest their organs for transplant?
PS: Yes. We have pushed them out of the category of the living, because the living need to be protected and we can never kill an innocent human being. But if we say they're really dead, we can feel comfortable removing their hearts.
I think that fiction is starting to break down. The more accurate description is that these are people whose cortexes have been destroyed so they will never again have any consciousness. We can now detect signs of brain activity in many of these people that we couldn't detect before. So it's getting harder and harder to pretend they're simply dead.
PT: In your discussion of medical ethics, you suggest that doctors, patients and their relatives should be free to make the decision to end a life when it's no longer wanted, in particular by the patients themselves, or if there is awful suffering. It seems to me that this isn't actually that radical a view, that there's already a whole tacit structure in place to allow people to do just that. It's actually happening all the time.
A surgeon recently told me about the first time he saw this happen, when he was a resident. A man was dying of liver cancer, and he could have lingered in great pain for several more weeks. On ward rounds, the consulting physician turned to the resident and told him to listen for pneumonia. There wasn't any sign of pneumonia, and he said so, but the physician told him to listen again closely. Then he understood what was being asked of him, and he said yes, there might be pneumonia.
The doctors were then free to tell the man's wife, who was on the board of the hospital and understood exactly what was really being said to her, "Pneumonia can be very painful, and we would like to administer high doses of morphine, but there is a high risk that he will die quickly."
She had the opportunity to intervene if she wished, but was never explicitly asked to decide that her husband should be killed--an almost impossible burden.
PS: You're absolutely right, a lot of this goes on all the time and it's kind of ironic that all this flak I get is really just for saying, Hey, wait a minute, let's look at what we're doing and see if we can find a coherent:: ethic for it.
PT: Why is it so hard for us to admit it? We. get into big trouble when we're forced to take an overt ethical stand.
PS: One reason is we don't like to know that we're taking responsibility for life-and-death decisions.
PT: It's too hard to say, "Your husband is in a lot of pain and his life will be unbearable. Do you want me to kill him for you?"
PS: Another reason is that the Judeo-Christian view is still very influential, and it's hard for people to break out of that mold. We still view human life as sacred.
PT: What would happen to us if we broke out of that mold?
PS: We already have. But some people are afraid that it' we create actual policies, crazy doctors will be running loose with loaded syringes.
PT: I'm curious about another suggestion of yours that seems invented for shock value. You suggest that we shouldn't treat a baby as a person until it's a month old. Why?
PS: That proposal was intended for severely disabled newborn beings. What do you do in that situation?
PT: But what led you to pick the arbitrary date of one month? Why not just leave it at birth, which is still the most powerful physical moment? And besides, nobody's going to accept your proposal. We're still going to continue saving premature babies when we can.
PS: You have to ask yourself, does a baby have a right to life as soon as it's born? Or does its right to life come into existence gradually? Of course it's gradual, but that doesn't help the policy makers. If you're trying to shape policy, you need to try and draw lines somewhere. So I came up with an arbitrary point, as a way of demonstrating the fact that babies, unlike older children, don't yet have the capacity for seeing themselves as independent beings.
The point is, we do already make life-and-death decisions about newborns and their reasonable chances for life without major handicap. So who should be allowed make that decision and how? I suggest it should be the parents, along with their doctors.
I would not be happy with the view that we should keep every baby alive from birth no matter how serious its disabilities. But right now we can't actually kill newborns, because we're just not comfortable with that. St) we "let" them die. Again, I think that's a fiction.
All the same, I have acknowledged in Rethinking Life and Death that an arbitrary boundary line doesn't work well from a public-policy point of view. So there is a strong case for treating all human beings as having a right to life from birth, simply because that is the only really clear and visible line of demarcation. At this stage I'm still thinking about the best way to resolve these difficult issues.
PT: Do you have children yourself.? Everyone says that however you feel about kids in the abstract, it changes when you're confronted with critical decisions regarding your own. How would you behave given a dire situation involving your own offspring?
PS: I have three grown daughters. It is important to remember that I have never said that it is OK, or a trivial matter, to kill newborn infants in normal circumstances, that is, when they have loving parents who care for them. My point is that the wrong clone is really, at that stage, a wrong to the parents rather than to the infant who has no awareness of its own existence.
So, of course, I cared for and loved my children, and would have been deeply upset if they had died, but that is really because of my feelings, and those of my wife, not be. cause of what they were at that moment. So I don't think it is true that I don't take emotions into account.
PT: But look how messy and complicated these real-life situations are. I'm not sure any ethical view can actually address life as it is.
You say we're like the animals, but if we face that brutal fact then we have to admit that we're part of nature, and nature is not moral.
Nature is often remorseless. Animals kill others for food and protect: only those who share the greatest genetic heritage with them.
It's all built into nature, so any moral system has to take the amoral aspect of nature into account. There's a lot of beauty, but there's also genocide. How much can we ever shape this gloriously, terrifyingly messy thing called life?
PS: You're being descriptive, not prescriptive. At the descriptive level, everything you say is true. But you could follow that view through to total moral nihilism. I think we're under a moral obligation to do better.
PT: You don't have to be a moral nihilist to recognize that human beings are part of amoral nature, even though we may be able to defy the process of evolution in many ways, and impose some kind of moral order on it that it wouldn't have otherwise.
For example, I certainly feel better when I eat eggs from free-range chickens that have been running around leading relatively happy lives. And the animal liberation movement probably led to that and that's good. But if I'm starving, I won't care at all, I'll eat an egg from a caged chicken without a second thought.
PS: Sure, so would I. But coherent, intelligible ethics can have an impact. I've discovered that by working in the animal rights movement.
I know a number of people who became vegetarians after they read Animal Liberation, and that book is very much a rational argument. It's been pleasing to see people moved by a rational argument to change their ethical positions and their lives.
PT: There's something I don't understand about preference utilitarianism. Let's say there are 11 beings, and 10 of those beings want to kill one of those beings. Do the intense preferences of those 10 outweigh the intense preference of that one?
PS: Numbers matter, but I'd assume the preference of that one being not to die is much more intense than the preferences of the other ten to kill it. You'd have to actually live all 11 of those lives to know for certain.
PT: Right--so how can you evaluate the intensity of a preference from the outside?
PS: It's very hard. You can't actually go around living a moral life by doing those calculations all the time. That's why we have moral rules of thumb.
In general, most people have a very serious, intense preference to continue to live that outweighs almost any other preference. But these rules don't have absolute moral status.
PT: What do you say to those who see you as an advocate of eugenics, even an advocate of death?
PS: Well, all my views are motivated by an abhorrence of gratuitous suffering, and an attempt to allay that.
One of the issues I've written about is the obligation we all have to assist people in need in the Third World. When people call me an advocate of death, I wonder how much they're doing to save lives overseas by distributing wealth more equally
PT: You yourself give money to help people overseas.
PS: For the last 25 years I've given away 10% of my income, and more recently, the royalties from Practical Ethics. I question the motives of people who complain about my views but don't actively try to extend lives by giving more to overseas aid. The next time they go out and buy a luxury item, they should consider that they could be helping people dying from preventable diarrhea or malnutrition.
PT: You've tackled some huge and thorny philosophical issues. What are you going to turn to next?
PS: I've taken time off from Monash University to write a biography of my grandfather. He was a member of Freud's Wednesday circle [a group of Freud's followers]. Later he left it, along with Alfred Adler.
He was also a victim of the Holocaust. I have many letters he and my grandmother wrote, and they're very moving. At the end he could only send little Red Cross notes.
PT: Can I take a look at them?
PS: They're in German. This one is from my grandmother to my father, after the liberation. I'll translate: "It's really difficult...to write after such a long sad time. Your dear father is no more...I never though I'd live to see this day; and I can't celebrate this long-awaited freedom, the one thing I hoped for. Reunion with you seems unreachable...I don't even know when this letter will reach you...About my future life I can't and don't want to say today. I don't know how I will live."
PT: It's hard to imagine someone writing and trying to express the inexpressible. Did she come to live with you after that?
PS: Yes. I remember her as being frail, thin and very loving. She was in the house with us a lot. She died when I was about nine.
PT: So we're back to my original question about your family's history in the Holocaust illuminating your life and ethics.
PS: Indifference to suffering was so evident in the Holocaust. Unfortunately, it's still evident in many of the areas of ethics with which I'm concerned.