Peter Singer is one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, but he’s also philosophy’s most polarizing personality. When he was appointed a chair of bioethics at Princeton University in 1999, protestors barred entrance to the administration building, and both he and Princeton’s president received death threats. He has been attacked and shouted down during lectures. And even though three of his grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, his critics have sometimes identified his views with Nazism—with the result that he has been banned from speaking in several places.
To understand what makes Singer so controversial, one must start with his views about who counts as a person—and who, therefore, has the rights that only persons have. According to Singer, humanity is no more the center of the moral universe than the earth is the center of the physical universe. Singer claims that it is speciesist to think that a human infant has a right to life while a pig may be tortured and killed in a factory farm simply because of our desire to eat pork. Considering the infant girl, he thinks that her species, just like her race and sex, is irrelevant to her moral value. And he thinks that because she is not yet rational or self-aware, the infant does not yet have as much moral value as an adult woman. Or, perhaps, as a pig. After all, pigs boast social and intellectual abilities greater than dogs, and may even prefer to continue to live rather than die. If we reject speciesism, Singer argues, the pig appears to have significantly more intrinsic moral value than the newborn baby. Like sexism and racism before it, “speciesism”—which privileges Homo sapiens over other animals for reasons essentially theological—is unjustified discrimination that must be rooted out of our culture.
Rather than referring to any member of the species Homo sapiens, the term “person,” Singer believes, should be used to refer to all (and only) those animals who possess certain faculties. As Singer points out, fetuses are undeniably members of our species, and yet many people do not consider prenatal humans to be “persons” with a right not to be killed, precisely because they are not yet rational or self-aware. But infants and some mentally disabled human beings also lack rationality and self-awareness—and therefore, Singer argues, they aren’t persons either. And just as there are humans who aren’t persons, we must consider the possibility that there are persons who aren’t human. There are gorillas that have a vocabulary of hundreds of sign-language words. Dolphins can recognize themselves in a mirror. Can we really be confident these animals aren’t rational or self-aware? And, if not, how can we justify not counting—and treating—them as persons?
For Singer, the fact that our culture continues to uphold the absolute value of infants and the severely mentally disabled, while we torture and kill healthy and mature nonhuman animals for food, can be justified only by an ethic that is “paradoxical, incoherent, and dependent on pretense.” Such practices belong to an earlier era, before we knew what we know now. In supporting the right to kill fetuses (abortion) or to withdraw life-support from brain-damaged humans in a persistent vegetative state, our culture is already well on its way to rejecting the sanctity of human life. To be consistent, Singer thinks, we must also support infanticide and certain kinds of euthanasia. At the same time, we should ban factory farming, stop eating meat, and refuse to keep nonhuman persons (like primates) in cages for medical experiments. (Singer has been the main intellectual force behind the animal-liberation movement from its beginning in 1970s.) Thus does a single theoretical commitment lead Singer to several very controversial conclusions, any one of which might be expected to provoke opposition, if not outrage.
When Singer’s name is mentioned by prolifers, it’s usually as a warning of where the logic of abortion leads. Some talk about him as if he were a kind of academic monster: the pure intellectual who has lost touch with his humanity. But can Christian ethicists talk with Peter Singer—and can he talk with them? Are they even intelligible to one another?
The answer, it turns out, is yes. In recent years Singer has gone out of his way to participate in debates with Christian intellectuals, not only about ethics, but also about God, science, and the philosophy of religion. Singer recently joined three Christians (myself included) to organize a conference at Princeton University where prolifers and prochoicers could talk with one another directly about the law and morality of abortion. [Read Robert K. Vischer's assessment of that conference here.] The discussions at the conference revealed that, despite profound disagreement about the morality of abortion, Singer and prolife Christians could agree on several important points. They already agree that there is a moral link between abortion and infanticide. And Singer would agree that if the fetus is a person, as prolifers say, then it would be wrong to kill a fetus except for the most serious reasons (such as to save the life of the mother). For Singer as for prolifers, the morality of abortion is primarily about the definition of personhood rather than privacy. Singer even agrees with prolifers that Roe v. Wade is a mistake, because he thinks abortion law should be decided democratically rather than by courts. At the conference, Singer defended prolife Christians from the charge that, because their position on abortion is based on their religious commitments, their arguments have no place in the public square. He said the arguments he heard prolifers making at the conference did not depend on faith and were worthy of the attention of secular prochoicers.
In May, Singer also participated in the conference “Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer” at Oxford’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. Joining other utilitarians like Julian Savulescu, Toby Ord, Tim Mulgan, and Brad Hooker, Singer took part in discussions with several Christian ethicists, including Nigel Biggar, Lisa Cahill, John Hare, Eric Gregory, David Clough, and John Haldane. The conference was a reminder that utilitarians and Christians are far from polar opposites, and can actually make common cause on several important issues. In his closing remarks, Singer himself publicly called for cooperation on the treatment of nonhuman animals, global poverty, and ecological issues.
For ethicists at least, this should not come as a complete surprise. Singer’s famous “shallow pond” thought experiment is in some ways similar, both in form and purpose, to the parable of the Good Samaritan. (In the thought experiment, Singer asks the reader what he or she would think if someone decided not to rescue a drowning child because it would require them to ruin a pair of expensive shoes. If you think that is terribly selfish, then, says Singer, you should also find it terribly selfish for people to buy those expensive shoes in the first place when they could instead send the money they’re spending on the shoes to an international relief organization.) Both Singerites and Christians are intensely interested in consequences, even if they measure them differently. “You will know them by their fruits” is a rule that requires Christians to pay careful attention to consequences. As a “preference utilitarian,” Singer wants to maximize the satisfaction of preferences: actions are good insofar as they tend toward that maximal satisfaction. Christians ultimately want to achieve union with God, but they also want to promote the common good and the flourishing of all creation, and they are interested in virtues that produce these fruits—or consequences.
For most of his career, Singer agreed with David Hume that it was not irrational to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of one’s finger. On Hume’s account, moral reflection is about how best to achieve our desires, whatever these may be, and not about whether our desires are rational or irrational, objectively good or bad. By contrast, most Christians have maintained that there are multiple goods that have objective value apart from preferences. As luck would have it, when Singer met with Christian ethicists at the Oxford conference, he was in the process of reevaluating his views on these fundamental matters. He told those attending the conference that if he had had more time to work on it, the recently released third edition of Practical Ethics, his most famous work, would have been a “different book.” Partly because of the influence of the philosopher Derek Parfit (and his monumental new book On What Matters), Singer is now willing to accept that there is such a thing as an irrational preference. Parfit’s example of such a preference is “not caring about pleasures or pains on future Tuesdays.” Singer now agrees that we can know through what Parfit calls “rational intuition” that such a preference is irrational.
Singer is also reconsidering the possibility of what philosophers call “objective goods.” In the new edition of Practical Ethics, he considers the possibility that future generations might prefer video games to enjoyment of the wilderness and concludes that this would be a great loss. But as Singer himself appears to be aware, his original theory cannot produce this conclusion. Nor is it clear that, without an objective moral order by which to compare preferences, one can say that a pig’s preference not to live its life in close confinement on a factory farm and be killed for its meat outweighs my preference to buy cheap and tasty bacon at the supermarket. For most of us, it is radically counterintuitive to determine such goods as friendship and education by calculating what people happen to prefer: perhaps Singer could admit that, just as it would be a great loss if people stopped valuing the wilderness, it would also be a great loss—and objectively bad—if people stopped preferring to have friends or to learn new things.
Until recently, Singer’s theory would have forced him to describe persons as merely self-aware bundles of contingent preferences, but his recent shift creates new space for models of personhood that are compatible with Christian ethics. According to one such model, persons are kinds of things that persist over time, require objective goods to have a happy and meaningful life, and are defined in morally significant ways by their relationships with parents, friends, spouses, and children. If Singer could accept that definition of personhood, or even just part of it, much of his disagreement with Christian ethics would disappear.
But could he accept that much without accepting more? At the Oxford conference, the consequentialist (and non-Christian) philosopher Tim Mulgan claimed that objective goods must be grounded in “unconventional” theism. Would Singer ever go in for something like that? The Christian ethicist John Hare—who is the son of Singer’s mentor at Oxford, the great Christian utilitarian R. M. Hare—has argued that Singer’s views actually require something like traditional Christian beliefs. We need, Hare argues, something like God’s grace to transform the self-centered, historically situated human condition so that we are able to act on behalf of the preferences of others, and not just our own preferences projected onto them. Since we cannot predict how our actions will affect the preferences of future generations, we also need something like God’s providence—and perhaps the concept of an afterlife—to assure us that certain actions will in fact produce good consequences in the long run. Singer himself said at the Oxford conference that he regretted not having something like belief in God to answer the question, “Why be moral in the first place?”
Singer is an eminently practical ethicist; his work is motivated by a genuine desire to alleviate the enormous amount of suffering in the world—and particularly that of the most vulnerable. This is a desire he shares with Christians. But Christianity allows one to accept radical duties to the poor while also acknowledging that we have special duties to our friends and family. Like Singer, Christians have good reason to condemn farming practices that cause great suffering, reasons that don’t require them to abandon their concern for the lives of unborn or profoundly disabled human beings. And Christians can struggle against ecological devastation without reducing their concern for the natural world to a mere preference. The recent shifts in Singer’s thinking suggest that he and Christians may soon have more fruitful ways to talk about their disagreements. Meanwhile, there is already enough practical agreement for Christians and Singer’s followers to work together on problems that cannot wait until every theoretical question is settled.