What you must know about Peter Singer is he’s simply and uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society.
To say Peter Singer is an atheist is a gross understatement.
Often accused of sensationalism, this Australian philosopher advocates some strong, provocative lines of thought.
Yet, he’s dead serious.
What you must know is that Singer is simply and uncompromisingly working out the implications of living in a truly secular society.
How’s he doing that? He approaches ethical issues from a secular preference utilitarian perspective.
Eh? Let me explain.
A Sophisticated Argument for Suffering
Outside the academic arena, Singer is best known for his book Animal Liberation, published in 1975.
The serious objective of this lib movement book is to minimize suffering in all animals. How he defines animals is where Singer’s philosophy gets interesting.
Since severely retarded humans show diminished or lower mental capacity and are, in a sense, less self-aware than say a gorilla, Singer argues that animals should have rights based on suffering rather than intelligence.
Likewise, pigs and birds can be as intelligent as children. In other words, discrimination based on fur or feathers is no different from discrimination based on skin color.
Three Surprising Conclusions
Singer’s philosophy begins in a broad egalitarianism. It culminates in a narrow preferentialism. This leads him to some startling conclusions. According to his Princeton mate, Robert P. George, Singer:
1. Defends the moral right to kill newborns afflicted with retardation, hemophilia or even cleft palates.
2. Supports breeding large numbers of children to be killed in infancy in order to harvest organs for transplantation.
3. Sees nothing wrong with sex between multiple partners, animals and corpses.
Now, you must understand, these are morally permissible stances as long as no one–eh, I mean, animal–is suffering.
How to Rationalize the Murder of a Newborn
How so? Well, since the fetus up to week 18 can’t suffer or feel satisfaction there is nothing to weigh against a mother’s preference to have an abortion.
Furthermore, since a newborn up to a certain age is less self-aware than some fish, if a mother faces a life of hardship based on her child, she has the right…the preference…to kill it to minimize her future suffering against the newborns suffering.
That is a secular utilitarian calculation based on preference.
What is fundamentally relevant for Singer is the capacity of humans and non-human animals to not suffer. Singer writes in Rethinking Life and Death:
Human babies are not born self-aware or capable of grasping their lives over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection that the life of a fetus.
Favoring Free-Market Murder
Now, many admire Peter Singer as a person of intellectual honesty. Princeton colleague Robert P. George said he lives up to the implications of his principles:
He’s not an ogre or crank and his a fair-minded debater who doesn’t smear or distort his opponents positions. He tells the truth as he sees it. He alone possess the virtue of intellectual honesty.
Thus, he can’t be accused of being a Hitler or Stalin. That’s because he doesn’t want totalitarian genocide. Instead, Singer advocates preferential homicide.
Now, Singer says, we must remove Homo sapiens from this privileged position and restore the natural order. This translates into more rights for animals and less special treatment for human beings. There is a grim consistency in Singer’s call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly.
As an atheist, Singer underscores the importance of reason, broadmindedness, consistency and compassion. That’s what he brings to the table. But all at the expense of feelings, human dignity and personal meaning.
In the end his philosophy is one-sided and distorted. It plays into the Culture of Death because it distrusts the province of the heart, fails to discern the true dignity of the human person, and elevates the killing of innocent human beings — young and old — to the level of a social therapeutic.
Yet, if Singer were a true atheist–which he is–then he’d argue that the idea of dignity or personal meaning are human inventions because it is Christendom which has exalted man above animals.
Singer is simply casting off all residue of Christianity. And he’s attempting to live by his secular creed.
My Reason for This Post
This post is the first in a series on understanding atheists. I start with Singer because he’s extreme. And often rebuffed by fellow atheists. And I’m curious how atheists respond to him. That’s why tomorrow I’ll publish a 10-question post with atheist Hemant Mehta–the bonus question being about Peter Singer.
Understand: I’m not rooting around for provocative statements. I simply want to know how atheists think. What they like. Think of it as a polite cocktail party where we all walk away with a better view of each other.
Now, while we wait for tomorrow’s post, why not share your thoughts about Peter Singer. I look forward to hearing from you. Brutal and all.