Against Peter Singer

Princeton University's Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, Peter Singer, can be quoted on the wrong side (in my view) of bestiality, infanticide, euthanasia and other significant moral issues. Therefore, if he is coherent, I take his views to be reductio ad absurda to his utilitarian philosophy. In order to find out if he is coherent, I read his book [1]. On Pages xii-xiv, he says he wrote this book to provide access to his central ideas, in his own words, with sufficient context to be understood. Therefore, I think it is fair to compare passages in this book as being in context.

Religious Doctrine Must be Wrong?

Abortion appears to be one of the moral issues where Singer can be accused of incoherence or bias. For example, on Page 52, on the potential of human infants for morally relevant characteristics, he writes:

"if we count it we shall have to condemn abortion along with experiments on infants, since the potential of the infant and the fetus is the same."

Singer admits that this point is controversial, but he finally dismisses it on Page 156. There he writes:

"The belief that mere membership in our species, irrespective of other characteristics, makes a great difference to the wrongness of killing a being is a legacy of religious doctrine that even those opposed to abortion hesitate to bring into the debate."

I think Singer begs the question here. If "mere membership" refers to a human patient in a vegetative state, life support can be withdrawn, but the potential in that case is zero. When there is some potential for recovery, it matters greatly whether the patient is a human being or a horse. Furthermore, the concurrence of established religions in giving preference to members of our own species does not prove that such preference is misplaced. Even an atheist like Singer should have hesitated to bring religion into the debate.

It's Only Academic, Right?

On Page 324, Singer protests that

"Very often what I am doing is following the implications of various ethical views and getting students to think about whether they accept these implications."

I agree that he should have academic freedom to follow any premises to their logical conclusions. However, on Page xx he muddies this defense with:

"I think it is important not just to write and teach but to try to make a difference in more immediate ways as well."

Furthermore, on Page 301, he adds that it is sometimes morally right to disobey the law. The problem with this is that Singer's opponents can plausibly make the same claim. This actually happened, as he documents in his chapter "On Being Silenced in Germany." Predictably, but not coherently, Singer did not regard protests against his views on euthanasia as being justified for people who hold those views to be morally abhorrent. Instead, on Page 318, he complains about the

"atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance ... actively opposing the free discussion of academic ideas."

Reversing Singer's Appeal to Darwinism

On Page 308, Singer writes:

"Why, for example, if not because human beings are made in the image of God, should the boundary of sacrosanct life match the boundary of our species?"

I will try to answer this straightforwardly. But first I want to note that, on Page 320, Singer continues with:

"Since Darwin, at least, we've known that that's factually false, and now we've got to draw the moral implications of understanding that it's factually false."

This represents a small leap of faith on Singer's part because he doesn't have direct knowledge about what happened in biblical and pre-historic times. Now Singer's first premise, stated back on page xv, was:

"1. Pain is bad, and similar amounts of pain are equally bad, no matter whose pain it might be."

My answer to Singer's challenge is to elevate what he calls specieism to the alternate premise:

1.' Shortening human lives is bad, and similar amounts of shortening are equally bad, no matter whose life it might be.

I propose to argue for 1.' against Singer on Darwinian grounds. That is, I believe my premise will work out better for my genes than his premise, and it may even be optimal. He concludes from his premise that some animals also have morally relevant characteristics. While this may be a noble view in some sense, I can't imagine any benefit flowing from it for any human genes. Singer should find this argument hard to refute because (as seen on page 320) Darwin's theory of evolution is revealed truth for Singer. If Singer dismisses my premise, though, it will show that he is not just interested in "following the implications of various ethical views."


  1. Peter Singer, Writings on an Ethical Life, HarperCollins, New York (2000).

(last updated July 21, 2003)

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Copyright 2003, Terence J. Nelson