A review of Rethinking Peter Singer. Edited by Gordon Preece.

InterVarsity Press, 2002.

“Since neither a newborn human infant nor a fish is a person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person.”

“…regarding a newborn infant as not having the same right to life as a person, the cultures that practiced infanticide were on solid ground.”

These are two of four quotes from philosopher Peter Singer that were featured in a quarter-page ad in the Australian newspaper during the 1996 federal election. The Australian Family Association took out the ad because Peter Singer was running as a Green Senate candidate. Fortunately for the unborn, the newborn, the elderly and many other “non-persons”, Singer received only a tiny fraction of the vote.

He now teaches at Princeton University, after a long career at Melbourne’s Monash University. He has written over twenty books, and is regarded as a leading contemporary philosopher and bioethicist. He is famous for his advocacy of animal liberation, as well as for his callous view of human life.

This new book, edited by an ethicist at Melbourne’s Ridley College, contains five important articles offering a critical assessment of Singer’s philosophy and writings.

After an incisive introduction, Preece offers a close look at the man and his work in chapter one. While recognising the relative consistency throughout his writings, he points out the well-known inconsistency of his regard for his mother as she wrestled with Alzheimer’s disease. He rightly notes that on the basis of Singer’s utilitarian and consequentialist outlook, he should have bumped off his own mother. But fortunately for his mother, “Singer is a better son and person than ethicist”.

He shows how his universalised utility calculations are really a secularised version of the parable of the good Samaritan. But without the moral and theological framework which underlies the parable of Jesus, his system is not sustainable. Indeed, because Singer makes personhood a “special prize, not a humanly universal gift,” he is unable to properly enact the parable, which recognises that every person is my neighbor.

Andrew Sloane’s article looks at one especially nasty aspect of Singer’s philosophy – his support of infanticide. Sloane argues that his case for infanticide is only successful if his ethical theory (preference utilitarianism) is successful. But he argues that it is not, but is in fact incoherent and inconsistent. It is “an impoverished, reductionistic theory” which denies any “ultimate meaning to the universe and human life”.

In such a cold world, the argument for infanticide may make sense. After all, the newborn do not contribute anything to society, and are therefore expendable. The newborn may not have any utilitarian value, according to his own theory, but he has not successfully argued that his theory should be accepted and others rejected.

Graham Cole argues that Singer’s critiques of Christianity are misguided, as they are based on caricature and straw men. He picks and chooses those portions of the biblical account that he finds offensive, but does not appeal to other passages which may act as a corrective or balance.

In a chapter on personhood and Singer’s view on animals, Lindsay Wilson argues that Singer, while offering some helpful contributions to the debate, in fact can not compete with the biblical picture of animals and their worth. Singer’s critique of “speciesism” – the idea that humans wrongly (in his view) consider themselves better than animals – is based on the idea that sentience (the ability to feel pleasure and pain) is what unites humans and animals. Because both humans and animals suffer, Singer says we should treat both respectfully, and not give special preference to humans, based on outdated concepts of personhood and human dignity.

Wilson argues that Singer’s views on animals have major philosophical shortcomings, and that the biblical picture, rightly understood, offers a better framework in which to respect (but not worship) the rest of the created order.

Preece then offers a concluding chapter on Singer’s view on life and death issues, especially that of euthanasia. Singer has long argued that sanctity of life ethics should be replaced with quality of life ethics. The former, Singer rightly recognises, is bound up with the Judeo-Christian worldview, while the other is not. As an atheist, Singer prefers the latter viewpoint, arguing that the former can no longer stand up in a scientific age.

Two consequences flow from this. First, the biblical concept of responsibility is replaced with the secular concept of autonomy. That is, instead of seeing life as a gift, which we are entrusted with and expected to be good stewards of, life is seen as something people earn and can forfeit. Secondly, instead of seeing humans as ends in themselves, they are treated as means to an end. Instead of having inherent dignity and worth, we acquire this by our social utility and functionality.

Thus instead of considering all lives as worthwhile and important, Singer considers many to be worthless and expendable, based upon his own criteria of what it means to be a person. In the end his views of personhood are reductionistic and demeaning. Which is why disabled groups usually protest when he speaks, or why German audiences are less than thrilled when he shows up. They have been there and done that.

While all the chapters of this book are quite helpful, those by Preece and Sloane are especially strong. But every author (each one associated with Ridley College) helps to build an impressive case against Singer. This is an excellent collection of essays offering a biblical and philosophical assessment of one of our most noted and notorious thinkers.

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One Reply to “A review of Rethinking Peter Singer. Edited by Gordon Preece.”

  1. Yes the collection of articles were quite good. Singer’s ideas fit within his own premises, but what evidence does he have that his premises are right? I thought that was addressed well in the book or collection of essays/articles.

    It was the backbone for referencing in my argument against Singer in my ethics class. You are widely read Bill!

    Keith Jarrett

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