Understanding Singer and combating Singerism

Posted: Jun 30, 2005 12:00 AM

The column I've written over the past year that attracted the most reader response was one last December about Peter Singer, the Princeton professor of ethics who sees no ethical problem with polyamory, bestiality, necrophilia or some kinds of infanticide.

 Readers frequently asked questions concerning past and future: How did the individual called by The New Yorker today's "most influential" philosopher develop such beastly positions, and how should conservatives fight his influence?

 First, the past: Although Singer would like to think that his conclusions are the result of pure intellectual labor, his family history is worth noting. He and President Bush were born on the same day, July 6, 1946. But Singer did not have a future president as a dad and a U.S. senator as a grandfather: Both his grandfathers (as well as one grandmother) had recently died in Nazi concentration camps.

 The grandmother who survived observed Jewish dietary laws before the war, but in 1946 said she would no longer do so, because, "If God allows such a good man as my husband to die, I don't have to follow His laws."

 Singer told me that he grew up "very aware of the Holocaust," learning from his parents and his parents' friends, and was "impressed early on with my grandmother's argument: How could there be a God who would let the Holocaust happen?"

 This is what is called theodicy, the problem of evil, and smart people have thought it through for centuries, with some coming to atheistic conclusions and others coming to a belief in a God who is smarter than even the smart. Singer chose atheism and developed an evident pride in his ability to reason out every matter.

 When I noted to him that some of the most intelligent English-speaking philosophers of the 20th century have been adult converts to Christianity, and that other highly intelligent people as well have come to believe that the Bible is God's Word, he stated that "an intelligent person could not come at (that understanding) based on impartial critical analysis. People might have psychological needs."

 But here's the rub: If he says that people who become Christians have psychological needs, how about people who become atheists? It's not easy for a smart person to conclude that Someone is infinitely smarter than him. Don't many atheistic intellectuals have a psychological need for autonomy?

 Some Princeton alumni reacted to Singer's appointment at their alma mater six years ago by refusing to send any more general support to the institution. Others tried to run him out of town or silence him in other ways, but that is ethically troublesome in our American liberty theme park and practically unrealistic, given the support his ideas already have among leaders in media and academia.

 So, the future: The better way is to demand and support only programs that provide an alternative to Singerism -- Princeton has done that through the creation of its James Madison program -- and to debate Singer not only on theoretical grounds, but also on the practical applications of his proposals.

 For example, Singer favors euthanasia of the old whose minds have declined, but it's not hard to see that if "voluntary euthanasia" became common, bullies would take what he had wrought and apply pressure on the elderly or the disabled to get out of the way rather than use up resources.

 Similarly, Singer says that parents up to a year or two should be able to kill children with physical or mental problems, with the OK of a group of Singerists on hospital ethics boards. That's gruesome enough, but if infanticide under "strict" conditions were legalized, the conditions would soon be loosened, reporters would discover inequities where it was allowed in some circumstances and not others, and infanticide on parental demand would become standard. That's what happened with abortion.

 We shouldn't run or hide from Peter Singer. We should pray for him and vigorously oppose his proposals.

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