Alexander's Column

Singer's Sanctimonious Song

Mark Alexander · Jan. 28, 2000

“It is different when it’s your mother.”

Sometimes a single comment categorically betrays the boundless hypocrisy of liberalism’s most celebrated literati. Such a gem was uttered recently by Mr. Peter Singer, the tenured professor occupying Princeton’s “bioethics” chair at the University Center for Human Values.

The Federalist has mentioned Mr. Singer’s peculiarities previously. In 1998, Singer was the recipient of our coveted “Cultural Devolution” Award for his position on killing children with birth defects. “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all,” said Singer.

Ms. Amy Gutmann, director of Princeton’s University Center for Human Values, says, “In appointing Professor Singer, Princeton University and the UCVA reaffirm our dedication to open, careful, and critical intellectual inquiry into the most difficult and controversial questions regarding our individual and collective lives. Princeton would be impoverished without professors whose work is intellectually provocative, as is Professor Singer’s.” …Our collective lives? …Intellectually provocative work? …Infanticide is a “human value”? Some might argue, in fact, that Mr. Singer’s positions reflect an impoverished value placed on human life.

More recently, Singer has been expounding on the idea – no, “moral obligation” – to kill the aged and infirm because they consume, according to Singer, far too many of our medical resources.

Singer’s abortion and euthanasia “logic” ascends from a rather convoluted set of rules which, when reduced to their simplest form, imply that personhood is a function of self-consciousness and awareness. Thus, he concludes, those who advocate the sanctity of human life should be more concerned with the lives of calves, pigs, and chickens, “for on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and so on, the calf, the pig and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy–while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness.”

Singer argues that to suggest any position to the contrary constitutes “speciesism,” the idea that human life is somehow more sacred than other animal life. (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals should crown him king.) Mr. Singer does not, however, argue the notion of potentiality. After all, calves, pigs and chickens have the capacity to develop into, well, calves, pigs and chickens. Babies before birth have the capacity to develop into, well, utilitarian academicians, who can expound on the properties of personhood.

According to Singer’s logic, a multitude of lower life forms also have a greater degree of personhood than, say, victims of Alzheimer’s disease, who have lost a degree of their self-awareness.

But then comes the rub. As it turns out, Mr. Singer, heralded in a recent interview with the New Yorker as the “greatest living philosopher,” has a mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. She is, by his definition, no longer a “person.” Yet he has, at great personal expense, hired round-the-clock health care workers to care for her. In a rather astounding fit of self-examination, Singer conceded in the same interview, that “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult. Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”

“Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother”? Feel free to re-read the preceding quote until you fully grasp its implications!

Dr. Peter Berkowitz, a professor at George Mason University Law School and author of “Virtue and the Making of Modern Liberalism” (Princeton University Press), says of Singer’s revelation, “Although he strenuously denies that from the ethical point of view we ought to treat friends and family differently, Singer’s actions seems to proclaim that what is right and what is rigorous applies only to other people’s mothers.

"Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the well-heeled and well-ensconced academic discipline of practical ethics than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline, after an Oxford education, after twenty-five years as a university professor, and after the publication of thousands of pages laying down clear-cut rules on life-and-death issues, should reveal, only as the result of a reporter’s prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mother’s suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex.”

And a final note on Mr. Singer’s “solution”: It is also different when it is your child!