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Peter Singer

Notes & Transcripts

So let me ask you: Who is influencing you?

The New York Times in publishing its interview with Peter Singer said that "no other living philosopher has the kind of influence (that Singer has)." The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had "more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior" than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell. The New Yorker called him the "most influential" philosopher alive.

Yet, if you ask him, for example what he thinks about necrophilia (what if two people make an agreement that whoever lives longest can have sexual relations with the corpse of the person who dies first?), he said, "There's no moral problem with that." Concerning bestiality (should people have sex with animals, seen as willing participants?), he responded, "I would ask, 'What's holding you back from a more fulfilling relationship?' [But] it's not wrong inherently in a moral sense."

If the 21st century becomes a Singer century, we will also see legal infanticide of born children who are ill or who have ill older siblings in need of their body parts. Question: What about parents conceiving and giving birth to a child specifically to kill him, take his organs, and transplant them into their ill older children? Mr. Singer: "It's difficult to warm to parents who can take such a detached view, [but] they're not doing something really wrong in itself." Is there anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale? "No."

The interviewer said, “When we had lunch a month after our initial interview and I read back his answers to him, he said he would be ‘concerned about a society where the role of some women was to breed children for that purpose,’ but he stood by his statements. He also reaffirmed that it would be ethically okay to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be "raised as soon as possible after birth."

These proposals are biblically and historically monstrous, but Mr. Singer is a soft-spoken Princeton professor. Whittaker Chambers a half-century ago wrote, "Man without God is a beast, and never more beastly than when he is most intelligent about his beastliness," but part of Mr. Singer's effectiveness in teaching "Practical Ethics" to Princeton undergraduates is that he does not come across as being the beast his views would indicate that he is.

Here’s the point: Imagine an unsuspecting Freshman entering Princeton to be taught by this personally appealing, very intelligent philosopher who seems to have all the answers. What if he took a genuine interest in his student and really tried to help. Do you think this unsuspecting Freshman might be influenced by the likes of a Peter Singer? I’ll tell you that I believe the impact would be both progressive and predictable. The quality of your relationships determine your destiny.

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