Peter Singer and the dangers of bad philosophy

by Liam Gibson

On 7 September 2021, the Berggruen Institute for Philosophy and Culture announced that its annual prize worth US $1 million would be awarded to Peter Singer, the Australian-born professor of bioethics at Princeton University in the USA.1 Many of those familiar with Singer’s work will be disturbed by the decision to select him to be the recipient of what is regarded as the Nobel Prize for philosophy. Not only does the award enhance Singer’s standing in the academic world, but it demonstrates the level of influence his ideas already command within mainstream bioethics.

At one time – especially after the details of Nazi Germany’s euthanasia programme became widely known – a philosopher who advocated many of the policies Singer espouses would not have been celebrated, he would have been regarded as a public pariah.

In his 2011 book, Practical Ethics Singer argues that it is our consciousness, our use of reason and aspirations that make someone, not just a member of the human species, but a person. He continues: 

“For most mature humans, these forward-looking desires are absolutely central to our lives, so to kill a normal human against his or her wishes is to thwart that person’s most significant desires. Killing a snail does not thwart any desires of this kind, because snails are incapable of having such desires. (In this respect, however, human foetuses and even newborn infants are in the same situation as snails…)” 2

In 1985, Singer proposed that parents should, by law, be permitted 28 days after the birth of a child to decide whether they wished the infant to survive or be killed. Of course, if the life of a healthy baby has no more value than the life of a snail, then the law would potentially apply to all children equally. It is quite obvious, however, that it is disabled babies who face the greatest danger from Singer’s philosophy. As an advocate of animal rights, he believes that a fully functioning ape can be more human than a severely disabled child. In Rethinking Life and Death, he states:

“The heart of the anencephalic Baby Valentina was the heart of a member of the species Homo sapiens but, no matter how long Valentina had lived, her heart would never have beaten faster when her mother came into the room, because Valentina could never feel emotions of love or concern for anyone. The heart of the gorilla Koko, on the other hand, is not the heart of a member of the species Homo sapiens, but it is a heart capable of relating to others, and of showing love and concern for them. In the second sense of the term ‘human’, Koko’s heart is more human than Valentina’s.” 3

In the same book, Singer rewrites what he regards as the tenets of the “old [that is, Christian] ethic” with new “Commandments” of his own. He argues that the value of human life varies and that the taking of innocent human life is not always wrong. Bizarrely, he accuses defenders of Christian morality of promoting an ethic that failed to prevent the evils of the Nazi era.

“All sorts of Nazi-like horrors are bound to be conjured up as an argument against abandoning the traditional Christian ethic of the sanctity of life. But it is high time that this mode of attack is shown up for what it is, a classic case of stone-throwing by those whose own defences are made of glass. The historical record is undeniable: the Christian ethic has failed to provide an effective bulwark against murder, genocide, and other atrocities.” 4

Since he first proposed waiting 28 days before recognising a baby as a person, Singer has admitted that it is an arbitrary length of time – 27 days, 29 days or some other period would be equally appropriate. He also recognises that regarding the moment of birth as the point at which a baby becomes a person with the right to life is no less arbitrary. Chillingly, however, while this observation is true it has resulted in the growing approval of “post-birth abortion” within some of the world’s leading universities and institutions. This was demonstrated in 2013 when the Journal of Medical Ethics published an article titled: “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?”5 The magazine’s editor, Julian Savalescu, a professor of bioethics in Oxford, dismissed critics saying:

“The arguments presented, in fact, are largely not new and have been presented repeatedly in the academic literature and public fora by the most eminent philosophers and bioethicists in the world, including Peter Singer, Michael Tooley and John Harris in defence of infanticide, which the authors call after-birth abortion.” 6

The decline in what Singer calls the old ethic and acceptance of arbitrary time limits and the philosophical redefinition of “personhood” has become so ingrained in society that such views are no longer an obstacle to membership of Pontifical Academies. Earlier this year, abortion advocate and leading light of the population control lobby, Jeffrey Sachs, was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences.7 And in 2017, Nigel Biggar, the Anglican academic who prefers abortion with an arbitrary upper limit of 18 weeks, was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life.8

Papal condemnation of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century meant that Catholic countries were spared the disastrous policies adopted in North America and north-western Europe. Rome’s belief that it can successfully cooperate with leading figures in the culture of death today has, no doubt, helped to undermine opposition to the legalisation of assisted suicide which has spread across the globe with alarming speed. The euthanasia of disabled babies is already practised in Belgium and the Netherlands. If philosophy, literally the “love of truth,” fails to recognise the Truth of God then it will hold a distorted view of the human beings – the Imago Dei, created in His image. Without the opposition of the Church, the likelihood of Peter Singer’s philosophy becoming a reality across the Western world is a grim but increasingly likely prospect.  

  1. Rachel S Bauch, “Annual Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture Awarded to Public Philosopher Peter Singer,” 7 September 2021, Berggruen Institute; https://www.berggruen.org/news/annual-berggruen-prize-for-philosophy-culture-awarded-to-public-philosopher-peter-singer/
  2. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (3rd edn) (CUP 2011), p 77.
  3. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (St Martin’s Press, 1995) p 205.
  4. Ibid. This comment by the author appears on the back cover of the dust jacket.
  5. Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva “After-birth abortion: why should the baby live?” (2013) J Med Ethics 39 261–3; https://jme.bmj.com/content/39/5/261
  6. Julian Savulescu, “‘Liberals Are Disgusting’: In Defence of the Publication of ‘After-Birth Abortion’”, 28 February 2012 J Med Ethics blog; https://blogs.bmj.com/medical-ethics/2012/02/28/liberals-are-disgusting-in-defence-of-the-publication-of-after-birth-abortion/
  7. Maria Madise, “Abortion advocate Jeffrey Sachs appointed to Vatican academy of social sciences,” 27 October 2021, Voice of the Family Digest; https://voiceofthefamily.com/abortion-advocate-jeffrey-sachs-appointed-to-vatican-academy-on-social-sciences/
  8. Edward Pentin, “Pro-Abortion Theologian Picked as Pontifical Academy for Life Member” 13 June 2017, National Catholic Register;  https://www.ncregister.com/news/pro-abortion-theologian-picked-as-pontifical-academy-for-life-member