Monday, October 29, 2007

The philosopher and his mother - a moral tale

[This is a column I wrote for Maranatha News (2005).]

by Denyse O’Leary

Peter Singer is one of the world's most famous philosophers. His specialty is bioethics—ethical questions around life and death. As such, he is a key professor at elite Princeton University’s Center for Human Values and the author of dozens of books on moral values.

Despite the title of his Center, from what one can determine, Prof. Singer's career has mostly focused not on human values but human non-values—that is, which humans we should not value. He has been on a lifelong campaign to convince us that a human life is not obviously of greater worth than an animal’s.

For example, he argues that “it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled, unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.” Also, “parents who give birth to a hemophiliac might be better off killing it, “especially if they could replace the dead child with one that was likely to have a better life. (Michael Specter, “The Dangerous Philosopher,” The New Yorker (September 6, 1999). Above all, Singer is concerned to avoid having anyone suffer, including animals.

Fortunately, we don’t need degrees in bioethics to see what is wrong with this view. Terms like “hopeless” are subjective and the term “unconscious”, like the term “intelligent,” is applied in a discriminatory way. Suffering is a part of life and most humans, given the choice of growing through it or dying, prefer to grow through it. Also, while we can avoid cruelty to animals, we cannot make them equal to people. All we can really do is make people equal to animals, and that way lies disaster.

But Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation (1975), sold over a half million copies. Another book, Practical Ethics (1979), was Cambridge University’s most successful philosophy text. So we can reasonably assume that his views have an effect.

Yet, in his own life, Prof. Singer did not follow his own advice. In the late ‘90s, his mother Cora suffered from Alzheimer syndrome and could no longer recognize family members. She had clearly lost the qualities that, according to Singer, give us rights. Nonetheless, Singer spent tens of thousands of dollars that might have gone to an animal liberation cause to give his mother a good quality of life. When challenged about this, he merely replied, “Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”

Yes, Prof. Singer, it is different when it’s your mother. Another philosopher, Peter J. Colosi, who teaches philosophy at the Franciscan university in Gaming, Austria, explains, “The difference, when the sufferer is your mother, is that you love her. And it is love that opens our eyes to the true source of the worth of persons: their inner preciousness, unrepeatability, and uniqueness.”

Is Prof. Colosi saying that “Love is all that matters?” I sure hope not, because that would be mere sentimentalism. And it would be false. No amount of love, after all, makes an indulged poodle into a human being.

To clarify this, Prof. Colosi goes on to emphasize that your love for people causes you to recognize their inner worth. He explains, “The person has this inner worth whether or not you love him, so no one should kill him— but unless love is in the picture you might have trouble knowing about his inner worth.”

The good thing that can be said about Peter Singer—and it is much—is that he lived better than he teaches.

Journalist Denyse O’Leary ( is the author of By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004)