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Peter Singer has been dubbed “the world’s most influential living philosopher.” An Australian whose appointment to a chair in bioethics at Princeton University in the late 90s stirred furious controversy, he combines personal modesty and affability with a capacity to frame fresh, alarming, and sometimes outrageous ideas. Long before he became famous for his co-written book Should the Baby Live? (which argues for killing some handicapped infants) he authored Animal Liberation and was the darling and intellectual father of the “animal rights” movement. Singer follows through ﾖ he lives on vegetables and is said to be generous with his money. He is also a keen supporter of the Dutch euthanasia regime – the world’s killing lab for the elderly and infirm, and sometimes just the depressed.
I had met Singer several times ﾖ at professional conferences, on a radio show, and most recently at dinner during a visit to Princeton (where I was actually debating someone else ﾖ Lee Silver, biologist-cum-biotech guru). We argued amiably on Michael Krasny’s Bay Area talk show some days before The Debate (which Krasny moderated). Chatting in the green room as we waited for the curtain to go up, it was hard to focus on the fact that public disturbances had famously led to his being banned from German university campuses (they dubbed him “Himmler in tweeds”). But as we made our way backstage we learned that there were crowds right here in Oakland, Calif. seeking to do the same thing and stop people getting in.
They did not succeed. The Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium filled up until around 600 filled the main area. The front of the theater was peppered with wheelchairs ﾖ and posters denouncing Professor Singer in the hands of handicapped men and women. At various points they interrupted the debate, and some were removed. Ideas, I reminded myself, have consequences. And Hannah Arendt’s ice-cold phrase “the banality of evil” slipped into my mind.
As Krasny made the introductions I tried to read the crowd, but it was hard. I cut my debating teeth as a Cambridge undergrad in the 70s; clean cut and thrust, and while the best argument may not persuade the listeners, it will usually win their applause. This was different. There were pro-lifers, pro-choicers, animal rights acolytes, Singer groupies, Krasny fans, and disabled activists; bioethics professionals from a nearby conference; citizens of Oakland out for an evening’s entertainment ﾖ several major groups evenly matched, and no “typical” attendee. And I don’t think I have ever been quite so far from my debatee; quite so removed from his view of the world, and he from mine. Our podiums could have been on different planets ﾖ “worldview” debate par excellence. No wonder the occasion had been titled The Debate of the Century. What does it mean to be human?
I won the toss, and decided to open so I could set out a 10-minute vision for human being, made ﾖ according to our western tradition, for all its faults ﾖ in the image of God, and therefore possessed of inalienable and sacred dignity. This, I maintained, is the common inheritance of us all, and as legatees of the so-called Enlightenment believers and unbelievers remain its beneficiaries whether or not they acknowledge its source.
Singer’s approach was essentially to show himself as the man of reason, constantly prodding at the religious values of those who disagree with him. He tended to play down his radicalism, and only under questioning did it become clear. He pressed especially hard on the problems of the view that life is sacred, and gave as his most striking example the case of anencephaly. Babies born with this condition, he claimed, might with artificial respiration live 30 or 40 years; we are inconsistent if we do not provide such support. In response I gladly admitted that there were many hard cases on any view of human life, including the sanctity of life view; but that they needed to be resolved on such principles as that of medical futility. That is fundamentally different from acts or omissions that have as their intent the death of the patient, anencephalic or otherwise.
Another focus was euthanasia, which Singer candidly supported ﾖ with special reference to the Dutch experience. I challenged his interpretation of the Dutch data, which show that many thousands of patients have been killed without their approval or knowledge ﾖ and also that the majority of Dutch doctors have falsified death certificates. I pressed the implications of euthanasia in the US: half-price HMO coverage for poor workers who opted into “voluntary” euthanasia, and Singer astonishingly acknowledged that he had not considered such a scenario, and suggested that perhaps we would not be ready for euthanasia here in the US until we had national healthcare (looks like we’re safe!).
Singer claims that believing human beings to be special makes you a “speciesist” ﾖ on a par with racist. In place of that idea he uses a list of “morally relevant characteristics” to decide who has moral value and how much. In some ways this is the key issue in The Debate of the Century. Is being human what really counts? Or is it what you can do ﾖ rationality, self-consciousness, communication? No wonder the handicapped see him as such a threat to their dignity, even though he was (of course) at pains to point out his respect for handicapped persons themselves. His candid support for killing handicapped babies ﾖ at parental discretion – until perhaps one year stems from his (curious) acceptance of the pro-life argument that birth doesn’t make a moral difference to the act of killing. If they can lawfully be killed a few weeks earlier in utero, why not later?
When closing speech time came, Singer went first. He introduced something quite fresh ﾖ a critique of sanctity-of-life people for their lack of commitment to international development issues. So when my turn came I also came up with something new ﾖ openly admitted by him in the Krasny talk radio discussion; Singer’s support for bestiality. I said I was happy to admit that the issue of our treatment of animals is a serious moral question, and suggested that bestiality raises troubling issues of animal consent.
But the main focus was on the basic issue. What does it mean to be human? Is it being human that is special, or what humans can do? The Judeo-Christian commitment to the dignity of the individual that has flowed powerfully into our ideas of democracy and law and human rights as well as bioethics is what is finally at stake in this debate, and it is at stake for believers and unbelievers alike.
At one point in the debate, Krasny asked whether there was anything on which we agreed. Oh yes, I said, and I turned to face Professor Singer and gestured at the 10-foot gap between us: “Almost every bioethicist lies somewhere between us,” I averred, “and you and I both agree that they are all quite wrong.” He did not disagree. But I went further. “As I utilitarian,” I suggested, “you may perhaps appreciate it when I point to the great utility of your presence at this debate and here in the United States. Nothing else could have been so helpful in clarifying the questions that face the bioethics community.”
But you don’t need to take it from me ﾖ you can get the video and see for yourself! (online orders of the debate of the century www.thecbc.org)
Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Ph.D., is Executive Chairman of the Center for Bioethics and Culture. Since he founded the journal Ethics and Medicine in 1983 he has been a recognized international spokesman for the Hippocratic and Judeo-Christian tradition in medicine. Among other responsibilities, he is Dean of Charles W. Colson’s Wilberforce Forum (Wilberforce.org), and director of its affiliated Council for Biotechnology Policy (
Biotechpolicy.com). He has several times given Senate and House testimony on cloning and stem-cell issues. He served as bioethics advisor on the US delegation to the recent United Nations discussions on a treaty to ban human cloning (he writes in his personal capacity, and his views do not necessarily represent those of the US administration).
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