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More letters from alumni about Peter Singer

Peter Singer and bestiality

What are we alumni to make of Professor Peter Singer's review in Nerve of
Midas Dekker's Dearest Pet? (You can find Singer's review here:
The book, as I learned from Professor Singer's review, is a friendly
treatment of the history of bestiality. And Prof. Singer's review is a
friendly treatment of the book.

Professor Singer reviews the book in sufficient detail that his readers
learn which animals are favored for their "companionship," who favors them
more (men or women, city-dwellers, or rural folk) and other odd facts.
Princeton's eminent ethicist ends with a discussion of an incident in which
an orangutan made sexual advances against a primate researcher. Professor
Singer notes that the researcher realized that humans are animals just as
much as orangutans are.

"This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural,
whatever those much-misused words may mean," concludes Professor Singer,
"but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and
dignity as human beings."

This gem of philosophical wisdom is from the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of
Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values.

Reviewing books is a risk-free way for a reviewer to advocate controversial
ideas. Should the review draw fire for touching on the taboo, the reviewer
can always claim that he does not endorse the ideas he presents. But when
the reviewer oozes admiration for the author's presentation of the topic,
we do not have to believe him. Is Princeton, by its continued support for
Prof. Singer, prepared to adopt the same tolerant stance towards bestiality
that it has towards infanticide? I hope that our new president answers in
the negative.

Timothy Webster '99

Frederick, Md.

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Peter Singer and utilitarianism

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the extensive discussion of Peter Singer's recent appointment to the Princeton faculty has been the remarkable silence from those who deal with ethical theory professionally. While Princeton alumni have been disturbed by his defense of abortion, infanticide, and animal rights, Princeton philosophers have had almost nothing to say. He appears to be a very good proponent of a very bad position.

Ethical theory concerns the conditions that must be satisfied for an action to qualify as right (or wrong) from a moral point of view. Actions that are morally right, however, may or may not also qualify as prudent or as beneficial to one's own interest. Telling your boss (at a public meeting) why his latest decision will harm company employees (when that's true) may be the morally right thing to do, but it might also get you fired.
Philosophers focus less on the nature of prudence and more on the nature of morality, including classic alternatives such as consequentialism and deontological moral theory. For consequentialism, an action is right when it produces as least as much GOOD as any available alternative. THE GOOD as that which humans value intrinsically (for its own sake) is usually identified with happiness. Consequentialism thus promotes happiness.

The crucial question becomes, "But happiness for whom?" If only the individual, then consequentialism becomes ethical egoism, which maintains that an action is right for a person when it produces at least as much happiness for that person as any available alternative. The consequences for anyone else simply do not matter. From this point of view, the actions of John Gacy, Adolf Hitler, or Hannibal Lecter turn out to be moral.

If for the group, then consequentialism becomes limited utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right for a group when it produces at least as much happiness for that group as any available alternative. This may sound like real progress until you notice that group actions can have far more devastating consequences than those of solitary individuals. Consider the Mafia, the Third Reich, or (even) General Motors.
If everyone, then consequentialism becomes classic utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right when it produces at least as much happiness for everyone as any available alternative. The consequences for everyone must therefore be taken seriously, where some actions may make some people happy and others unhappy. The right action yields the greatest net happiness (gross happiness minus gross unhappiness).

As with every other form of consequentialism, no actions are inherently immoral or wrong, provided they produce at least as much happiness as any available option. If the government were to pick 100 smokers at random each year, put them on TV and shoot them, the consequences could be happiness-inducing, including fewer smokers, less cancer, longer lives, reduced health-related expenses - and more!
Indeed, on utilitarian grounds, not even slavery or genocide qualifies as wrong as long as they produce more happiness than any other available alternative. If some specific distribution of masters and slaves would maximize happiness (even though it would make the slaves very unhappy), then slavery would be morally right! But if actions that maximize happiness can still be wrong, then utilitarianism must be false.

Professor Singer propounds a version of consequentialism known as preference utilitarianism, according to which individuals should perform those actions that maximize their preferences (what they would prefer to be the case) without regard to the nature of those preferences themselves. On this approach, it is GOOD - intrinsically valuable - for persons to have their preferences satisfied, no matter what those preferences may actually be.

In its limited variations, preference utilitarianism would justify gangs who "prefer" to knock off grocery stores, to kill their parents for their possessions, and to commit gang rapes as the spirit moves them - so long as they are not caught! In classic variations, slavery and genocide are among the available options, if those acts would maximize preference satisfaction. Abortion and infanticide are comparatively minor matters.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. According to deontological moral theory, what makes actions morally right is that they involve treating other persons as ends (as worthy of respect) and never merely as means. Morality is not a function of happiness but rather of respect. Unlike consequentialist theories, actions are inherently right as a function of the extent to which they involve treating persons with respect.

Relations between employers and employees exemplify these principles. When employees are stealing from their employers, faking their work schedules, or contaminating their customers, they are treating their employers merely as means. And when employers are subjecting their employees to unsafe working conditions, excessive hours, or unfair wages, they are treating their employees without respect.

Slavery, genocide, infanticide, and (even) abortion are either clearly wrong or at least debatable on deontological grounds, hinging on what it takes to be a "person." From this point of view, classic and preference utilitarianism are forms of majority rule without minority rights. Princeton hired Singer because he is a good example of one approach to moral theory. As we have seen, it was not because the position he advocates is true.

James H. Fetzer ’62

Fetzer is the McKnight professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota and teaches on its Duluth campus. He has published more than 20 books and 100 articles.

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