Princeton Weekly Bulletin December 7, 1998
T H E P R E S I D E N T ' S P A G E
The Appointment of Professor Peter Singer
Every year Princeton appoints a number of senior scholars as new members of its tenured faculty. We look to these distinguished men and women to bring new vitality and continuing leadership to our programs of teaching and research. Some of these appointments come from our own untenured ranks, and we recruit others from outside of Princeton. In every case, we insist on someone who already is or has clear potential to be one of the leading scholars in his or her field, who is an excellent and committed teacher, and who will be a valued colleague and contributing citizen of this community over an extended period of time. Most of our appointments are uncontroversial. But every once in a while we make an appointment that is greeted with a mixture of accolades and controversy, and even some protest. Appointments like these give us an opportunity to discuss fundamental issues about a university's central purposes and core values.
The appointment of Professor Peter Singer, who will join our faculty next fall as the DeCamp Professor in the University Center for Human Values, is just such a case. There is no question about Professor Singer's eminence in the field of bioethics. He began his career at Oxford University, was appointed to a professorship at his home university (Monash) in Australia at the age of 30, has served as president of the International Association of Bioethics and as editor of its official journal (Bioethics), and won the National Book Council of Australia's prize for the best non-fiction book published in Australia in 1994 for his Rethinking Life and Death. His books, including Animal Liberation and Practical Ethics, have been translated into 15 languages and have been widely taught in ethics classes throughout Europe and the United States, including here at Princeton. He is a gifted teacher whose clarity and originality have made ethical issues come alive to a broad intellectual audience.
As Peter Unger, a distinguished professor of philosophy at New York University, wrote in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, "this world-renowned Australian may well be the most prominent professor his country has ever produced; by many measures, he's the most influential ethicist alive." When faculty members associated with our University Center for Human Values -- including eminent humanists, social scientists and scientists -- conducted a world-wide search for an exceptional teacher and scholar to hold the DeCamp Professorship, Peter Singer ranked first on their list, and their judgment was strongly endorsed in the letters we solicited from scholars at other universities who also are leaders in this field.
Given Professor Singer's credentials, why should his appointment engender so much controversy? As Wes Tooke '98 explained in his article about Professor Singer's scholarship in the October 21 PAW, some of the controversy can be attributed to misrepresentation or misinterpretation of his views in the public press. But some of the controversy arises from the fact that he works on difficult and provocative topics and in many cases challenges long-established ways of thinking -- or ways of avoiding thinking -- about them. Even careful readers of his works will disagree, sometimes quite vehemently, with what he has to say or will reject some of the premises upon which he bases his arguments. In strongly recommending and endorsing Professor Singer's appointment at Princeton, our own faculty members have made it clear that while they may disagree with him on some issues, just as my colleagues in Economics may differ on issues of economic policy, they have deep respect for his scholarship and invariably find his work instructive.
But the test in making any faculty appointment is not whether we agree with the findings of a professor's scholarship; the test is the power of the professor's intellect and the quality of his or her scholarship and teaching. An important part of our purpose as a university is to ask the most difficult and fundamental questions about human existence, however uncomfortable this may be. We search for truth, new knowledge and better understandings through scholarship, research and teaching, even as we also convey our society's cultural inheritance. In these ways we challenge students -- and others -- to think critically, to examine their beliefs and assumptions, to hone their abilities to identify and assess ethical issues of various kinds, and to develop both a capacity for independent thought and a set of moral values to guide them through their lives.
We serve these central purposes of a university by appointing faculty members like Professor Singer whose work is intellectually astute, morally serious and open to engagement with others. We serve them by appointing faculty members who, again like Professor Singer, examine important questions with integrity, rigor and originality. We also serve these purposes by assuring a forum for the free and open consideration of ideas, even when some of these ideas make some -- or even most -- of us uncomfortable. We insist upon civility in debate and respect both for evidence and for the rights of others, but within this context we regard debate and controversy as healthy and invigorating. For these reasons we are delighted that Professor Singer will join the Princeton faculty next year and we eagerly await his contributions to our better understanding of the complex ethical questions that surround some of the most difficult issues of our times.
In a letter of his own to the Wall Street Journal, Professor Singer notes that significant advances in medical technology require us to think in new ways about how we should make critical medical decisions about life and death. "Our increased medical powers mean that we can no longer run away from the question by pretending that we are 'allowing nature to take its course.' In a modern intensive care unit, it is doctors, not nature, who make the decisions." Professor Amy Gutmann, the former dean of the faculty at Princeton and current director of the University Center for Human Values, notes that throughout his career, "Professor Singer has remained deeply committed to arguing for the reduction of suffering in the world (through the avoidance of famine and the humane treatment of all sentient beings), the ethical treatment of animals, and the improvement of the environment for the benefit of all He also has found time to reflect on what it means to live a good life, reviving the time-honored idea that turning away from self-centeredness and towards the urgent needs of others makes for a satisfying life."
As Peter Singer has said, "obviously, most of these matters are controversial. At Princeton, as throughout my teaching career, I hope to challenge my students and stimulate them to form their own conclusions on such issues. In my students, I look for the ability to think independently, and I assess my students on the quality of their argument, not on whether I agree or disagree with the conclusions they reach."
This, of course, is exactly what we expect of our faculty. And while Professor Singer may engender more public controversy than many members of our faculty, the qualities of honesty, rigor, creativity and commitment that he brings to his scholarship and his teaching are qualities that we prize throughout our faculty -- qualities that are central to Princeton's continuing eminence as one of the world's leading universities.