More letters from alumni
about Peter Singer
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
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
Princeton's eminent ethicist ends with a discussion of an incident
an orangutan made sexual advances against a primate researcher.
Singer notes that the researcher realized that humans are animals
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
"but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status
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
can always claim that he does not endorse the ideas he presents.
the reviewer oozes admiration for the author's presentation of the
we do not have to believe him. Is Princeton, by its continued support
Prof. Singer, prepared to adopt the same tolerant stance towards
that it has towards infanticide? I hope that our new president answers
Timothy Webster '99
to this letter
Send a letter to PAW
Singer and utilitarianism
WHY SINGER SOUNDS OFF-KEY
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
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
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
to this letter
a letter to PAW