Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Peter Singer, Hypocrite

Just got back yesterday afternoon from Chicago where I attended a mini-conference on "Science, Faith, and Law". I hope to write a little about it in a later post. Among the speakers were Cardinal George, Pia de Solenni, Nigel Cameron, and Peter Lawler. The Thing Is linked a great Godspy article by Peter J. Colosi on the gap between the ethical ideas of Peter Singer and his personal behavior. Recall that Singer is a utilitarian who believes that the vulnerable (unborn, aged, retarded) should be killed in order to minimize suffering and maximize pleasure. (Notice that these weaker members of society have less power to oppose his ideas—that's what a "brave man" Singer is.)

Peter Singer broke all of his own rules when his mother became ill with Alzheimer's disease. Michael Specter reported on this in a profile of Singer titled, "The Dangerous Philosopher" (The New Yorker, September 6, 1999). Singer's mother had reached a point in her life where she no longer recognized Singer, his sister, or her grandchildren, and she had lost the ability to reason. In this state, according to Singer's theory, she did not meet the definition of a person. According to his ethical theory, she ought to have been killed or left to die. Certainly no money should have been spent on her care, since the money could be better spent lowering the suffering of the greatest number of other people. Instead, Singer and his sister hired a team of home health-care aides to look after their mother, spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process.
The contradiction was glaring.
The many people who wrote against Singer said, in effect: "Look, you didn't follow your rules when it came to your own mother, doesn't that mean your rules are wrong?" Paraphrasing, his answer is basically this: "No, that doesn't mean my rules are wrong, it only means that I disobeyed them in the case of my mother, and acted unethically."
That seems reasonable. For example, whether or not a majority of Americans think that stealing from one's employer is wrong has no bearing on the wrongness of that principle. That's only reasonable. But Singer is trying to "have his cake and eat it too":
In making this defense, however, Singer forgot to look on page 2 of his book Practical Ethics, where he asserts, "...ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect..." It seems that not only his critics think his action towards his mother negates his ethical theory, he does too!
So Singer has acted hypocritically. In acting against his principles and rejecting the possibility that his principles are merely unattainable ideals, he calls those principles into question (if not voids them). As Emerson is often quoted as saying, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." We can at least give Singer credit for avoiding a "foolish consistency" with his heartless principles and treating his mother humanely. But perhaps it is not too small minded to hope he aim for a greater consistency: humanizing his philosophy to match the natural law written on his heart.

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