Peter Singer is the Ira W De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at Melbourne University’s Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics. In June 2012 he was made a Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours Awards. The Governor-General of Australia, Quentin Bryce, stated that “these awards recognise shining examples of men and women who display the finest community values of respect and giving, dedication and commitment.” The citation for the granting of the award to Singer said it was for his “eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare and the human condition.”
Referring to Singer in an address given to the “Towards a New Culture of Life” seminar held at Sydney University in 1995, the then Bishop (now Cardinal) George Pell said: “There is only one serious candidate for the role of King Herod’s propaganda chief in Australia, our most notorious messenger of death. This is Peter Singer, who for twenty years has never ceased to advocate abortion, euthanasia and infanticide.”1 Bishop Pell went on to add that Singer’s “doctrines needed to be known and understood by the Australian public.”
Singer argues that the murder of disabled infants can be justified and that legal sanctions against it should be relaxed. In the Third Edition of his Practical Ethics, published in 2011, he says:
“[T]he grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants,” since “newborn babies cannot see themselves as beings who might or might not have a future, and so they cannot have a desire to continue living.”2 He adds: “[E]ven after the various objections and complications have been considered: killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”3
Utilitarianism: Epicurus, Bentham and Singer
The ethical system Singer adheres to is known as ‘utilitarianism’, a term derived from the Latin word utilis meaning useful. In general, utilitarians do not accept that actions are good or bad in themselves but rather that their moral evaluation depends on how they produce increases or decreases in the amount of happiness in life. Utilitarians often equate happiness with the satisfaction of the desire for pleasure and pain with its frustration. In contrast to this, Aristotle posited that the virtuous person finds pleasure only in what is good and is willing to embrace pain for a good end. In the same vein, St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that when St. Augustine approved the statement “happy is he who has all he desires,” he was careful to add: “provided he desires nothing amiss.” 4
Utilitarianism can be traced back to the atheistic philosopher Epicurus (341 BC-270 BC) who believed religion needed to be suppressed on grounds that it was the main cause of evil in the world. In moral terms, Epicurus equated good with the attainment of pleasure and evil with pain.
Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is regarded as the father of modern utilitarianism which he expounded in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. He posited that any particular action is right if its performance will be productive of an increase in happiness or a reduction in pain. Otherwise it is to be judged wrong. He referred to his brand of utilitarianism as “the greatest happiness principle” since it is based on the idea that the ethical goal of all behaviour should be the generation of the maximum possible amount of happiness for all conscious beings. He stated that the “fundamental axiom” of “right and wrong” is the attainment of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” 5 In his ethical system, “happiness” and “pleasure” are synonymous terms understood in a broad sense as having intellectual, physical, moral and social dimensions. Due to its emphasis on the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of pain, Bentham’s utilitarianism was often referred to as “ethical hedonism”. A major problem with utilitarianism concerns the definition of ‘happiness’ and its attainability. In what does happiness consist? Is it attainable in this life or in life after death? Can the reduction of moral philosophy to the determination of how to maximise individual or societal happiness be reconciled with the need to recognise universal and objective moral principles? Referring to this nebulous meaning of the term ‘happiness’, Mortimer J. Adler said: “It may be granted that there are in fact many different opinions about what constitutes happiness, but it cannot be admitted that all are equally sound without admitting a complete relativism in moral matters.” 6
Plato identified happiness with an inner peace and harmony in the soul. Socrates understood happiness in relation to virtue. He said, “the happy are made happy by the possession of justice and temperance and the miserable by the possession of vice.” 7 Aristotle defined happiness as “activity in accordance with virtue.” 8 He drew a distinction between intellectual virtue and moral virtue, giving greater weight to the latter. He held that there existed universal and objective moral truths which give rise to the natural moral law.
In Christian belief the desire for happiness is of divine origin. The perfection of happiness is arrived at through our entry into eternal life with God in Heaven. Happiness in our earthly life is attainable to the extent that we model our lives on Jesus Christ and seek to live a virtuous life. This includes obedience to the Ten Commandments and all that they entail.
Apart from Bentham’s ethical hedonism, there are many other varieties of utilitarianism. Singer subscribes to what is called “preference utilitarianism” which he says “holds that we should do what, on balance, furthers the preferences of those affected.” 9 He distinguishes this from the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who he said “held that we should always do what will maximise pleasure, or happiness, and minimises pain, or unhappiness.” 10 He adds, however, that “some scholars think that Bentham and Mill may have used ‘pleasure’ and ‘pain’ in a broad sense that allowed them to include achieving what one desires as a ‘pleasure’ and the reverse as a ‘pain’.” 11 “If this interpretation is correct,” continues Singer, “then the difference between preference utilitarianism and the utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill disappears.” 12
Sometimes utilitarianism is referred to as ‘consequentialism’ insofar as actions are to be judged good or bad according to their consequences. For example, in Singer’s ethical system, the intentional killing of an innocent human being can be regarded as either good or bad depending on projected consequences and the balancing of preferences. We see this when he discusses the extent to which infanticide should be legally permissible. Dismissive of the view that the substantial question involved is the intrinsic nature of the act of infanticide itself, he says: “We should certainly put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide; but these restrictions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than on the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.” 13
As a moral philosophy, utilitarianism is defective because it postulates that ends justify means. It easily ends up counting as preferable or good whatever is the object of desire, independently of whether or not what is desired is good or evil in itself. To this end, “it tends to regard freedom as the unrestricted exercise of one’s self interest,” and the satisfaction of one’s desires to be “limited only by the proviso that it doesn’t infringe the same freedom of others.” 14 As such, “it is a recipe for license rather than true liberty and tends to lead to further enslavement as is shown, for example, by the unrestricted use of drugs or alcohol or sexuality.” 15
While we should not minimise the role of motives and circumstances in morality,16 the morality of the human act depends nevertheless “primarily and fundamentally on the ‘object’ rationally chosen by the deliberate will.” 17 The object of an act refers to its matter – whether or not it is good or evil in itself. In this regard, there exist moral absolutes, meaning that there are objects of human choice which are always and everywhere morally bad. Such actions are referred to as ‘intrinsically evil’. Examples of such acts would be bestiality and the deliberate killing of unborn children and infants. In contrast to this, a major objection to utilitarianism is that “it does not allow a statement to the effect that some actions are intrinsically or absolutely good or bad: they are only better or worse than others.” 18
The utilitarian calculus cannot adequately account for the demands of justice, nor does it take into account the nature of desires seeking to be satisfied. For example, the intention to kill an innocent human being is to desire to commit an unjust and intrinsically evil act and thus a disorder of the will. A person intent on performing such an action should be restrained, irrespective of how he or she hopes to increase individual or societal happiness. This, at least, has been a foundational principle of all civilised societies.
Murdering Human Beings Designated ‘Non-Persons’
Singer draws on the ideas of Joseph Fletcher in developing his ethical system. Fletcher, who died in 1991 at the age of 86, is regarded as the father of Situation Ethics. He was an Episcopalian priest who in 1960 renounced his belief in God but remained a priest because he found the Episcopalian Church useful for advancing his ideas. He was pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia.
Singer demarcates between those human beings whom he thinks should be granted the status of personhood and those whom should not. In doing so, he draws on Fletcher’s “Indicators of Humanhood” which he gives as “self-awareness, self-control, a sense of the future, a sense of the past, the capacity to relate to others, concern for others, communication, and curiosity.” 19 Singer says that an essential qualification for acquiring the status of personhood is that a being “be capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.” 20 He asserts that unborn children and newborn babies are not persons on the basis that they lack such exercisable cognitive abilities. He says that “many beings are sentient and capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, but they are not rational and self-conscious and, therefore, are not persons,” adding that while “many non-human animals fall into this category, so must newborn infants and some intellectually disabled humans.” 21
Singer holds that differences between human beings and “non-human animals” are of degree, not of kind. At the same time he asserts that some animals are persons. In this regard he believes that “the great apes may be the clearest cases of non-human persons,” adding that “there is evidence of future-directed thinking in several other species.” 22 He says that “on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy.”23
Singer says: “When we consider how serious it is to take a life, we should look, not at the race, sex or species to which that being belongs, but at the characteristics of the individual being killed, for example, its own desires about continuing to live, or the kind of life it is capable of leading.” 24 He argues that it is only those human beings who are “human persons that can have a special claim to have their lives protected, and since some non-human animals are persons too, they also have a special claim for their lives to be protected.” 25
Consistent with his belief that “there could be a person who is not a member of our species” and that “there could also be members of our species who are not persons,” 26 Singer asserts that in order “to avoid speciesism we must allow that all beings who are similar in all relevant respects have a similar right to life – and mere membership in our own biological species cannot be a morally relevant criterion for this right.” 27
By claiming that newborn babies in general are not persons because they lack certain exercisable cognitive capacities, Singer proceeds to challenge their right to life. He says:
“A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week or a month old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee is to a non human animal…To think that the lives of infants are of special value because infants are small and cute is on a par with thinking that a baby seal, with its soft white fur coat and large round eyes, deserves greater protection than a gorilla, who lacks these attributes…If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby, we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.” 28
Singer draws on the ideas of Jeremy Bentham to dispel any squeamish feelings one may have about the prospect of allowing infants to be murdered. He says:
“[W]e can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants…In this respect, Bentham was right to describe infanticide as “of a nature as not to give the slightest inquietude to the most timid imagination’. Once we are old enough to comprehend the policy, we are too old to be threatened by it.” 29
I asked a married couple, Paul and Barbara, who have a disabled son, to comment on Singer’s statement quoted above. In their response they said:
“We are horrified at Singer’s assertions. Our son, Damian, who is thirteen years old, has a chromosomal disorder – two and a bit extra chromosomes. Since the moment of his conception, he has been a human person. He is a very valued and loved member of our family. Damian is able to respond to and reciprocate our love for him, something a monkey cannot do. The ability to love and be loved, to know and be known, are unique values that only a human person can possess. The interpersonal and unique nature of the experience of the love .owing between parents and their disabled child is not something that easily lends itself to detached observation and abstract interpretation. Damian has increased the love in our family, he has helped each of us to be more self-giving, which is love in action. All human life is precious. Its moral status must never be equated with or set below that of mere animals. On the other hand, how does Singer know how much self-awareness and capacity for relationships a monkey or chimpanzee has? Does he speak with them?”
Singer says that just as fetuses are sometimes aborted because they are discovered to be carrying a disability and are thus treated as replaceable insofar as the mother intends to have another child after the abortion, so also should newborn babies be treated as “replaceable”. Taking haemophiliac infants as an example of how this abhorrent ethical stance might be applied, he says:
“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.” 30
The passages just quoted from Singer’s work are taken from his 2001 book Writings On An Ethical Life. In the 2011 edition of his Practical Ethics, he retreats not one bit from these repugnant propositions. He says:
“No infant – disabled or not – has as strong an intrinsic claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities over time. The difference between killing disabled and normal infants lies, not in any supposed right to life that the later has and the former lacks, but in other considerations about killing. Most obviously, there is the difference that often exists in the attitudes of parents.” 31
One columnist, George F. Will, captured the savage “logic” of Singer’s ethical system well when in a Newsweek article he said:
“Actually, the logic of his position is that until a baby is capable of self-awareness, there is no controlling reason not to kill it to serve any preference of the parents… During the Senate debate on partial-birth abortion – in which procedure all of a baby except the top of the skull is delivered from the birth canal, then the skull is collapsed – two pro-choice senators were asked: Suppose the baby slips all the way out before the doctor can kill it. Then does it have a right to life? Both senators said no, it was still the mother’s choice. To what the senators said, Singer says briskly: ‘They’re right’.” 32
On the first page of a book Singer coauthored with Helga Kuhse we read: “We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.” 33 In Practical Ethics, Singer argues that his brand of preference utilitarianism “treats infants as replaceable, in much the same way as it treats animals that are not self-aware as replaceable.” 34 Recall that by the term ‘replaceable’, Singer means granting parents discretion to decide whether or not their disabled infant should be killed. Singer goes on in Practical Ethics to argue that for parents of children born with disabilities such as haemophilia, Tay-Sacs disease and Down syndrome, “replaceability should be considered to be an ethically acceptable option.” 35 In the lead up to his discussion of this question regarding the killing of disabled infants, he states his belief that what he is about to propose applies also to older children and adults. He says: “For simplicity, I shall concentrate on infants, although everything I say about them would apply to older children or adults whose mental age is and has always been that of an infant.” 36
Singer says that “our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value.” 37 He states that “infanticide has been practiced in societies ranging geographically from Tahiti to Greenland and varying in culture from the nomadic Australian aborigines to the sophisticated urban communities of ancient Greece or mandarin China or Japan before the late nineteenth century.” 38
He holds that these cultures “were on good ground” insofar as they “practiced infanticide.”39
Singer further asserts that “in the case of infanticide, it is our culture that has something to learn from others, especially now that we, like them, are in a situation where we must limit family size.” 40 In a 1996 book titled The Greens, which he coauthored with Bob Brown and which has served as a manifesto for the Australian Greens Party, Singer stated:
“The long run success of everything we are trying to achieve will depend on slowing, and eventually stopping, the growth in human population…In this Australia must do its part, both in leading by example, and in providing assistance to other nations to slow the growth of their populations.” 41
We can see from what is said above, that in his advocacy for infanticide and population control, Singer is recycling the now discredited ideas of Thomas Malthus (1766-1834). In 1798, Malthus published an influential essay titled The Principle of Population. Apparently unaware of the agricultural and technological revolution then taking place, he contended that Britain with its then population of 10 million was dangerously overpopulated. He predicted that food supply could not keep up with population growth. He argued that plague, war, and famine would act as checks on population growth to bring it back into harmony with the so-called ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet. Expressing grave concern about the “breeding habits” of the “lower classes of society,” Malthus asserted that the poor overburdened the world’s resources. He opposed welfare programs for the poor lest it discourage them from conforming their childbearing to their economic status. In this regard, we can note that in a section dealing with demographics in the 2011 edition of Practical Ethics, Singer posits that wealthy countries have no obligation to give aid to poor countries who fail to comply with population control measures prescribed for them by wealthy countries as part of their aid programs.42
Singer refers to disabled people in demeaning ways. In an interview with the February 1999 edition of Psychology Today (PT), he indicated that his utilitarian ethic would permit disabled human beings to be experimented on in place of animals. Here is the relevant part of this interview:
PT: Let’s take a specific case. Research on chimpanzees led to the hepatitis B vaccine, which has saved many human lives. Let’s pretend it’s the moment before the research is to begin. Would you stop it?
Singer: I’m not comfortable with any invasive research on chimps. I would ask, is there no other way? And I think there are other ways. I would say, What about getting the consent of relatives of people in vegetative states?
PT: That would cause a riot!
Singer: Well, if you could really confidently determine that this person will never recover consciousness, it’s a lot better to use them than a chimp.43
In asserting that the lives of disabled people are on average less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled, Singer says:
“[I]t may still be objected that to replace either a fetus or a newborn infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely .fling in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so.”44
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Singer was scheduled to deliver lectures at conferences in Germany and Austria, some of which had to be cancelled because of public protest over his views about euthanasia and infanticide. Prominent amongst those protesting were representatives of organisations for people with disabilities. They charged Singer with Nazi-like attitudes towards the disabled. Singer took exception to this charge, claiming that his ideas about euthanasia and infanticide were not identical with those of the Nazis. In this he is evasive. Recall that Singer’s proposals for infanticide are directed at severely disabled children. This was also the group the Nazis .rst targeted for euthanasia. In arguing that his pro-euthanasia position is different in essence to its Nazi counterpart, Singer says:
“The Nazi ‘euthanasia’ program was not ‘euthanasia’ at all. It did not seek to provide a good death for human beings who were leading a miserable life. It was aimed at improving the quality of the Volk and eliminating the burden of caring for ‘social ballast’ and feeding ‘useless’ mouths.” 45
The first point to note about Singer’s statement quoted above is that he does not condemn the Nazi euthanasia program per se, but rather he faults it only on the motivation he believes inspired it. The Nazi euthanasia program is partly accounted for by the fact that Singer-like utilitarian ideas began to gain currency in Germany during the early decades of the 20th century.
In 1920, before Hitler came to power in Germany, an influential book titled Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life was published. Co-authored by Karl Binding, a law professor and Alfred Hoche, a physician, this work asserted that killing certain categories of people was a form of compassionate and healing treatment. Those slated for such treatment included the terminally ill and the cognitively disabled. The first category would include children with Tay-Sachs disease, who Singer says could ethically be euthanized on grounds that they are “a plausible example of a life not worth living.” 46 The second category designated by the Nazis for euthanasia, the cognitively disabled, are those who Singer has defined as “non-persons,” the killing of whom is “very often…not wrong at all.” 47 We noted earlier that Singer clearly states that his approval for the killing of disabled infants “would apply to older children or adults whose mental age is and has always been that of an infant”48
Binding and Hoche based their advocacy for euthanasia in Nazi Germany on the perceived misery of the mentally disabled, as well as on the costs to their families and society. This same idea is echoed in Singer’s utilitarian premise that it should be permissible for parents to exercise a preference to have their disabled infant murdered on grounds that his life is deemed “not worth living” and whose death will lead to an increase in their own quality of life.
The publication of Binding and Hoche’s Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life sparked discussion among the German intelligentsia as a result of which pro-euthanasia ideas began to percolate in the wider society. A 1925 survey of German parents with mentally disabled children revealed that over 70 percent of them would welcome the opportunity to have their disabled children subjected to a properly regulated and painless killing. Describing the emerging situation in Germany on the eve of World War II with respect to growing acceptance of euthanasia, Wesley J. Smith says:
“Many Germans were well ahead of their Fuhrer. Indeed, by 1938, more than a year before the outbreak of actual hostilities, the German government had received an outpouring of requests from the relatives of severely disabled infants and young children seeking permission to end their lives.” 49
One of the first people murdered in the Nazi euthanasia program was a child named Baby Knauer. Born in late 1938, he was blind with a leg and part of an arm missing. Baby Knauer’s parents felt unable to cope with their disabled son, so his father wrote to Hitler seeking permission to have him put to death. In response, Hitler sent Dr. Karl Rudolph Brandt to examine Baby Knauer. Brandt, who at Nuremberg was condemned to death for crimes against humanity, had been given instructions that if Baby Knauer was as disabled as his father made out, then doctors could kill him. Subsequently, Brandt witnessed the killing of Baby Knauer and reported back to Hitler. This incident convinced Hitler that the time was right to introduce his euthanasia program. Thus, in 1939, he sent a note to chancellory officials extending “the authority of physicians” so that “a mercy death may be granted to patients who according to human judgment are incurably ill.” 50 Describing what followed, Wesley J. Smith says:
“The doctors in the case who met with Brandt agreed that there was ‘no justification for keeping the child alive,’ and Baby Knauer soon became one of the first victims of the Holocaust… Disabled children were the first to suffer medicalized killing…Once the principle was established that some human beings could be killed because they were disabled, it did not take long to add others to the list of expendables.” 51
The justification that was used to murder Baby Knauer is essentially the same as Singer uses when arguing that parents should have the right to exercise their “preference” to have their disabled child murdered. In being allowed by Hitler to exercise their ‘preference’ to have their child murdered, the parents of Baby Knauer thereby believed they were adding to their quality of life by being relieved of the duty to care for him. Where is the difference between this state of affairs and what Singer is advocating in regard to permissible infanticide?
One of Singer’s philosophical errors is that he identifies the human subject (person) with consciousness. This is a contemporary expression of Rene Descartes’ (1596–1650) erroneous idea “I think, therefore I am.”
Descartes defined the human person solely in terms of his consciousness, as a being who thinks, rather than as a subject who possesses consciousness. Speaking of this in their book, Architects of the Culture of Death, Professor Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker say: “The subject comes before consciousness. The subject may exist prior to consciousness (as in the case of the human embryo) or during lapses of consciousness (as in sleep or in a coma). But the existing subject is not to be identified with consciousness itself, which is an operation or activity of the subject.” 52 They go on to add:
“Singer, by trying to be more broad-minded than is reasonable, has created a philosophy that actually dehumanizes people, reducing them to points of consciousness that are indistinguishable from those of many nonhuman animals. Therefore, what is of primary importance for the Princeton bioethicist is not the existence of the being in question, but its quality of life. But this process of dehumanization leads directly to discrimination against those whose quality is not sufficiently developed.”53
Singer’s arguments for the granting of personal status to human beings only after they meet certain physical or cognitive requirements are totally unjust. The qualities he demands, such as rationality and self-awareness, all admit of differences in degree. In the case of Singer’s defence of infanticide, for example, who is to decide what constitutes a meaningful life and the point at which parents should be able to request that their child be put to death? A decision in this regard would always have to be arbitrary, as different observers would assign different weights to different criteria.
Singer admits the arbitrary nature of his position on the time-frame he would allow in which legally permissible infanticide would be an option for parents after the birth of a disabled child. He says it would “be difficult to say at what age children begin to see themselves as distinct entities existing over time.” He adds that
“even when we talk with two and threeyear-old children, it is usually very difficult to elicit any coherent conception of death, or of the possibility that someone – let alone the child herself – might cease to exist.”54
Nevertheless, he insists that a “line” can be drawn on one side of which the child can be murdered. He says:
“There is some plausibility in the view that, for legal purposes, since birth provides the only sharp, clear, and easily understood line, the law of homicide should continue to apply immediately after birth.” However, he follows up this statement by saying: “Since this is an argument at the level of public policy and the law, it is quite compatible with the view that, on purely ethical grounds, the killing of a newborn infant is not comparable to the killing of an older child or adult.” 55
Then, to make provision for those parents whose “preference” is that their disabled child be murdered, Singer says:
“It is, however, worth considering another possibility: that there should be at least some circumstances in which a full legal right to life comes into force not at birth, but only a short time after birth – perhaps a month.” 56
Singer’s Starting Point: There is No God and Life is Meaningless
The methodological principles, as well as the starting points, of any discipline determine its character and its conclusions. Hence a fundamental cause of radical differences in ethical positions is that of different starting points, which is to say, of fundamental assumptions.
In stating the fundamental starting point for his enquiry into the human condition,
“I don’t believe in the existence of God, so I also reject the idea that each human being is a creature of God. It’s as simple as that.” 57
Given this starting point, it is not surprising that Singer asserts that life is meaningless. He says:
“When we reject belief in a god, we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in chance combination of molecules; it then evolved through random mutations and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen for any overall purpose. Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings that prefer some states of affairs to others, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful. In this sense, atheists can find meaning in life.” 58
Singer’s assertion that “the best available theories” tell us that life began in a “chance combination of molecules” and that “it did not happen for any overall purpose” is outof-sync with what much of modern science is saying about the origin and nature of life on earth.
In their excellent book, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, Professor Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer, and Dr. Jay Rickards, Ph.D, a philosopher, point out that science is only possible because matter has an intelligibility written into it, something which addresses itself to the human mind’s capacity for observation and interpretation. They say that “to see design and purpose embedded in nature, we may have to do what scientists in so many other respects have learned to do, learn to ‘read’ the relevant patterns, to cultivate the ability to consider the book of nature as a whole, and read through nature to its meaning.” 59 They add:
“We’ve seen that scientific progress and discovery depend on nature being more than meaningless matter in motion…It’s an exquisite structure that preserves vast stores of information about itself and its past. Our habitable environment provides access to an exceptional and highly sensitive collection of information-recording ‘devices’, accurately embedding information about the natural world. We, in turn, possess the materials, and the physical and intellectual capacities, to create technologies to decode these devices. Technology extends man’s creativity and vision. As eyeglasses and the light-bulb have improved our ability to read written texts, so the microscope and the telescope have allowed us to read the book of nature more deeply.” 60
Professor Abdus Salam (1926-1996), winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1979, saw no contradiction between modern science and belief in a Creator God. Dr. Salam served as both Professor of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London, as well as Director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste (Italy). He also served as President of the Third World Academy of Sciences. Speaking of the sense of wonder that can well up in the minds of scientists when they encounter order and mystery in the laws that govern the universe, Professor Salam said:
“Now this sense of wonder leads most scientists to a Superior Being – der Alte, the Old One, as Einstein affectionately called the Deity – a Superior Intelligence, the Lord of Creation and Natural Law.”61
Professor Christian B. Anfinsten (1916– 1995), winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1972, describes well the luminous nature of the coded language written into the universe by its Creator. He says:
“We must admit that there exists an incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.” 62
These words of Professor Anfinsten remind me of the conclusion reached by Aristotle, who in reference to the origin of the universe, argued in Chapter 7 of his Metaphysics that the existence of the universe points to an eternal actual substance who as prime mover is the source of all process and change, but is not itself subject to process or change.
The world-renowned geneticist Francis S. Collins (M.D.,Ph.D), has no difficulty reconciling the Judeo-Christian understanding of the origin and nature of the universe with the findings of modern science. Dr. Collins, who is currently Director of the National Institute of Health in the U.S, spearheaded the Human Genome Project which finished sequencing human DNA in 2003. He discovered the causes of several diseases including the defective gene that causes cystic fibrosis.
In his widely acclaimed book published in 2011 which he co-authored with Karl W. Giberson titled The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, Dr. Collins presented scientific evidence supportive of the view that the material world owes its origin to a Creator God. He said:
“[N]o development in contemporary science poses a particular challenge to the view that God is Creator.” 63 He added:
“[T]he perspective we are advancing maintains that God’s original and elegant plan for the universe may well have included the potential for life to arise without necessarily requiring later ‘supernatural’ engineering to jumpstart the process. In this view, God’s sustaining creative presence undergirds all of life’s history from the beginning to the present.” 64
Finally, on this point, Dr. Collins says:
“Scientific evidence can be viewed as compatible with and even supportive of the traditional Christian belief that human beings – or creatures like human beings – are a fully intended part of creation. Since Christians believe that God upholds all of creation from moment to moment, God is the ground or basis for the myriad and subtle nuances responsible for the convergences that give rise to human beings.” 65
The conclusions of Dr. Collins regarding the compatibility that exists between the affirmations of the Judeo-Christian tradition regarding the origin and nature of the universe and the findings of modern science, corroborate those of Professor Anthony Flew (1923–2010). Professor Flew taught at the universities of Oxford, Aberdeen, Keele and Reading in the U.K. and at York University in Toronto. He published many works defending atheism, including Theology and Falsification, which is said to have been the most widely reprinted philosophical publication of the last half of the twentieth century. Flew came to reject atheism on grounds that current scientific insights into the nature of the universe point to the existence of a Creator God. His intellectual odyssey is recounted in his 2007 book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
In There is a God, Flew said: “The design that is present in nature suggests the existence of a cosmic Designer….this argument constitutes a persuasive case for the existence of God.” 66 He continued: “I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence. I believe that this universe’s intricate laws manifest what scientists have called the Mind of God. I believe that life and reproduction originate in a divine Source.” 67 He added: “Those scientists who point to the Mind of God… propound a vision of reality that emerges from the conceptual heart of modern science and imposes itself on the rational mind. It is a vision that I personally find compelling and irrefutable.” 68 In regards to the unfolding of creation and the emergence of life, Professor Flew said: “[T]he laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe toward the emergence and sustenance of life.” 69
New Commandments: Paving the Way for Infanticide, Bestiality and Incest
Christian anthropology holds that God created man in his own image and likeness, that he endowed him with freedom and intelligence and that he appointed him steward over the rest of material creation. Human beings are able to know the difference between good and evil. The dignity of the human person lies in his ability to choose the good and the institutions and laws of society should assist him in doing so. In consequence of this, the human person is the subject of inalienable human rights and corresponding duties. First among those rights is the right to life of all innocent human beings. This right must be guaranteed by law since it is inherent in the nature of the human person and is not conferred by society.
Singer accuses “the Judeo-Christian tradition” of having “an unjustifiable bias in favour of human beings qua human beings.” 70 He says “the fact that animals are not members of our species is, in itself, no more morally relevant than the fact that a human being is not a member of my race or not a member of my sex.” 71 He holds that the sanctity of life ethic is “terminally ill” in that its claim that all human life has some special dignity or worth “crumbles” when “challenged.” He says this “traditional ethic” is defended “by bishops and conservative bioethicists…who speak about the intrinsic value of all human life, irrespective of its nature or quality.” 72
In place of the sanctity of life ethic, Singer proposes a new one which is replete with five “New Commandments” which he says are necessary alternatives to the five “Old Commandments.” The table below shows these two sets of commandments as Singer formulates them.73
1. “Treat all human life as of equal worth”
2. “Never intentionally take innocent human life”
3. “Never take your own life, and always try to prevent others from taking theirs”
4. “Be fruitful and multiply”
5. “Treat all human life as always more precious than any nonhuman life”
1. “Recognise that the worth of human life varies”
2. “Take responsibility for the consequences of your actions”
3. “Respect a person’s desire to live or die”
4. “Bring children into the world only if they are wanted”
5. “Do not discriminate on the basis of species”
Commensurate with his atheistic presupposition about the nature of reality, Singer says: “preference utilitarianism is a straightforward ethical theory that requires minimal metaphysical presuppositions,” adding that “we all know what preferences are, whereas claims that something is intrinsically morally wrong, or violates a natural right, or is contrary to human dignity invoke less tangible concepts that make their truth more difficult to assess.” 74
The word ‘metaphysics’ means ‘beyond physics’. It deals with the science of being. It has been defined “as the study of the ultimate cause and the first and most universal principles of reality.” 75 In a Christian perspective, since God is the “ultimate cause” of all things, then “he is evidently a principal subject matter of metaphysics.”76
Peter Kreeft points out that many of the questions people naturally ask, such as -“Who am I?” or “What is the highest value?” or “Does he love me?” – are beyond the competency of physics to answer.77 But these questions, says Kreeft, “are not regarded as esoteric, arcane, or occult, except perhaps by the most adamant materialists.” 78 After stating that metaphysics deals with universal questions “about all of reality” and that it explores “the necessary foundations of all human knowledge and the truths or principles that hold true for all objects of human knowledge,” Kreeft goes on to add:
“Thus the most fundamental differences of opinion in all the other divisions of philosophy, including the most relevant and practical questions of ethics and politics, are always based on differences of opinion in metaphysics.” 79
In his Encyclical Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason), Blessed Pope John Paul II stated that “reality and truth do transcend the factual and the empirical” and he insisted on the human being’s capacity to know the “transcendent” and “metaphysical” dimension of reality “in a way that is true and certain, albeit imperfect and analogical.” 80 He added that philosophy needs metaphysics in order to transcend “empirical data” and “in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth.” 81
The lack of a metaphysical sense renders one less capable of seeing a spiritual message written by God into the material world. In regard to this, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), stated that men and women of today cannot understand that “their bodiliness reaches the metaphysical depths and is the basis of a symbolic metaphysics whose denial or neglect does not ennoble man but destroys him.” 82 He added that for those who fail to recognise in the “being” of the human person the handiwork of the Creator, there is “no difference whether the body be of the masculine or the feminine sex: the body no longer expresses being at all.” Consequently, said Cardinal Ratzinger, the difference “between homosexuality and heterosexuality as well as that between sexual relations within or outside marriage have become unimportant.” 83
Likewise divested of “every metaphysical symbolism,” continued Cardinal Ratzinger, is the “distinction between man and woman” which is to be “regarded as the product of reinforced role expectations.” 84
Singer’s atheism and his distaste for metaphysics partly accounts for the fact that he rejects the notion that there exists a determinate human nature commensurate with which are inalienable human rights. In his ethical system, he has no place for terms such as ‘being’ or ‘nature’ or ‘essence’. Consonant with this, he posits that “we should reject the doctrine that places the lives of members of our species above the lives of members of other species,” adding that “some members of other species are persons: some members of our own species are not.” 85 In a logical follow on from this, he asserts that “no objective assessment can support the view that it is always worse to kill members of our species who are not persons than members of other species who are.” 86
Given Singer’s starting points and his assertions about animal/human equality, it is not surprising that in a March 31, 2001 article in the Sydney Morning Herald titled “Animal-Sex Philosopher Brings Out The Beast In The Americans,” Singer is quoted as having stated at the time that sex with animals “is not an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” The article was reporting on a favourable review Singer had written of a book titled Dearest Pet by Midas Dekker which condoned bestiality. The article said that Singer speculates that the reason why most people have revulsion of bestiality “stems from the Judeo-Christian view of a gulf separating humans from animals.” Singer reaffirmed his endorsement of bestiality on a Q&A program on ABC television in June 2010.
A similar failing in Singer’s ethical system was made apparent in a February 8, 2011 address at the University of Sydney where he stated that there was nothing wrong with consensual sex between members of the same family, provided contraception was used. Reports on this event say that when Singer was delivering his address, there were around 20 high school students sitting in the front row of his audience. In setting up the question for discussion, Singer asked the audience to imagine a situation where a brother and sister are on a summer holiday and decide to have sex, with the girl using the pill and the boy a condom. He asserted that our instinctive revulsion to incest was a merely evolved response governed by a need in traditional communities to protect against inbreeding. Since this is not generally a concern nowadays given the widespread availability of contraception, Singer claimed that revulsion to incest lacked a rational justification.87 In contrast to Singer’s view on this point, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that incest “corrupts family relationships and marks a regression toward animality” (n. 2388).
Singer’s atheism and his defence of procured abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, bestiality and incest, illustrate the truth of the statement attributed to Dostoevsky: “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” While this sentence does not, to my knowledge, appear in any of Dostoevsky’s novels that have been translated into English, it can nevertheless be regarded as an accurate summation of the belief held by Ivan Karamazov in the early chapters of The Brothers Karamazov where he pretends to conclude that there is no God. While he does not speak directly the sentence quoted above, he does however assert in several places that without God “everything is lawful.” Equally insightful is when he says: “If there is no immortality, there is no virtue.”
Despite the many nuances he introduces into his work to distinguish it from classical utilitarianism, Singer’s “preference utilitarianism” is just another form of “ethical hedonism.” His ethical writings work to condition people to accept as morally good, or at best as morally indifferent, actions which of their very nature degrade those who engage in them. When I read how he had received Australia’s highest civic award, the words of the poet Alexander Pope (16881744) sprung to mind:
“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
In his great encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life), Blessed Pope John Paul II summoned us to raise up our hearts in praise of the ‘God of Life’ when he said: “To celebrate the Gospel of life means to celebrate the God of life, the God who gives life.” He added: “This Divine Life, which is above every other life, gives and preserves life…To men, beings made of spirit and matter, Life grants life…it is the Principle of life, the Cause and sole Wellspring of life. Every living thing must contemplate it and give it praise”.88
Again in Evangelium Vitae, and in regard to atheism in both its systematic and practical forms, Blessed Pope John Paul II said: “By living ‘as if God does not exist,’ man not only loses sight of the mystery of God, but also of the mystery of the world and the mystery of his own being.” 89 He added that “the eclipse of the sense of God and of man inevitably leads to a practical materialism, which breeds individualism, utilitarianism and hedonism.” 90 In this, said Blessed Pope John Paul, “we see the permanent validity of the words of the Apostle: ‘And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a base mind and to improper conduct’ (Rom 1:28)” (n. 23).
1. Bishop George Pell, Evangelium Vitae – Catholicism, the media and the ‘culture of death,’ published in AD2000, November 1995, p. 3.
2. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 152.
3. Ibid. p. 167
4. Cited by Mortimer J. Adler in The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought, Macmillian Publishing Company, New York, 1992, p. 300.
5. Jeremy Bentham, see entry under “Bentham” in The Concise Encyclopedia of Western Philosophy & Philosophers, edited by J.O. Urmason & Jonathan Ree, Routledge, London, 1991, p. 42.
6. Mortimer J. Adler, The Great Ideas, op.cit. p. 298.
7. Socrates, cited by Mortimer Adler in The Great Ideas, op.cit. p. 300.
8. Aristotle, cited by Mortimer Adler in The Great Ideas, op.cit. p. 302.
9. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 13
13. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 154
14. Peter E. Bristow, The Moral Dignity of Man, Four Courts Press, Dublin, 1997, p. 19.
16. Cf. Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor, n. 80
17. Ibid. n. 78
18. Peter E. Bristow, The Moral Dignity of Man, op.cit. p. 78.
19. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 73
20. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, Fourth Estate, London, 2001, p. 323
21. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 85
22. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p.101
23. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. pp. 135-136
24. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit.p. xv.
25. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. pp. 100-101
26. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 128.
27. Ibid. p. 44.
28. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. pp. 160-161. See also Practical Ethics, op. cit. p. 151, where Singer argues the same case denigrating the dignity of infants and challenging their right to life.
29. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 152
30. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. pp. 189-190.
31. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. pp. 160-161.
32. Newsweek, September 13, 1999, Vol. 134, Issue 11, pp. 80-82.
33. Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse, Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants, Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 1
34. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p.163
35. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. pp. 164-165. He discusses this question under a section of the book titled Life and Death Decisions for Infants pp. 160-167.
36. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 160
37. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op. cit. P. 153; see also Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 163
38. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op. cit. P. 153; see also Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 163.
39. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 229
40. Ibid. p. 229
41. Peter Singer and Bob Brown, The Greens, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1996, p.6 42. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p.209
43. An account of this interview is to be found in Wesley J. Smith’s A Rat IS A Pig IS A Dog IS A Boy, Encounter Books, New York, 2010, p.31.
44. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993, p. 188
45. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 202.
46. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 187
47. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op. cit. p. 193; see also Practical Ethics, Third Edition, p. 167
48. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 160
49. Wesley J. Smith, Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide, And The New Duty To Die, Encounter Books, New York, 1997, p. 87.
50. Cf. John E. Gardella, M.D., The Cost Effectiveness of Killing: An Overview of Nazi Euthanasia (Medical Sentinel 4, no. 4, July/August 1999, pp. 132-35.
51. Wesley J. Smith, Forced Exit, op.cit.pp. 88-89
52. Professor Donald De Marco and Benjamin Wiker, Architects of the Culture of Death, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 2004, p. 368
54. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op. cit. p. 162.
56. Ibid. pp. 162-63. See also Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 153, where Singer again posits a “one month” time-frame after the birth of a child for parents to decide whether or not it should be murdered. He says this would afford all concerned with the decision to kill the child “the ample safety margin” needed to avoid risk factors regarding the difficulties involved in judging “at what age children begin to see themselves as distinct entities existing over time.”
57. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 320
58. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. p. 291
59. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Rickards, The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery, Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC, 2004, p.333.
60. Ibid. p. 334.
61. Professor Abdus Salam, Science and Religion: Re.ections on Transcendence and Secularisation, in Cosmos, Bios, Theos, edited by Henry Margenau and Roy Abraham Varghese, Open Court Publishing, Illinois, 1994, p. 94.
62. Professor Christian B. An. nsten, in Science and Religion: Re.ections on Transcendence and Secularisation, in Cosmos, Bios, Theos, op. cit. p. 138.
63. Karl W. Gibberson and Francis S. Collins in The Language of Science and Faith, InterVarsity Press, Illinois, 2011, p. 149.
64. Ibid. p. 175
65. Ibid. p. 205
66. Anthony Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2007, p. 95
67. Ibid. p. 88
68. Ibid. p. 112
69. Ibid. p. 114
70. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life, op.cit. p. 320
71. Ibid. p. 326
72. Peter Singer, Writings On An Ethical Life. op. cit.
73. Ibid. pp. 211-222 78 Ibid.
74. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op.cit. pp. 14-15
75. Tomas Alvira et.al., Metaphysics, Philosophy Books Series, Sinag Tala Publ., Manila, 1991, p. 4.
77. Peter Kreeft, Summa Philosophica, St. pp. 167-168 Augustine’s Press, Indiana, 2012, p. 38.
79. Ibid. p. 39
80. Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio, n. 83.
82. Cardinal Ratzinger, L’Osservatore Romano, July 24, 1989.
85. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, Second Edition, op.cit. p. 117. See also Practical Ethics, Third Edition, op. cit. pp. 100-101
87. See Peter Singer: The Jerry Springer of Philosophy by Michael Cook, published in the February 11, 2011 edition of the online journal Punch.
88. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 84.
89. Ibid. n. 22
90. Ibid. n. 23