Peter Singer: Some people are more equal than others

Peter Singer is hailed as the world's most influential philosopher. But when he declared it was acceptable to kill disabled babies, he unleashed a firestorm
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The Independent Online

Peter Singer's story begins in the Nazi death-camps, and he has been circling them all his life. One of his grandparents died in Treblinka; two others died on the way. They had all been minor stars in the 1930s Golden Age of the Viennese intellect, mixing with Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, and Alfred Adler. Today, their grandson is routinely compared to the Nazis who herded them into the gas chambers.

Peter Singer's story begins in the Nazi death-camps, and he has been circling them all his life. One of his grandparents died in Treblinka; two others died on the way. They had all been minor stars in the 1930s Golden Age of the Viennese intellect, mixing with Sigmund Freud, Arthur Schnitzler, and Alfred Adler. Today, their grandson is routinely compared to the Nazis who herded them into the gas chambers.

The Wall Street Journal recently compared Singer with Hitler's deputy, Martin Bormann. A US Congressman has described him as "taking the Josef Mengele chair in bio-ethics" at Princeton University. Diane Coleman, the leader of the disability rights group Not Dead Yet, describes Singer as "a public advocate of genocide and the most dangerous man on earth". Sitting neatly in a London hotel, Peter Singer is munching a scone and gassing nobody. He is skeletal, but smiles faintly at me. "Shall we begin?" he asks.

"Do you remember the first time you were compared to a member of the Third Reich?" I ask, all the while wondering if it is possible to ask this question without seeming rude. He does not pause. "Yes. It was in Germany in 1989," he says. His voice is so soft that half of what he says is not audible when I play the tape later. "I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the parents of disabled children. There were so many protesters - saying that I was trying to revive eugenics and so on - that the invitation was cancelled." At another German lecture later that year, his glasses were smashed before a mob chanting, "Singer raus [Singer out], Singer raus!"

He asks me to pass him a glass of water. As he smiles gratefully, I have to remind myself why this man - described by The New Yorker as "the most influential philosopher alive" - has triggered such vicious, violent, volcanic hate.

His enemies put it bluntly. Singer says it's OK to kill disabled babies. Singer says seriously damaged human beings are on a par with apes. Singer says it would have been OK to kill his own mother. These charges are spat out of the sides of their mouths. One theologian I spoke to said contemptuously, "Peter Singer takes the most basic human instincts and tries to reason them out of existence. What does he expect us to do, hug him?"

But Singer is not a drooling, swastika-waving eugenicist, whatever his foes say. He identifies as a man of the left, a campaigner for progressive politics. At 58, he is still best known as the author of Animal Liberation, the 1975 founding text of the animal-rights movement. Most of his writings these days concentrate on the desperate moral case for redistributing the abundant wealth of the West to the starving nations of Africa.

So why do they hate him? He has a simple explanation. "We are living in an incredible time of transition," he whispers. "In the West, we have been dominated by a single tradition for 2,000 years. Now that whole tradition, the whole edifice of Judaeo-Christian morality, is terminally ill. I am trying to formulate an alternative. Some of what I say seems obscene and evil if you are still looking at it through the prism of the old morality. That's what happens when morality shifts: people get confused and angry and disgusted."

Singer's moral system is called preference utilitarianism, and evolved from the 19th-century philosophy of John Stuart Mill. It sounds convoluted, but many people in the post-religious societies of Europe take its central premise for granted. It has one basic idea: to be moral, you must do whatever will most satisfy the preferences of most living things. Morality doesn't come from heaven or the stars; it comes from giving as many of us as possible what we want and need.

This isn't some dry academic theory. It affects the most important decisions in every person's life. Say you are old and sick and want to die. Under the old Judaeo-Christian ethic, you have an immortal soul given to you by God, and He will reclaim it from you when He's good and ready. Under preference utilitarianism, your preference - which harms nobody else - should be met, with a lethal injection from a friendly doctor if necessary. The scale of Singer's intellectual ambition is staggering. He is trying to lead an ethical revolution unparalleled since paganism was beaten and banished by the Judaeo-Christian ethic. "You can't expect such a radical shift," he says dryly, "without a few fights."

Thus far, most British atheists like me can travel along Singer's philosophical path - goodbye God, hello utilitarianism - without stumbling. But then we get to animals, and disabled babies are just a few steps away. "You shouldn't say animals," he says in a level tone when I raise the topic, "to distinguish between humans and non-humans. We are all animals." This objection captures Singer's thoughts in a neat sound bite. He thinks there is nothing special about being human. "Every living thing has preferences, and those preferences need to be taken into account," he says. "Non-human animals can't be left out of utilitarian equation."

For Singer, this isn't so radical. "All we are doing is catching up with Darwin," he explains. "He showed in the 19th century that we are simply animals. Humans had imagined we were a separate part of Creation, that there was some magical line between Us and Them. Darwin's theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe. Yet for a century, we've carried on like nothing happened, abusing animals in the most terrible ways. The idea that humans are special and can tyrannise animals as much as we like is about to fall."

So he advocates a new kind of equality. It's not the equality of human beings - he attacks that, saying that a person in a vegetative state on a life-support machine is "obviously not equal to a healthy person". No, he advocates the equality of anything that is capable of feeling pain and having preferences. "Look: pain and suffering are bad and should be prevented or minimised, regardless of the race, sex or species of the being that suffers. It's a simple fact that a three-year-old human has pretty much the same self-awareness, rationality and capacity to feel pain as an adult ape. So they should be given equal moral consideration."

I notice that Singer is wearing a plastic watch and plastic shoes; it seems he even has vegan clothing. Yet he defies the lazy media clichés of an animal-rights campaigner. He explains, "I have never really been fond of animals. I certainly wasn't an 'animal lover' when I became involved in the movement. I just came to be persuaded that animals should be treated as independent sentient beings, not as means to human ends." It was a rational choice, he says, stripped of emotion.

I try to find an analogy that would dramatise his argument. Gunning down a load of normal people in a supermarket is worse than shooting the same number of cows in a field - but that's not because of their species. It's because normal humans have a capacity to want to carry on living - and relatives who will grieve for them - to a greater degree than cows. If you were massacring severely brain-damaged humans who had the same understanding of the world as a herd of cows, both would still be very wrong, but it would be equally wrong. It's pain and grief and denial of a living creature's will to carry on that count - not species. He nods.

And here is where killing babies comes in. When Singer compares severely disabled babies to animals, he seems - out of context - to be insulting the disabled. In fact, he is trying to make us take cows and pigs and dogs far more seriously. He believes that severely disabled or defective animals who cannot live except in terrible pain can legitimately be killed. Why, he asks implicitly, should this not be the case for human babies?

"Almost everybody accepts that some people can be killed," he says blankly, putting the abortion debate that has erupted in Britain over the past week into context. "The concept of brain death" - the belief that people on respirators can legitimately be killed - "shows that. We have begun to think in terms of quality of life, instead of all life equally being sacred. That's why it is logical to now start thinking about severely defective babies, and whether it is always wrong to kill them."

He continues, "All I say about severely disabled babies is that when a life is so miserable it is not worth living, then it is permissible to give it a lethal injection. These are decisions that should be taken by parents - never the state - in consultation with their doctors." This is, he believes, already happening. "What do people think amniocentesis and the selective abortion of Down's Syndrome foetuses are? All I am saying is, why limit the killing to the womb? Nothing magical happens at birth." It is a small step, he seems to think, from abortion to infanticide. "Of course, infanticide needs to be strictly legally controlled and rare - but it should not be ruled out, any more than abortion."

I feel slightly uncomfortable, but Singer tries to assure me that this is mere sentimentality. He reminds me that, already, few doctors struggle to save anencephalic babies (those born with only a brain stem and no upper brain) or those with spina bifida. It is not a long journey to Singer's ethics of putting them - and a handful of others - out of their misery.

In his own life, Singer was recently - like in some savage biblical parable - forced to confront his own teachings in the most cruel way imaginable. His mother Cora developed Alzheimer's disease, and towards the end of her life, she could not speak, recognise her children or take pleasure in even the most basic human acts. By Singer's logic, she was worth considerably less than a normal adult pig or cow.

Singer pauses for the first time in our interview when I ask about this. His voice remains level, but he blinks quickly and hard. "I think, if it had only been me and not my sister and other close family involved, probably my mother might have died six months earlier than she did." I wait for him to continue, nodding faintly, but he does not. "So what would you have...?" He doesn't answer and looks down as my question trails off. I decide to try a different tactic. "So what do you think should happen to somebody in a comparable situation to your mother's today? What should the legal framework be?"

He looks up again. "If an individual hasn't stipulated while they were alive what they would like to be done, then it should be up to the family and an ethics committee. If the family wants the life of a severely mentally disabled old person to end, and a physician confirms that there is virtually no quality of life for that person and no chance of recovery, then I think a lethal injection would be justified." And that's what you would have wanted for your mother? "Perhaps, if it had been my decision."

And so we are back full circle to the Nazi accusations - subliminally, at least. "The Nazi euthanasia programme was not euthanasia at all," he says with a slight note of irritation. "It did not seek to provide a good death for human beings who were living a miserable life. It aimed to murder people because they were 'useless mouths' and 'reducing the quality of the Volk'." I ask how the murder of his grandparents by Nazis has affected him. "I guess it gave me the sense that there were terrible ideas out there in the world and terrible people who would carry out these ideas," he says. But he is resistant to the idea that this has shaped his philosophy. "No, reason shapes my thought," he says.

Singer is pure, disembodied rationality - the Enlightenment made flesh. He measures pain and capacity to suffer in neat units and disregards old-fangled notions such as species or emotion. He discusses killing babies or his mother with the passion of the speaking-clock. Give me Singer over the Vatican-style superstitions he is trying to dispel any day; and yet, as I leave the interview, I can't shake off a strange - Singer would say sentimental - anxiety.