Paradise or Animal Farm?

By Deborah Danielski

(Published in Our Sunday Visitor, November, 1998)

"Save the whales" and kill the unborn children.

For years Christians have remarked upon the irony of two such disparate movements being promoted at the same time and within the same circles. But just when you think you’ve heard it all, up jumps an Australian bioethics professor eager to offer the "right-to-life" to all "great apes" and to normalize infanticide, and out comes Princeton University to offer him an American platform.

Sound appalling? The brilliant and erudite Professor Peter Singer manages to make it all seem quite reasonable. So much so, that Princeton officials say the University "would be impoverished without professors whose work is intellectually astute, morally serious, and provocative, as is Professor Singer’s." Though few would argue that Singer’s work is "provocative," renowned Catholic ethicist Fr. Ronald Lawler, O.F.M.Cap suggests that "absurd" would a better way of describing it than "morally serious." And bioethicist Dr. Diane Irving prefers intellectually "shoddy" to "astute."

Singer began his career more than 20 years ago as an animal rights activist. It is morally unconscionable to inflict unnecessary pain on a chimpanzee, Singer proclaimed. St. Francis of Assisi would seemingly agree. Singer goes a step further, however, in asserting that it is equally wrong for man to kill fish or beast only to satisfy the desires of his own palate. He also fervently denounces consumerism and actively promotes feeding the hungry. He does all this in the name of "compassion." It’s all about eliminating suffering, he claims. But a horse isn’t necessarily a horse, of course, and Singer’s is a horse of a different color indeed.

"All animals are equal," writes Singer who will assume a tenured position next fall at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. And in proper Darwinian fashion, when Singer says "animals" he doesn’t mean just the nonhuman kind. In his book, Animal Liberation written in 1975, Singer wrote:

"The aim of this book is to lead you to make a mental switch in your attitudes and practices towards a very large group of beings: members of species other than our own. I ask you to recognize that your attitudes to members of other species are a form of prejudice no less objectionable than prejudice about a person’s race or sex."

"Peter Singer levels the moral difference between man and animals," said Dr. Brian Scharnecchia, coordinator of Human Life Studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville. "This may seem like a harmless boon to animals, a benign sentimentality. However, if animals are equal to man, then man is equal to animals. Therefore, what is morally permissible in the treatment of animals is also morally permissible in the treatment of human beings."

Which is exactly the ethical viewpoint Singer unapologetically promotes. To accomplish his purpose of liberating mankind from "specieism," a term he coined in "Animal Liberation," Singer acknowledges in "Rethinking Life and Death" (St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994), that a "Copernican revolution" will be required. Just as Copernicus’ discovery in the 16th century that the earth revolves around the sun led to man’s realization that the earth is not the center of the physical universe, Singer’s new revolution will "change our tendency to see human beings as the centre of the ethical universe."

"It will be once again, a revolution against a set of ideas we have inherited from the period in which the intellectual world was dominated by a religious outlook," he wrote.

To create this brave new world, Singer says, the first step is rewriting five commandments of the "old ethic" and making them conform to the new. "Thou shalt not kill" becomes "if you kill take responsibility for the consequences of your actions."

"[S]ince a woman’s reasons for having an abortion are invariably far more serious than the reasons most people in developed countries have for eating fish rather than tofu, and there is no reason to think that a fish suffers less when dying in a net than a fetus suffers during an abortion, the argument for not eating fish is much stronger than the argument against abortion …" Singer wrote.

And he doesn’t stop there. Singer not only includes humans in the circle of "animals." In defining "persons," he goes far beyond the Roe vs. Wade exclusion of the unborn. The circle of "personhood" should include all "great apes," he claims, and should exclude certain other elements of humanity.

Singer and other contemporary bioethicists draw a line between "human beings" and "human persons," said Irving, a professor at the DeSales School of Theology. To be considered a "person" according to Singer’s definition requires the exercising of rational attributes and/or the exercising of sentience, including the ability to feel pain, she said. That rationale would also exclude from "personhood" the newly born, the mentally ill, the mentally retarded, people with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, paraplegics and even alcoholics and drug addicts, Irving added. In short, anyone whose mental and emotional faculties could be considered below those of an adolescent ape.

What Singer does is "define a person in a way that no intelligent person ever would," said Lawler, director of adult and family catechesis for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. "Everyone when he is sleeping is incapable of doing [the things Singer claims are necessary to being a ‘person’]."

By including newborn infants in the same "nonperson" category as fetuses, Singer also blows the whistle on the "hypocrisy" of pro-choice activists who base their position on the idea that the unborn are not fully human, said Lawler.

"In the modern era of liberal abortion laws, most of those not opposed to abortion have drawn a sharp line at birth. If, as I have argued, that line does not mark a sudden change in the status of the fetus, then there appear to be only two possibilities," Singer asserts, "oppose abortion or allow infanticide." He proceeds then to argue for the latter. "[S]ince neither a newborn human infant nor a fish is a person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as the wrongness of killing a person," Singer contends.

The very absurdity of such statements makes them a "wonderful weapon" for the advocates of life, said Lawler. "Armed with these weapons, we can say to pro-choice activists, ‘Look at what he’s saying. He’s saying things that you know are horrible. And he’s put you in that camp."

If society were to accept Singer’s "ethics," where would we draw the line? Suppose scientists succeed in isolating a cancer-causing gene, Our Sunday Visitor asked Singer, would it become acceptable to kill an infant who carries that gene?

"That’s a difficult judgment," Singer said. "Depending on how long the child would live until it developed cancer, etc. But I don’t try to make these decisions. I say the parents should be able to make them, in consultation with their doctors. And only if the parents and the doctors cannot reach agreement, should the issue be referred to some other body, such as an ethics committee."

Singer said he would never consider a "gay gene" as a reason for killing an infant, but added that "These questions are not specific to someone like me who accepts killing a newborn infant in certain circumstances. They are just the same for anyone who accepts prenatal diagnosis and termination of pregnancy."

Dr. Amy Gutmann, director of the Princeton University Center for Human Values chose not to answer specific questions asked by OSV. Instead she offered a written statement including the following points.

"In appointing Professor Singer, Princeton University and the University Center for Human Values reaffirm our dedication to open, careful, and critical intellectual inquiry into the most difficult and controversial questions regarding our individual and collective lives. The appointment of course does not imply our endorsement of the conclusions of his scholarship. We certainly hope that his critics are not seeking a University or University Center where faculty members defend only positions with which they and we agree."

In a press release issued September 29, the National Catholic Office for Persons with Disabilities said it "joins thoughtful Americans in opposing" Singer’s appointment at Princeton.

"The idea that ‘human values’ at Princeton will be advanced by giving Professor Singer a tenured position is appalling," said Kent A. Peters, STL, chair of NCPD’s board of directors. "American advocates of death, whether members of the Hemlock Society or friends of Jack Kevorkian promote death as the ‘cure’ for disabling conditions. Starting in the fall of 1999 we face the dreary reality that our brightest young people will be indoctrinated by this proponent who seeks to normalize euthanasia and abortion."

"My fear is that what would have been considered outlandish and very, very dangerous in human values should become just one of many points of view presented. The drive to use death as a way to solve human problems is growing and this is just another manifestation of it."

Many of Singer’s colleagues at Princeton are "understandably ashamed," suggested Lawler. "When you set up a blind man like Singer as a super-moralist – a man who would tell all the mothers and fathers in the world that if they want to kill their babies it’s okay because babies aren’t worth a damn anyway -- it’s shameful."

"Animal rights puts a cuddly face on eugenics," said Scharnecchia. "But beware of Bambi. If the human race is merely another herd of animals, then the earth as a big zoo requires a few benign managers. Singer may not be a Nazi as his critics claim, but his ideology is not incompatible with a new totalitarianism that seeks to spay the third world for the sustained hegemony of the elite of the first world. As Orwell said in Animal Farm, ‘Some animals are more equal than others.’

"To the extent that Singer succeeds in consolidating in law and custom the utilitarian ethics of ‘animal rights’ he furthers the ‘eclipse of the sense of God and man,’" Scharnecchia said. "[His] insistence upon man’s equality with animals closes the horizon on man’s transcendence and advances a culture of death. In this sense animal rights lead to spiritual despair. The Good News is that God became man so that man might become one with God and share his divine life. Because man is destined for beatitude with God, no one may treat him like an animal. Those who would blind us to our spiritual transcendence further our enslavement. We are destined for paradise, not animal farm."


More on Peter Singer



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