Ethical Shock Therapy Courtesy of ‘Professor Death’

Writings on an Ethical Life , by Peter Singer. The Ecco Press, 361 pages, $26.

Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life is a book designed to tell us how to live in a world of strangers. The emotional toll of rootlessness and anomie has long been a pet subject of sociologists, and much of our legal code is premised on our instinctive fear of unknown people. But the question of how we ought to live in the modern world–that is, morally and ethically–is often reduced to the question of how we ought to treat intimates. What does morality mean to most of us? Don’t sleep with the neighbor’s wife; live by the Golden Rule. What does ethics mean? A canon of professional tact. A course offered by management to stave off future litigation. Be kind, rewind.

Unlike the recent covey of pundits gingerly twitting our politically correct consumerism, Mr. Singer delivers shock therapy, enough to knock your average Bobo clear out of Paradise. The great Brillat-Savarin (patron saint of gourmands) once remarked, “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are”–to which Mr. Singer has effectively added, “Tell me what you consume, and I’ll tell you how thoroughly unethical you really are.”

Writings on an Ethical Life is made up of excerpts from a 30-year career during which Mr. Singer has argued that many of our unthinking habits–our shopping, our meat-eating, even our pieties regarding the “sanctity of life”–are evidence of a nearly depraved indifference to suffering. Anglo-American philosophy is frequently disparaged for being as clean, cold and remote as polar ice; but Mr. Singer’s work is plainspoken and uncloistered, its hands dirty with the concerns of the world, with animal rights, abortion, euthanasia and even infanticide–the issue that has earned Mr. Singer the epithet “Professor Death.”

His rather startling take on these various subjects has turned Mr. Singer (who is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values) into a university superstar. His first serious work, Animal Liberation , eventually sold more than 500,000 copies, while other volumes have achieved sales in the six digits, numbers unheard of for an academic philosopher. Not surprisingly, his views have also made him a pariah among conservatives in this country, for whom his work might as well be the glozing of the Devil, and among disability advocates in Europe, who see in Mr. Singer the specter of the Nazis. When Princeton offered him his exalted professorship, several alumnae–including Steve Forbes–vowed never to give money to the school again. On the many occasions when Mr. Singer has attempted to lecture in Germany, he has been boycotted, threatened, shouted down and vilified in the national press.

All of this controversy proceeds from a single insight: that “species” is an ethically meaningless category. Or, put another way, the fact that you and I are human beings is as irrelevant to our moral status as our skin color.

The very first thing we might learn from this insight, should we yield to it, is a new appreciation for the rights of animals. Much of the first third of Writings on an Ethical Life is only quasi-philosophical; it’s filled instead with manifesto-like charges about animal suffering. In the spirit of Upton Sinclair muckraking, we hear how animals are routinely tortured for no particular purpose beyond extending someone’s research sinecure, and that agribusiness has, for the sake of efficiency, created living conditions for cows and chickens that are appalling. Had Mr. Singer stopped here, he would have been a nice man with tenure, a cherished hero of PETA activists: someone who had argued that absentee farm ownership was bad, more responsible stewardship of the land was good, that fewer rabbits should have oven cleaner dripped into their eyes.

Ah, what might have been. For once we discard “species” as an ethically meaningful category, we must toss along with it “human being”–or as Mr. Singer puts it, to avoid what he calls “speciesism,” we must first admit that “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.” If our duty to brutes is based on their capacity to suffer (and in their capacity to suffer, most mammals and birds are very like us), our moral duty to one another is based on our mutual capacity to reason, to communicate and to anticipate our future life–as he defines it, drawing on Locke and Kant, to be a “person.” Not all human beings are persons, of course, and Mr. Singer draws the necessary conclusions: The “irredeemably speciesist” position is “the one that tries to make the boundary of the right to life run exactly parallel to the boundary of our own species.” Thus the dynamite is laid: “[W]hether a being is or is not a member of our species is, in itself, no more relevant to the wrongness of killing it than whether it is or is not a member of our race.” And thus, finally, ka-boom : “[T]he grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.”

So–is he a hero, or an abomination? In his defense, the vast preponderance of Mr. Singer’s work on mercy killing is devoted to the brain dead, the cortical dead, to those in a persistent vegetative state or with no hope for any quality of life. His opponents, of course, point to the slippery slope: It’s only a matter of time before we move from there to value judgments, and then it’s Gypsies, homosexuals, Jews and finally “undesirables” of every stripe. (Here Mr. Singer has some sorrowful bona fides : Three of his grandparents were exterminated by the Nazis.) Nonetheless, the complications of medical ethics will not go away, and as he points out, it isn’t clear that when we apply the sanctity-of-human-life standard universally, we are being humane.

But is this an appeal towards normal human sympathies, or away from them? All of Mr. Singer’s philosophy is, in some ways, about closing distances: We are closer genetically to the great apes than we think; we ought to feel a duty to the people of East Bengal (who, when he wrote about them in 1971, were dying from “lack of food, shelter, and medical care”). Suffering, he tells us, takes “no account of proximity,” and Mr. Singer repeatedly depicts heroism–from Oskar Schindler to bone-marrow donors–as helping those for whom we have no prior acquaintance, much less affection.

This is where I begin to hear the perverse undersong to Mr. Singer’s work: Instead of trying to make the world a family, he makes strangers out of those closest to us. Thus his manner is not only unseasonably cool; it occasionally touches absolute zero: “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.” Be sure to save your receipt!

His insistence on the priority of the distant to our moral imagination led him to suggest, in a notorious New York Times piece, that we give away anywhere between 40 and 70 percent to the Third World–which jibes nicely with his belief that, to begin with, we should live more austerely and more in harmony with nature. (You are probably like me: No small part of you longs to live like Thoreau at Walden; but the part of you that longs to live like Thoreau while sweating like a coolie in a crowded city is nil and shrinking fast.)

Here’s the catch: Our “wealth surplus” didn’t fall from the sky unbidden; it’s there because we like Dolce & Gabbana socks or hearken to John Calvin’s lingering ghost; or perhaps we are pathologically retentive or competitive or morbidly captivated by fears of the dosshouse. (Mostly it’s the socks: We crave the status conferred by conspicuous display. In America, we are not shallow because we are rich; we are rich because we are shallow.) If we were all suddenly to live like Natty Bumppo, renouncing our “wasty ways” while tuning in to the Heideggerian silences of the woods, we might be a healthier, less anxious, more rooted people. But we would almost certainly produce nothing by way of a wealth surplus to offer the global poor.

Dickens knew something about caring for the distant: In Bleak House , Mrs. Jellyby is “devoted to the subject of Africa” while becoming oblivious to those nearest her. I would say, in the end, that the author of Writings on an Ethical Life is both a hero and a bit of a monster. But in a country of no political courage whatsoever, we can use a Peter Singer, even when he’s dead wrong.

Stephen Metcalf has written for Washington Monthly , Lingua Franca and The New Republic .

Ethical Shock Therapy Courtesy of ‘Professor Death’