More than a decade ago, I had the opportunity to interview Peter Singer. Dr. Singer was then and continues to be the Ira W. DeCamp professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton. If that sounds important it’s because it is. Being he was one of the Founding Fathers of the Animal Rights movement which sprung from his book “Animal Liberation,” I thought he would be the perfect interview subject to demonstrate the chasm that has formed between the academic and theological worlds.
So I cold-called him to ask for an interview. To my utter amazement he got in touch with me, even going as far as interrupting his holiday in his native Australia to spend an hour or so on the phone. He was gracious and very generous with his time while holding true to his philosophical beliefs that include the stipulation that a healthy six-month-old gorilla has more worth than a severely handicapped six-month-old human being.
At the time of this interview, there was a new medical protocol being promulgated in Dutch hospitals whereby seriously deformed infants could be euthanized. Singer saw this as a positive step in the right direction. His logic was impeccable and he proved a man true to his convictions. For years, this man of science and philosophy has influenced the highest realms of academia with a self-described utilitarian voice that bodes much better for baby gorillas than it does inhabitant of a neo-natal ICU.
Singer is no fringe figure posting animal liberation tirades from his parents’ basement on his Facebook account or viral videos on a YouTube channel. He is a tenured professor at one of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — an institution that countless high school students are gnashing their teeth and tearing their hair trying to gain entrance.
Over the ensuing years he has become the “go to” guy for assisted suicide and other forms of euthanasia movements and if the recently passed legislation in California and elsewhere is any indication, the momentum is all on Singer’s side.
Singer is back in the news. This time, he has come to the defense of a fellow professor who was convicted of having non-consensual sexual intercourse with a severely disabled person. Singer, along with fellow professor Jeff McMahan wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times, again no fly by night periodical but rather the holy grail of mainstream American journalism. Both academics believe the offense is mitigated by the fact the victim was so devastatingly disabled from cerebral palsy.
“In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether.”
This isn’t Singer coming up with something new. It is just another step along the logical progression path of the philosophical premise he has been proffering for decades. And it is a path where much misfortune bodes. This brilliant man whom I had spoken with ever so briefly, seemed every bit a decent and extremely interesting person. He just happens to hold views anathema to Catholic teaching.
I’m convinced the spark for his intellectual essence can be found in one of the quotes from the interview I conducted with him all those years ago. “To me, it’s still a bit of a mystery that anyone can really believe that this world was created by a God who was both omnipotent and benevolent.”
At its rawest form, Singer’s brand of utilitarianism is all about power. The colleague he defends in his New York Times op-ed had more power and utility for this world than a man in a wheelchair who was incapable of speech. In short, by virtue of that circumstance, people with the power deserve more deference with regards to their actions.
Call it divine circumstance, Singer certainly wouldn’t, but I saw a young person at a park not a day or two after reading the New York Times op-ed. This person was wearing a T-shirt that had an image of a human hand touching an ape’s hand. Above the image was the call to action “End Speciesism.”
Below the image was the motto, “We are not more worthy of life.” When I interviewed Singer 10 years ago, that T-shirt didn’t exist. Now it doesn’t raise an eyebrow as one of the most respected intellects in one of the most esteemed institutions of higher learning is perfectly comfortable with stripping a disabled man of his autonomy in a way he would never dream of treating a bonobo chimp.