Monday, August 30, 2004


"But of course, as a friend of Israel, the President opposes the intifada, regardless of Mr Singer's views..."

The BBC recently had on a documentary on Peter Singer, Australia's "controversial"* philosopher. I've been looking forward to read some of his work ever since, because I actually found him quite captivating - clear, logical, compelling. (At least for talking heads - but isn't that always more impressive, albeit perhaps less reliable, than text?) All the more so for his opinions relating to matters on which my own are under-formed: the value of human life, and the related question of animal rights, topics on which my attitude previously incorporated ignorance, indifference and exasperation (at the hope of coming to any solid views).

In particular, I am impressed by his argument against making a fetish of human - and only human - life of itself, as opposed to because of certain qualities it has relating to consciousness, capacity for suffering etc. Cerainly I am a strong believer in euthanasia rights. Singer's conclusion is that animals ought to be treated "humanely" in so far as, and to the degree that, they have these same qualities i.e. those qualites that make human life valuable.

(It is the converse conclusion - that humans need not be treated in this manner in so far as they lack those qualities - where one obviously needs to tread exceedingly carefully, though one does indeed need to tread).

Chris Young - who is after all a philosopher; and what, you are right to ask, am I? - says Singer is simplistic and wrong-headed, but also interesting and provocotive. (And I was indeed interested, and thought was in fact provoked.)

Anyway, I'm not quite ready to jump on-board the infanticide bandwagon, but I do understand the reticence of President Bush's press secretary since I have it on good authority that the latter eats babies.

* Of course, if he weren't controversial there wouldn't have been a documentary. Nonetheless, Singer didn't strike me, in his manner at least, as an obvious controversialist.

Heh. I saw Singer debate with a prof of mine when he came to Cornell. He was very sharp, but I find his brand of consequentialism too narrow.

If you want to read a little Singer, a great place to start is his classic paper "Famine, Affluence and Morality," ( which is probably the second most famous paper in applied ethics in the last thirty odd years.

A friend of mine did a postdoctoral stint at Princeton and ended up down the hall from Singer. He said that once Singer's bodyguard (he really does need one) came into his office and said, "You gonna leave your window open like that?" and was very edgy. My friend asked him what was the matter and the bodyguard sighed "Oh, he was on TV again. It's always worse after he's been on TV."

When I visited my friend in Princeton, I ended up holding the door for Singer on the way into a coffee shop without noticing that I was doing so. Such was my brush with fame!
"...I ended up holding the door for Singer..."


That's pretty bloody scary though. (The bodyguard bit I mean).
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