An Ethicist's Brutish Compassion

With his efforts to promote his new book The Life You Can Save, ethicist Peter Singer offers proof that altruism is not always a sign of goodness.

In his interview with Stephen Colbert, Singer compared charitable giving to getting an expensive business suit wet in order to save a drowning child. Basically, as he said in his New York Times interview, "If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so." Thus, in his view, when citizens of wealthy nations do not give large parts of our income to charities like his favorite UN-supported leftist NGOs, UNICEF and Oxfam, we are letting his theoretical child drown.

Singer is consistent in his efforts to guilt-trip Americans during a time of crisis. Immediately after 9/11 Singer made a similar effort to convince us to give huge sums of money to leftist NGOs and the United Nations when he said, "How can we justify giving such huge sums to the families of the firefighters and police when we do so little for people in other countries whose needs are much more desperate?"

Although many fans of wealth redistribution reviewed The Life You Can Save enthusiastically -- Oxfam loved it and the New York Times critiqued it with the investigative insight of a two-month-old puppy -- most noted in passing that Singer is "controversial." Before covering Singer in wet puppy licks, the Times mentioned that Singer "has made a career out of making people feel uncomfortable."

What on earth could this man who is so generous with other people's money have to say that would make people uncomfortable? Well, quite a lot. From his book Practical Ethics, here are some examples of Professor Singer's "controversial" views:

The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. ... No infant -- disabled or not -- has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time. ...

Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against, killing it.

These statements aren't just "controversial"; they're morally reprehensible and the fact that this ethicist holds these views should be a part of every interview with Singer. When Colbert interviewed Singer, it's a shame that he didn't listen to his mentor Jon Stewart's criticism of bad reporting when he said, during his discussion with financial journalist Jim Cramer, "I'm under the assumption that [reporters] don't take [interviewees'] word at face value, that you actually go around and try to figure it out."

Singer's gentle demeanor and words should not be taken at face value when we know the malign philosophy that motivates him. When Singer offered his metaphor of "saving a drowning child," the obvious question would be: if the drowning child were handicapped, would you save the child or would you let it die?