The Case of Peter Singer
Don't Play by the Rules
by Torbjörn Jelerup
This presentation was made to the Summer Academy of the Schiller Institute, in Oberwesel, Germany, on Aug. 18, 2001.
As Lyndon LaRouche already said in his speech this morning, when facing a great crisis, public opinion often tends to be stupid. This is something that history all too often teaches us. The subject of my speech this afternoon is how we can fight stupidity. Especially one form of stupidity: neo-Darwinism and the philosophy of game theory.
I want to focus on one of the more influential neo-Darwinists, the De Camp Professor in Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer. Singer is well known here in Germany. The handicapped call him Dr. Death, because of his view that infanticide, the murder of newborn babies, should be legal. He is a guru of the bioethicalbut in reality not-so-very-ethicalattempt to introduce euthanasia into embryological research. He is also the number-one guru of the animal rights movement, because of his writings, where he claims that man is only an animal.
The problem with Singer is that his ideas actually are popular. Few philosophers are read by more than the academic elite, but with Singer it is different. Singer is not only known in Germany. In Sweden, and in England and Holland, Singer is the most widely read philosopher of our times. His influence is growing, among youth especially, here and in the U.S.A.. The youth are targetted! Among students interested in politics and philosophy, Singer is bigand Singer is more than big, he is a guru, among many of the politically active belonging to the so-called New Left, the "antiglobalizers."
Just listen to what the Norwegian daily Aftenposten wrote earlier this year: "Neo-Darwinism has, until recent years, been an academic phenomenon. For the last 20 years it has been the pet project of thousands of professors, mainly from the U.S.A. and Europe. This is beginning to change. The hard work of enthusiasts has led to the creation of a global youth movement."
Aftenposten continues: "There are many similarities between this movement and the youth movement of the '60s. The difference is that today the new ideas are spreading from Europe to the U.S.A., not the opposite way, as back in the 'good old days' of the hippie movement. Another difference is that the politicians today are responding faster than ever and are adopting the new ideas in a speed that few ... would have dreamt of 20 years ago."
Who is named as the main philosopher of this movement? Peter Singer. Aftenposten writes: "Singer's books are studied by all who aim to change the world, and can be found in the pockets of students in every university and at every demonstration in Europe.... Singer is for the European left today, what Mao was for the American and European left yesterday."
Let us take a closer look at Singer. This is a book by Peter Singer and the German author Helga Kuhse from 1985, Should the Baby Live?. It was published in German in 1993. Look at what they write: "This book contains conclusions which some readers will find disturbing. We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed."
In this book they write that it should be legal to kill handicapped children below one year old, even if they can be cured,; such as children who are born with a handicap called spina bifida, which affects the spine. Why? Because of two reasons. One is that, if they live, they might "suffer" in the future, and the other because it costs too much to treat them.
The most widely read philosophy book in Sweden today is Singer's Practical Ethics, which published in six editions in German, with the latest in 1994. Let's look at what Singer writes. He repeats the arguments for infanticide and against treating newborns with spina bifida. He also describes one of his favorite concepts: That the notion of human rights should be replaced by the "right of persons." That is, that higher animals, like baboons and chimpanzees, as well as humans above one year of age, should be regarded as persons with the right to life; a right that no newborn baby, and no one with severe handicaps, should havethey, in reality, are "non-persons!"
You might have heard that the European Union is researching this subject today. They want to replace the notion of human rights with the rights of persons. Guess where they got that idea!
Singer continues the general idea we have about babies as cute and valuable, and the love we feel when thinking about newborn babies, is preventing a serious discussion about the "need" to kill some of them. Singer calls these emotions irrelevant. "If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby, we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.... Jeremy Bentham was right to describe infanticide as 'of a nature not to give the slightest inquietude to the most timid imagination.' "
His conclusion? That "to kill a newborn baby cannot violate the principle of respect for autonomy" of persons.
Singer is very "respected," even if he seems totally nuts. One of his friends is Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, whom some of you might have heard about. He is sometimes called "the new Charles Darwin." Together with him, and other of the leading experts on animal rights, Singer founded the "Great Apes Project" some years ago. In 1999 the branch of this project in New Zealand proposed that apes should have equal juridical rights as children and teenagers!
His main academic support in Germany comes from philosophers and so-called "ethical" experts. It is they who have implanted Singer's ideas in the European Union. The Gesellschaft für Kritische Philosophiethe Society for Critical Philosophyin Nuremberg, is important. Singer is one of the members of its board. Please note some of the others. Prof. Norbert Hoerster from Mainz, the leading spokesman for Singer's concept of persons, and Prof. Dieter Birnbacher from Dortmund.
In 1995, the Society published a defense of Singer in their newsletter, Aufklärung und Kritik. Helga Kuhse is one of the authors in that newsletter. Her article is written as a dialogue between God and herself, where God defends Singer and ridicules the idea of "the sanctity of life."
Professor Birnbacher writes about the notion Menschenwürde, human dignity. Birnbacher defends research using human embryos, as well as Singer's idea about infanticide, and uses Friedrich Schiller to prove his case. He quotes Schiller's Würde der Menschen ("The Dignity of Man"), and claims that Schiller viewed the meaning of life as freiheit von leiden"freedom from suffering." If this is the case, Birnbacher writes, then Singer is right. Apes should have the same right to life as humans, since they have equal capacity to suffer.
Hoerster and Birnbacher are currently working with another aspect of Singer's neo-Darwinismpolitical and ethical game theory. This is from my standpoint, the most dangerous part of neo-Darwinism. Why? Because it is totally accepted by a certain ugly, hairy, stinking thing, called academic public opinion.
The target is the youth. Have you heard about philosophical cafés? This is a part of the youth culture of today, where youth sit down and discuss something they call philosophy, and I would claim that these cafés are equally as damaging to the mind as Pokémon, violent videogames, or pornography. Why? Because these cafés do not deal with philosophy at all, only with game theory. According to the rules of game theory, one is supposed to develop one's mind by reflecting upon fixed ethical paradoxes.
Peter Singer uses game theory repeatedly: For example, in the "X and Y" case. Two people are in front of you. They are about to get killed by something, and you can only save one of them, X or Y. Whom should you save, he asks?
If X is your sister and Y is a medical scientist, for example, whom do you save? And whom do you save if X is a handicapped person and Y is a healthy dog? Can you see the problem? It is a mental straitjacket. Game theory forces the mind to adapt to a situation where it has to choose between given alternatives. Problem-solving is banned; it is breaking the rules, and that is not allowed.
What is the sane solution to the problem? Of course, to try to find a solution that saves the life of both X and Y. How do you do that? By problem-solving, not by accepting the rules of the game. I would say that the more you practice problem-solving, the more capable you are to come up with a new solution when you are in a crisis, or when you face real-life situations like that of X and Y.
You should have seen some students, who admired Singer, whom I confronted on this issue some time ago! I had about 15 furious students in front of me who screamed: "You can't break the rules!" "Don't cheat!" and "Stick to the rules!"
The Economy and Game Theory
The fact that Singer connects the economy to the question of life and death is crucial, beacuse it follows the logic of game theory. In 1997 Singer said, on national Swedish radio, that babies in refugee camps also should be killed. Why? Because of the limited resources in the camp! The argument of Singer and his friends is that the world has limited resources so that all people cannot have prosperity; and prioritizingso-called "triage"is necessary. That is: in the choice of saving X or Y, the babies are to be killed in order to save the adults!
A more human solution is, of course, to create new resources, to save both and increase their standard of living. But if you try to introduce this solution at a philosophical café, I promise, you will be thrown out.
Another colleague of Singer's is Tom Regan, a philosopher from North Carolina. Together with Garrett Hardin from California, Regan has developed something called "lifeboat ethics." What is that? Imagine that five survivors are in a lifeboat, and that there is only room enough for four. All five eat equal amounts and take up equal space. Whom should you kill in order to make sure that the boat does not sink (or that the food does not run out)? , he asks. To make the example even sicker, Regan adds that one also could imagine that one of them is a dog. "All have an equal worth and an equal right not to be harmed," as he claims. When asked about this at a university debate, Regan said that he would throw some people overboard: "If it were a retarded baby and a bright dog, I'd save the dog."
In a book published in Sweden in 1997, several famous authors used Regan's example. One of them, Evelyn Pluhar, writes, "It is obvious to everyone that we are living in a world of limited resources." Hmm! Obvious to whom? one might ask. She continues, "This means that we often face situations where we are stuck with a limited set of resources, and have to face the choice of how to distribute them. Thus, it is justified to kill, if stuck in a situation with a lack of resources, in order to get the resources from those who have them."
To illustrate this, she takes the example of starvation. We are often faced with the choice between letting a large number of people die or "eliminating some people" in order to get fewer mouths to feed. In order to be able to make the right choicesthat is, in order to decide who should livewe should study the lifeboat ethics of Tom Regan, she writes.
Sounds bizarre, doesn't it? Please remember that this kind of thinking is a concrete political threat today. In a time of crisis and economic collapse, public opinion often turns to the demagogues who present simple solutions that look like the lifeboat example. That is: stealing! We have heard it too often before. "We don't have resources enough, so let's kill some of the people that consume them."
Already today, we treat Africa this way. It is claimed that Africa is overpopulated, and the only allowed solution to this is to reduce the number of people. With the crisis in the health-care system in Europe, we can see that they already are using the same method here!
How do we stop it? By showing the human capacity to overcome, and solve, problems; and by showing how it is possible to create new resources in the national as well as international economy. That is: with creativity!
There is still hope. Many people protest against Singer here in Germany. Good! But in order to stop him it is necessary to fight his philosophical method, game theory. This is something that only we can show to people. Let's go out and do so!