Peter Singer is Not the Antichrist
Perhaps “Anti-Christ” is too strong? After all, Singer is a chaired professor at Princeton University and arguably the world’s most influential living philosopher.
His Animal Liberation has been translated into more than twenty languages (including Chinese, Hebrew, Croatian, and Turkish), and is the book most responsible for bringing the concerns of non-human animals to the Western world’s attention. Whether he is writing for Cambridge University Press, giving a public lecture, or writing an Op-Ed in the New York Times, one cannot ignore Peter Singer—at least if one wishes to engage our public discourse in an informed and serious way. Indeed, Australia recently awarded their native son their highest honor “for eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare and the human condition.”
But some reacted to his receiving the award by calling it “madness.” Many Christians consider him to be a leader of a “culture of death”, especially given his very public support of infanticide and euthanasia of the mentally disabled. Many disability rights groups have come out strongly against his view. Singer has been essentially silenced in German-speaking areas, where (given their checkered past) they are especially unforgiving of those who advocate for euthanasia. The last few times he has spoken in these areas Singer has been shouted down so loudly that he could not deliver his presentation. One time a protester leapt onto the stage, forcibly removed Singer’s glasses, and stamped on them.
Much of the academy doesn’t like him either. Three years ago I explained to one of my favorite senior ethicists that I was writing a book on Singer and was even going to meet him for an (obviously) vegan lunch in Manhattan. His reaction? “Be careful, Charlie, you’re going to like him.” And yes, despite being a pro-life Christian ethicist, I have come to like Peter Singer. Since that lunch-meeting I have debated him twice in his courses at Princeton and he has presented in my graduate bioethics seminar at Fordham; he and I gave the opening papers at a conference at Oxford last year called Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer; we organized and planned an international conference at Princeton designed to find new ways to think and speak about abortion; and we are currently working on planning an event that would challenge Christians to take non-human animals far more seriously than we currently do. Through all of these experiences I have found Singer to be friendly and compassionate. He is willing to listen to an argument from almost anyone, and is unburdened by any sort of academic pretension is so doing. He is motivated by an admirable desire to respond to the suffering of human and non-human animals, and an equally admirable willingness to logically follow his arguments wherever they lead.
But this is all consistent with Christians still considering Singer our enemy. After all, he attacks many of the vulnerable populations Christians are called to defend. He has criticized a Christian ethic as incoherent and dependent on pretense. He claims that the West needs another “Copernican Revolution” to fully extricate ourselves from the stranglehold of Christianity.
But in my new book Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization, I show that the disagreements between us are remarkably narrow. Though Singer is pro-choice for infanticide, on all the numerous and complicated issues related to abortion but one (it turns out to be complex argument about the moral value of “active” potential vs. “passive” potential), Peter Singer sounds an awful lot like Pope John Paul II.
I also show that Singer is even closer to Christianity when it comes to poverty and non-human animals. An authentically Christian ethic understands that all of creation has been pronounced “good” by God independent of human beings, and even Pope Benedict (now known in some circles as the “Green Pope”) has condemned factory farming of non-human animals as inconsistent with God’s word. And Singer himself is aware of how much he has in common with Catholic social teaching on our radical duties to the poor. Indeed, both approaches claim that one is guilty of indirect homicide if one fails to aid someone who will otherwise die—even if this person requires nothing more from us than a $200 donation to an organization like Catholic Relief Services.
Singer has admitted that he can work with Christians on matters of poverty, non-human animals, and ecological devastation. In his recent encyclical Caritas in Veritate, Pope Benedict said that Christians should engage in “fraternal collaboration” with non-believers in the service of justice and peace in our world. Let me make the counter-intuitive suggestion that Peter Singer is precisely the kind of collaborator with whom we should engage.
Charles C. Camosy is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Fordham University in New York City. His most recent book is Peter Singer and Christian Ethics: Beyond Polarization and he regularly contributes to CatholicMoralTheology.com. Charlie is also a member of the NEP board of advisors.