Controversial philosopher Peter Singer to talk at ASU

The baby was born with Down syndrome.

The parents were in their 20s, so they hadn't bothered with the usual prenatal tests. It wasn't until after their little girl was born that the doctors realized something was seriously wrong, that an extra chromosome in her DNA would doom her to health problems and mental retardation.

So the parents injected the 3-day-old baby with a lethal cocktail. They were young. Surely a retarded child would be a difficult cross to bear. They could have other kids, kids who shouldn't be saddled with a special-needs sibling. Might as well kill this one and start over.

Hey, who could blame them?

Not Peter Singer.

In his 1985 book Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants, the Australian-born philosopher writes that parents should have the right to kill a baby that's born disabled — and not just have the right to do it, but in some instances that disabled babies literally should be killed.

Let me be clear here. Singer's talking about killing babies after they've been born. He's written that parents should have the right to kill a child within 28 days of birth.

And if a family is inflicted with a senile relative, well, children ought to be allowed to kill feeble parents, too. Humanely, of course.

It is appalling in part because Singer, now a professor at Princeton University, is such a lucid writer. You could immediately dismiss his ideas as nonsense if some idiot were spouting them on the Internet, but when you read his actual words, they almost start to sound persuasive. It's only when you step back that you realize you're a step away from agreeing with Nazism. After all, the Nazis decreed some people "non-persons" for the good of the German state; Singer wants to decree some people "non-persons" to increase society's overall happiness. Even without the slippery slope, it's frightening.

So I was surprised to hear that Arizona State University is flying Peter Singer to campus for a lecture next week. And even more surprised when I heard the topic.

He's going to talk about conscientious food choices.

It's more than a bit ironic. Here's a guy who argues, in effect, that human rights are limited to certain humans. That the siblings of a child with Down syndrome would naturally be happier without a disabled family member, so it's worth killing Down syndrome newborns. That the happiness of some people matters more than the very survival of others.

Now he wants to tell us how to eat?

The answer, my friends, is yes. And we're going to pay him $20,000 for the privilege of listening.

It's never wise to put certain ideas off-limits. In some parts of Europe, it's illegal to deny the Holocaust; you only have to get online and Google "six million Jews" to see just how effective that policy has been in silencing the crazies. And then there's poor, stupid Brigitte Bardot, perpetually running her mouth about Arabs and perpetually getting hauled into court for it. Sorry, France, but you can't stop racism by outlawing it.

So I'm not upset about ASU's bringing in Peter Singer. He says he's going to donate the entire fee to Oxfam America, which certainly makes me feel better about where my tax dollars are going. And as much as I find his views repugnant, I think it's better to engage them than to ignore them.

The problem is that we're not going to get to engage Peter Singer.

At his free public lecture on Monday, Singer will be talking about his new book, The Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, and the ASU students organizing the event tell me that questions will be limited to that topic during the session.

In other words, you can ask him about the rights of salmon, but not the rights of the retarded babies that Singer would like to see murdered.

Later, a hand-selected group of students and professors will meet with the philosopher in a smaller setting, and they'll be able to ask whatever they want — but that session won't be open to the public or any journalists.

In an e-mail, Singer tells me that he didn't ask for any such limits; he says he'd be happy to take questions on any topic. The limits were the decision of the event's organizers.

It's a mistake.

Without the infamy that he's earned, I doubt Peter Singer would have won his prestigious post at Princeton, much less command five-figure speaking fees at places like ASU. There are unemployed philosophers everywhere; Singer's horrible ideas about human life are the main reason he's achieved a measure of fame.

They also create a necessary framework for evaluating anything he says.

Michael Bérubé is a professor at Penn State University. Because of his thoughtful writing about disabled people, including a memoir about his own son, who has Down syndrome, he is often cast as a foil to Singer.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske