What if you invited a controversy, and no one came?

By Sarah Fenske

So Peter Singer came to ASU on Monday. The philosopher has argued that parents ought to be able to kill disabled babies within a year of their birth — and he's not talking about just the extreme cases, like when an infant has no brain. He thinks that parents literally ought to kill babies with, for example, Down syndrome.

His beliefs are so warped that after I wrote a column about them for our April 24 issue, I actually got a call from a reader who wanted to know if it was one of those New Times spoofs. You know: Like Anna Nicole Smith having a love child on the Indian reservation — too silly to be true. Alas, not so. The dude really does want to kill retarded babies!

I assumed the incendiary nature of Singer's views would mean that, at today's lecture, a phalanx of disabled students would surround the lecture hall, placards in hand. Or that at least one pro-lifer would have considered this event a good time to enlighten fellow students on the nature of the beast.

Not so.

Instead, the 500 or so ASU students assembled at the Evelyn Smith Music Theater greeted Singer with polite applause. They sat through his hourlong lecture on "The Ethics of Eating," which was basically a Cliff's Notes version of his latest book. At the end, they clapped politely.

As requested, all the questions submitted to Singer were about food ethics. They weren't dumb questions, by any means. But no questions fleshed out Singer's writings about animals in light of his more controversial writings about humans.

It all went as planned. But I had to wonder.

For this, we paid the guy $20,000?

When I was working on the column about Singer, I got in touch with one of his most outspoken critics, Wesley J. Smith. "As a society, we suffer from terminal nonjudgmentalism," Smith told me. "We find ourselves unable, except against tobacco users, to say that we're capable of making judgments."

He's right. And on top of that, I think, your average ASU student likes what Singer has to say about eating ethically. (You know, avoid factory farms, eat less meat, consider going vegan.) It's kind of cool to have the "most influential philosopher in the world" saying what you want to hear.

Singer is a decent speaker: smart, quick, polite. But for $20,000, I would have loved for him to challenge people's assumptions a little more. For example, he's argued that "buying local" isn't necessarily the most ethical choice — for all its trendiness, it doesn't do much for Third World farmers. But that idea was only briefly touched on; he was too busy hashing over things we already all knew, like the idea that animals feel pain. Duh.

So despite Singer's writings about babies, despite his status as "the most controversial philosopher in the world," the whole thing was pleasant, unchallenging — and completely uncontroversial.

Terminal nonjudgmentalism, indeed.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske