An Australian academic once compared to Hitler’s deputy and described as “the most dangerous man on earth”has been given a major national award, the Companion in the Order of Australia. Peter Singer, a philosopher, bioethicist and animal rights activist, was recognized for his contributions in the fields of animal welfare, global poverty and the human condition, according to news reports.
As a professor and activist, Professor Singer is no stranger to controversy.
In 1975, he generated headlines around the world with the publication of his seminal book “Animal Liberation,”which most observers credit with helping launch the global animal activist movement. In the book and in his subsequent writings, Singer’s central argument is based on the so-called utilitarian idea of “the greatest good of the greatest number” as the best measure of moral or ethical behavior.
For animal rights activists, Singer has been lauded as a champion of the notion of “speciesism” as a description of people assuming dominance over animals. That idea has become the touchstone of the more extreme animal rights advocates. The catch phrase attributed to PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk, “When it comes to pain, love, joy, loneliness and fear, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” is a direct descendant of Singer’s radical philosophy.
Of course, his animal rights beliefs aren’t the only controversy he’s encountered in his outspoken career. On several ethical issues, Singer has staked out positions far outside the mainstream, including these gems:
- On abortion. Singer’s belief that morality demands a utilitarian calculation comparing the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus generated massive pushback. He argued that a fetus has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, so it’s not possible for a fetus to hold any preferences. Therefore, abortion is morally permissible.
- On euthanasia. In writing about voluntary euthanasia, Singer noted that if he had been solely responsible for making decisions regarding his mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, she might not have continued to live.
- On infanticide.Similar to his position for abortion, Singer argued that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood, which he defined as “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness,” therefore, he has written, “Killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, a being who wants to go on living.”