The ethics of Peter Singer: he believes what?

Does a pig have greater value than a child with Down Syndrome? Is a dog worth more than a severely disabled child?

According Peter Singer the answer is, yes.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. Australian born, he is one of our country’s best known academic figures, and tonight he was invited to return to be part of the panel on ABC’s QandA. 


In 2007 Singer wrote a piece in the New York Times, where he discussed ethical questions surrounding  a severely disabled 9 year old girl by the name of Ashley. He wrote,

“Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?

What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.”

Notice the comparison he makes? He suggests that the life of a dog or cat has more value and ‘dignity’ than a human being with limited cognitive faculties. Not only that, in true utilitarian style he denies Ashley’s intrinsic worth as a human being, suggesting that she has worth only insofar as she is loved by her family.

In a recent article in the Journal of Practical Ethics, Peter Singer tried to justify killing children with Down Syndrome.

“For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical Down] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop.

“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability.

But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.”

That’s right, according to Peter Singer, a pig has more right to live than some human beings, should the person have intellectual and mental disability.

In 1999, Michael Specter of the New Yorker, wrote that, “Singer believes, for example, that a humans life is not necessarily more sacred than a dogs and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.”

The worldview driving Peter Singer’s beliefs is atheism, and his ethic of choice is utilitarianism, which holds that the most horrid actions can be justified should the outcome bring benefit to another person or group of people. It is therefore unsurprising that he openly advocates bestiality, infanticide, euthanasia, abortion, and that he dehumanises those whom he declares less fit for life in this world.

We need to appreciate that these ideas are not being whispered on the dark web or behind closed doors, but openly in one of America’s Ivy League Universities, and in some of the United States’ and Australia’s most respected news and journalistic outlets. Indeed, he retains a teaching position at the University of Melbourne, where I am a graduate.

I have no doubt that it’s not only Christians who will be appalled by Peter Singer’s ideas; many atheists will also be disgusted.  And yet, Peter Singer is in some sense a victim of his own atheistic ideology, for he is chasing his worldview through to its logical conclusion. If this world is it, and there is no God who made and oversee all things, why should we pretend that people have inherent worth and equal dignity? Why should we attribute greater moral value to a sick person than a healthy animal? Why shouldn’t we kill the weak in order to help the strong?

We can be prone to hyperbole for all kinds of things, but it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that some of Peter Singer’s ideas are akin to ideologies pronounced by some of the most dangerous regimes the world has ever known. Before we yell out condemnation from across a chasm, we should  recognise that our own society has already adopted aspects of this ethical framework: in the way we understand some of society’s most vulnerable people, including the unborn because they may carry an ‘abnormality’. The fact that most of us resist and want to push back on many of Singer’s ideas, tells us something about how unsatisfactory and unnatural atheism truly is.

So where should we turn our attention? How different is the answer that we find with the God of the Bible. The Bible insists that every human being, from the moment of conception, is precious and made in the image of God. Gender, age, health, mental faculties, physical appearance, do not detract from a person’s inestimable worth.

Throughout his three years of ministry Jesus was known for befriending and caring for those whom society thought little, and had often neglected. No one was too insignificant for him to take interest in and show love.

On one occasion we are told,

“A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (Matthew 8:2-3)

Jesus didn’t stop there, the extent of love that God demonstrated was found on a roman cross, where the Son of God sacrificed his life for the salvation of others.

“Surely he took up our pain

    and bore our suffering,

yet we considered him punished by God,

    stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

    he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was on him,

    and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)