On Peter Singer

On Peter Singer
On Peter Singer

In his marvelous La peur en Occident, Jean Delumeau reports how, when faced with the threat of plague, a late medieval community reacted in six steps which followed one another with an inexorable necessity: first, they went on as if there is no disease; then, they explained away each case as pertaining to another, more harmless, disease; then, they conceded that there is a disease, but limited and under control; then, the paranoia erupted, people avoided contacts; then, there was the outburst of religious fervor, the attempt to read the disease as a divine punishment and do some kind of penance for it; then, people passed to the “What the hell!” attitude, engaging in the wild feasts of drinking, eating, and sexual orgies; finally, although the disease was still ravaging, people again tried to lead their lives as normal… Is it not reasonable to expect that our reactions to the Mad Cow Disease will follow a similar succession: first, an outright denial; then, claims that it is a li­mited disease fully under control; then, the outright paranoia (BSE can be everywhere, in milk, in pork and chicken, in cows which were already tested); then, the New Age religious attitude of reading BSE as a phenomenon with a “deeper meaning” (the punishment for our ruthless manipulation of animals); then, a “What the hell!” attitude, and, finally, a kind of return to normal—who knows what is really going on, so let us just continue to live like before?

If the European Union plan of slaughtering 2,000,000 cows, 400,000 of them in Germany alone, will be implemented, the difference between humans and animals will probably be reasserted in a perverse way: in the case of holocaust, it was publicly reported that the Jews are just being displaced onto some unspecified new territories in the East, while they were actually slaughtered and burned in Germany itself; the 400,000 cows will be reported to be slaughtered and burned in Germany itself, while, effectively, at least a part of them will be sold (or send as aid) to some unspecified Third World countries… However, tasteless jokes apart, is the lesson of the Mad Cow Disease not precisely the problematic nature of the animal/human divide? Is it morally right to kill millions of cows in order to save a dozen or more potential human victims?

There is at least one moral philosopher whose answer would have been a resounding “No!”—Peter Singer, the Australian whose books sell in hundreds of thousands of copies, and who needs a bodyguard to protect him from attacks at Princeton where he now teaches. Singer is not controversial because he adopts some extravagant axioms, but because he simply draws the ultimate consequences from the commonly accepted axioms, ignoring hidden qualifications which enable us to avoid these unpleasant conclusions.

[Extract. Appeared in Cabinet Magazine, Issue 4, Fall 2001]

Tell us what you think...