DALLAS — With three kids in college, Alex Galbraith is aware of the assault on traditional values on college campuses — even Catholic campuses. But when he received an eFollett ad promoting The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer from the bookstore at the University of Dallas, where his daughter studies, he was alarmed.
“I recognized Peter Singer’s name. The ad appeals to people’s sense of charity toward children, when it’s quite the opposite with Singer,” said Galbraith. “He promotes the most radical views on baby killing of any ethicist in the world.”
Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University. His views on abortion, infanticide, euthanasia and animal rights are regarded as extremely dangerous by some and dismissed by others as attention-getting. Singer, a utilitarian, argues that parents and society should be able to breed children for the purpose of harvesting spare parts for an older child and for the greater good. He goes so far as to suggest “that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others.”
In his book Practical Ethics, (2nd edition, 1993), he writes, “I do not deny that if one accepts abortion ... the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong. ... [T]his is not something to be regarded with horror. ... On the contrary, once we abandon those doctrines about the sanctity of human life ... it is the refusal to accept killing that, in some cases, is horrific.”
Besides Singer’s views on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, he is considered one of the instigators of the modern animal-rights movement; he successfully lobbied for a resolution passed recently by the Spanish Parliament that grants legal rights to apes, including the right to life, protection from harmful research practices, and exploitation for profit.
In The Life You Can Save, (Random House, 2009), Singer supports the idea that the problem of extreme poverty could be solved if everyone contributed a portion of their income to effective organizations fighting extreme poverty. Follett Higher Education Group in Oak Brook, Ill., is distributing the book through its chain of 850 college bookstores in the United States and Canada, including at Catholic colleges, such as the University of Dallas, Ave Maria University, Boston College, University of St. Thomas, Houston, and the University of San Francisco.
On face value, the book is perfectly legitimate and in line with Catholic morals with regard to fighting poverty and aiding the poor. But given his views on granting apes the right to life, while withholding that right to the unborn, newborn, children with Down syndrome, comatose and others, Galbraith was alarmed that any book by Singer would be in a Catholic college bookstore.
“Singer does not come across as some wild-eyed person, but makes very well-reasoned arguments, at least from his perspective as a utilitarian,” said Galbraith. “Because he’s viewed as an academic and has the cloak of authenticity that Prince-ton University provides, he has much more prominence when he says or does things. That’s what makes him so dangerous.”
When Galbraith contacted some of the Catholic university bookstore managers, there was resistance; he found that they were Follett employees and largely unaware of Singer’s views. But the manager at Ave Maria University bookstore, who was Catholic, did assure him that if Singer was who Galbraith says, he would not allow the book on the shelves. Calls to the manager were not returned.
“The problem that I have with his way of responding is that he’s going to see the book and see that it ostensibly has nothing to do with abortion and let it pass,” said Galbraith. “The bookstore managers were highly suspicious and were difficult to speak to. It shouldn’t be that way. All these schools ought to have a policy that if someone calls in about a dangerous book they should keep an eye out for it. It dawned on me that I’m a solitary voice crying out in the wilderness.”
Galbraith had some success at the University of Dallas when he spoke with Patrick Daly, director of business services for the university. Daly was not aware of the book but agreed it should not be in the bookstore and had it removed. He told the Register that Follett is supposed to follow the school’s classification as having a strong religious mission and only provide products and merchandise that fall into that category.
“Generally, it works very well, but this was something of a surprise,” said Daly. “I’ve been here 12 years, and every two or three years something slips through the cracks — certainly not as radical as Peter Singer. It behooves us to be familiar with the things that are going on in the bookstore just as a matter of good business.”
Follett was quick to address Daly’s concerns with an e-mail apology from the vice president, but he acknowledges that Singer’s book might not be controversial for universities that do not have a religious mission.
Elio Distaola, director of public and campus relations at Follett, told the Register that its professional buying staff does not take any political, moral or religious positions when making purchasing decisions. Book decisions are based on publisher, author and customer appeal, and the staff tries to represent a balanced selection of books.
“Our services are designed to serve all institutions, and we believe strongly that the freedom to choose books is fundamental to democracy and the educational process,” he said. “We support the fundamental right to freedom of speech, which sometimes includes those that are unconventional and unpopular. We will not remove from the shelf any item, unless the institution asks us to, and, if that’s the case, we will abide by that decision.”
Surprised by Autonomy
Galbraith doesn’t think that’s a good enough response, given their claim that they are built on family values. He also takes issue with Follett’s disclaimer about taking political positions.
“That just isn’t correct. With regard to this particular advertisement that they’re sending out, Follett is actively inducing people to make this purchase so that they in turn will donate money to Oxfam International; so they are taking a political position,” Galbraith said, referring to a political position in favor of Singer’s policies, which are very much in line with some of the United Nation’s political positions on the environment.
The bookstores at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and the College of St. Benedict in nearby St. Joseph, are not run by Follett, but did receive a copy of the book from Random House. Ann Jonus, general books buyer, was not aware of Peter Singer’s positions.
“I’m sure the publisher didn’t give us that information,” she said. “We don’t get much direction, but if I thought it was going to be a huge problem on campus, then it wouldn’t be worth it for me to carry it.”
Don Forbes, bookstore director at St. John’s, was also not familiar with Peter Singer’s works but said they have an extensive general reading department with more than 10,000 titles in addition to textbooks. Some of those titles are controversial to some degree, he said, but it’s part of a liberal arts education that faculty are free to choose their materials.
“If Singer’s book were to be ordered for a class, then we would order it to be on our shelves. Once we have that book in inventory, we could very well hear something from our community,” said Forbes. “We should be aware of these things. I’m sure there are books in our inventory that some people would question what they’re doing in our assortment of literature. Our strong suit is religious and theology titles.”
Bart Stafford, bookstore manager at the University of St. Thomas, Houston, said Singer’s book was not selected to be purchased, but there is no particular selection process that the bookstore adheres to; he personally doesn’t hold any religious or political positions in his selection process. “If (university staff) report to me that there’s an issue with a particular item, we’ll take that into consideration. It’s half and half as far as how independent the college bookstore operates from the college itself.”
Galbraith is surprised at the autonomy that exists between the colleges and bookstores, and he doesn’t want to see his or any other kids duped by someone like Singer who has such hostile views to traditional Catholic thinking. He warns that Singer’s latest book is “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
Barb Ernster writes
from Fridley, Minnesota.