In Princeton Professor's World, Human Life Isn't Precious
Why should any of us care who teaches at Princeton University? Most of us will never sit in classes in its ivy-covered stone buildings in New Jersey. But ideas have consequences which reverberate far beyond the confines of a small classroom. Princeton is one of our country's most renowned universities preparing many of our future leaders in government, academia, science, and business. Faculty appointments matter.
The German poet Heinrich Heine more than a century ago said “not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization.”
Last summer Princeton University announced that an Australian professor of philosophy named Peter Singer had been appointed the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at its Center for Human Values.
There is a certain irony in the appointment because Singer gained his reputation in large part by arguing that there are no specifically human values. He wrote an early book called Animal Liberation claiming that human beings ought not to be getting preferential treatment.
Singer is guided by a philosophical approach called utilitarianism. Basically it says nothing is wrong in and of itself. Whatever maximizes pleasure for the greatest number is good and whatever does not is bad. But according to Singer you have to be aware of the fact that you are experiencing pleasure to be entitled to it. In his assessment, infants do not qualify. Somehow a newborn nestled in a moth-er's arms and nursing at her breast is not “aware” that this is pleasurable. Apparently unborn children cannot know pleasure either, while grown animals can. Singer wrote in his book Practical Ethics: “If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee. … If we can put aside … emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.”
Newborn infants are not persons?
Apparently not to Singer. But then it is already U.S. policy that unborn infants and in-the-process-of-being-born infants are not persons protected by law. We just haven't removed legal protection quite yet from newborns. As a nation, we haven't quite caught up with Singer. In principle, however, we are already with him.
Singer does not deny that some people have a “right to life.” But if newborn children do not have it, when do they acquire it? He seems a bit irritated when this question is put to him, but since it is not without legal significance in a civilized country, Singer ventures an answer. “If we must have a point at which the developing human being has the same right to life as you or me … this right, I would suggest, emerges gradually during the first few months after birth.” It is a little hard to base laws or to formulate public policy on the basis of “rights” which “emerge gradually.”
Of course these “rights” also disappear. People who no longer have self-awareness, who are old and senile, those who are miserable, relinquish their “right” to life since the purpose of life (insofar as it has a purpose for an atheist) is to maximize pleasure. Those who cannot experience pleasure have no business living.
Truth be told, in such a world there are no rights. People are free of assault only at the pleasure of those in power. It is also a world free of God. It is Singer's world. God forbid it should become our world. Singer writes: “When we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning.” Also, individual human lives have no inherent meaning either, and, indeed, as Singer tells us, may not have the value of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.
The Christian has another vision of man—a vision of man which led Presbyterians to found Princeton in the first place. This vision is found in the words of the great St. John Chrysostom. “What is it that is about to be created, that enjoys such honor? It is man—that great and wonderful living creature, more precious in the eyes of God than all other creatures! For him the heavens and the earth, the sea and all the rest of creation exist. God attached so much importance to his salvation that he did not spare his own Son for the sake of man. Nor does he ever cease to work, trying every possible means, until he has raised man up to himself and made him sit at his right hand.”
Dr. John Haas is director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston.
- January 17, 1999