Controversial bioethicist pounces on animals in art

Bioethicist Peter Singer has received death threats for his views on incendiary topics such as infanticide and animals rights.

A human life is not intrinsically sacred because it is human, he contends. Affluent people who do not give most of their income to charity are “murderers”; parents who wish to kill a severely disabled infant should be allowed to do so, especially if the child’s death may result in the birth of a healthier baby.

Singer — an Australian Jew who is considered to be one of the most influential living philosophers — will lecture about how art depicts animals on May 24 at the Getty Center, in conjunction with the Getty Museum exhibition, “Oudry’s Painted Menagerie.” His point of view is a modern brand of Utilitarianism, as outlined by the philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Both of these philosophers argued for policies resulting in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

Singer — who spoke to The Journal from his home in Melbourne, Australia — replaces the term “happiness” with the idea of “personal preferences.” It’s immoral to kill someone who wants to live, because you’re making it “impossible for that person to fulfill his preferences,” as The New Yorker paraphrased him in 1999. “[But] if you kill somebody whose preferences don’t have much chance of success — a severely disabled infant, for example, or somebody in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease — the moral equation becomes entirely different.

Singer uses the word ‘person’ to refer to self-conscious creatures: animals often fit that definition, and many humans do not. So when Singer says that you are more likely to do moral harm by killing a healthy cow than by killing a severely handicapped infant, he means that the cow is more likely to anticipate pain and suffer from it than would the child….. The more an animal is able to suffer and understand its surroundings, the more consideration it ought to be given.”

Singer has gone so far as to write: “Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

Critics charge that such rhetoric echoes the words of Nazi eugenicists; no matter that three of Singer’s four grandparents died in concentration camps.

After the philosopher was appointed the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton in 1999 — provoking an outcry from pro-choice and disability activists — demonstrators reportedly sat in on his first class; Singer subsequently opened mail parcels only after an X-ray machine had screened them.

Love him or hate him, one cannot dismiss the professor’s impact on modern bioethics. He is the author of numerous essays and books that have become philosophy best sellers: “Animal Liberation” (1975), which has sold more than half a million copies, is regarded as a seminal text of the animal rights movement and helped launch People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Singer’s more recent work has included treatises on how factory farming fuels global warming.

The philosopher demonstrated his unorthodox views even as a boy in Melbourne, where his parents settled after fleeing Nazi-occupied Austria. His childhood home was nonreligious, affluent and steeped in the culture of Jewish Vienna, he told the Australian Jewish News. Even so, Peter stunned his father, a coffee and tea importer, when he stated that he would not become bar mitzvah because he did not believe in God.

Singer was raised with a sense of the horrors of Nazism, but the losses led him to foster anti-fascist, rather than Jewish, ideals. His “abhorrence of cruelty and suffering … and general compassion” might have come from the Jewish tradition,” he hesitantly told The Journal, “though such world views are not unique to Judaism.” Singer added that he feels neither a strong sense of Jewish identity nor of Zionism; the founding of Israel in the land of the Palestinians was immoral, despite the losses Jews suffered during the Holocaust, in his view.

Animal rights did not significantly enter Singer’s vocabulary until he attended Oxford University and met classmates who eschewed meat for moral reasons. He became a vegetarian and in 1973, submitted an essay, “Animal Liberation,” to The New York Review of Books. The feedback was so dramatic that he expanded the piece into his 1975 book of the same name.

Singer went on to publish a number of blunt treatises that outline his severe — sometimes nearly impossible to accomplish — social mores. (Sample: He believes it’s better to save 10 strangers than one of your own children.)

Even Singer’s admirers say such ethics fail to take basic human nature into account.The children vs. strangers tenet certainly contradicts Jewish tradition, which “recognizes that duties come out of our relationships,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a leading Jewish bioethicist and rector of American Jewish University (previously the University of Judaism).

“One is first obligated to take care of oneself, then members of one’s family, then the larger community.”

Even Singer cannot live up to all of his own standards. When his mother could no longer speak or think due to advanced Alzheimer’s disease — rendering her a “nonperson” by his own criterion — he spent large sums to keep her alive. While he says he gives 20 percent of his income to charity, he admits he lives on far more money than the standards set in his books.

“I’m not altruistic enough to impoverish myself,” he said. “I have never claimed that I always do the best thing ethically.” He simply tries to do better each year.

Peter Singer will speak on May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Getty. Singer will speak on May 24 at 7 p.m. at the Getty. For information, visit

Robert David Jaffee contributed to this article.