CHARLOTTE LAWS - DREAM AND ACHIEVE TOGETHER
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The Controversial Peter Singer
By Charlotte Laws
I had the opportunity to eat, drink and make moral calculations with philosopher
Peter Singer. The average person might think hanging out with a
philosopher—even a renowned and accomplished one—would be a non-event or
cause a pain in the brain, as in the soreness that can develop after a college
class of induction, deduction and cerebral gymnastics. But as a lifelong fiancée
of philosophy, I was thrilled that Dr. Singer agreed to meet with me.
has the distinction of being the epiphany-trigger in my life. My first
experience with him was on paper. In 1985, I read his book, In Defense of
Animals, in which he talks about “speciesism,” a prejudice similar to
racism and sexism in which humans believe they are superior to other species.
Singer argues that nonhumans are of equal value to humans and worthy of equal
consideration and that an animal’s ability to feel pain should give him
protection under the moral umbrella that humans typically reserve for
themselves. This idea was like a
starter pistol, signaling me to begin my mission to help the truly voiceless and
defenseless members of society. I stopped eating meat that day.
I heard that the normally reclusive Singer—who lives in Australia and New
Jersey and who is called the Father of the Animal Rights movement-- would be
speaking at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles about animals and art, I figured why
not take him out for a bite? Controversial utilitarians have to eat, too.
is controversial mostly because of his position on infanticide and euthanasia.
For example, he holds it is morally proper in some circumstances to kill a
severely incapacitated infant whose life would cause immense suffering for
himself and his family. Singer comes to this conclusion in the same way he comes
to every conclusion: by embarking upon a utilitarian calculation.
utilitarian deems an action right or wrong based upon the consequences of that
action. He tallies the positives (hedons) and negatives (dolors) of the
situation in advance and selects the course of action that is likely to result
in the most positives or hedons.
moral theory is, in effect, the opposite of utilitarianism. Deontologists are
hedon and dolor haters, and argue that consequences are inconsequential in the
moral realm. Deontological theory states that people have certain duties or
moral obligations which are based upon some absolute authority; the authority
might be religion, universal reason, natural rights, natural law, or some other
entity altogether. A deontologist would most likely believe it is wrong to kill
an infant, regardless of the child’s level of disability, a precept that might
be supported by Scripture.
order to impress Dr. Singer, I figured I had better be on top of the
“utilitarian calculation” game. No slacking. I had to be on my guard every
second, ready to shift my actions to the right “utilitarian” course of
action. I did not want this great philosopher to construe his time spent with me
as in any way immoral.
first order of business was to choose a restaurant. Singer had only put forth
one requirement: there had to be a vegan entrée on the menu.
But as a good utilitarian, I knew I had to weigh a parade of other
factors. His hotel was in Santa Monica, so I chose a place nearby so as to save
fuel and not contribute to global warming. I selected a totally vegan place, as
a gesture to encourage exemplary establishments to be fruitful and multiply. I
ultimately decided it was ok for the restaurant to be situated in Santa Monica
after grappling with whether the area is more or less moral than surrounding
picked up Singer from his hotel and flipped on the car’s air conditioning
because I wanted my important guest to be comfortable. In a polite way, he
explained how my action was destroying the environment and suggested we simply
lower the windows. I couldn’t believe it; I had already screwed up! I quietly
chastised myself for failing to make the necessary moral calculation.
second test came when I was confronted with whether I should make a left turn;
and in so doing, hold up a long line of vehicles behind me. The alternative was
to drive all the way to a signal light, turn onto a less busy street, do a
three-point turn into a driveway, go back to the original intersection and make
a right turn, an undertaking that would take an extra five minutes. Most people
in our “I’m entitled,” me-first society feel morally justified in holding
up a long line of other drivers, some who may be rushing to an emergency or who
may be late for a critical appointment. But would a utilitarian come to this
conclusion? I decided not and opted to inconvenience only my erudite passenger
vegan restaurant was like a beehive, bustling with customers and lean on
seating. We were directed to an airless corner where we were expected to jam
ourselves into a pint-sized table. Part of me wanted to put down my
philosophical foot, refuse the cramped conditions and demand a roomy, nearby
table. But I heeded to utilitarianism, resolved that a party of four deserved
the extra space. As the heat intensified during the meal, I began to regret my
decision because it was “dolor city” in that stuffy corner.
sipped on his mixture of beet, apple and carrot juice as he explained why he was
leaning towards supporting Barak Obama for President. We discussed Congress’
proposed immigration legislation and how the issue is dealt with in Australia
where his three kids live.
we exhausted the media’s prized topics, we delved into the hypotheticals that
make philosophy a cocktail party favorite; such as “if a trolley is rolling
down a hill, should you let it kill your own child or a stranger’s child”
and “is there a difference between killing someone and letting him die?” We
even explored the always-popular free will debate. I asked Singer if he was
choosing to have an enchilada or whether he was merely picking the entrée as a
pawn of the universe. He thought he was choosing, but I argued that he was
probably just a chess piece in a board game called “life.”
spending two hours with Dr. Singer, what struck me most about the man was his
humility, flexibility and open-mindedness. He is able to examine an issue with a
fresh pad of paper. He lacks the cumbersome, preconceived ideas that stalk most
individuals; and he is willing, even eager, to alter his opinion when new data
and better arguments come to the fore. I find many people to be the reverse:
stubborn, immovable objects, bogged down by pages and pages of notes, unwilling
to white them out under any circumstance.
this illuminates the distinction between the utilitarian and deontological mind.
Utilitarianism by its very nature welcomes, even mandates, ideological
pliability while deontological ethics thrives on being a moral tank, oblivious
to its environment.
reacts to the utilitarian / deontological dance. In The Sacred Canopy,
Peter Berger says that people invent ideas, but forget they are the architects
of these ideas, later attributing them to an outside, religious source.
Non-religious precepts seem to migrate down a similar path. They become rooted
social norms like a brazen statue at the center of the town square. They may
emanate from a deontological or utilitarian source, but they become more
deontological, immutable and transcendent as they stand erect at the center of
people’s lives. The statue is virtually impervious to the elements, in part
because the average townsperson leans towards resisting change. It is easy and
comforting to reinforce the laws, moral rules, and codes of conduct.
may receive low marks in some circles because it has been manipulated to justify
actions. We have all heard excuses like, “I had to cheat on my taxes because I
figured the government has enough money” or “I didn’t return the lost
wallet because I figured I need the money more than the other person does.”
This “figuring” or calculating is a misapplication of the utilitarian
method; it does not reflect what an impartial observer would decide. It reflects
only the outcome the thief seeks: to avoid taxes or keep the lost wallet.
periodic misuse, utilitarianism has a critical role to play in society. It can
chisel away at or altogether overturn deontological values, which philosopher
Jeremy Benthem claims are merely camouflage for the popular morality of the day.
Utilitarianism allows undiscovered evidence and improved arguments to emerge. It
is our best hope for a improved future, and we should recognize it as such.
I thank Dr. Singer for being a living example of the flexibility of utilitarianism. And from now on, when someone asks me to guess who’s coming to dinner, I will hope it’s a utilitarian. Especially a controversial one.
Simon Magazine - June 20, 2007