Peter Singer’s “Ethics”: A Strange and Telling Story

From the Kairos Journal, exceptional commentary on how over ten years ago, Princeton ethicist Peter Singer acted against his own moral philosophy:

“In 1998 amid much furor, Singer was appointed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton’s Center for Human Values. His controversial views on animal liberation and biomedical ethics, particularly his argument that euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion are not merely permissible in certain circumstances, but morally obligatory, have become prominent in both philosophical literature and the media. The author of over twenty books, Singer has a reputation for being rigorous and rational—he appears to be a true creature of logic.

However in the late 1990s, Singer’s mother, Cora, once an intellectually active and vibrant woman, became ill with Alzheimer’s disease before dying in August 2000. She no longer recognized him, his sister, or any of her grandchildren. As a member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Cora had always said that she did not want to live if she was not physically and mentally capable. Despite Singer’s intellectual belief in euthanasia, he could never kill his mother. So when she became too ill to live alone, Singer and his sister hired a team of home healthcare aides to look after her at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year.

Singer did what many people would do for their parents. His actions were normal and humane, but they were utterly inconsistent with Singer’s utilitarian ethic. His mother had lost her ability to reason, to remember, and to recognize others; she had “ceased to be a person in her son’s technical sense of the term.” Singer’s philosophical principles meant that he ought to have given the money that he spent on his mother’s care to the poor. When asked to justify his actions, he replied that it was “probably not the best use you could make of my money. That is true. But, it does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they’re doing.”

However, this fancy footwork does not obscure the fact that, on Singer’s own terms, his actions were self-interest, not charity. Furthermore, they clash with his contention that, to maximize human utility, friends and family ought to be treated no differently than strangers. His honesty emerges when pressed on the matter: “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult . . . Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.” Later, he admitted that, had he been the only one making the decision, he would have likely withheld the treatment; but, because his sister and other family members were involved, compassion and prolonged life prevailed.”


Stories like this illuminate the importance of practicing what one preaches.  If one’s behavior undermines one’s worldview, this causes serious legitimacy problems for one’s worldview.  As Christians, we need to remember this, and back up our beliefs with our lives.  If we say that Christ is all, for example, but spend our time and energy pursuing things of this world, will unbelievers listen to us when we preach the world-denying gospel?

If not, can we blame them?

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