Peter Singer reflects on a decade at Princeton
When bioethics professor Peter Singer joined Princeton’s faculty in fall 1999, he expected “good students” and “good seminars,” but he never anticipated the backlash: a large-scale protest against his appointment that included the arrest of 14 activists outside Nassau Hall on Sept. 21, 1999.
Over the course of his first 10 years at Princeton, Singer, whom many view as the most influential applied ethics theorist in the world, has been a divisive figure, garnering attention from alumni, students and faculty who disagree with his controversial opinions and from those who laud his academic prowess and his openness to alternate viewpoints.
While Singer is largely praised for his work pioneering the modern animal rights movement, affirming moral obligations to alleviate extreme poverty and defending nonviolent civil disobedience, he has created controversy with his views on infanticide, abortion and medical treatment of the severely disabled, said former politics professor George Kateb, who chaired the search committee that recruited Singer.
“When it comes to killing, I do believe that beings have different interests in continuing to live,” Singer said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian last week. “I think killing a being that wants to continue to live and has designs for the future is very different from killing those that do not.”
Kateb said that though he thought Singer sometimes “went too far” with his arguments dealing with death, the decision to hire the Australian philosopher was the right one.
The protest against Singer’s appointment in 1999 involved hundreds of demonstrators, who blocked the entrances to Nassau Hall for hours. The disability rights advocacy group Not Dead Yet organized the protest, which was aimed at the University for hiring Singer rather than at the professor, said Stephen Drake, a research analyst for the organization.
“This was somebody they sought out in particular for his provocative views,” Drake said. “Part of our demands at that time was that they threw out their commitment to community principles, and we asked them to admit it.”
Drake added that he takes issue with Singer “as a polemicist,” not in his role as a philosopher.
“People with disabilities need to be treated with the same respect and with the same values as the rest of the population,” he said. “It’s that simple. Peter Singer disagrees with it. Not only does he disagree with that, what he’s suggesting is changing public policy. He’s out there not as an expert trying to give an objective opinion. He’s out there trying to push his own agenda. How we viewed Singer then is how we view him now.”
Singer said he and then-acting University president Harold Shapiro GS ’64 also received death threats during the first few months after his appointment.
Shapiro said the death threat did not faze him. “You get all kinds of mail when you’re the head of an organization, some of which is very insulting and very threatening and so on,” Shapiro said.
But Singer said the threat was worrisome, though he wouldn’t leave because of it. “Obviously I was concerned, but I also felt that you can’t give in to that kind of stuff,” Singer explained. “You have to continue to stand up for things you believe in. I certainly wasn’t going to go back to Australia or change my views, so there wasn’t really much choice.”
Singer’s appointment also created waves of controversy among alumni, some of whom even said they would not donate any more money to the University as long as Singer served on its faculty.
“I don’t agree with Princeton’s policy of promoting professors regardless of their worldview,” said Alan Moore ’71, a retired medical academic who stopped donating money to the University 10 years ago because of Singer’s appointment. Moore had worked with pediatric intensive care units trying to save infants and he said he took specific issue with Singer’s views on infanticide.
“Princeton’s point of view I find morally repugnant,” he explained. “I can guarantee you that if there were a world-famous scholar that called for the extermination of all Jews, Princeton wouldn’t hire the professor. Princeton just accepts infanticide as a valid point of view. Only in an Eastern, liberal ivory tower setting can he espouse such a view.”
Longtime donor and former trustee Steve Forbes ’70 also stopped giving money to the University as a result of Singer’s arrival on campus. Forbes could not be reached for comment.
On the other hand, Jennifer DePalma ’96, a philosophy major when she was an undergraduate, said she supported Princeton’s defense of academic freedom.
“When you’re looking at the top schools, most of them are really, really good at giving their students access to any side of the political spectrum or whatever spectrum you’re looking at,” DePalma said. “They’re just trying to give access to as many different ways of thinking as they can. There’s a difference between that and Princeton saying they support infanticide.”
Shapiro said that, though he hadn’t expected the degree of opposition the University faced, the decision to invite Singer to join the faculty was a positive one for the intellectual life of the community.
“A university is a place that is at all times questioning the values we have, not just committing to the views we have,” Shapiro explained. “One of the roles of a university is to question existing arrangements and maybe suggest better ways of going about things, of thinking about things. The notion that we should only appoint someone who signs up for a set of values is antithetical to the goals of a university. This would be a dull place if everyone thought the same way.”
He added, however, that Singer’s controversial views were not “part of the discussion” about whether to hire him. The appointment was approved because of the high recommendations given by “philosophers all over the world advising us about the nature of his work,” he added.
Despite the controversy, those responsible for hiring Singer stand by their choice.
“It is, personally speaking, one of the very best things I’ve done in my academic life,” Kateb said. “If I were told beforehand that it would arouse all this anger … I still would have done it.”
Shapiro also said he does not regret approving Singer’s appointment. “My own assessment after having him as a colleague for 10 years is that it was and remains a terrific appointment,” he said. “His teaching is excellent, his work with students is terrific, he puts himself out to his students, he’s not at all rigid in his classes, and he encourages alternative points of view in his classes, or at least that’s what students tell me.”
Singer has also made a distinct impact on many current and former students, who said the philosopher has impressed and inspired them.
Will Fisher ’10 said he became a vegan three years ago after taking Singer’s freshman seminar, Ethics in Everyday Life, and has remained one since.
“I kind of had a coming of age of what the world was like,” Fisher said. “With regard to animal rights, we make decisions three times a day. You can’t deny that what you do every morning, every lunch and every dinner really has a serious effect.”
Fisher said that though some of Singer’s conclusions may be radical, the ethicist’s logic is “really good.”
He said, for example, that dealing with death as a moral concept is more complex than it may seem. Though many people would agree that “killing an innocent person is bad,” most people would say it would be justifiable to shoot down a man if “somebody put 20 pounds of explosives in his backpack, he doesn’t know it, and he’s about to walk into a crowded mall,” he added.
“We actually hold a lot of convictions that he holds,” he said. “We just don’t think about it very rationally, and I think he’s very good at drawing it out.”
Singer said that he teaches philosophy with the aim of inspiring students to examine their actions and lives.
“The overall goal is to stimulate people to think more deeply about ethical issues than they did before,” he explained. “I think most Princeton students would have thought about many of these issues on a fairly superficial level. I want to challenge them to think more deeply, to see the issues as something worth serious thought. If in fact it leads to some students thinking about the way they want to live, that’s a big bonus.”
Rik Sengupta ’12, a student in Singer’s only class this semester, CHV 310: Practical Ethics, said he was impressed by the rigor of the professor’s arguments.
“His sense of logic is impeccable,” Sengupta said. “They just follow mathematically. In terms of the logical structure he uses, you cannot argue with him. If there’s anything wrong, it would have to be his original assumptions.”
Though some students in the class said Singer presents biased arguments during his lectures, others insisted that he makes an effort to represent contrary views.
Kalila Minor ’11, another student in Practical Ethics, said that Singer invites academics who disagree with him to come to lectures to debate with him about issues such as abortion.
“I was impressed with the extent to which he included opposing viewpoints,” she explained.
Outside classes, Singer also gives talks to student groups, invites visiting speakers and participates in discussions hosted by the Center for Human Values several times each semester, he said. Singer has also published several books in the past 10 years, including “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty” earlier this year.
Singer said that though many philosophy professors focus on research, he has other goals as well.
“[I] want to do some research and make some contributions to original topics, but it’s also important to connect with people, to try to get them to think more about ethical issues, to try to contribute to some shifts in the culture on major ethical questions,” he said. “It’s a dual role.”
Ten years after the protest sparked by his appointment, Singer said he has found University students and faculty to be “very open-minded.”
“I think [Princeton] is a challenging place,” he added. “Over these 10 years, I don’t think it’s changed much really. I think the debates were good to start with. If anything, they’ve gotten better.”
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article inaccurately referred to protests organized by Not Dead Yet and held at Nassau Hall in September 1999 as violent.
Diane Coleman, president of Not Dead Yet, also told The Daily Princetonian on Monday afternoon that that the group's members are trained in nonviolence, and that the organization is not aware of any evidence that any of the death threats came from its members.