Anders Chen '01 kept forgetting. He knew that people were starving somewhere around the world, that they lived without houses or clothes or doctors or books and that children died in swaths every day from malnutrition.
He knew this. But he could not see them. And so, mental images were replaced by what was in front of him: papers, professors, Princeton. He forgot.
When Peter Singer arrived on campus last September, Chen attended a lecture the controversial professor gave during hunger week. Chen sat, listened and was ashamed. Then he forgot again.
But now Chen is enrolled in Singer's philosophy class, Practical Ethics, and after hearing the messages in lecture and absorbing them daily in readings and conversations with classmates, he has donated $30 per month — one tenth of his monthly income — to Oxfam for the past two months. Constant exposure to Singer made it impossible to forget.
"It's something that I just hadn't done because, like most people in America, it's something easily forgotten," Chen said. "The effects of it are never seen, especially in an academic center like a college. The reason I hadn't done it before was out of ignorance, weakness, forgetfulness."
Singer's class, he said, "reminded me that this is something that needs to be done."
Singer's arrival at the University in September sparked furious reactions from a range of groups. But nearly seven months later, students sit in class and peer up at a mild-mannered man with scraggly hair, who offers a quiet if compelling analysis of issues ranging from obligations to the poor, to the ethical treatment of animals, to abortion.
"I wasn't sure what sort of image people had had of me," Singer said in a recent interview. "Maybe they had a sort of southern preacher image — that I was going to be declaiming their sin and their sinful lives as an abomination, or something like that. I think some of what I see is pretty bad, actually. But I don't think it would do any good to take that kind of denunciatory stance and it isn't really my temperament."
Singer cringes when he hears students talking about dining out in expensive restaurants or sees them parading around campus in high-fashion clothing. He walks by and says nothing. But despite the ethicist's understated presentation, students are paying attention.
Justin Goldberg '02 loved the taste of meat, frequently ordering cold cuts at delis. Of all his friends, he was the one who gave preachy vegetarians a hard time. Two weeks into the class after reading Singer's "Animal Liberation," the only meat he eats now is fish.
"Every topic that we've covered, I think that I've had to reevaluate my stance," Goldberg said. "It's a lot different from any other class I've taken here because the things we're debating in precept are not an aspect of literature or some remote belief. It's pretty controversial stuff. And people are, I think, genuinely grappling with the material. I think it's a really important academic experience. You're watching and participating in the process of someone working out certain compromises in their beliefs. It's definitely a unique experience."
Dan Chirpich '01 has not changed his life views because of this class. But he also has begun reexamining some of his moral assumptions.
"I'm still kind of thinking on the points he's made. He makes very very strong intellectual arguments," Chirpich said. "He exposes you to ethical views that are not in the mainstream."
Though Singer said he did not have a specific agenda for changing the University beyond increasing financial aid, he hoped to continue and intensify this kind of ethical dialogue on campus.
While watching a debate between Singer and Adrienne Asch with friends last fall, Jordan Rettig '01 became intrigued by his ideas.
"I began to think, wow, this guy is really quite brilliant." she said. After the debate ended, Rettig and her friends sat and argued for more than two hours over the ethical issues raised. "We were definitely pretty fired up about it," she said.
"I've certainly changed the way I approach questions of ethics and moral consideration," she said. "Now when you come up with a hard decision, like aborting a baby, or your own child, you have some more tools to make that decision."
Singer said he takes his role as a moral authority at the University very seriously.
"It makes me feel that I have a very difficult responsibility to put things in a way that is fair, honest and accurate and on the one hand not putting a burden of guilt on [the students], but gently steering them in the right direction," Singer said. "I think it's good obviously, if I can have an impact on people. Princeton students will typically have abilities to make a difference."