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    Sunday, July 31, 2005

    Dinner with Singer: Over a vegan meal, "ethicist" Peter Singer explains the difference between people and animals:

    There is a question I am keen to ask Singer: what is the right exchange rate between human and animal interests? “That is an impossible question.”

    I insist: it is a necessary question. If he were faced with the choice of rescuing one baby or 200 animals from a burning barn, which would he choose?

    ”A normal human child, whose mother would be utterly devastated?” He pauses. “I would choose the child.” But if the child was severely mentally disabled, and an orphan, would his answer be different? He answers with quiet honesty. “Yes, it would.” I say that plenty of disabled people would find that offensive. He is unperturbed. “Some. Not all. Some.”

    In The Moral of the Story Singer poses himself the question Dostoevsky asks in The Brothers Karamazov: would he torture to death an innocent child if by doing so he would secure happiness for the rest of mankind? Dostoevsky, through Alyosha, says no. Singer says yes.

    This project was a real husband and wife partnership: she picked the extracts, he posed the ethical questions. They took it on after reading the best-selling The Book of Virtues by William Bennett, Ronald Reagan’s education secretary, a collection of literature aimed at building moral character. “The Book of Virtues is full of tedious extracts of 19th-century literature. You must do this. You must do that. It is really depressing,” says Renata.

    I venture the thought that the ethics debate is increasingly dominated by Singer and his radical utilitarianism on one hand, and the Christian sanctity of life school on the other. Singer gets animated about the latter. “I don’t think their position is consistent.” Briefly, he slips into the language of Michael Moore. “Bush talks about the sanctity of life while bombing villages in Iraq and Afghanistan.” But normal service resumes. “Also, this business about life existing from conception is starting to crumble because of the possibility of taking human cells and creating life.”

    Genetics cuts both ways, though. I ask Singer if he would be in favour of genetically re-engineering animals so they do not suffer from factory farming.

    ”The quadruped that wants to be eaten?” he laughs, in reference to the cow in Douglas Adams’ satirical book The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. “That is totally hypothetical.”

    Obviously, it would be better to be Peter Singer's cow than his son.

    UPDATE: From a reader:

    It has always seemed to me that the ethicists with the most definte opinions on right and wrong,are usually people in positions where they never have to make any difficult ethical choices. However,they freely pontificate to those that do.

    Academics who advise the "correct way",or politicians who legislate "moraliy" ,or pastors who tell us the "right path.",are rarely arround to accept responsibility for their opinions.. .

    posted by Sydney on 7/31/2005 08:07:00 PM 0 comments


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