Birds of a feather

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Nov 19 09:26:41 MST 2002

(Sooner or later it had to happen. Peter Singer, an "animal rights
leftist," who also argues that handicapped children should be killed for
their own good, has written a new book promoting globalization in the
Thomas Friedman "Lexus and the Olive Tree" mold. What's next? A proposal
to turn famine victims in Africa into cattle feed? The reviewer Gregg
Easterbrook is a knucklehead of long standing who has made a career out
of debunking such hysterical fears that nuclear power, DDT, GM crops,
etc. might be bad for you.)

Washington Monthly Online

Greatest Good for the Greatest Number

Philosopher Peter Singer will anger his traditional lefty fans with a
clear-eyed account of the benefits of globalization.

By Gregg Easterbrook

Yes, it's that Peter Singer. The one who has suggested that animals
sometimes have the same rights as people, that the old should be
euthanized to divert resources to the young (though he would spare his
own infirm mother), that Americans should give away almost everything
they possess to the developing world and live themselves like the
developing world's poor (Singer donates to charity but he hasn't given
almost everything away, as he advised others to do, and won't give to
bums on the street). The Peter Singer who has said that utilitarian
arguments can justify killing the innocent if benefits to others are
large (a chilling thought, but also U.S. policy, as it is on utilitarian
grounds that U.S. forces have killed some innocent people during the
campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan; presumably, Singer supports
this). The Peter Singer who has suggested that severely handicapped
infants should be killed for their own good (strangely, only people who
were not born severely handicapped take this view), whom The New Yorker
has called the world's "most influential living philosopher" (which
mainly tells us how little anyone cares about living philosophers, a
state of affairs which the profession has largely brought on itself),
and whose appointment to a chair at Princeton University aroused
considerable alumni protests and the cancellation of some pledges.
People have even protested the name of the chair he holds--Singer is now
the Ira DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human
Values of Princeton. How can Singer have a chair at the University
Center for Human Values, the line goes, when he is inhuman?

Yes, that Peter Singer. Since his views are much hashed over, it may be
best to skip beyond his prior statements here, other than to make two
points. First, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, Singer has
"suggested" most of his notorious positions. There is, in fact, an awful
lot of high-class weasel-wording in his work, indicating either that he
can't make up his mind or that he wants to have it both ways, grabbing
attention by saying stark things, then indignantly claiming misquotation
and pointing to some buried caveat when attacked. Second, when The New
Yorker called him out on how he can say that other people's aging
mothers should be put down like old horses but that his own should
receive only the very best care in an expensive nursing home, Singer
replied, "Perhaps it's more difficult than I thought before, because it
is different when it is your mother." So my grand pronouncements apply
to everyone else but not me! There's a word for this. And, as Peter
Berkowitz has written, someone who presents himself to the world as an
ethicist is supposed to have thought through the practical consequences
of his ethics.

These points aside, One World is a pretty good book; if it did not come
with Peter Singer baggage, I might say a darn good book. Singer,
generally a hero to the loony left, struggles with the issues of
globalization in a rigorously hard-headed manner rarely seen on this
topic. Singer discards, or even shreds, much anti-globalization cant,
focusing on which international economic policies will have the
utilitarian outcome of raising living standards for the developing
world's poor. (Singer does not much care for the term utilitarianism,
but it is the best shorthand for his value system, whose fine points
cannot be fit into this space; broadly, he wants to raise the standards
at which the human race lives as a whole to the highest aggregate level,
which entails focusing upon the disadvantages of the developing world,
and thinks our obligations to all members of genus Homo have about the
same standing as obligations to our nation, to our ethnic group, and
even our own children.) He proposes that formation of a "global ethical
community" roughly along U. N. lines should be a sustained, long-term
historic objective, but is realistic about the need to work within the
existing framework of nations and borders pretty much indefinitely. And,
crucially, he is not opposed to economic globalization. He asks the big
question that anti-globalizers always dodge, namely: If we did away with
globalization, would the poor of the developing world be better off? No,
he answers, to do so would leave them worse off. This is the big point
missing from the whole debate, and it's impressive that Singer has
locked on to it.



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