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JANA WENDT: Peter Singer, welcome to Dateline.


Your work attracts both devoted followers and enraged opponents. Is this just a natural part, do you think, of a philosopher`s work?

PETER SINGER, PHILOSOPHER: It`s certainly not a natural part of every philosopher`s work. If I were working in logical metaphysics, I`m sure that the public would never have heard of me and I wouldn`t get a peep out of them, but I think if you`re working on issues in practical or applied ethics, if you`re working on issues like euthanasia, or what we do to animals, those issues tend to, I guess, evoke a fair amount of emotional response, whatever you say.

JANA WENDT: You`re saying working on those issues, in your case, does that mean challenging the prevailing ethic on them?

PETER SINGER: Well, the conclusions that I`ve come up with certainly do challenge the prevailing ethic. I think there is something about the philosophical approach that suggests you look critically at things, that you try and look at them without just taking for granted the assumptions that we might have made for many centuries, then you`re always liable to come up with something that people are going to find shocking or bizarre, or that they`re going to want to protest about.

JANA WENDT: One of the things that enrages people, I think with you, is you are very blunt in your use of language. You refuse, as you put it, to draw the delicate veil of euphemism over some of these subjects. Do you agree that that`s what provokes the kind of outrage that sometimes you do provoke?

PETER SINGER: Yes, that`s certainly part of it. You see, I think if I`m writing about issues that really matter to people, then I ought to write in a way that communicates effectively and clearly what I think about those issues. If I were to talk about, say in the case of euthanasia, if I were to talk about letting nature take its course without distinguishing between cases where a doctor is powerless to do anything to prevent a disease killing a person, and other cases where a doctor deliberately decides not to give antibiotics, or decides to give a large dose of morphine, and I would say, in all of those cases, you were letting nature take its course, I think that would be misleading. That`s why I`m prepared to say that I think in some of those cases, doctors are actually bringing about the death of their patient, perhaps even killing their patient. Those are the words that I guess, provoke people.

JANA WENDT: Let`s get back to tin tacks on that issue. Your philosophy does allow for the killing of a disabled infant. Can you, in short form, explain how you justify that?

PETER SINGER: Let me tell you why I started to think about that issue first. It was when I was working at Monash University with my colleague, Helga Kuser, and we were approached by a doctor at the Royal Children`s Hospital and also one at the women`s hospital, about problems that they had with dealing with babies with severe disabilities. And they had evolved a practice, which essentially said that if the disability was a severe enough one, they did not do anything to keep the baby alive and if the baby developed an infection, and many of these babies were already quite sick and did develop infections, they would not give antibiotics. Sometimes they would sedate the baby, other times they wouldn`t. Essentially they would hope that the baby died without actually making sure that the baby died. That often meant that the baby did die, but rather slowly over weeks or months, rather than in a quick and humane way. And we thought that that can`t be the right way to do it. Either you ought to really try and save every life you can, or you ought to be prepared to say, “I think it`s better that this baby should not live and I will make sure that this baby does die quickly and humanely.” So that`s what led me to think about the issue. And having thought about it, I guess I did feel I wasn`t prepared to say that in all cases, no matter what the parents thought and no matter how severe the disability, you ought to try and do everything possible to keep the baby alive. So given that, it did follow, I think, that when you made a decision that it`s better that the baby should die, you actually ought to do something to make sure that happens. That in plain words is to kill the baby.

JANA WENDT: But Peter Singer, this does, I suppose some of your critics would say, leave very wide scope for such a monumental decision. That is, a decision to end a human life, doesn`t it?

PETER SINGER: It does, but it leaves the decision to the people who are most affected by it, and that`s the parents. Some safeguards, in terms of their doctor`s consultation.

JANA WENDT: But parents and doctors can be wrong, can`t they? Parents and doctors can make a wrong decision?

PETER SINGER: Of course they can, and a woman can make a wrong decision when she decides to terminate a pregnancy. She can make a decision on grounds that she later regrets, but we still think that it`s better to leave that decision to the woman than for someone else to second-guess her. For the State to step in and say, “You can`t decide in this case”, or at least I think that and I think many other people do and that is the legal situation in Australia.

JANA WENDT: When you face demonstrators with various disabilities from organisations like Not Dead Yet, does it give you pause for thought that they believe they would have been killed had their parents shared your philosophy?

PETER SINGER: Certainly, I`ve had people say that to me, that they would have been or might have been killed if their parents had shared my view. I don`t think that that`s really an objection, because if their parents had shared that view, of course, they would never have known what they were missing out on. There would have been no child to regret it. You could just as well say to someone who advocates that because of the global population problem, families should have no more than two children. You could just as well have a third child come up and say, “Look, if everyone had accepted that philosophy, I wouldn`t exist because I`m a third child.”

JANA WENDT: But are you in some way demeaning the lives of these disabled people by suggesting that the lives of some disabled infants are not worth living?

PETER SINGER: Well, I`m certainly not going to say to anyone who is sitting there telling me that his or her life is worth living, that it`s not. That`s a decision for them to make, and as long as they feel their life`s worth living, then obviously we should support them, we should treat them as we treat anyone else. We should help them as much as they need help to be fully integrated into normal society. But I think it`s only realistic to say that generally speaking, life is likely to be better without major handicaps. We would all feel that ourselves, I think, that we would prefer to be able to walk than to be in a wheelchair. We would prefer not to have conditions like cerebral palsy than to have them, and that`s the judgment that`s being made. It`s not an absolute judgment that life is not worth living, but it`s a judgment that in these particular circumstances, this particular couple might decide that it`s better that this child`s life, which has only just begun, which is only at the outset of life, should not continue to go on.

JANA WENDT: Let`s look at the other end of the life cycle. When do you believe it is justified to accelerate the death of an ill person?

PETER SINGER: Well, essentially my answer to that is when the ill person wants their death to be accelerated. I think that if we`re talking about voluntary euthanasia, then anyone who is either terminally or incurably ill and who decides that they do not consider their life worth going on with, ought to be able to end their own life, or if they can`t do it themselves in a way that they consider to be dignified, to have the assistance of someone else to end their life for them.

JANA WENDT: And in the event that they are not able to communicate in any way their wishes, how would you deal with a situation like that?

PETER SINGER: It`s much more difficult when you have someone who can`t communicate their wishes, especially if they never have communicated their wishes. I mean, I guess, ideally, you would have people fill in living wills so that they can tell you what they would like to happen if they become incapable of communicating, but if that isn`t the case or if what they`ve said doesn`t apply to the situation, then it`s much more difficult and I think generally you ought to say if their life seems to be one that is not causing them great suffering, that they`re getting something positive from it, then it`s not a case for euthanasia. If, on the other hand, it seems that they are really in a lot of pain or distress that you can`t properly relieve, and there`s no chance that that`s going to improve, then I think that might be a case.

JANA WENDT: And that judgment again is made by whom as you see it?

PETER SINGER: Ideally, that would be made by people who are really close to the person at the end of life. Close family, something of that sort. If you have someone with no-one close to them, as can sometimes happen, of course, with elderly people, I suppose then, at present it`s really a decision that is left to the doctors because they will often decide not to prolong life.

JANA WENDT: Peter Singer, let me take you to the core of your work on the relationship between humans and animals, which is based on the belief that animals are capable of feeling pain and capable of feeling pleasure, just as we are. So that warrants a re-think of our attitude towards them. How much do you think that view has been assimilated into the general community since you first wrote about it 25 years ago?

PETER SINGER: I think it`s made some progress, but it certainly hasn`t gone nearly as far as I would have liked. I think the difference is that people do now give some weight to animals` interests. That is, they don`t just dismiss them, they don`t just laugh at people who say, for example, that the way in which we raise animals for food in intensive farms is wrong. There was really no criticism of factory farms when I started out, or virtually none. Now I think people take that point quite seriously. There`s a serious discussion about the use of animals in research, and there are quite a number of people who are vegetarians for ethical reasons and that`s a well-respected view. But on the other hand, our society basically goes along and continues to do most of these things, maybe just a little more kindly. In going along to do these things, I think that shows that the views that I put forward have really not become mainstream, they`ve not really been accepted in our society.

JANA WENDT: Let me ask you about something that caused another storm that comes out of your view on our relationship with animals. You said that bestiality should not be the taboo that it is. Can you explain?

PETER SINGER: I was asked to review a book that looked at the history of bestiality or human sexual relations with animals. I wanted to raise the question as to why when a lot of other taboos about sex have disappeared – I`m thinking about taboos about homosexual relationships or about oral sex, for example, which used to be things that people referred to in tones of shock or horror, or perhaps didn`t even refer to it at all, not so long ago, and those taboos have collapsed, but sexual relationships with animals are still I think very much taboo, just as much taboo as they ever were. Some of them obviously should be considered wrong because they involve cruelty to the animals, they involve coercing the animal, forcing the animal. But without going into details, it`s not too hard to imagine sexual interactions, not necessarily sexual intercourse between humans and animals, that don`t involve coercion or cruelty to the animal. And yet they`re still very much taboo, still in many jurisdictions criminal. So I guess I was raising the question as to why that should be. I was suggesting that maybe it`s something to do with the way that we still want to separate ourselves from animals. We`re disturbed that anyone might want to have sexual contact with animals because we still want to see ourselves as very different from, and, of course, much superior to, all non-human animals.

JANA WENDT: Alright, well, you realise that`s the kind of view that sends people crazy because it`s so controversial. Does it bother you that that`s the response?

PETER SINGER: Yeah, I am bothered by the response in fact. The response in a sense reinforces exactly what I was saying. That is, that we still have a huge taboo about this. I guess I`m bothered by the fact that when you raise some question about sexual morality like that, obviously people`s emotions rush to the fore and they don`t ask themselves the question, “Well, who exactly is this harming?” Should we have crimes on the books where there`s really no harm to anyone. That`s the kind of attitude that I would like people to be able to discuss a little more calmly than they seem to be able to discuss this topic.

JANA WENDT: Alright, Peter Singer, unfortunately we have to leave it there, but it`s fascinating and I hope we speak again. Thanks very much for your time.

And if you`re interested in Peter Singer`s ideas, his new book `Writings on an Ethical Life` has just been published in Australia.

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