When will we stop lionising Peter Singer, ‘the most influential philosopher in the world’? Far from cutting down this tall poppy, we have proudly, parochially, celebrated his work in the most uncritical fashion. Philosophers throughout the world do not necessarily share the implicit idea that Peter Singer is a great philosopher. And in any case, just how has Singer been influential? There are many thinkers who have been highly influential in the most dangerous and destructive kinds of ways.
But let’s not cut down tall poppies for the sake of it. Let’s try to understand Peter Singer’s position.
In an interview with Singer on ABC radio Jon Faine was mildly surprised to find that Singer was endorsing the genetic engineering of children’s intelligence, and other characteristics, at the conference so aptly titled ‘In the Genetic Supermarket’. If potential parents choose to enhance their children’s life chances, why shouldn’t they seek to improve their intelligence by the selection and manipulation of genes that would make this a possibility?
Jon Faine seemed to be satisfied with Singer’s response to this slightly disturbing prospect. We were told that all would be well if the state intervened to ensure equal access to the technology. Those with less money should not be disadvantaged. This was the old Singer we know, the apparently liberal, caring Singer, who is committed to non-discrimination in all matters, and to speaking rationally about the difficult questions that confront us on the threshold of the bio-tech age.
But are we in principle happy with the idea of such genetic manipulation, for the purposes Singer outlined? Singer used two arguments for his emerging model of a mixed economy in the products of the bio-tech age. He has recently argued for just such an approach to the distribution of cloned body parts, in particular human organs, and he would presumably use the same argument for human cloning in general as a means of human reproduction. Under certain circumstances, he argues, human cloning is an acceptable means of people pursuing reproductive fulfilment.
First, he has no in principle disagreement with any of the new genetic technologies, nor any disagreement with parents wishing to enhance the life chances of their offspring in this way. Second, he announces that this is the way things are going in the United States in any case. Already, he said, women select donated sperm and ova with an eye to the attributes they would most like their children to have. In other words, the contours of the bio-tech world are already set in place. They are a fait accompli, and all we can do is adjust to the requirements of the system as it is emerging.
The second argument is hardly satisfying, yet it has a comforting effect when a person of eminence says with such confidence that this is simply the way things are. And it seems rational. It speaks to our practical bent – let’s face up to what we’ve got and get on with the business of managing it. But why should we accept this argument if we disagree, as well we might, with his fundamental proposition? Are we happy with the idea that children are merely the projection of their parents’ ambitions?
The first argument – which gives effective carte blanche to the bio-technologies – has always been harder to deal with. It goes to the heart of Singer’s philosophical framework. Jon Faine seemed to be satisfied with Singer’s view because it seemed he was opposed to a free market in genetic technologies and their products. But let’s face it, a mixed economy is still a market economy. Singer is without doubt in favour of turning intelligence, and other characteristics we might hope our children will have, into commodities.
At base, Singer argues that any product or service should be freely available on a non-discriminatory basis according to the needs and desires of those who seek them out. The maximisation of happiness, where it does not harm others, is his credo. To put it another way, suffering should be minimised.
Singer’s constituency is wide and varied. According to Singer’s view of animal liberation, suffering is what bridges the gap between animals and humans. If animals can be shown to suffer, then we should intervene to restrain their torturers. Liberals, on the other hand, are drawn to his non-discriminatory utilitarianism. Society is no more than the sum of the needs and desires of its members. Only the most minimal forms of restraint are required, especially in personal matters, if people’s free choice to define their own lives is to be protected.
Yet here is an issue that strikes at our fundamental sense of what is right and wrong; of what kind of a world we want to live in. It is an issue beyond questions of individual needs or desires. It may be to do with a harm that we imagine could be done to children conceived by ambitious, competitive parents, but it asks an even larger question about the place of calculation, and of the commodity, in social relationships in general.
The new technologies alone, by their means-end preoccupation with questions of engineering, introduce calculation into areas of life that we value exactly for their incalculable value. Join this to the commodity market, and calculation as mindset and cultural outlook comes to alter the very fabric of human interchange. It must certainly alter how and why we love.
Peter Singer’s framework has been able to escape critical attention for several reasons. First of all, as a culture we are already addicted to notions of individual choice, and clearly we do not want to see people suffer. We strive for happiness, although its elusive nature should perhaps lead us to think again about its status as a paramount goal and calculable end. Second, Singer’s project has always been set against the conservative position of the Catholic Church, and its arguments about what is natural or God-given, which are usually not convincing in our secular age.
But there is a third way here. It is to assess Singer’s arguments on social and cultural grounds that require us to see that society is more than the sum of the individuals who pass through it, and the choices they make. In the age of bio-tech, the technologies set the larger agenda, and apologetic views like those of Singer only help to install it. Up until this time, what we have valued, what we have implicitly recognised in ourselves as more or less decent as human beings, has not always come to the fore of discussion. It certainly needs to now.