GRAVER: Ethics, Politics and Peter Singer

Gravely Mistaken

There is always something a bit off-putting to a column that culminates in the phrase, “I call on Yale to do X.” Such certitude brings to mind a 20-something in a back table at Blue State, slamming down his macchiato with a harrumph, satisfied that he has successfully pointed out that ever-so-subtle bias to which the rest of us have been oh-so-blind. Or perhaps my reaction is due to memories of the times I have fallen into these declarative pitfalls myself.

harry_graver_headshot_kat_oshman

For the few at Yale choosing to write from a conservative orientation, the temptation to “stand athwart history and yell stop” is particularly alluring. But it is a difficult dance, one that needs to balance principle, and as a Yale undergraduate, due respect for institutional values.

There are times, though, where homogeneity can breed serious irresponsibility. There are times when errors have to be met — not with lofty commands or selfishly ostentatious protests — but with someone, anyone, at least throwing their hands up in the air, yelling, “Wait!”

One of those moments is happening now, with the decision of the Ethics, Politics and Economics Program to invite professor Peter Singer for its Castle Lecture Series.

Singer’s worldview, at root, is a radically adherent utilitarianism. He holds that human life is indistinguishable from animal life (thus putting a fetus or disabled child on a lower plane than a well-developed pig), and champions an understanding that “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”

These considerations on life are just the tip of the iceberg that is Singer’s philosophical career, which includes moral justifications for forcible euthanasia, quasi-eugenics (“killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person”), infanticide and bestiality. Even for those sympathetic to Singer, there is an inescapable radicalism to him.

But, isn’t this what college is for? Isn’t this the root of academic freedom?

This question of academic freedom is an important one, but one that we need to finally be honest about with ourselves. We should realize that Yale employs value judgments and moral hierarchies all the time in choosing faculty and speakers. We would never tenure a Klansman or racial supremacist, and for good reason. I doubt, though, that the administration would censor a student organization in making the same woeful choice. Here, a critical distinction arises.

A department is subject to a higher standard of scrutiny by the very fact that it is inexorably linked to Yale’s brand. Such sponsorship, while not needing to explicitly endorse the substance of an idea, immediately lends an elite imprimatur to the argument’s intellectual legitimacy.

Moreover, as a brief addendum, if academic freedom is a genuine cornerstone of the University, it should be treated as Mistaken such and not a convenient justification for simply wanting to bring certain people. There is a basic insincerity to upholding intellectual diversity with one hand, while plucking worldviews exclusively from a single intellectual trajectory with the other. But the larger point remains: What does Yale expect of herself? What are the marketplace of ideas and the expectations of intellectualism we hope to fashion?

Here, a figure like Singer adds a further complication. Last year, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, President Levin called upon both students and faculty to be wary of an “absolute certainty about what is right from wrong.” Within this statement is the assertion that extremism, in any form, runs affront to our dispositional goal of intellectual humility.

In honoring Singer with this invitation, such a decision provokes deep considerations not of left versus right, but rather regarding the fundamental notion of whether or not we are willing, through some basic sense of moral intuition, to productively regulate our marketplace of ideas.

On one path, we can strive to be an intellectual community that embraces the balance of resolute principles and mindful toleration, unwilling to conflate moral absolutism as synonymous with fundamentalism. Such a University does not freely wield censorship, but also recognizes the vital place of discerning guidance. Here, a thinker like Singer is inimical to a University seeking to institutionalize values, purpose and a grounded disposition.

On the other, we can take the view that all manifestations of reason are created equal, and that our skepticism of value judgments must be so exhaustively devout that moral presupposition has no place at all. Here, the floodgates of academia open.

The mission statement of the Castle Lecture Series is “to promote an awareness of and sensitivity to ethical issues facing individuals in modern American society.” If the EP&E Program endorses a view of modernity wherein Singer speaks to its matters of sensitivity and ethical relevancy, it is one that I hope Yale does not recognize.

Harry Graver is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at harry.graver@yale.edu . 

 

Comments