Cogito

I Stand With Peter Singer

princeton university.

In an earlier post on this blog, I discussed - and argued against - the decision of the Cologne Philosophy Festival to disinvite Peter Singer as a speaker. Singer is, of course, a high-profile Australian philosopher, based at Princeton University, and perhaps the leading exponent, internationally, of utilitarian ethics.

A campaign for Singer’s resignation or dismissal

Since the Cologne festival in late May/early June, Singer has been subjected to a campaign demanding that he resign from his position at Princeton, or that Princeton administrators request his resignation (in effect, dismissing him from their employment).

The campaign includes a change.org petition demanding, among other things, “that Princeton University officials should immediately call for Professor Singer’s resignation”; fortunately, however, this has received only 857 signatures as I write this post, and it seems clear that nothing will come of it. We can expect that, quite rightly, Princeton will ignore the petition.

I say “quite rightly” because Princeton has an obligation to protect the academic freedom of its staff. This is exactly the sort of situation where members of a university’s academic staff should be protected from attempts to endanger their careers.

In discussing the same issue, Brian Leiter states that, by his lights, “Singer is a pernicious presence in philosophy”; however, Leiter adds that that isn’t the point. Rather, “the lifeblood of the academy is insulation from such outbursts of indignation.” On that, Leiter and I are in full agreement.

Defending people with whom we disagree

Unlike Leiter, I do not at all view Singer as a “pernicious presence”. Indeed, I think the opposite.

As I see things, Singer has done much over the past forty years to revitalise moral philosophy, his ongoing program of research in practical ethics is inherently important, and he is in many ways a model philosophical thinker and stylist. In the past, I have encouraged undergraduate students to study his prose and style of argument as they seek to develop their own philosophical styles. Singer combines intellectual stringency and honesty with a clear, accessible, even entertaining, presentation - something we might all aspire to achieve. Furthermore, as I stated in the earlier post, I have much sympathy for his line on various bioethical issues.

It does not follow, however, that I always agree with him. In fact, Ihave published articles questioning some of his fundamental arguments or criticising some of his specific conclusions. That is beside the point, though, because it does not matter whether any of Singer’s opinions are popular, or correct, or whether I agree with them. Irrespective of any of that, he is entitled to hold and express them without threats to his employment. We should defend those with whom we disagree just as much as those with whom we agree.

It follows that I would take the same attitude to a philosopher, or ethicist, with whom I am deeply out of sympathy. For example, if similar circumstances arose, I would defend Leon Kass or Margaret Somerville, both of whom have argued for positions within philosophical bioethics that differ greatly from mine. That is, I’m far less sympathetic to their views than I am to Singer’s.

I have had some back-and-forth debating Somerville in the past (e.g., here), but if her employment were threatened because of her opinions, I’d defend her right to express them.

In recent years, she has gained some notoriety as an opponent of same-sex marriage - a position totally different from mine. I defended same-sex marriage in my 2012 book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, and although my long-term preference is that the state should get out of the marriage business entirely, I continue to defend the availability of same-sex marriage in current (and any realistically foreseeable) circumstances.

Nonetheless, although I think Somerville’s view on this issue is misguided - and much as her view may offend many people - I would not in any way suggest that her employment as an academic ought to be threatened because of it. We must distinguish between 1. being entitled to hold, and express, an opinion and 2. having an opinion that is actually correct.

Academic tenure versus the real issues

None of this means that I am an absolutist about academic tenure. I can easily think of circumstances where even tenured academics can justifiably be fired for serious (or sufficiently persistent) acts of misconduct, for persistent poor performance or demonstrated incompetence, or for blatant dereliction of duty (such not showing up to teach assigned classes). There may even be other acceptable circumstances, such as sheer financial exigency requiring some positions to be abolished.

However, none of that is relevant here. No one has raised any genuine questions about Singer’s performance and competence as an academic philosopher, and as far as I know his personal and professional conduct has always been beyond reproach. Nor is there any suggestion that Princeton is going broke and needs to shut down some of its operations. No, the campaign against him is based squarely on opposition to his philosophical opinions.

Once granted, tenure gives academics a high level of protection against dismissal for expressing unconventional critiques of society, or for expressing other views that may be unpopular, even explosive. That protection is valuable, but it’s not the real issue here. I’d hope that Princeton would support Singer even if he did not have the benefit of academic tenure; even its most junior academics, with the least job security, should be assured that they will not be dispensed with merely for expressing controversial or unpopular opinions. That is even more clear in a case such as this, where the relevant opinions fall squarely within the acknowledged research area of a philosopher engaged in philosophical bioethics.

The “speech/consequences” canard

Often, we are told that speech has consequences. It does, indeed. The most obvious consequences for expressing unpopular opinions are that some people may argue against them if they disagree, or they even may dislike you and avoid dealing with you if your worldview and values appear diametrically opposed to theirs. All that is inevitable and understandable. We all get to decide whom we are comfortable hanging out with as friends or friendly acquaintances.

If, however, you go further and respond to someone’s opinions by attempting to punish him or her, that is very different. Often we see the highly illiberal response of attempting to get someone fired. If we take that action, perhaps in a collective campaign, it has gone beyond disagreement, criticism, attempts at refutation, or even reasonable choices about whom we associate with in our personal lives. It has escalated to an attempt to suppress the opinions in question, and to deter their further expression.

In Singer’s specific case, attempts to punish him will probably have little effect. Any attempts to shut him up will be futile, as he is a prominent public figure with, for example, large book sales. It’s most unlikely that he, personally, can be intimidated into silence, or that he can be personally demonised and discredited to the point where his voice is rendered ineffectual. But most people with similar views to his are far more vulnerable. They do not have anything like Singer’s entrenched social and institutional position, and they may well be intimidated.

This takes us to the nub of the issue. All sorts of opinions may be open to criticism - perhaps even to successful rebuttal - but liberal-minded people will not go further and employ tactics designed to intimidate opponents into silence. The heart of our liberty of thought and discussion is not merely an absence of government censorship. Rather, at its heart is our ability to express opinions on matters of general interest - including political, cultural, and philosophical opinions - without being met by attempts to silence our voices.

Conclusion

In Singer’s case, it is clear enough that his opponents do not merely seek to refute his ideas, something that they have every opportunity to do. Instead, they don’t want his, and similar, views to be expressed at all. It seems they want anyone thinking of expressing those views to think again - as they may suffer punishments in being disinvited from conferences, facing calls for their dismissal from employment, being personally hounded and vilified, and perhaps becoming regarded as too toxic to be employed in the first place.

That is clearly not a rational or liberal-minded approach to debate about important and controversial issues. It is an attempt, rather, at mob rule: at control by whoever is best placed to punish and intimidate opponents. It is the exact opposite of a philosophical conversation aimed at discovering truth.

Doubtless there are complexities that I have not covered here - nuances, extreme and anomalous situations, and so on - but none of that applies in Singer’s case. He is doing no more than his job as a philosopher with a research interest in philosophical bioethics: he is developing his moral critique, and he is following it where the logic of the argument appears (to him) to lead.

He has done nothing wrong here, nothing that merits any form of punishment; and in stating that clearly and firmly, I stand with him.

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