Peter Singer is in hot water in Germany again over his controversial views.

The Australian utilitarian philosopher began his royal progress through Europe well. In late May he added another two honorary doctorates — from the Universities of Athens and of Bucharest — to his extensive collection of awards and distinctions. From there he went to Berlin to receive the inaugural “Peter Singer Prize for Strategies to Reduce the Suffering of Animals”. He was introduced in glowing terms by Maneka Gandhi, Indian Minister of Women and Child Development, who is president of People for Animals in her own country. A German politician explained why he was so popular: “Peter Singer’s ideas are logical, free from religion and easy to understand”.

However, these glowing words were lost on a gathering outside where about 250 people had assembled to protest the invitation. Their message was that Singer believes in killing babies.

The protest may have unnerved the organisers of an eight-day (only in Germany!) philosophy festival in Cologne called phil.Cologne. Singer’s invitation to speak on May 31 was cancelled — a bit odd, considering that he had been described in the conference programme as “one of the world’s most influential philosophers”. “How can you call yourself a philosophy festival, if you are too afraid to discuss issues that bother some people?” an exasperated Singer told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger afterwards. “Hasn’t that always been the role of philosophers since the days of Socrates?”

What happened?

While the organisers were aware of Singer’s stark views on infanticide and euthanasia, they must have hoped that the public would focus on his role as the foremost theorist of animal liberation. The title of his session was to have been “Will vegans save the world?”

Unfortunately, on May 26 a Swiss newspaper published an interview with Singer in which, under aggressive questioning, he expressed his views with characteristic frankness. Whatever else may be said about Peter Singer, he is no shrinking violet. Here are some selections in which Singer discusses infanticide, assisted suicide and euthanasia and the relative value of human life. (Thanks to a reader of the Leiter Reports blog for the translation.)

Neue Zuricher Zeitung: You do not consider an infant to be more worthy of protection than an embryo. On the other hand, you do not necessarily ascribe a higher status to humans than to animals.

Peter Singer: Belonging to the human species is not what makes it morally wrong to kill a living being. Why should all members of the species homo sapiens have a right to life, whereas other species do not? This idea is merely a remnant of our religious legacy. For centuries, we have been told that man was created in the image of God, that God granted us dominion over the animals and that we have an immortal soul.

NZZ: If you were standing in front of a burning house with 200 pigs and one child inside, and you could choose to save either the animals or the child, what would you do?

PS: At a certain point, the animals’ suffering becomes so great that one should choose to save the animals over the child. Whether this point occurs at 200 or two million animals, I don’t know. But one cannot let an infinite number of animals burn to save the life of one child…  

NZZ: There is currently a debate in Switzerland about whether very elderly people should be given access to lethal drugs. What is your opinion on this?

PS: Incurable illness should not be a requirement for assisted suicide. If someone deems their life no longer worth living and has reason to believe that this will not change, they should be given access [to a way of ending it]. This includes very old people who suffer from ailments that are not immediately lethal, such as severe arthritis or incipient dementia. In such circumstances, they should be given a prescription for the lethal drugs and be allowed to die as and when they choose.

NZZ: If I were to say, at the age of 50, I’ve had a nice life until now, but one should always leave a party at its peak: then what?

PS: I would tell you that there are also good things in life over 50. We shouldn’t make it too easy for people to make decisions that are probably irrational. We can at least put some obstacles in their way.

NZZ: People may come under pressure to take their own lives.

PS: That may happen. But it can also be helpful for people who’ve had enough. If someone feels that he is a burden to his family, it isn’t necessarily unwise for him to take his own life. If his quality of life is rather low and he sees his daughter spending a lot of time caring for him, causing her to neglect her career, then it is wise to no longer want to be a burden to her.

NZZ: My first impulse would be to ask myself what I could do to make someone in that situation enjoy life again.

PS: That may not be possible. Maybe there’s nothing to be done about that which makes life no longer worth living. And how much should society pay to improve the quality of life of its citizens, if the same amount of money could improve the life of people in poor countries by a much larger degree? …

NZZ: How about yourself: are you useful enough?

PS: Considering the influence I’ve had, my choice of profession is justified. I have motivated people to think about reducing animal suffering and helping people who live in extreme poverty…

NZZ: Would you go as far as to torture a baby if this were to bring about permanent happiness for the whole of mankind?

PS: This question is from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; Ivan poses it to his brother Alyosha. I may not be capable of doing it, as it is in my evolutionarily developed nature to protect children from harm. But it would be the right thing to do. Because if I didn’t, thousands of children would be tortured in the future.

This is not the first time that Singer has been “disinvited” in Germany. Back in 1989, 1990 and 1991 engagements in Germany, Switzerland and Austria were cancelled after vehement protests from disability groups. 

What do you think? Were the organisers right to “disinvite” a man who has been called “the most influential philosopher of our time“?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.