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On the Debate Surrounding Peter Singer

Statement by Michael Schmidt-Salomon


Photo: Joel Travis Sage

The decision to award philosopher Peter Singer the "Ethik-Preis der Giordano-Bruno-Stiftung" in Germany was met with incomprehension or even indignation by some people. Didn't Peter Singer encourage the killing of disabled children? Or was this just a bad misunderstanding? Michael Schmidt-Salomon tries to shed light on the issues.

The award of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung's ethics prize to the initiators of the "Great Ape Project", Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, has unfortunately led to misunderstandings which I, as the foundation's spokesman, would like to clear up.

1. We honor Peter Singer for his outstanding achievements as an animal rights activist - specifically for the initiation of the Great Ape Project (together with Paola Cavalieri). Accompanying the award ceremony, we have produced a brochure explaining once again why great apes should be granted certain basic rights.

2. While Peter Singer has also endorsed euthanasia in his writings, this does not directly affect our award ceremony. However, as a humanistic foundation we would never award a prize to a man who even remotely "incites agitation against the disabled". I admit: Triggered by the debate in the 1990s, I was suspicious of Peter Singer to a similar extent. Then, however, I read his books and realized that the discussions at that time were based on misunderstandings, misinterpretations, and (this also happened!) malicious insinuations. I can only recommend everyone to critically review supposed "quotations" that are said to come from Singer's books - and also to be extremely sceptical about printed interviews.

From my own experience, I know how such interviews often come about: Even if you edit and authorize the interview, you often end up with nasty surprises. All too often important passages - supposedly or truly for reasons of space - are deleted, so that you hardly even recognize your own statements. In this context we should also consider that German is a foreign language for Peter Singer, which makes the matter even more problematic. It is a fact that if I only knew Peter Singer's single, repeatedly quoted Spiegel interview from 2001, I would certainly not have agreed to award him an ethics prize. However, this interview largely reflects Singer's positions in a highly distorted way - while the beginning of the interview is fine, the ending is a prime example of bad or politically manipulative journalism.

What does Peter Singer really say?

If the Spiegel interview is not representative, what positions does Peter Singer actually hold with regard to the social status of disabled people? In the relevant book on this subject, "Should the Baby Live? - The problem of handicapped infants" (Helga Kuhse/Peter Singer, Harald Fischer Verlag 1993) says: "We are convinced that rich nations should do much more to enable people with disabilities to have a fulfilled life worth living and to enable them to really reach their inherent potential. We should do everything we can to improve the often deplorably poor institutional care and to provide services that allow disabled people to live outside institutions and within the community" (p.26, translated from the German edition). Is this the kind of man "agitating against the disabled"?!

It is true that in the 1980s Peter Singer proposed - in recourse to earlier models in different cultures - not to treat infants as full legal entities until 28 days after birth. Under certain conditions, parents would thus be able to kill severely injured newborns without being charged. This proposal was philosophically justified by the undeniable fact that infants at this age (whether disabled or not!) are not yet "persons in the empirical sense", because they do not yet have a consciousness of themselves, cannot yet anticipate the future, etc. In 1993 at the latest (see the German edition of "Should the Baby Live?"), Singer revised this proposal (with which he wanted to prevent unbearable suffering from the slow death of severely injured newborns in the age of high-tech medical equipment! He endorsed Norbert Hoerster's argument that only birth was "visible and self-evident enough as a boundary to mark a socially recognized right to life" (p.251). Singer confirmed the problem of making a person's legal status dependent on age. Because: If the idea that a child does not have a right to life at the same time as it is born were to enter public thought, "the respect for childlike life in general might decline" (p.251f.).

Singer's philosophy is not "hostile to the disabled", but "friendly to the disabled".

Faced with "the suffering that the status quo imposes on severely injured and sick children and their families", Kuhse/Singer, like Hoerster before them, made two demands:

a) "Parents of a severely disabled child must at all times and regardless of the child's age be able to place the child in a state institution without incurring costs to them (We naturally assume that these institutions have sufficient resources to guarantee a high standard of care.)".

b) "Active and passive euthanasia should be allowed whenever someone suffers from an incurable disease so much that living on is not in their interest. (...) The first condition frees the family from the burden of having to raise a severely disabled child - if it wants to be freed from it. The second condition ensures that a child has the same right to life as all of us, but cannot be forced, as is currently the case, to continue living a miserable life" (p.252).

This position may be reduced to the following denominator: 1. Every human being has a right to life from birth, but no duty to live. (Sometimes life is tragically connected with such torments that it would be unethical to be forced to maintain it.) 2. Sick and disabled people should be supported by all means - illness and disabilities, however, should not! I do not consider this differentiation to be "hostile to people with disabilities"; on the contrary, it is "friendly to people with disabilities". I say this not only as a philosophical theorist, but also consciously in the light of my own practical experience: A few years ago I intensively cooperated with the "Förderverein für Familien mit chronisch ill und schwerstbehinderten Kindern" (Association for the Promotion of Families with Chronically Ill and Disabled Children). That's how I know the burden on these families. Society all too often leaves them to their own devices - a status quo that cannot be accepted under any circumstances as Peter Singer rightly pointed out. (However exotic it may sound: In my opinion, the associations for the disabled would be well advised not to perceive Singer as an "opponent", but rather as a "potential ally" in the struggle for more humane living conditions.)

"One of the clearest and most compassionate thinkers of our time"

In order to do philosopher and person Peter Singer justice, one should see his statements on euthanasia in the context of his other publications. For example, read his book "The Life You Can Safe" (published in 2010), in which he explores ways to eradicate absolute poverty, or "How Are We to Live?", a book that presents ethical alternatives to the "egoism of our time" (published in 1999). To those who seriously believe they must discredit a left-liberal Jewish scholar (who lost three of his grandparents in German concentration camps!) using Nazi comparisons, I strongly recommend Singer's book "Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna" (published in 2003). In this context, I now seriously ask myself: What is the actual reason why Peter Singer was and is so severely attacked here in Germany of all places? Is it really because we have learned more from the horrors of National Socialism than the rest of the world - or is it perhaps that we in particular have still learnt far too little from it in crucial points?

As someone who has read all of Singer's books in his professional life, I stick to the statement I made in the gbs press release published on May 13, 2011: I consider Peter Singer to be "one of the clearest and at the same time most compassionate thinkers of our time" (even if I do not agree with all his positions). His respect for life goes so far that for decades he has been living vegan and donating a large part of his income to charity. Do you really believe that such a man, of all people, who dedicates his entire life (like hardly any other philosopher in the world!) to the weakest of the weak, is "agitating against the disabled"? Do you really believe that it could be justified in any way to put him on the same level as fascists?

Reading Singer's books is the best method to review such prejudices. Whoever considers this too laborious should (at least!) take a look at the following video documentaries:

ABC broadcast "Talking Heads" with Peter Singer (2007, 3 YouTube videos):

A Good Life: According to Peter Singer (2009, 3 YouTube videos):


Addendum from May 28, 2011:

Yesterday it became once again clear how frivolously defamatory campaigns are produced in this country: On May 27, a podcast was published in which the gbs, in particular its spokesman, was accused of "anti-Semitic tendencies". Michael Schmidt-Salomon (who - under reversed circumstances - was also suspected of being a Jewish Mossad agent) has also written a statement on these grotesque accusations, see below: