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Schmidt-Salomon Cancels Laudatory Speech for Peter Singer

Singer interview in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung causes irritation


M. Schmidt-Salomon, Photo: Andreas Schütt

Michael Schmidt-Salomon, philosopher and spokesman of the Giordano Bruno Stiftung, cancelled his participation in the award ceremony for the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. This is because of a recent interview with Singer, published yesterday by Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ): "In this interview, Peter Singer represented positions which, in my opinion, not only contradict a humanistic-emancipatory understanding of politics, but also contradict his earlier positions," Schmidt-Salomon said. "In this situation, I have to stop things short, because I cannot give a laudation to a prizewinner when I can't judge which positions he actually holds."

Michael Schmidt-Salomon emphasised in his statement that "Peter Singer stimulated the ethical debate on animal rights, anti-discrimination, the fight against absolute poverty, abortion, and euthanasia like few other philosophers in the world". His impulses for a contemporary ethical debate are indispensable, but his current statements are incomprehensible, if not irresponsible: "If Peter Singer actually represents the views expressed in the current NZZ interview, his arguments must decisively be criticised not only on a philosophical but also on a political level."

In the interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Peter Singer explained that birth "does not mark any clear border" and that "other factors" are decisive, such as "whether the child feels pain or develops self-confidence". A "premature baby aged 23 weeks" has "no other moral status than a child aged 25 weeks in the uterus". The NZZ summarised this - without objection from Singer - with the words: "You don't think a newborn baby is more worthy of protection than an embryo".

Schmidt-Salomon pointed out in this context that Peter Singer had accepted the argument of the German philosopher Norbert Hoerster in the 1993 edition of the book "Should this Baby Live?" that only birth is "visible and self-evident enough as a boundary to mark a socially recognised right to life" (p. 251, German edition). Singer confirmed at the time that it is problematic to determine a person's legal status on the basis of 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 decrease" (p. 251 f.).

Right to life for all, duty to life for no one

When Peter Singer together with Paola Cavalieri received the Giordano Bruno Stiftung's Ethics Prize in 2011, he had given the impression that he could agree with the gbs positioning on this issue, Schmidt-Salomon explained. "Our position can be reduced to a simple denominator: 'Right to life for all, duty to life for no one!' Of course, every human being, whether disabled or not, should have an inviolable right to live from the moment of birth, but they should not be forced to continue living if this is not in their own interest. This is a clear, unambiguous position, for which there is also great support among the general public! Therefore it is completely incomprehensible to me why Peter Singer attacks the right to life from the moment of birth so abruptly! If he had meant that infants are not yet persons in an empirical sense, because they do not yet have an awareness of themselves and cannot anticipate the future, he should have expressed this exactly in this way - specifically combined with the hint that we should nonetheless treat all infants from birth as legal persons in the normative sense, because an abolition of the human right to life, even if it would only refer to the first four weeks, would be linked to catastrophic social consequences!"

Schmidt-Salomon described Peter Singer's answer to the following NZZ question as "no less disturbing": "Would you go so far as to torture a baby if it provided lasting happiness for all humankind?", Singer had replied: "I might not be able to do this because I want to protect children from harm by my evolutionary nature. But it would be right. Because if I didn't, thousands of children would be tortured in the future."

"That sounds as if Peter Singer wanted to put another human right up for discussion, i.e. protection against torture," Schmidt-Salomon explained. "Even if Peter Singer did not intend this, such an answer from the lips of a renowned ethicist is irresponsible. Moreover, one might expect him to attack the false premises of the question. After all, by any stretch of the imagination, it is inconceivable that the torture of a baby could help humankind achieve lasting happiness. But if you start from the wrong alternatives, the choice between them can hardly be right."

The overemphasis of the collective

Behind the radicalism expressed in the NZZ interview - in contrast to the interview Peter Singer gave to the FAZ in 2011, for example - Schmidt-Salomon suspects Singer's "renunciation of preference-utilitarianist positions," which he once advocated: "The focus of Singer's approach used to be the 'interests of individuals' - not the 'benefits of society'. I have the impression that this changed in recent years. Singer's argumentation increasingly targets the greatest possible benefit within an abstract overall system. Individuals no longer appear in his system of thought as unique living beings with their own interests, but as anonymous containers for quantifiable feelings of well-being or unwellness, which are weighed against each other. As much as I can understand Peter Singer's call for the overcoming of egoism in the face of crushing injustice and poverty in large parts of the world, I find it highly problematic both ethically and politically if the demands of the collective are placed above the interests of the individual to such an extent."

The "structural overemphasis of the collective" is also visible in Peter Singer's answer to the NZZ question on euthanasia, Schmidt-Salomon said. In response to interviewer Nina Streeck's objection that the further availability of euthanasia "could put pressure on old people to take their own lives," Singer replied: "That can happen. If someone feels like a burden to their family, it is not necessarily unreasonable for them to end their lives. If their quality of life is rather poor and they see their daughter spending lots of time taking care of them, neglecting their careers, then it's reasonable not to want to burden them any further."

"I would have expected Peter Singer to give a very different answer," Schmidt-Salomon said. "First, in no society that has legitimised euthanasia is there any increased pressure on the elderly to kill themselves. Secondly, if such pressure were to develop, we would have to do everything in our power to counter it. Because every activist who advocates 'humane dying' fights for the right of the individual to die a self-determined death - certainly not under the obligation to die in favour of a collective benefit! Yet Singer's concluding remark on euthanasia aims precisely in this direction.

With regard to the quality of life of elderly or sick people, Peter Singer seriously asks how much a society should pay 'to improve the quality of life of citizens, if it could improve the lives of people in poor countries much more with the same amount of money'. With this statement, Singer not only gives the fatal impression that old people should commit suicide for ethical reasons before they become a burden to others. It directly calls for the abandonment of our solidarity with those in need within our society because it is the only way we can fulfil our ethical obligations to starving and disenfranchised people in developing countries. I think this view is not only politically and economically wrong, but also ethically unacceptable."

No disruption of solidarity with people in need in our society

In this context, Schmidt-Salomon recalled an interview he gave to the Humanistischer Pressedienst (Humanistic Press Service) a week and a half ago. In this interview, he remarked that it could not be the intention of the "effective altruism" propagated by Peter Singer to cancel the solidarity with the people in need in our society in order to save more people in need in other parts of the world. It is downright absurd to pit one against the other, since the subsidies would not come from the same pot of money and the financial resources would by no means disappear from the world after their use, but would merely end up with other market participants who could use them again - not least for altruistic purposes.

Schmidt-Salomon said that after reading the NZZ interview he unfortunately had to reconsider his assertion made in the same hpd interview that Peter Singer's position was not "hostile to the disabled", but even "friendly to the disabled". By calling for the necessary resources to improve living conditions in the Third World to be drawn from the scarce resources available to support old, sick, and disabled people, Peter Singer legitimises a disruption of solidarity with those members of society who need our help most urgently. This is further backed by an inadmissible negative assessment of the quality of life of sick and disabled people. In the past, I sympathetically assumed that Peter Singer was referring to a few extreme cases in this context. But if he apparently even questions the quality of life of people with Down's syndrome and suggests in NZZ that they could only be 'fairly happy' (experience shows, however, that on average they are happier than people without trisomy 21!), I can no longer defend him in this regard either. I used to follow the good, old hermeneutic rule 'when in doubt, for the author', but in the meantime, my doubts about doubt have grown so much that I can no longer support Singer's positions in this regard, even with the most benevolent consideration."

The impunity of abortion

Schmidt-Salomon did not revise his criticism of those leftists who attacked Peter Singer for his distinction between personal and non-personal life: "Anyone who assumes that a woman should have the right to have an abortion cannot forego this differentiation! Some leftists seem to think that the slogan 'My body belongs to me' is sufficient to legitimise the impunity of abortion, but that is definitely not true. After all, if the embryo/fetus was indeed an independent legal person, it would have an inviolable right to life like any other human being. This would not be affected by the fact that this legal entity exists in the body of another legal entity. So 'My body belongs to me' can only legitimately be said if one assumes that there is no other person in that body who has a legal right to life of his own". This, however, can only be justified philosophically on the basis of Singer's argument that the personal interests of the mother are much more important in an ethical property assessment than the non-personal "interests" of the embryo/fetus (which, of course, applies in particular to the early stages of development in which embryos have no sentience whatsoever and thus no interests that could be taken into account ethically).

A call for rational debate

Schmidt-Salomon stated that he very much regretted having to cancel his participation in the award ceremony at the Urania Berlin at such short notice because, on the one hand, the reduction of animal suffering is an important goal of contemporary ethics and, on the other hand, he owes much to Peter Singer's works in his own development as a philosopher: "In recent years I repeatedly campaigned to defend Peter Singer against unjustified criticism. However, his interview yesterday in Neue Zürcher Zeitung revealed differences that are much larger than I assumed. Precisely because the interviewer's questions were so offensive, this conversation offered a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate old, sick, disabled, needy people (and their supporters) here in Germany that a well-understood utilitarian philosophy does not result in worsening their living conditions. Instead, this interview has given reason for even greater concern. I still hope that the disturbing statements in the NZZ conversation are due to language barriers or clumsiness with the media, but at this point I cannot guarantee that Peter does not actually mean what he said there. As long as these issues have not been clarified, I find myself unable to give a laudation to Peter Singer, however much I would have liked to have done so in view of his outstanding importance as a philosopher."

Schmidt-Salomon combined his cancellation to the organisers with a request to the anti-Singer protesters: "Please protest peacefully and do not cover Peter Singer with Nazi comparisons, which in his case are not only completely inappropriate, but also absolutely distasteful! In fact, there are very few people on this planet who have tried as honestly and successfully as Peter Singer to follow the great ideal of ethics, reduce suffering and increase joy. I'm afraid he's gone the wrong way, but that's no reason to start a witch-hunt on him!"

In this context, the gbs spokesman recalled a proposal made by the Giordano Bruno Stiftung four years ago in the course of the Singer debates: "We proposed a conference where disabled and non-disabled people, Singer critics and advocates, philosophers, biologists, sociologists, remedial pedagogues, politicians, and interested non-professionals discuss the urgent questions of bioethics with each other. I think the events of recent weeks have clearly shown that such a conference is still urgently needed."


Shortly after Michael Schmidt-Salomon's cancellation of the laudatory speech, the philosophy festival "" cancelled a previously announced lecture by Peter Singer from the programme. The "" officials used Schmidt-Salomon's reasoning that Singer's positions contradicted a "humanistic-emancipatory understanding of politics" (or "self-conception"), which gave the impression that Schmidt-Salomon agreed with the cancellation on Singer. But that is out of question! On the contrary, the gbs spokesman criticised the cancellation on Singer in several statements as a "serious mistake". To silence critical thinkerscontradicts the Enlightenment's culture of dispute. Due to the content-related differences in May, Schmidt-Salomon himself was no longer able to give an "eulogy" to Peter Singer, but would be happy to discuss this with the Australian philosopher at any time - especially those positions of Singer that he regards as particularly critical.