Bioethics, Free Speech, Philosophy, Top Stories

Peter Singer and the Narrowing of Discourse

You might expect a row between a moral philosopher and a casino company to involve the former lecturing the latter on the ethics of profiting from gambling. But it is Peter Singer, sometimes called “the world’s most influential living philosopher,” who finds himself rebuked by SkyCity, New Zealand’s biggest promoter of poker machines. Singer had been booked to speak at a SkyCity venue as part of a ThinkInc tour to raise money for his charity The Life You Can Save, which seeks to reduce global poverty. But then an article appeared on New Zealand webzine Newshub reminding readers of Singer’s longstanding views on infanticide. “New Zealand’s disabled community is outraged a controversial Australian philosopher who justifies infanticide is being allowed to speak here,” Newshub reported. “Peter Singer, who’s been described as the most dangerous man in the world, has argued it’s ethical to give parents the option to euthanise babies with disabilities.”

The report went on to compare Singer to ethnonationalists. This “wouldn’t be the first time a controversial speaker had been barred,” the site reported. “After public outcry alt-right activists Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern had their event cancelled in 2018 over ‘security and health and safety concerns.’” SkyCity responded by cancelling the venue hire agreement. According to the New Zealand Herald, the company feared “reputational damage.” A statement further explained that, “Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

Whatever one thinks of Peter Singer’s philosophy, the idea that he is in any way comparable to Molyneux or Southern is a calumny. Singer is currently professor of bioethics at Princeton University, where he works in the Center for Human Values, and a laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. In 2005, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In 2012, he was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia for “eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare, and the human condition.” Singer has written dozens of books on philosophy, some of which have been highly influential. His 1975 bestseller Animal Liberation has had a profound impact on the animal rights movement. His 2009 book The Life You Can Save and 2015’s The Most Good You Can Do have been important in advancing the cause of the growing effective altruism movement. The former, which explored our moral responsibility to alleviate poverty with charitable giving, was endorsed by Bill and Melinda Gates in these glowing terms:

Peter Singer challenges every one of us to do more, to be smarter about the ways we go about giving, and shows us that, working together, we can make a profound difference in the lives of the world’s poorest.

It is hardly surprising given the breadth of Singer’s interests, the rigour with which he pursues the logic of utilitarianism, and the hair-trigger sensitivity of our cultural moment, that some of his ideas remain highly controversial. Consequentialist thinking makes many people uneasy, since the pursuit of desirable ends can be used to justify repugnant means, and Singer has been unafraid to explore some of the most taboo areas of bioethics, of which infanticide is perhaps the most emotive.

Confronted with the prospect of moral condemnation, SkyCity may simply have taken a pragmatic decision to terminate the event in order to avoid an ugly scandal. If that’s the case, then their pieties about “diversity and inclusivity” are simply a cynical attempt to turn adversity to advantage. Alternatively, it is possible that SkyCity’s corporate social responsibility group were hitherto unaware of Singer’s views and so appalled when they learned of them that they felt morally bound to deplatform him, even though he’d been invited to speak on an unrelated topic.

Companies like these, after all, do not exist to defend the holders of uncomfortable ideas. They are primarily concerned with remaining attractive to customers, suppliers, politicians, and anyone else who might potentially affect their business. Brand protection requires constant vigilance. Eric Crampton, a New Zealand commentator, speculates that SkyCity cancelled Peter Singer’s appearance because they “fear the ill-will” of the gambling regulator. If so, then a gambling company has prevented a professor of ethics from delivering a speech about the importance of charity because it feared scrutiny from its regulator. This bizarre state of affairs does not bode well for public debate in Auckland, given that SkyCity will soon run the city’s new convention centre.

Of course, there will doubtless be some backlash from Singer’s supporters and disinterested defenders of free inquiry, but SkyCity seems to have calculated (and they are almost certainly correct) that they can weather that particular storm more easily. But while it may be understandable that the company opted for the path of least resistance in our feverish cultural climate, it is also deeply regrettable.

I am personally unpersuaded by Singer’s defence of infanticide, but we’re in trouble if scholars of his seriousness and stature have their speaking invitations rescinded on account of moral outrage ginned up in the press. In the Newshub report that first raised concerns about Singer’s Auckland appearance, disability rights advocate and multiple sclerosis sufferer Dr Huhana Hickey explained that Singer “has every right to freedom of speech, [SkyCity] have every right to host him. I have every right to protest and to counter his speech around disability.” Unfortunately, in both the real and the virtual worlds, “You have a right to speak and I have a right to disagree” has been superseded by “Your opinions are unacceptable and you must be shunned.”

Thanks to social media and the blogosphere, a small but vociferous group of ideological or vindictive individuals can have a wildly disproportionate effect in the public square. This can cause their target great personal distress, reputational harm, and the consequent forfeiture of employment opportunities and income. In an environment characterised by superficial judgments, rigid sanctimony, and guilt by association, anyone on the target’s periphery risks becoming collateral damage. That includes venue owners who extend invitations to controversial speakers.

It is inevitable that writers and thinkers and those who offer them platforms will respond by becoming more risk averse. The implications of this narrowing of discourse for public debate and the exploration of ideas are dire, and reflect a growing surrender to intolerance at the expense of rational discussion and analysis. Of course, in some quarters, this is viewed as an entirely positive development. What’s wrong, they ask, with silencing those who defend the killing of infants? But this is exactly the sort of fanatical thinking that suppresses debate—you either agree with me or you’re morally repulsive. Setting aside the axiomatic value of free speech in a liberal democracy, there is also the practical difficulty of who gets to decide what the rest of us are allowed to hear. In a free and pluralist society, the answer can’t possibly be self-appointed Twitter mobs.


Ross Stitt is a freelance writer. He has a doctorate in political science from the University of Sydney. You can follow him on Twitter @ross_stitt

Featured Image: Peter Singer at the Effective Altruism Global conference in Melbourne August 15th, 2015 (Mal Vickers, Flickr)


  1. Funny combination of ideologies: for infanticide and against animal-species/cide, the sanctity of life valid for all species, except the human one. Very funny indeed.

    EDIT: after reading @Ella-B the below comments, yes, maybe I better have changed that " funny combination" into a “strange” one, or again better, into intriguing, discomforting (and that, of course, is exactly what the purpose is of an ethic/culture philosopher like Singer).

  2. I would encourage you to give Singer’s writings a second chance. He makes clear and consistent moral arguments that follow from his commitment to Utilitarian ethics, and has done a great deal to reduce the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world. Singer’s views on infanticide are far more nuanced than most of his critics recognize. He thinks that parents of newborns with severe birth defects should be given the option of ending their lives painlessly if their condition will (1) cause them to die prematurely after months or years of pain or (2) permanently prevent them from interacting in a meaningful way with other people. You may not agree with his conclusion, but I hardly think he’s a monster for considering this difficult question. A friend of mine works at a group home for adults with severe cognitive disabilities. Several of them lack the mental capacity to feed themselves, use the bathroom independently, or communicate in any way. One doesn’t need to be a Nazi to ask whether their interests are served in keeping them alive for decade after decade, especially when they’ve been completely abandoned by their family members.

    In case anyone is interested in Singer’s actual views on the issue of infanticide, this article provides a good summary:

  3. If someone told me 50 years ago the governor of a major state in the USA would propose infanticide, setting a newly born baby aside while the mother and doctor decided whether to let it live, I would not have thought it possible. With this in mind I find it ironic that this topic is banned due to outrage when I see the possibility that some political party might actually adopt it as a policy in years or decades to come. If it were adopted, would those opposing it find their speech blocked?

  4. A school friend of my son had a profoundly disabled brother (cerebral palsy) that occurred as a result of his mother being hit by another driver when she was almost full term.
    I have seen the overwhelming commitment, destruction & pain suffered by that family that was told from the day their child was born he would not survive long. Their lives revolved 24/7 around the child’s needs, hospitals & they were totally reliant on respite care. At least once a month the child was in hospital on his death bed. He was in great pain every day of his life, in a wheel chair & could barely move just his head. His siblings were severely affected mental health wise as were the parents many years on to this day from this experience. The child lived till he was 10. I was there when he was buried & I saw the utter despair at their loss & relief that their child’s suffering had finally ended.
    Apart from the physical pain suffered by such individuals they must also suffer intense emotional pain too. Being virtually institutionalised is no life for a child. Not taking anything away from care workers, they are spectacular humans but it’s not the same as having a loving family 24/7.

    Do you think it’s “funny” or ‘inhumane’ to expect a child & their family to not endure this level of suffering? What do you think it does to a human to see their child die a long slow painful death for years? How do you think that child felt?
    And have you lived your ‘sanctity’ rules or are they only for others?

  5. I remember when Peter Singer came to Princeton. I was an undergraduate, maybe a sophomore or Junior then. It was very interesting, and an example of a very different time.

    People were, of course, somewhat reductionist about his views, and took offense. We had many people in front of Nassau Hall, for about a week, in wheelchairs and on crutches, shouting and screaming and waving placards. One person prayed in front of Nassau Hall for 6 months.

    I took a look at his views, thought them interesting, as a student majoring in molecular biology, and thought about them. Others did too.

    What really makes this remarkable, and an example of a different time, was what the students did in reaction to the protests. Many of us were buttonholed by angry people waving pamphlets and telling us that we had a horror on campus. How could we support this? The response was generally along the lines of, " that’s interesting, I’m going to take a look at his views and decide on my own. Thank you for talking to me." I was not alone in my thinking, and the protests quickly petered out when they realize they were not going to get Mass support from the students.

    I don’t think that you could have this kind of response from any student body nowadays, even Princeton. You might be able to get it on University of Chicago’s campus, but even there it might be difficult. While heterodox Academy rated Princeton the best of the Ivies, it is not what it used to be. No University or college is, anymore. I miss the commitment to intellectual rigor that I remember from my college days.

  6. I know the context what was said, I also know few critics used the word “Execute”, and lastly Snopes is not a valid fact checker.

  7. Simulacrum of verbalization, primarily intended to convey spoken emphasis. Sometimes offered to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. At least, so I’ve heard, anyway. :wink:

  8. I am unaware of the legal protections for Freedom of Expression in New Zealand. In the U.S. the First Amendment would not be implicated unless the prohibition against Mr. Singer speaking is being imposed by a state or governmental entity. So under U.S. codified law and courts precedents no fundamental right of Mr. Singer has been implicated let alone violated.

    The issue of whether or not Mr. Singer is a monster or whether Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern are reprobates is beside the point. The question is if Singer, Molyneux or Southern are truly horrible persons wouldn’t their adversaries want that fact exposed? And what better way to expose any character deficiencies than by the words from their mouths? When vile speakers are permitted to speak it prevents them from later claiming they were misquoted. The U.S. is beginning another presidential election. Wouldn’t the opponents of one candidate want all the gaffes and wicked statements of that candidate aired? Wouldn’t those same opponents cry scandal if those gaffes and wicked statements were suppressed or kept from the public? How can one honestly claim Singer, Molyneux or Southern are villains if those persons are not allowed to express themselves? The questions for anyone seeking suppress the speech of another are: 1. What are you afraid of? 2. Why should I allow your insecurities to make me less informed? This thread is full of claims about what Singer’s positions are and are not. Why should I or anyone else be deprived of hearing those positions from Peter Singer?

  9. Well, I have a little time, so let’s give a brief overview to the subject of pain, which I happen to have done research on.

    1. Pain is very weird. This is partly because it is a function of the central nervous system, functions through the emotional centers as well as somatosensory centers, and is not actually always related to the seriousness of an injury.

    2. It may be distinguished from what the peripheral nervous system does, which is called nociception, the perception of noxious stimuli. These stimuli may be ignored by the brain or even recorded as pleasant, see bdsm for more information. A peripheral neuron may sense noxious heat, cold, physical force, and so on, but when it sends its information to the central nervous system, it may be either ignored by the gating system in the spine, which compares levels of pleasant vs noxious stimuli and decides whether or not to let the sensation through, or be passed on to the brain.

    3. Pain, which is what the brain generates from either noxious stimuli or no stimuli at all, requires a lot of processing power. Beings that do not experience emotions likely cannot feel pain. Beings with a tiny nervous system, like flies, mosquitoes, slugs, etc, don’t feel pain.

    4. Not feeling pain does not mean that beings do not react to noxious stimuli, often via hardwired escape or defense behaviors. This can be handled even by a very primitive brain like the fly’s. (Flies can fly and do various other behaviors easily while decapitated, though eating and visual mate recognition is not a thing. ) I do not know much about cod brains, but I doubt, despite activism, their sentience. They do have structures thought to be analogous to a limbic system, but whether they feel emotion or not as we do is hard to say. They remember noxious stimuli and can avoid them, but so can flies.

    5. Any species that has a cerebral cortex should be able to suffer pain, though this can be mediated in various ways, and may be a little different depending on the species. It’s hard to tell.

  10. Snopes and BabylonBee are both satire, BabylonBee is just honest about it.

  11. Half-truths dominate political discussion, and Snopes adds to, rather than fixing, the problem.

    A half-truth told by a Democrat is simply “true”. One told by a Republican is “mostly false”.

    They also editorialize - a lot - often getting quite far away from the original subject material, all to promote their partisanship.

    Then there’s the selection of which statements to “fact-check” in the first place. When people accused high school kids of racist blackface, did Snopes fact-check the claim of racism? Nope! They fact-checked the color!

  12. A particularly prevalent form of logical fallacy these days is the absurd appeal to vagueness itself as though it is an argument in favor of the speaker’s position. It’s a form of the “if the facts are on your side, pound the facts; if the facts aren’t on your side, pound the table” tactic.

    When confronted with an argument he cannot rebut, the dishonest speaker attacks his opponent for being “too black-and-white” and failing to appreciate that the world has “shades of grey!” This does not rebut any of his opponent’s points, nor does it offer any argument in favor of the speaker’s position. It is, rather, the height of solipsism - the belief that disliked facts and arguments should not be allowed to exist.

    The flaw in this tactic is easy to see: If there is indeed a nuance in the opposing argument that renders it invalid, the speaker must actually identify it. To simply allude, abstractly to its existence in a drive-by smear and then exit the conversation is not to win the argument, it is to throw a temper tantrum.

    Unless you can explain what the “shades of grey” are and why they undermine the opposing argument, you are not making a rational counter-argument. You are whining that you lost.

    You, @K_Dershem, do not “own” the concepts of complexity, nuance, or “shades of grey”. You do not get to appeal to vagueness itself as though it’s an argument in favor of your beliefs. Nor do you get to shoot the messenger and hope he goes away.

    You are no doubt used to such tactics meeting with approval in the left-wing blogosphere. But not here.

  13. Deep.

    Lemme put it this way, Bernie criticized open borders a couple of years back. Fact check mostly true.

    Trump says the same thing, almost word for word. Mostly false.

    Hell, I see liberals calling it out, it’s so blatant. If you’re paying attention.

  14. I believe you’ve hit on something there, Kyle.

    Perhaps it may be seen as a corollary to what Trevor has referred to as “Quillette’s law”

    Economic Inequality—Populism’s Rallying Cry

    Personally, I prefer to think of it as “Trevor’s theorem,” and propose that your very astute observation that

    be referred to as “Kyle’s postulate.”

  15. What exactly is the point in a “Fact Checking” site that is so unreliable that every article must be evaluated independently?

    At that point, it’s just an editorial column.

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