Under pressure from the benighted, Rhodes College refuses to disinvite Peter Singer but issues a “free speech but. . . ” statement

December 1, 2021 • 9:15 am

There are two main parties to this story (besides Rhodes College itself): Peter Singer, the famous ethical philosopher at Princeton, and Rebecca Tuvel, associate professor and Chair of Philosophy at Rhodes College. We’ve encountered them both before as parties to attempted cancellations.

Backstory: Singer got into big trouble when he proposed that under extreme circumstances it might be not only permissible but morally justifiable to euthanize newborns. Here’s what I wrote in July of 2017:

The question of whether one should be able to euthanize newborns who have horrible conditions or deformities, or are doomed to a life that cannot by any reasonable standards afford happiness, has sparked heated debate.  Philosopher Peter Singer has argued that euthanasia is the merciful action in such cases, and I agree with him. If you are allowed to abort a fetus that has a severe genetic defect, microcephaly, spina bifida, or so on, then why aren’t you able to euthanize that same fetus just after it’s born?  I see no substantive difference that would make the former act moral and the latter immoral. After all, newborn babies aren’t aware of death, aren’t nearly as sentient as an older child or adult, and have no rational faculties to make judgments (and if there’s severe mental disability, would never develop such faculties). It makes little sense to keep alive a suffering child who is doomed to die or suffer life in a vegetative or horribly painful state. After all, doctors and parents face no legal penalty for simply withdrawing care from such newborns, like turning off a respirator, but Singer suggests that we should be allowed, with the parents’ and doctors’ consent, to painlessly end their life with an injection. I agree.

Note that both Singer and I restrict this action to newborns who are doomed to die soon, probably painfully, or will live without any prospect of a meaningful or sentient existence. It was not meant to apply to disabled people who could live reasonably or happily (e.g. children with Down Syndrome or cerebral palsy), but only for extreme cases. But it didn’t matter. Disabled people demonized Singer, saying that his views cancelled or dehumanized all disabled people, and would put us on a slippery slope to euthanizing any unwanted child. This was not the case we were making, and of course we’d both put strictures in place: parents as well as several doctors would have to consent, and so on.

I wrote this in 2020, when Singer had been deplatformed in New Zealand, Germany, and Canada for his “inhumane” stand on euthanizing doomed infants:

It seems to me that an enlightened philosophy would allow people to be able to end their lives in a humane way if they’ve undergone proper medical and psychiatric vetting. Some form of this “assisted suicide” is already legal in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Colombia, Switzerland, Victoria in Australia, and and in some states of the U.S. (California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, and—by court order—in Montana).

I further believe—and I’ve gotten into trouble for this—that we should also allow newborns afflicted with incurable conditions—conditions from which they will suffer and die young—to be euthanized humanely. The conditions under which I think this is not only allowable, but ethical, were first laid out in this post of mine.  I was aware at the time that philosopher Peter Singer had agreed with and defended this view, but I can’t remember whether I arrived at it independently or read it in some of his writings. No matter, for it’s a view that people need to consider, and of course Singer has defended this view far more extensively and ably than I.

For his views, Singer has undergone considerable pushback, and has been not only deplatformed, but subject to calls for his resignation from Princeton (he splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne). I, too, was subject to a surprising amount of publicity, nearly all negative, for my one website post about this. On her own website Heather’s Homilies, Heather Hastie defended my views, summarizing and answering some of the pushback I got (thanks, Heather!),  I also wrote about the surprising opposition to my views here and here.

See also Russell Blackford’s defense of Singer here.  I have to say that this topic elicited a fair number of very nasty emails and comments, with people accusing me of wanting to kill babies of all kinds. Since a newborn cannot make a decision for itself, someone has to step in—especially in the case of impending death—and I think Singer, a deeply humane and moral man—made the right call.

Now for Rebecca Tuvel. She’s a woman of extraordinary courage, which she demonstrated in the Hypatia transracialism controversy, in which she published a paper in that journal questioning whether there was a meaningful difference in seeing yourself as a member of another sex or seeing yourself as a member of a different race (Caitlan Jenner exemplifies the former; Rachel Dolezal the latter). For reasons that defy me, this was regarded as a taboo question (I see it as very meaningful), and Tuvel was attacked. There were calls for her to be fired, for the journal to retract the article, and Hypatia even apologized. But Tuvel didn’t back down, and the article still stands (you might want to read Tuvel’s piece, “In defense of transracialism“).

These two academics intersected in September when a group of philosophers, including Tuvel, invited Singer to be part of a panel at Rhodes College. The topic was “Pandemic Ethics”. Note that this had nothing to do with euthanizing infants. (That reminds me of Dorian Abbot’s cancellation at MIT not because he was talking about a verboten area, but because he had criticized DEI initiatives on his own, and privately, before his scheduled talk.)

But that didn’t stop the faculty and students at Rhodes College from calling for Singer’s disinvitation, and indeed, Rhodes College itself issued a “free speech but. . . ” statement defending Singer’s right to speak but deploring much of what he said previously.

The fracas is described in two pieces, which you can see in the screenshots below.

From The Daily Nous, a philosophy site:

From Inside Higher Ed:

Three incidents are of special interest.

The faculty objects and urges Singer to be disinvited (from Inside Higher Ed):

Faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program sent out an email to the college community that said, in part:

We, the faculty in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology and the Africana Studies Program, wish to express our deepest dismay at the invitation of Professor Peter Singer to our campus. We believe that proceeding with this event as currently structured could further alienate students, faculty, and staff, particularly after the unresolved racist “incident” [story here] against African Americans that occurred in early September. 

Professor Singer’s longstanding advancement of philosophical arguments that presume the inferiority of many disabled lives is dehumanizing and dangerous. The creation of a hierarchy of lives as a justification for the allocation or denial of limited resources (whether “pleasure,” medical care, insurance, etc.) is a logic that has a long and violent history. It is a logic that underlies eugenicist arguments marking various marginalized populations as unfit to be a part of the advancement of the human race…

Disability scholars have critiqued Singer’s body of work across a range of themes, and we encourage anyone who reads Singer to also read this rich scholarship. Salient among these themes for the purposes of a panel on pandemic ethics is the denial of some disabled people’s full humanity and the premise that certain disabled people have lives that are less worth living than “normal” people (with whom they might be competing for medical resources). Given that COVID is one of the most profound disability rights issues of our lifetimes, it would seem that any panel on pandemic ethics would include disability scholars (especially given their significant challenges to Singer’s credibility in this area). 

Rather than suggesting an alternative structure to the event such as the inclusion of one of the aforementioned disability scholars, though, the faculty instead says:

[W]e affirm our dedication to disability justice and urge the college to withdraw the invitation. We stand next to our students who are working hard to fight for their ideals of equality, fairness, and diversity, not as lip service, but as the basis of reflection and action. We cherish and advocate for freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not deny others their humanity. 

Note the erroneous characterization of Singer’s views as “denying some disabled people’s full humanity.”  That is simply hyperbole claiming that newborns doomed to suffer and die soon are “denied their humanity.” No, they are denied needless suffering. If your baby was born without a brain and would die within days, and was in great distress, would you be showing “full humanity” to let it suffer until it passes away?

These people either haven’t read Singer’s work or are signaling their virtue with or without understanding what Singer has to say.  I have had doctors and nurses write me privately by email saying that they’ve encountered situations like the one Singer envisions and absolutely agree that putting the infants out of their suffering is the right thing to do. I have had no medical professionals write me and say that they disagree with me. The letters I get are from people who are disabled but have meaningful lives, and accuse me, wrongly, of denying their humanity, or saying that I would have killed them had I had the say.

Some history faculty at Rhodes also sent out an email objecting to the event:

As historians, we the undersigned condemn Prof. Peter Singers’ abhorrent views that some humans have less value than others. We object to inviting him to Rhodes College to speak as part of a “Pandemics Ethics” panel. Positioning him as an expert on ethics only legitimizes his reprehensible beliefs that deny the very humanity of people with disabilities. Hypothetical philosophies on morality cause real violence. We historians are all too familiar with ideas that justify labeling marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations as “life unworthy of life,” and the murderous consequences for those deemed “unfit” to live. Adhering to the College’s own IDEAS Framework that seeks to foster “a sense of belonging” and embrace “the full range of psychological, physical, and social difference,” we historians assert that Prof. Peter Singers’ blatant inhumanity has no place in serious academic exchange here at Rhodes.  

“Positioning him as an expert on ethics?” Give me a break—he’s the world’s expert on practical ethics. Note as well that they play the race card, mentioning “marginalized, vulnerable, and minority populations.” That is what’s really reprehensible, as race plays no role in Singer’s views on this issue.

The university gives hedged support for Singer.  Rhodes College issued this statement (my bolding):

Yesterday a member of our faculty informed us of his profound disturbance caused by the invitation of Princeton University Prof. Peter Singer to speak on a Rhodes “Pandemic Ethics” virtual panel next week.

We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel. At the same time, our community’s values compel us to denounce some of the views he has expressed repeatedly over years through various addresses, writings, and media interviews.

Fundamentally, Rhodes College is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. These values extend to every member of our community, including individuals with disabilities. While we view the invitation to Peter Singer in light of our commitment to free and open dialogue at a liberal arts college, his views on disability are unequivocally antithetical to our institutional values of diversity, equity and inclusion. We reject and condemn in the most forceful manner possible any views that call into question the value and worth of all human life. It is within this context that we make the following affirmations:

    • We affirm our strong belief in an inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible community – as outlined in the College’s IDEAS framework – one in which the worth and dignity of all persons is championed and supported.
    • We affirm particular support for disabled members of our community who, justifiably, have expressed anger, outrage, and offense at some of Prof. Singer’s writings. Not only does Rhodes not tolerate discrimination on the basis of disability, the College also strongly believes that disabled people enrich our community by their presence on our campus. We affirm this while recognizing that we still have much work to do as an institution to support individuals with disabilities.

As an academic institution, we re-affirm our Statement on Diversity, which expresses our commitment to providing an “open learning environment,” where “freedom of thought, a healthy exchange of ideas, and an appreciation of diverse perspectives” are fundamental. It is this commitment to freedom of expression that allows academic departments to invite a variety of speakers to campus to enrich the educational experience of our students. Nevertheless, they should do so with responsibility, as well as with careful attention to our values as a diverse, equitable, and inclusive institution.

Note how weaselly this statement is. they should have just issued the first sentence in the second paragraph: “We are writing to acknowledge that our institution’s spirit of supporting expressive speech does not prohibit Professor Singer’s participation in this virtual panel.”  Period.  To affirm “institutional values” that many people doubtlessly disagree with is a view that chills speech.  First, they don’t understand what Singer has said, or willfully misconstrue it to get virtue points with disabled students. Second, people like me (and perhaps Tuvel) disagree with the “institutional values” that call for a doomed infant to suffer needlessly. But with that official position, which student or untenured faculty member would dare stand up to the Rhodes administration? If Rhodes adhered to Chicago’s Kalven Principles, it would not be making official statements on contestable and debatable moral issues.

Finally, although Rhodes pretends to favor free speech, they are giving succor to those people who don’t want free speech—who don’t want this fraught but ethically important subject to even be discussed.

The Rhodes Philosophy Department holds their ground. After that single faculty member (Charles Hughes, Director of the Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center at Rhodes College) objected to Singer’s appearance, the philosphers who organized the event this email to the College:

We write in response to one of our colleagues, who has publicly expressed concern about the Philosophy department’s invitation to Peter Singer—and he has every right to do so. The objection raised is apparently not to the topic, but to the speaker. We are of course aware that Professor Singer has advanced philosophical arguments on bioethical issues that many find not only disturbing but deeply offensive, a reaction by no means confined to members of the disabled community. Indeed, the organizers also take issue with some of Dr. Singer’s views.

Serious intellectual exchange about matters of significance cannot avoid sometimes causing anger, offense, and pain and no one should be cavalier about that fact. It is not clear to us, however, what follows from our colleague’s understandable expression of disturbance at some of Professor Singer’s views. Do those views disqualify Singer from participating in the exchange of ideas that ought to occur at a liberal arts college? If that is the conclusion, we respectfully disagree, for its premise is that ideas that cause anger and dismay ought not, for that reason, be part of the exchange and that premise, we think, is incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree. 

That is an excellent letter—civil but firm. Tuvel then offered to run a reading group on the issue:

I realize that now is not the time to get into the weeds of Singer’s utilitarian ethics. Should there be interest at some point down the line, I would be more than happy to organize a reading group and/or zoom event where myself and other members of the Philosophy department can clarify Singer’s views on these incredibly sensitive topics. At some point, I think our community would also benefit greatly from an event devoted to discussing these delicate matters. On pains of intellectual and moral failure, such an event would absolutely need to include experts in disability rights (such as Professor Charles Hughes), parents of children with disabilities, and relevant others…

The Daily Nous also has a letter from philosophy postdoc Eric Sampson clarifying Singer’s misunderstood views.

Here’s a video of the whole Singer event—a Zoom panel. In Turvel’s first question (3:03), Singer responds to the controversy, and does a great job.

Rhodes College needs to get with the program and stop truckling to the mob. Disinviting someone of the stature of Singer, who is talking about a subject unrelated to the other controversy, is a cowardly thing to do. The administrators of Rhodes are simply invertebrates.

41 thoughts on “Under pressure from the benighted, Rhodes College refuses to disinvite Peter Singer but issues a “free speech but. . . ” statement

  1. “Rhodes … strongly believes that disabled people enrich our community by their presence on our campus.”

    The problem with including stuff like that is that it gives the impression that Singer does not think that. These sorts of virtue-signalling policy statement nearly always pull that trick.

    For reasons that defy me, [Tuvel’s question] was regarded as a taboo question …

    The reason is that the question points very directly at a blatant inconsistency in the Woke position. And woke people are very bad at arguing, they can only yell and name-call, so that’s what they do. Ditto when Dawkins reiterated Tuvel’s question.

    1. Indeed, their deliberate misrepresentation of Singer’s views constitutes far greater violation of reasonable ethics than anything Singer has suggested, frankly. Would that Hitch were still here to respond to these moral idiots.

    2. Tuvel seems to be a real-life analog to the child who pointed out “the Emperor’s new clothes.” The questions she raised and explored are so obviously not crazy or racist or whatever. It’s mind-boggling to see the pretzel logic and contortionism practiced by the wokest of the woke.

  2. Anyone calling out Peter Singer as inhumane is clearly just speaking from ego/emotion and/or performing, and has no real understanding of his points and his arguments–or worse, they are pretending not to be familiar with them in order to score social points in some perverse game. The fact that there are professional academics involved in this does far more to make me question THEIR ethics than Singer’s.

    If people can’t understand nuance and complex discussions about complex situations, I wish they would just keep quiet. If they want to curtail anyone’s freedom to express themselves, they should start in their own heads.

  3. “If your baby was born without a brain and would die within days, and was in great distress, would you be showing “full humanity” to let it suffer until it passes away?”

    How is a baby born without a brain able to suffer and in distress?

    I can certainly imagine possibilities other than anencephaly where euthenasia might be warranted, but anencephaly doesn’t seem like a pertinent example to me.

    1. I had the same thought, although if outward signs of suffering were present, this could be distressing to the parents and parents’ distress might be a reason to offer euthanasia in such a case at any point the parents seem to want or need it.

    2. That’s a good question and deserves an answer. Many ethical questions like the trolley problem become harder to answer when you introduce real-life constraints such as, “How do you know the five workers on the track would surely die if you didn’t push the fat man off the bridge, condemning him to certain death?” Medical ethics problems are more like that — only rarely is the lifeboat so full you have toss somebody out. Usually you just buy a bigger lifeboat.

      Anencephaly is a condition where the higher, evolutionarily more modern portions of the brain and overlying skull and scalp do not develop — the cerebral hemispheres, essentially. The lower, more primitive brain structures necessary for basic respiration, control of blood pressure, digestion, and other autonomic function, and what are called brain-stem reflexes may be present. We are taught that such infants can make sounds and suckling efforts. They can respond with grimacing, eye movements, and aversive movements to such stimuli as suctioning their airways and can appear to be in discomfort because the face is present. That’s pretty much the behavioural repertoire of a healthy newborn in its first hours.

      Do you need to be sentient in order to suffer?

      It is impossible to know if the infant with anencephaly can perceive and suffer pain in the way that we ourselves do and in the way most believe intact infants and other mammals do. It is possible that they do not suffer, if it is true that suffering the complex experience of pain requires processing the sensory information at higher locations in the thalamus or cerebral cortex. But we really have no way of knowing in the individual infant. On the other hand, living (briefly) in an anencephalic state may not be inherently painful any more than newborn-ness itself is, except for medical procedures to prolong life. It may well be that the family and the nurses suffer more than the infant…a value judgment. False religious hope and “futility” are both corrosive to decision-making.

      To make this an “easy” ethical question, you have to posit an infant anatomically unable to ever become a sentient being, yet being in such severe intractable suffering that euthanasia is the only option to relieve that suffering, (and not just to accelerate the inevitable or appeal to the double effect). Agree that anencephaly doesn’t seem to fit the bill but paediatricians may differ. The difficulty is that the more likely the infant is thought to be suffering, the more likely it is to be a sentient being with a non-obvious prognosis and therefore an individual who must not be euthanized.

      I have never seen an infant with anencephaly but I have looked after patients with persistent vegetative states after cardiac arrest, near-drowning, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Anencephaly has become very rare in resource-abundant populations because of folic acid supplementation in pregnancy and because it is easily recognized on ultrasound.

      1. We do not know whether those infants are suffering but we do know that they will die within days. Given our absence of knowledge about pain, and the certainty of death, what, pray tell, is the point of keeping the infant alive. And there are plenty of invariably fatal conditions that certainly do cause suffering. You assume that the more “sentient” (which means “the ability to feel” [e.g., pain] an infant is, the more likely it is to have a happy and meaningful life. I don’t know where you get that statement from. Various chromosomal abnormalities, gross anatomical and developmental defects that don’t affect the brain: are you saying that these conditions, many of which are ALWAYS fatal, should be treated by “letting nature take its course”?

        1. Yes, I am saying that. The law won’t let me do anything else.

          First, I didn’t predict a happy and meaningful life, I just meant that if the child had enough brain to feel pain it would be harder to predict with certainty that it would die quickly from its brain defects alone. The case example was anencephaly. Other disorders would be considered in the unique human being who had them.

          I’m going to restrict my answer to the situation where the doctor, and the parents, and you agree that the prognosis is for death highly likely in some short period of time and minimal child developmental milestones during the period of life. In those cases the parents could simply decline to consent to any sort of medical treatment offered as a choice, including tube feeding (if the infant was unable to suck effectively.) The mum might want to suckle the infant for comfort of all, or might not want to bond; fine–her choice. Here there is no interpersonal conflict and the infant would die when it did. But I still caution that if sustained life was possible in principle, however unhappy and “meaningless”, the state would not want the doctor to be too quick to accede to the parents’ wish for no feeding. At the back of the parents’ mind has to be the anticipated burdens to them of caring for this severely crippled child. Hospital ethics boards often get involved with cases just like this, partly to protect the professionals from deep trouble with their regulators or the police. If the parents someday feel guilty about their decision to let their infant die, you know whom they are going to blame.

          The morality of hastening death deliberately in any malformed or damaged infant does not come up in practice because doing so would be first-degree murder in Canada. Even if the doomed infant was apparently suffering, our law does not allow clemency in sentencing if a murder was a mercy killing. It has punished those who have done it. For those not able to consent to euthanasia, allaying apparent pain as best we can is the best we can do. A doctor who could not square this with his own moral belief in mercy killing would be told he is in the wrong line of work. We’re called, but not conscripted. So I’m answering the question in your last sentence as “Yes.”…and not just because I didn’t want life in prison with no possibility of parole for 25 years.

          Since the law has made the decision for us, there is not a moral question here for doctors. The impetus for changing the law on killing does not come from doctors, certainly it didn’t in Canada, but instead from patient advocacy groups. FWIW, I think the legalization of euthanasia by a doctor for consenting patients was a good idea, but it wasn’t ours.

          The hard cases are those where there is disagreement between doctors and parents about what ought to be done: where the parents refuse treatment in circumstances where doctors advise it, and where the parents demand treatments in circumstances that the doctors say are “futile”. These cases often end up in Court and attract great attention from advocates for the disabled. While highly contentious, they rarely turn on the issues of deliberate mercy killing per se and so can be left for another day.

          And of course none of this attenuates the wrongness of Rhodes College’s cancelling Peter Singer just because he disagrees with me.

    3. “How is a baby born without a brain able to suffer and in distress?”

      In my years of family medicine (including obstetrics for twenty years) I was involved in the births of three anencephalic infants. They were either stillborn or died within a matter of hours. My observation is that those born alive “cry”, and that this is very distressing for the staff looking after them.

      Perhaps I am hypocritical in that I don’t want to be a provider of euthanasia, but I can certainly see Professor Singer’s point of view.

  4. The sad reality is that in their zeal to create a more diverse and just society, many universities are now doing the very opposite. Testing for purity and policing speech has created a structure whereby only the blessed few can be heard, and where the university mission turns to indoctrination rather than free engagement in the pursuit of knowledge. Solving the world’s problems requires minds that are not constrained by narrow ideologies. I worry that our universities are mortgaging the future to pursue today’s fashion.

  5. One would hope that their “community values” would lead them to support Singer more forthrightly. I, personally, am uncertain about euthanasia not for ethical reasons, but for issues historical and practical, like who decides.

    A bit of an aside, earlier this year I was watching the old TV series The Defenders, created based on an earlier teleplay and often written by Reginald Rose, author of Twelve Angry Men (the first season is on YouTube). I was very surprised that the first episode, “Quality of Mercy,” filmed in 1961, dealt explicitly with the mercy killing of a “mongoloid” child by a doctor soon after delivery. The story suggested that this was a common, though not publicized, practice.

    1. In the ‘good old days’ it was not uncommon to fail to feed an anencephalic (who usually could not suck anyway) or many other kinds of severely damaged newborns. Ethically indefensible, but still sometimes the right thing to do for pragmatic reasons, provided you are prepared to take on the burden of guilt.
      I have seen more than one severely damaged infant kept alive (but with no quality of life, and perhaps not even conscious) by heroic treatments from a childrens’ hospital that regarded them as a challenge to be overcome. Inevitably, the parents’ marriage dissolved after a couple of years of 24/7 care, no respite, no work for either outside the home, and any other children in the family effectively lost their parents as all attention was diverted away from them. That doesn’t factor in the financial cost of a situation that could not be salvaged, as the child’s fate was always going to be aspiration pneumonia repeatedly until it carried her off in a matter of months or a couple of years. It’s like deciding to fight a lost battle until the last soldier is dead, rather than surrendering. As I said, it is ethically indefensible to do otherwise, but maybe the days when physicians were not quite so squeamish about “playing god” were not all bad. The mental, physical and social health of the parents and siblings must be the casualties equivalent to the doomed soldiers in a lost battle, and to be pragmatic, ought to be weighed against whatever quality of the short life of the infant might have.

  6. Its not like this issue needs to be addressed through binary choices. That is to either actively euthanize (after robust discussion and consent), or let a doomed newborn suffer. There can be a palliative care approach where medications are used to prevent pain and suffering while nature takes its course.

    1. a. How do you know that you are palliating pain or distress completely?
      b. What is your justification for “letting nature take its course” for an infant who can’t make a decision.?Adults can make decisions like that, but what’s the point of letting death occur naturally when it’s inevitable. Do you think it’s immoral to euthanize a terminally deformed infant?

      1. It isn’t immoral to euthanize, in my opinion. But given the immovable opposition, and meanwhile infants are being born in a state where they might suffer, the palliative approach presents a resolution that would also be ethical.

  7. Consistent with the Chicago Principles (which I like more every time I consider them), I’d say the only really ‘egregious overstep” here is the College’s. The various department-level objections and responses may be a gray area (were they signed by individual professors? Are the departments truly in consensus? Were all the professors consulted?), while the individual philosopher’s objection is absolutely okay. Not that I agree with ‘cancelling’ Singer from the event, I don’t, but academic freedom is a two-way street, and if individual professors want to give their objections to a speaker or participant, well we should support their right to do so because that’s exactly the level we’ve been claiming objections should occur at.

    1. It doesn’t appear that any of their objections have been cancelled or censured. The issue here is that those objections completely mischaracterize and villify Singer’s positions. They aren’t making good faith arguments.

      1. Another reason not to publish objections at the department- or collegiate- level. If you mischaracterize Singer’s position, you’re an idiot. If we collectively mischaracterize Singer’s position, now you’ve made me an idiot too.

  8. Some of the administration and faculty at Rhodes College appear to be unclear on their primary mission of education. This is a sad development, unfortunately spreading throughout academia.

  9. I might be interested to take this opportunity to ask Dr C about Singer’s ethics?
    He is moralizing, which presumably is part of his job description. But I feel he sometimes comes across as heavy handed. For example he said in one interview in 2007 or 2006 with Point of Inquiry that as part of his strict vegan philosophy, he was “in a hurry” to put the beef industry out of business (which obviously is still very much with us), also demanding that we all should cancel our vacations and give to Oxfam instead because we are just as morally responsible for deaths in 3rd world due to starvation as we would be if the deaths were by commission rather than omission.
    Obviously none of that is grounds for deplatforming. But he doesn’t come across as super-persuasive to me. It is kinda like woke Democrats like Terry McAuliffe hoping to win voters over by calling them racist.

    1. I think Singer brings up some very interesting questions, and if we are truly guilty of wrongdoing then we should be introspective and honest enough to admit our faults and change our behavior, “in a hurry” even, rather than ignoring his questions for our own comfort.

      Unfortunately I have little time to do his arguments justice here (and so should probably say nothing). I think Singer’s moral reasoning is generally sound if you accept his premises, so since I don’t like some of his conclusions I must reject some of his premises.

      For what it’s worth, I agree with and would even go beyond Singer’s claims when it comes to euthanasia of newborns, but he has also opined, for example, that we should not treat our own children specially. Since all lives are equally valuable, it’s immoral to buy a gift for your child that it doesn’t really need when you can use the money to help save the life of a needy child in Africa, for example, he has said.

      I don’t agree with this. We should treat our children specially. (I note that even Singer by his own admission can’t bring himself to heed his own advice here. That should indicate that there might be something wrong with it.) I value my children more than the children of strangers, and that is completely natural (and biologically adaptive). It is good for my children, and does not do evil to others. Saddling me with the burden to care equally for all the world’s children (even when their parents express no reciprocal care for my children) is a system that rewards free-loading, is maladaptive, and would lead to destitution and extinction for my family we and our descendants followed it.

      Therefore, I cannot and should not value all humans equally, if it implies a responsibility to share my resources with everyone equally. And not valuing all humans equally is okay, and even good, in some ways. (Preferring one’s kin is certainly adaptive.) At least, that’s my opinion. But I think it’s important to grapple with these questions nonetheless…

      1. I can vividly picture Singer telling you or me that just because something is natural and adaptive doesn’t mean it is a good thing. Because Peter “my selfish genes can go jump in the lake” Singer can point out that if we lived according to basic instincts and with no thought for tomorrow then we would each have 10 kids. He doesn’t care if this will result in free loading because, in his perspective, children are not to blame.
        My objection to Singer’s censorious tone is that trying push back on basic human desire never works. Just as it wouldn’t work telling gays to not be gays, because “sin”. It is all “war on love”-whether it is fundamentalist Muslims or Christians telling teenagers to abstain from sex or Singer telling parents not to give gifts to their children (the source of morality invoked here is irrelevant). If you tell people not to do something they biologically have a desire to do, they will still do it. Much as they may hate themselves in the process. I fundamentally disagree with Singer because I am a utilitarian. Through my life among Islamists I have learned hypocrisy caused by moralistic preaching can look extremely ugly. And that is something that ivy league ethicists like Singer will never grasp.
        But still, that is just me. I would love to know what Dr C would think about Singer-style ethics.

      2. Grappling indeed…I have come to understand how wonderful my life is:
        childless, atheist, one on my side and then the world. Freedom incarnate, so it seems. (Covid fucked that notion.) Though the moral conundrums of life and what would I/others/turtles do never seems to go away. I wonder what Marcus Aurelius would have to say about these strange times.

  10. If you have seen a baby with an ‘open face’ you will give Singer more attention. They are blind, deaf and paralised and die quickly if no one takes care of them And they look nightmarishly hideous. It is difficult to assess, but I think there is no doubt they suffer, a lot.
    I’d like to see that those indignant disability advocates would take care of such a baby, just for one week. And then we’ll talk again.

  11. Peter Singer’s position, while mischaracterized in this debate, nonetheless does not align perfectly with doctrine of the holy trinity enunciated by Rhodes College in its official statement: “Fundamentally, Rhodes College is deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Any departure from the doctrine to which the College is so deeply committed, or from sequelae of the doctrine as interpreted by its anointed vicars, is suspect. In another place, an academic system similarly committed to the doctrines of Historical Materialism outlawed thoughts on matters as seemingly unrelated to philosophy as genes. Much of US academia is now attempting to reduce every academic discipline to the condition once suffered by Genetics in that other place. It is an extraordinary spectacle to watch.

  12. I agree with everything Jerry said about euthanasia (and of course with the principle that unpopular or provocative positions in sensitive areas should not disqualify a speaker). However, Peter Singer seems to have refined his position somewhat as a reaction to criticism (which is exactly what should happen, that is what discussion and free speech are for).
    I distinctly remember either reading or hearing (on the radio) Peter in the 1990s argue that the euthanasia of a Downs’ newborns was warranted because the Down’s child would keep the parents from having another, healthy child who would have a higher quality of life than the Down’s child. (I believe I wrote a letter to counter that at the time) This is wrong on several levels, one of which is that the parents of Down syndrome children do tend to have another child afterwards and have more children overall, without having to kill their Down’s baby. (I used to care for a child with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities that I came to love wholeheartedly, so I was not emotionally neutral on this — I doubt, however, that Peter was.).
    For all the protestations by Peter’s critics, who I expect are in their majority totally “pro-choice” on abortion, what we in fact have today is wholesale killing of 90 % (in Germany) of Down syndrome babys via abortion, which in such cases is allowed up to the point of natural birth via the medical fiction that the mothers mental health is in danger. As a Down’s child parent, you have to justify having had the child. The possibility of early diagnosis and abortion creates social pressure (don’t incur costs to society! Don’t be the one outcast with a mongoloid child!). If children with grave and immediately life-threatening defects are born at all today, it’s mostly to parents who know what they have signed up to, and I doubt there are very many takers of post-birth euthanasia offers.
    I remember one of the republican primary contenders in one of last presidential elections had a trisomy 18 or 13 child (automatic abortion in practically 100 percent of cases) during the primaries and took time off to be with the child.

    1. The candidate with the trisomy 18 child was Rick Santorum, but she wasn’t born during the primaries, she was hospitalized, and that is why he took time off (in the 2012 primaries).

    2. Well, there is a fairly wide range of conditions that those with Down’s syndrome might have. On the good end, some are perennially happy and can become self-sufficient. On the bad end, some will require their diapers changed well into adulthood and can be quite aggressive. The thought of a woman having to change her son’s diapers to the day she dies, and having bones broken due to an outburst, is quite horrifying. I don’t blame people if they don’t want to take the risk.

      Of course even “normal” people can end up ruining their parents’ lives, so you never know…

      I do think parents should have the option to abort Down’s children. I do not think somebody can say that one decision or the other is the right and moral choice for everyone. Some parents can handle it, and some can’t.

      1. The Down’s syndrome child I cared for and loved and would have taken as my own had the need for that ever occurred was at the very low end for Down’s (never learned to speak, epilepsy, autism). As he died in puberty from heart defect, I don’t know how difficult he might have become to deal with later, usually, however, that is when institutions take over.
        My point was that “option” to abort or not to abort in such cases does not in fact result in free and individual choice. The mere possibility of choice combined with automatic prenatal screenings has led to a pressure to conform to the choice of the majority.
        I don’t want to judge anyone. These are difficult questions that probably have no ideal solution.

  13. There is an element of the virtue of sanctity, normally associated with conservatives (Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind”), in de-platforming someone who will talk on a topic because their views on another topic are considered harmful. It’s as if once the speaker has transgressed, nothing else the person does or says can be of value. A drop of poison in a vat of water poisons the whole thing, ruining its sanctity.

  14. “The administrators of Rhodes are simply invertebrates”
    This PCC comment has triggered a lot of cephalopods and crustaceans, and is yet another demonstration of the need for more safe spaces for non-chordates.

  15. Singer gives an interesting example at the end about the effect in the real world of a single hour-long philosophy class – and an innovative method of measuring it.

    Good that the discussion went ahead – it will be interesting to see whether or not those campaigning for Singer’s cancellation will accept the invitation to discuss the issue of euthanasia of new born babies with unsurvivable birth defects.

    1. Indeed though I think it would be more interesting to see how many of those who campaigned for Singer’s cancellation didn’t listen to his talk. This is what burns me most about this cancellation nonsense: if having a reasoned discussion about ethically difficult issues is triggering to someone or too upsetting, they should just do themself, Singer, and the audience a favor and stay home. Such people who insist on using the heckler’s veto are too emotionally immature to add anything to the discussion and so should avoid such events or be encouraged to do so for their own emotional self-preservation. But they don’t do that do they? They demand to be at the event to stop it or to prevent it altogether. No one can placate such ill-behaved children so I wish the adults would put them in timeout more often or remind them to shut up when the adults are talking.

  16. Regarding free speech, WSJ recently published, “Alumni Withhold Donations, Demand Colleges Enforce Free Speech,” which make reference to Abbotgate at MIT. The event sparked the formation of the MIT Free Speech Alliance, which I joined.

    Regarding “wokeism,” I’ve been reading a lot about this new orthodoxy, both what it is (Kendi, DiAngelo, …) as well as how to fight back (Sullivan, Weiss, Rauch, Lindsay, McWhorter…). Over the holiday weekend I read, “Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy,” by Batya Ungar-Sargon, which has inspired me more than any other book or article to date. Ungar-Sargon is a former woke and self-described socialist. She is a storyteller who is smart, approachable, and funny. She provides an interesting perspective on how “Wokeism” evolved (nice addition to Lindsay’s analysis in “Cynical Theories”). She also argues that the Woke have abandoned the working class, become the new elite, and are now becoming the oppressors. Liberals have become narrow minded and intolerant. In this 50-minute interview“ (on YouTube), Matt Lewis Interviews Batya Ungar-Sargon on How Woke Media is Undermining Democracy,” Ungar-Sargon makes her points about the “woke” with street-smarts and humor. Watch the interview to get the gist, but I highly recommend the book.

    If “Wokeism” has a vaccine, then Batya Ungar-Sargon is it. If you read the book or watch the video, let me know what you think.

  17. I think you’ve found the answer to your quest for a replacement for the word “Woke”. “The Benighted” fills the bill perfectly. 🙂 As for Singer, he is arguably more ethical than any human alive today. He certainly gives ethical considerations more thought and more careful thought than anyone else. Maybe the benighted who oppose platforming him should be compelled to read his book on this particular issue as a condition of continued employment at Rhodes.

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