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.
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.