The ageing rock star of ethics, Peter Singer, is still playing the same taboo-smashing tunes.

Michael Cook
10 February 2011
Reproduced with Permission

The Jerry Springer of modern philosophy was in good form when he addressed a packed crowd this week in the Great Hall of the University of Sydney.

Peter Singer, now a professor at Princeton University in the US, was back in his native Australia for a visit.

Most philosophers count themselves lucky if their mother appreciates their work. But Singer is regarded --- by journalists, at least -- as the most influential living philosopher. In fact, at Sydney Uni, he was introduced with the fulsome praise normally reserved for superannuated television stars: "If we had a collection of national living treasures, Peter would certainly stand tall amongst them."

Most of the crowd, including the 20 or so high school students in the front row, had the ruddy, well-fed look of practicing non-vegetarians. So it was not Singer the Vegan they had come to see. It was Singer the Moral Iconoclast.

In this, Singer never fails to disappoint.

Back in 2009, he gave a thumbs-up to bestiality on an Australian TV show. That came on top of years of endorsing other taboos, like euthanasia, infanticide, and abortion.

This time it was incest.

Imagine a brother and sister, he said. They are on a summer holiday and decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. There's no chance of offspring because she is using the pill and he a condom. It brings them closer, but they never do it again.

Is this wrong?

You could feel the frisson of deliciously wicked transgressiveness sweeping through the Great Hall. Oooooo, isn't that naughty, or what? This is the ethical wizardry we came for!

Singer then took a show of hands and found that half of his listeners thought that loving, contraceptive incest was cool - here's hoping they come from one-child families. The other half thought that even ideal incest was wrong.

But why, he challenged his listeners. Just because it's yucky? After all, there are no untoward consequences, no deformed children, no abuse, no violence.

Look, he explained, our instinctive revulsion at incest is merely an evolved response which used to protect human communities against inbreeding. But such intuitions are not authentically moral reaction because they lack a rational justification. They are evidence of our bondage to obsolete emotions. These conferred a survival advantage when we lived as hunter-gatherers, but not necessarily in the 21st Century.

For a rational man, it seems, there is nothing absolutely and always wrong. Singerians have transcended antiquated views of good and evil and are leaving Paleolithic taboos behind.

To be fair to Singer, he is not signing people up for bestiality support groups or incest rights campaigns. He almost certainly finds the very thought personally repugnant. But he sees no rational reason why such morally repugnant activities must be wrong, provided that the consequences are positive.

Singer is revered as a champion of animals and has spent his whole professional life arguing that animal experimentation, factory farming and animal abuse are seriously unethical. But I detect something suspiciously species-ist about his view of morality.

However advanced the great apes may be, Singer admits that their human cousins have a capacity for abstract communication which is unique to our species. We engage in ethical discourse by distinguishing between emotional motivations and rational motivations. Animals cannot.

Humans, at least humans like Peter Singer, have reached liftoff velocity from the messy, incoherent, unintelligible gravitational pull of evolution. This means that we can vault ourselves like Superman into the exhilarating outer space of rational thinking, untainted by antiquated taboos like racism, xenophobia, incest or bestiality. And animals are going to be left behind.

It's not surprising that Singer's most successful student, Julian Savulescu, who is now an Oxford professor of bioethics, has moved on to the seriously loopy theory of transhumanism. His line is that Humanity 1.0 badly needs to be upgraded to Humanity 2.0 through genetic engineering. "Unfit For Life: Genetically Enhance Humanity or Face Extinction" is the title of an address he gave last year at Oxford. You get the drift.

All this makes me wonder whether Peter Singer really understands the human condition. Has he reflected deeply enough on what it means for humans to be "homo sapiens", a rational animal, an inseparable combination of animal instinct and non-material impulse?

In fact, I found Singer, who turns 65 this year, surprisingly flat at Sydney Uni. He's a bit younger than Mick Jagger, but they have a lot in common. We've been at this concert before, and so has he. For decades he has been warbling about liberating animals from humans and liberating humans from the Yuck Factor. But the novelty of transgressiveness is wearing off. Animal Liberation was published in 1975, Practical Ethics in 1979 and The Expanding Circle in 1981. Since then, has Singer really said anything new? The time has come for a philosophical Dorothy to draw the curtain on this ageing Wizard of Oz.