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Jewish World Review Sept. 21, 1999/ 11 Tishrei, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Princeton's 'professor death' -- THE CRIPPLED and the lame, on crutches and in wheelchairs, walking slowly with friends and family, will gather at Princeton University today to bear witness for humanity. Students with muscular, athletic bodies as well as the bowed and infirm will register their outrage.

Protestants, Catholics and Jews (in the season of the New Year when the Jewish people pray for their names to be written down in The Book of Life) will join hands to express their fury at the presence of a professor on their campus whose intellectual coldness and academic credentials have led him to a prestigious chair as tenured professor. This is a "scholar," whose ideas, if they had prevailed, would have denied many of them a life on the planet. Why should such a man be invited to teach ethics at Princeton?

Peter Singer begins teaching bioethics at Princeton's Center for Human Values in the fall semester. He is a very intelligent man. He has written politically correct books and articles in the right intellectual journals. He's especially well-known in this country for his espousal of a bizarre theory of animal rights, comparing man's domination of animals with the white man's domination of the black man in America.

Anyone who regards this as a specious argument, according to the professor, is a "speciest" (as in racist and sexist.)

But that's small potatoes if you read some of his other comparisons of humans and animals. He argues that killing an animal may be worse "ethically" than killing a severely disabled baby because the animal may have the capacity for greater pain.

What really upsets almost everybody except the Princeton administration is his idea that it could be OK to kill babies in the first 28 days of their lives. He specifies babies with "severe" disabilities, which include hemophilia: "When the death of the disabled [hemophiliac] infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed."

Students call him "Professor Death." The New Yorker magazine describes him as "The Dangerous Professor." Nat Hentoff, who taught journalism at Princeton last year, reminds students that murder is still a crime, and Dr. Singer, an Australian, is advocating the commission of a crime.

Others note that Princeton is making it easier for decent men and women to descend the slippery slope, justifying and rationalizing euthanasia and Nazi eugenics. The defenders of Dr. Singer and his appointment bristle at the comparison to the Nazi doctors working for the Third Reich, but that comparison is apt. Both Dr. Singer and the Nazi doctors based their arguments on "utilitarianism." What Dr. Singer calls "the total view," the German doctors called "mercy killings." Both rationalized "usefulness" as sparing suffering for parents and children.

Alfred Hoche and Karl Binding, two university professors respected in Germany in the 1920s wrote a book called "The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life," which formed an intellectual basis for killing disabled adults as well as babies, an "allowable, useful act." They talked about destroying life as "purely a healing treatment." It wasn't long before the Germans extended their logic of utility to include considerations including the good of the state.

Dr. Singer has a more complex argument. He draws on the philosophical "utilitarians" whose logic called for the greatest good for the greatest number.

Robert J. Lifton, in "The Nazi Doctors," describes a mathematics text for Germans of the 1930s which asked students to calculate how many government loans to newly married couples would be available to them if the state were not burdened with care for "the crippled, the criminal, and in the insane."

Peter Singer concedes that society must set strict conditions on killing inconvenient babies, "but they owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant."

Alfred Hoche, in his argument for compassionate killing had a vision for Nazi morality: "A new age will come which, from the standpoint of higher morality, will no longer heed the demands of an inflated concept of humanity and an overestimation of the value of life as such."

Listen now to Peter Singer. "The day had to come when Copernicus proved that the earth is not at the center of the universe. It is ridiculous to pretend that the old ethics still make sense when plainly they do not. The notion that human life is sacred just because it's human life is medieval." We must pray that he is not a Princeton visionary.


09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate