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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the January 24,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Peter Singer & the Ethical Life
The two West Windsor police officers on duty during
the controversial ethicist Peter Singer’s most recent appearance found
themselves with little to do but listen. At Share Our Strength’s
Harvest benefit at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair last month, the large
and attentive audience, seated and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in
the aisles and between the stacks, neither heckled nor interrupted
the author. And during the question and answer session that followed
the reading, there was not so much as a hostile question. A very
atmosphere from the demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience
that accompanied his initial appearances on the Princeton campus in
The Australian philosopher and professor of bioethics makes another
appearance to introduce his recently published anthology,
on an Ethical Life" published last month by the Ecco Press
an imprint of HarperCollins, at the Princeton University Store on
Monday, January 29, at 7 p.m.
Singer is the Australian ethicist who was appointed to the bioethics
chair at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values in 1999.
over the past 20 years for his influential views on animal liberation,
he has raised the hackles of countless groups for his defense of
for severely disabled infants, among other issues.
Singer told his Barnes & Noble audience that Daniel Halpern, the
poet and founder of Ecco Press, encouraged him to compile an anthology
of his writings that would accurately and comprehensively represent
his work. "I always thought the Wall Street Journal was a
newspaper until they took something I had written, chopped off the
beginning of the first sentence — `some people say that’ —
and represented it as my opinion," he said. "It contributed
to the hysteria that has surrounded my work."
In his desire to set the record straight, Singer opened by reading
from the preface to the 1975 edition of "Animal Liberation,"
one of 16 books he has written or co-authored. His ideas, he
were intended for those "concerned about ending the oppression
and exploitation [of animals] wherever they occur, and in seeing that
the basic moral principle of equal consideration of interests is not
arbitrarily restricted to members of our own species."
Species discrimination was a recurrent theme of the evening. An
Singer works to identify an ethical path through the minefield of
modern thought, much of it rooted in religious traditions and beliefs
he does not share. Some recent work deals with how much of one’s
should be used to feed the hungry people of the world.
Some choices, Singer says, center on to what extent we live for others
— or for ourselves. "I can see no escape from the conclusion
that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs
should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty
so dire as to be life threatening," he wrote in an essay for the
New York Times Magazine last year, reprinted in this anthology.
Citing Conference Board figures that most middle class
families can survive on $30,000 for necessities, he puts forth the
idea that a family with an income of $50,000 should donate $20,000
to the poor, and one with $100,000 annually should turn over $70,000
"The formula is simple: whatever money you’re spending on
not necessities, should be given away," he told the assembled
audience. He used dining out at an expensive restaurant or buying
new clothes because the old ones are no longer fashionable (but not
worn out) as areas where we could all cut spending to save lives,
one starving child at a time. Philosophically speaking, he reminded
his listeners that inaction in the face of global need is as much
a choice as action.
"If 10 percent of the population were to take a consciously
outlook on life and act accordingly, the resulting change would be
more significant than any change of government," says Singer.
609-921-8500. The bioethicist introduces the new comprehensive
of his works, "Writings on an Ethical Life: The Essential
published last month by the Ecco Press. Free. Monday, January 29,
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