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PETER SINGER AND THE ETHICS OF EMPIRE

The recent appearance on the ABC's QandA by the famous ethical philosopher Professor Peter Singer gives us a chance to examine what this well known thinker has to say about three issues that have been in the news recently.


WALKING IN THE PARK AT NIGHT
Early in the program there was a rather tricky question from Melissa Black. She asked, if we are happy to discourage women walking alone in a park at night because they might get raped, why don't we also discourage men from walking alone in the park at night just in case they might rape a woman? It is not clear that the Panel really tried to answer this question. Professor Singer thought it was just common sense to warn women of potential dangers but seems to have missed the point about sending another message to men to discourage them from committing rape. Her point seemed to be: We tell women to alter their behaviour to avoid being raped but we don't tell men to alter their behaviour to avoid raping women. What is the difference?

In his discussion of this issue, Professor Singer states that "there is a chance there is some sick, deranged person" in a park who will commit a rape. This is a serious misconception about the way most rapes take place. Rape is not often committed by "sick, deranged" men, but by perfectly ordinary men. This is the real challenge in any attempt to reduce the incidence of rape. Men who are otherwise completely normal commit rape. His comment passed unnoticed by the Panel, but it shows a very conventional and quite mistaken view of rape.

(1)

LIVING A MORE ETHICAL LIFE
Professor Singer believes that part of an ethical life involves "a clear-cut moral imperative for citizens of developed countries to give more to charitable causes that help the poor."(2) He even argued that it was morally better for a person to seek a high-paying job so they could donate more money to charity than it would be for this person to devote their life to personally doing good things for people. In a world where nothing is more important than the pursuit of money, the idea that you can buy an ethical life for cash makes perfect sense.

Singer's only answer to poverty is for individuals to give money to help the poor. There is no realization that most poverty arises from political decisions, laws and the actions of corporations. For example, in many parts of the world, agricultural land it taken over by large corporations to grow crops that can be sold in overseas markets. The people who used to live on this land and feed themselves are pushed off the land, like the Aborigines in Australia. At best they can support themselves by working to produce this food on starvation wages. They are poor because they are made poor. For Singer, there is no need to provide land rights for Aborigines. Just give them charity handouts. In fact, the poor only need the opportunity to work to support themselves. Any political and legal system which does not allow this must be changed.


US EMPIRE: POLITICS WITHOUT ETHICS

For some the most important feature of Singer's ethics is that he makes no reference to political action of any kind to eliminate the sufferings of the poor or anyone else. It is here that we can see how Professor Singer is providing the perfect ethics for the US Empire. He considers ethics to be personal. His ethics is only concerned with what you can do as an individual. This makes him quite different from the 19th Century philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) who developed the Utilitarian ethical theory Singer adopts. They were both social reformers and wrote extensively on moral and political questions. Instead Singer follows the standard position of most 20th Century Anglo-Saxon academic philosophers, in which politics is completely separate from ethics.

This makes it possible for Professor Singer to discuss all kinds of ethical issues without taking any notice of the truly grotesque actions of the US government, some of which violate their own laws. The list is endless: the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam which left a legacy of birth defects in that country and health problems for US and Australian soldiers; the use of depleated uranium in Iraq and other wars, which causes birth defects and increased rates of cancer, and is also harmful for the soldiers who use it; the rendition and torture of people deemed supporters of "terrorism"; the extended genocide of Palestinians by Israel which has removed them from their land and detains them in the world's largest open-air prision. Singer is a vocal advocate of atheism, but many nuns and priests in the Catholic Church have risked their lives to challenge poverty and oppression because of their ethical beliefs. Are the only good works those paid for by money from ethically minded athiests?


NON-HUMAN LEGAL RIGHTS FOR CHIMPANZEES
Nothing exposes the limitations of Professor Singer's ethics more than his position on animal rights. His book, Animal Liberation, published in 1973 brought him fame and interest outside the narrow confines of academic philosophy. When he appeared on QandA he discusses a current case in New York. Lawyers will argue that there could be legal grounds for releasing chimpanzees from their 'detention' at a University. If successful, the case would show that these animals have 'personhood' like corporations under US law. This could then be used to argue that they have a legal right to be set free or sent to a sanctuary. Singer insists his goal is to narrow the gulf between humans and other animals.

Senator Vanstone politely commented: "If these are hot-shot lawyers, I think I could give them some higher priority jobs." Unfortunately there was no one from the Greens on the Panel. They could have suggested one higher priority might be to argue the case for the human refugees being detained by Australia. These humans are held under conditions far more unpleasant than the conditions under which the chimpanzees are held in the university in question. Are the chimpanzees being raped and beaten by their captors?

This highlights the rather narrow focus of Singer's interest. He is happy to support a legal challenge with respect to chimpanzees. Would he be equally interested in publicly opposing the detention of refugees by Australia? Generally Singer makes no reference to political action of any kind to eliminate the sufferings of the poor. The political/legal action which interests him is for chimpanzees, not for poor or suffering human beings. And what of the more than 2 million people in prison (detention) in the US, where he teaches? The US has the largest prison population in the world, and the second-highest per-capita incarceration rate, behind Seychelles.(3) Aside from the confinement and ill-treatment, these prisoners are forced to work for very low wages, making their condition not far off slavery. I suspect most of these prisoners would gladly change place with the chimps, but the suffering of these prisoners seems to be of no ethical importance to Professor Singer.

In short, Professor Singer may be the guru of the Animal Rights movement, but his focus on the suffering of animals seems to blind him to the suffering of his fellow human beings. The only kind of human suffering that he notices is poverty, and his answer to poverty is to throw money at it. Never mind that any self-respecting victim of poverty would see this as an insult. "I don't want charity, Professor Singer. I want a job."


Footnotes:

1. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APeter_Singer_MIT_Veritas.jpg
By Joel Travis Sage (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Singer
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States


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