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JULY 2004

Interview with Peter Singer: Philosopher as Educator
by Jacob M. Appel, J.D.

Princeton University philosophy professor Peter Singer is no stranger to controversy. The fifty-seven year old Australian-born scholar—whom the Archbishop of Melbourne once branded “Herod’s propaganda minister” and the New Yorker hailed as the most influential thinker of our time—has advocated animal rights, a euthanasia option for deformed infants, and the radical redistribution of human wealth. His appointment as Ira W. DeCamp Professorship of Bioethics at the Center for Human Values five years ago generated protests from anti-abortion demonstrators and some advocates for the disabled; others, most notably anti-poverty activists, rallied to his defense. Yet the man behind the controversy turns out—at least on first impression—to be an intellectual lion with the manner of a lamb. He is soft-spoken, with a winning boyish smile. One is instantly struck by his passion for his students and, most of all, by his tolerance—even appreciation—for ideas different from his own.

“A significant part of the success I’ve had,” Singer explains, “is because I’ve selected important issues to talk about and spoken about them in a way that is clear, that avoids unnecessary jargon, so students have no difficulty understanding or seeing what the issues are.” Singer makes a point of exposing his students to texts that directly conflict with his own ideas. When discussing current American foreign policy, much of which Singer opposes, he assigns President Bush’s recent address at West Point. While teaching bioethical issues relating to life and death decision-making, Singer offers students both his own utilitarian arguments and writings by his fiercest critics that tout the absolute sanctity of life. “You have to give students a clear position to argue against and encourage them to argue against it,” Singer says. “I say in my instructions for writing papers that an essay that repeats back to me what I’ve said in class or in my writings is not likely to get a good grade, while an essay that argues with me is likely to get a better grade...Of course you have to create an atmosphere in which students feel comfortable and in which they know they will not be penalized for disagreeing with you.” Toward this end, Singer’s students also have discussion sections with preceptors whose ideas often differ greatly from his own.

Singer’s own mentors—two of the last century’s leading philosophers—were men with whom he often disagreed. The first, H. D. McCloskey of the University of Melbourne, was a prominent opponent of utilitarianism—the theory of “judging whether acts are right or wrong by their consequences” that Singer himself espouses. “McCloskey would criticize utilitarianism fiercely,” Singer recalls of the class he took during his second year at college, “but I thought that his objections to utilitarianism weren’t very sound and that they could be met. I remember writing an essay defending utilitarianism and thinking that it seemed to be a very sensible and understandable point of view.” Singer credits McCloskey’s openness to dissent with stimulating his own thinking. “He was fair-minded. You could criticize him and get a good grade for the course, which is essential in a good teacher. We used to argue, and eventually we became very friendly, and he supervised my master’s thesis as well.” Later, as a graduate student at Oxford University, Singer developed a similar relationship with the late moral philosopher R. M. Hare. Hare had not been Singer’s original thesis advisor, but after Singer sent Hare “a little paper” he had written criticizing some of Hare’s ideas, the Englishman became his sponsor and friend. “I was a little bit apprehensive at what his response would be,” recalls Singer. “He had a fearsome reputation for not taking kindly to criticism.” But taking this chance, he says, made all the difference.

“My advice to students is to make the most of your opportunities,” says Singer. “Take the initiative. Be prepared to talk to your professors. If you’ve got something interesting to say, they’ll be interested in talking to you.” But Singer’s personal fame has forced him to curtail his own availability. “I’ll talk to any Princeton student,” he says. “That’s what I’m here for.” But students at other schools—who email him by the hundreds—are out of luck. “I regret I do not have time to discuss my views with all of the people who email me,” he explains. “I wish there were ten of me. The internet could be a wonderful tool for education if only you had time to take advantage of it.” But Singer’s spare time is devoted to running a visiting speaker series, advising senior theses and graduate student dissertations, and addressing such campus organizations as Oxfam and Unicef—the latter chapter formed by his former students.  He teaches two courses, “Bioethics” in the fall and “Practical Ethics” in the spring that are both highly popular. A few students enter his class unaware of his reputation, but many come for the opportunity to watch a celebrity faculty member in action. “I guess a lot of people say you should take a course with Singer while you’re at Princeton,” he muses. “It’s an interesting experience whether you agree with him or not.”

One of the factors that helps keep his class interesting, and those of his colleagues as well, is the relatively light instruction load at Princeton. Singer champions such a light load—not because he disdains teaching, but because he cares about it. “If you’re teaching three courses a semester,” he argues, “you can get very stale. Such a hard load becomes something you have to get through, rather than something that you look forward to or are enthusiastic about.” At an institution such as Princeton, in contrast, faculties have enough time to make themselves freely available to students. “There’s always someone students can go and talk to: they can talk to me, they can talk to their preceptors. It takes a good faculty-student ratio to make that possible.” According to Singer, every educational institution should have access to the same resources at Princeton. He adds: “But, obviously, that’s not going to happen.” Teaching in the United States offers a striking difference to his earlier experiences teaching in Australia, both for better and worse. “Australia doesn’t have elite universities in the same sense,” he says. “They’re all funded on basically the same formula and there’s not a huge difference between them, so the range of students you get is necessarily broader and the resources available are fewer.”

Singer’s most recent project, published in March as The President of Good and Evil, is likely to generate additional controversy. “It’s different from what I’ve done before,” says Singer. “It’s more political.” The book is a philosopher’s assessment of President Bush’s ethics. Singer explains the work as follows: “I felt given the situation the Unites States is in, we should talk about war...George W. Bush speaks a lot about right and wrong, about morality, about what’s good and evil. A lot of people think it’s all a fraud and all lies, and other people, of course, think it’s wonderful, but there hasn’t been so much that looks at what he says and holds it up to scrutiny in the way that philosophers hold moral arguments up to scrutiny. That’s what I’ve attempted to do in the book.” Singer concludes that, for the most part, Bush “does not have a consistent ethic.” Instead, “he pulls from various different approaches on different issues. For example, he’ll be very concerned about the sanctity of human life when he is talking about funding or not funding research on embryos, or on stem cells derived from embryos, but he’ll be less concerned about it when he goes to war in Afghanistan or Iraq, where American bombs are killing civilians.” Of course, Singer urges his students and readers to feel free—as he always does—to disagree. “After all,” he concludes, “I’m still learning all the time.”#



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