I recently watched a fascinating TED Talk. The theme was altruism, defined by the dictionary as “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for, or devotion to, the welfare of others.”
In usual TED form, the presenter was engaging and made some great points. Demonstrating great skill as a speaker, he began with a story to draw the audience in—he shared a most shocking news clip about a toddler in China, Wang Yue, being hit by a vehicle and, perhaps more brutally, how her dying body was ignored by passerby after passerby.
It pulls at the audience’s heart strings and he asks, “I wonder how many of you, looking at that, said to yourselves just now, ‘I would not have done that. I would have stopped to help.’”
All the hands understandably go up. And then, in a brilliant move to confront his audience, he throws out a statistic: In 2011, 6.9 million children under the age of five died from preventable, poverty-related diseases. The challenge is put forward to the crowd: If we think we wouldn’t have simply passed by the plight of the girl in China were we there to help, then why are we passing by the plight of children throughout the world when we can most certainly help?
And so begins the theme of his presentation—how important and good it is for us to share our wealth. At a seemingly secular venue, he throws out that Biblical principal of tithing. He goes even further as to say that if you have great wealth, consider giving more than 10%. He then highlights various charities, some of which sound like they’re doing really fantastic work. He goes through important things for donors to consider, like, “How will my money be spent?” and talks about choosing causes wisely.
He concludes with the story of a man who recently e-mailed him—a man who anonymously donated his right kidney to a stranger; that altruistic choice began a kidney donation chain and four other people received kidneys as a result. The original act of altruism came about because the donor was inspired by the writings of the very TED presenter who was giving the speech I’ve just outlined.
Incidentally, that TED presenter’s name is Peter Singer. Yes, that’s THE Peter Singer. Professor at Princeton. Advocate of altruism. Hater of hit and runs, who happens to argue for the permissibility of infanticide.
You read that right. The man who moved the hearts of his audience with a story of little Wang Yue brutally abandoned in her time of need is a man who wrote in his book Practical Ethics,
“[T]he fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings [emphasis added].”
Boy, isn’t Wang Yue lucky she was a toddler and not a newborn, otherwise her story was unlikely to make the cut for Singer’s presentation.
I can hear Singer piping up now—he would be the first to admit he’s not saying infanticide is always permissible: “One important reason why it is normally a terrible thing to kill an infant,” he says, “is the effect the killing will have on its parents.”
Wow, yet again, lucky Wang Yue—her parents were devastated by her death so if she had been an infant the hit and run would still have been vile. Unlucky driver of the van, though; if only her parents didn’t care about her like so many who casually drown their daughters in rice fields in China.
Peter Singer’s lack of altruism towards some humans (it’s worth noting he is a major animal rights advocate) is brought to light when we take his very beliefs and apply them to a thought experiment where we change some of the details involving Wang Yue’s tragic end and consider how the driver, Hu Jun, could have justified his murder [Note: All quotations in the following paragraph are Singer’s words in his book Practical Ethics.]:
Imagine, for a moment, IF Wang Yue was an infant.
Imagine if she lacked the characteristics of “rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness” (which Singer says infants lack).
Imagine if she were severely disabled and her parents “regret that a disabled child was ever born.”
Imagine if, “in that event,” the driver argued, “the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it.”
Imagine if her parents hired the driver to run over their daughter, saying, “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”
How might we respond?
Perhaps most wouldn’t give his inane ideas credibility by even rebutting. Perhaps most would write him off as a bully, an inhuman thug trying to rationalize his own misdeed. They would say a man who thinks like this needs a psychologist’s response, not a philosopher’s.
But perhaps a few, to ensure no one be lead astray by such dangerous thinking, would develop a response:
“Do you believe in human rights?” they might ask of the driver. “Then if so, who gets human rights? And if humans, then since Wang Yue was a human, it follows that she get the human right to life. That is consistent with human rights doctrines across all civil societies. If you are concerned that granting her rights because she’s human deprives other species rights because they’re not, be assured that that doesn’t logically follow. For example, saying all women are valuable doesn’t mean all men are not valuable. Saying we should protect humans doesn’t mean we shouldn’t protect non-humans. The treatment of non-human animals is a debate for another day.
“If you think the kinds of beings we should protect are only those that are rational, autonomous, or self-conscious, consider for a moment why an infant isn’t these things, compared to why, for example, an ant isn’t these things. An infant isn’t rational, autonomous, or self-conscious because of how old she is. An ant isn’t these things because of what it is. By virtue of being human, the infant has, inherently—within her nature, the ability for these features but cannot currently act on them due to her age. If you deprive an infant of her right to life because of these factors, you are depriving her of her right to life because of her age. Why should those who are older have a right to kill those who are younger?
“The question we must ask ourselves is this: do we believe Dr. King had it right when he fought for the idea that all humans are equal? And if so, shouldn’t we treat each other equally, starting with respect for our right to live? Do we ever allow the feelings of a victim’s relatives determine whether a murderer is found guilty or innocent? Do we abandon hospitals and build killing centres so that in the face of suffering we can eliminate the sufferer? Or do we reject such a cruel notion and instead maintain places of healing by working to alleviate the suffering itself?”
It is most troubling that Singer can build an empire where he espouses a view that, if it dripped from the lips of Hu Jun, would be something we reject outright. That Singer promotes his bizarre beliefs is dangerous, but what’s even more threatening is that along with these inhumane views, he holds some other, very good, very noble beliefs. And this is where the real problem lies.
His altruism for the poor makes him likeable and reasonable. He seems to have a charming and calm demeanor. I bet a lot of young people, including the one who gave his kidney thanks to Singer, are drawn into his charisma. And it’s his goodness which lends credibility to his other, deeply disturbing views—it draws his fans into a world where his philosophical word games about personhood deprive the weakest amongst us of protection. Malaria may not kill people thanks to Singer, but how many executioners will?