This column originally appeared in Human Events.
By Dan Flynn
Time magazine recently asked in the wake of the Tucson tragedy, “Are We Becoming an Uncivil Society?” Peter Singer would seem the least appropriate person to solicit an answer from. After all, the Princeton bioethicist has championed killing newborns and compared farmhouse hens to concentration camp victims.
Provocative? Sure. Civil? Not really.
Welcome to the world of Peter Singer, where infanticide and interspecies sex are okay but opposing socialized medicine is “nutty” and upholding the Second Amendment “completely insane.” Despite the extremist baggage, Time consulted the academic on whether coarse rhetoric led to violent action in Tucson.
The Australian academic notes in Time that “some of the rhetoric has been crazily over-the-top,” “there are a lot of crazy views out there,” and “there really are crazy views in the U.S. which seem to be held by quite a lot of people.” Other than speaking in the first person, which Singer manages to do 14 times in a two paragraph item, using some variant of the term “crazy” to describe people with whom he disagrees seems a favorite pastime.
Singer derides America’s firearm liberties as “completely insane” and says of the Tucson mass murder that “the NRA has blood on its hands, clearly.” To further demonstrate society’s incivility, Singer points to “nutty views about the dangers of government providing health care” as a possible impetus for Jared Lee Loughner’s killing spree. The professor’s idea that opposition to ObamaCare may have moved Jared Lee Loughner to murder seems a stretch. Obama has said as much.
But is the connection between Singer’s ideas and an accused serial killer in Philadelphia so tenuous?
Dr. Kermit Gosnell faces eight counts of murder. One of Gosnell’s patients, a 30-year-old immigrant, is alleged to have died in a botched abortion. Seven babies are alleged to have been birthed only to have their spinal cords snapped with scissors during late-term abortions—like “Fourth Trimester” late.
The grand jury charges that one baby had been outside of the womb for 20 minutes before succumbing to a scissors attack. The district attorney explained, “A doctor who cuts into the necks severing the spinal cords of living, breathing babies, who would survive with proper medical attention, is committing murder under the law.”
Not according to Singer’s law, laid out in Practical Ethics, a textbook whose self-serving morality is foreshadowed in its title. “Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born,” he writes. “In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it.”
Glibly comparing infants to snails, Singer posits that “beings who cannot see themselves as entities with a future cannot have any preferences about their own future existence.” Taking a moralistic tone in favor of evil of the most cardinal sort, Singer preaches in Rethinking Life and Death that “in the case of infanticide, it is our culture that has something to learn from others, especially now that we, like them, are in a situation where we must limit family size.”
Had Dr. Kermit Gosnell, unquestionably in the business of limiting family size, read Peter Singer’s books? Certainly the connection between the Philadelphia abortionist’s grisly practice and the Princeton professor’s writings is more direct than any alleged between the Tucson mass murderer and the crosshairs placed on a map by the former Alaska governor.
More to the point, why is Time subjecting its readers to a lecture on civility by a figure so thoroughly devoid of it?
This is the trouble with the discourse on discourse. The sermonizers are often oblivious to their own incivility when enjoining the rest of us to become more civil. It’s easy but ineffective to scold political adversaries (who don’t listen to us) to tone down the rhetoric. It’s difficult, but completely effective, to police our own words.
This is something Peter Singer is unwilling, and in some instances, unable to do.
Incivility usually stems from rashness. Singer’s proclivity to compare animal researchers to Nazi experimenters and farmers to slaveholders certainly evokes that emotive, anti-intellectual desire to dismiss rather than debate. But Singer’s incivility—giving his imprimatur to murder—usually stems from forethought. Singer, in the former instance, is being uncivil, rude; in the latter, uncivilized, against the basics of our community life. There just isn’t a polite way to say “I think your mother should have killed you.”
For the champions of civility, there may be no more outrageously uncivil observation than deeming another uncivilized. Yet, cultured barbarism is the greatest affront to both civilization and civility. One might think that people expressing views outside of the norm—on such fringe topics as baby killing and the evils of hot dogs—would be particularly sensitive to dismissing mainstream political positions with mental health diagnoses and moral pronouncements. As Peter Singer’s sermonizing in Time demonstrates, the people requiring our tolerance the most are often the people least willing to grant it to others.
“Like cosmology before Copernicus, the traditional doctrine of the sanctity of human life is today in deep trouble,” Rethinking Life and Death boasts. Nobody needs Peter Singer to tell them this. Just look to Philadelphia.
Dan Flynn is an author, activist, and speaker for Young America's Foundation.