12 April, 2000

Contact: Mike Stepanovich, 661/664-2456; mstepanovich@csub.edu



Peter Singer to speak at CSUB

The "most controversial ethicist in the country" is coming to Bakersfield. Peter Singer, who was given that mantle by The New York Times when he accepted a highly visible ethics position this year at Princeton University, will give the 2000Peter Singer Charles W. Kegley Memorial Lecture on Wednesday, May 17, at 7 p.m. in the Icardo Center on the CSUB campus.

Singer, best known for his early activism in animal rights and for his more recent views regarding infanticide, has been both revered and reviled for his carefully woven philosophical arguments. In these arguments he criticizes the traditional "sanctity of life" position, which holds that all human life, simply because it is human, is of absolute value. Instead, his view is that sentience, or the ability to experience pleasures and pains, is the only thing that can be valued for its own sake.

Taking this argument to its logical end, Singer says that "some human lives - those filled with nothing but pain, or those with no hope for conscious awareness - are of less value than are the lives of many highly sentient animals. And since mere human life carries no special moral status, when a baby is born with terrible deformities, it should be the parents' decision whether to preserve that life." He also gives similar arguments for people in a comparable state at the end of their lives.

These conclusions, particularly with regard to infants, have drawn the ire of many commentators. John Leo, in a U.S. News and World Report column, says, "Maybe the idea [at Princeton] was to get someone 'hot' and controversial to stir up the students and draw a crowd. If so, marketing has succeeded at the expense of common sense. It's peculiar to install at a Center for Human Values a professor who believes that traditional human values are mostly illusory." Leo then spends the rest of the column comparing Singer's ideas to those of the early Nazis (though he acknowledges that such a comparison is "excessive," given that three of Singer's four grandparents died in the Holocaust).

By contrast, Jeff Sharlet, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, says, "Mr. Singer's strength as a philosopher may be his ability to follow hard roads further than other scholars care to do. ... When his ideas are considered in the public sphere, the debate is over ... the lived present and an unguessable future. People with doubts about human nature prefer the former, while Mr. Singer cannot help but look ahead to the next move, with reason alone his guide."

"These diverse reactions reveal just how powerful Singer's voice is," said Christopher Meyers, Kegley Institute director and a CSUB philosophy professor. "It is incredibly rare for academic philosophers to draw any attention from mainstream press, let alone the kind of notice that he has received. Agree with his views or not, his sharp mind and accessible style force us to carefully evaluate our own beliefs and values. Singer may well be the most important speaker ever to come to the CSUB campus.

"In any case, he is certainly among the most controversial," Meyers continued. "He routinely faces pickets, angry protestors, and he even had a lecture tour in Germany cancelled as the result of public outcry. To his credit, though, he attempts to engage those who express anger at this views, often convincing them to join him in close conversation after his speeches."

As with all Kegley Institute functions, the event is free and open to the public. For more information, please call 661/665-6303.