Dr. Singer’s Immodest Proposal

In an October 26, 2009 op-ed in the New York Daily News, Princeton University professor of bioethics, Peter Singer, applauded New York’s nanny-state measures (i.e., abolition of trans fats in restaurants, high cigarette taxes, and similar fashionable causes) but complained that government policy makers were ignoring what he referred to as “the cow in the room.”

To stop people who are meat eaters from killing fellow animals, the planet, and themselves, Singer calls on state and local governments to impose a “50 percent tax on the retail value of all meat.” Such action, he believes, will not only diminish meat consumption, improve the lives of cows, pigs, and chickens, lower health insurance premiums, and bring down the price of grain and soybeans; it would be “a highly effective way of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and avoiding catastrophic climate change.”

One should not dismiss Dr. Singer’s tax plan as a satirical Jonathan Swift-like Modest Proposal – he is quite serious. Singer, who believes in the equality of all sentient life forms, finds man to be an appalling beast because he kills and eats the flesh of his equals – cows, pigs and chickens. (About non-human animals who eat other animals sometimes including us, the professor seems to have far less to say.) In an 1986 essay titled “All Animals are Equal,” Singer contends that the last remaining discrimination is speciesism, which holds that one species is superior to another. Singer demanded “that we extend to other species the basic principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to all members of our own species.” In fact, Singer demotes some humans by insisting that the pig has more consciousness and therefore is entitled to more rights than fetuses or sick people.

Singer’s ability to make these arguments may be traced back to seventeenth-century reductionism, which measures everything in the universe quantitatively. Hence, man is not a person, he is only another thing.

By strictly restricting science to mean various versions of materialism, physicists, political scientists, economists, and psychologists must treat man and beast alike, as machines differing only in degree of complexity. Thanks to such “scientific” reductionism, psychology especially is no longer the study of man as a spiritual being possessing body and soul, but is merely biology, the study of cells. Biology is then reduced to the study of organic chemistry. Chemistry is reduced to the study of physics in which, finally, man is an organism in which atoms swirl and quanta pop in and out of existence aimlessly.

Since all living matter, human and not, is reduced to a cell or chemical compound, the mechanists conclude that there is no difference between man and brute; that empirical evidence alone constitutes the knowledge of the phenomenon called man; that there is no “objective” existence of mind, consciousness, and the soul; that human freedom is illusion; that there is no human nature which is not malleable to techniques of design, development, and control.

Accepting these notions, Singer concludes that because man and beast both suffer, they are therefore equal. There is no sanctity of life, only quality of life. In the journal Pediatrics, Singer wrote in 1983, “if we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig for example, we often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities. . . . If we can put aside the obsolete and erroneous notion of the sanctity of all human life, we may start to look at human life as it really is: the quality of life that each human being has or can achieve.” Arguing that man is substantially different than the cow because he is created in the image of God is, according to Singer, merely a fine phrase that is “the last resource of those who have run out of argument.” This mentality permits Singer to conclude that there is no significant difference between human slavery and cattle ranching.

For Singer, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia should be mandatory in order to relieve society of those beings whose quality of life are not perfect – be they pre-born, young, or old. For instance, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (1990) that artificially supplied foods and liquids could be terminated because they are nothing more than “life-support systems,” the jubilant Singer wrote, “The lives of such patients are of no benefit to them, and so doctors may lawfully stop feeding them to end their lives. With this decision the law has ended its unthinking commitment to the preservation of human life that is a mere biological existence. . . . In doing so they have shifted the boundary between what is and what is not murder. . . . Now, conduct intended to end life is lawful.”

Today, to impose his Weltanschauung, Singer calls for taxing meat eaters; tomorrow he’ll call for oppressive taxes on the incomes of people who are under the illusion that it is only humane to care for the sick and the elderly.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.