The Offensive Peter Singer
Truman Chen

26 July 2017

In a recent interview, Peter Singer states that "Philosophy always causes offense—perhaps it should cause offense." Both the former and latter parts of this platitude feel suspect and not entirely necessary—after all, you probably wouldn't be offended by Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica like you might be toward some of Singer's arguably outrageous views on euthanasia or disability. 

Nevertheless, the interview has been praised in the Daily Nous, which calls Singer an "excellent public philosopher." In the interview, Singer expresses his frustration over his critics' protests of his speaking events, and insists that he would listen and improve if only his critics were to actually pose arguments. But such a reflective adjustment of his own positions, or at least a thoughtful response to serious critics, appears to be nowhere in sight since one of his latest controversies.

In a high-profile case of sexual assault committed by Anna Stubblefield, a Rutgers Professor of Philosophy, on a student referred to as DJ, with severe cerebral palsy, Singer and Jeff McMahan came to Stubblefield's defense and saw her as the "actual victim" in this case for being punished so severely (she was sentenced to 12 years in prison, though the conviction was later overturned upon appeal and Stubblefield now faces a new trial). Although they use a variety of arguments, they claimed that because D.J. could not likely understand the idea consent, "it seems that if Stubblefield wronged or harmed him, it must have been in a way that he is incapable of understanding and that affected his experience only pleasurably." 

A series of extended critiques have been made toward this logic, yet Singer has not yet responded. For example, on the Feminist Philosopher, the argument has been made that "Why ever should we think that one must have the cognitive capacity to conceptualize precisely how one has been harmed in order to have been so harmed? Are small children not even possibly victims of sexual assault? Can animals not be unjustly exploited? Are persons with severe brain damage incapable of being victims of theft?" 

Whatever one might think about the merits of Singer's arguments, crowning him as "an excellent public philosopher" or as someone whose work we should "appreciate...perhaps especially if...we disagree with him," seems a bit off in light of his recent inability to engage responsibly with his public.

See the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al4i4oQT8Ng

 
 
 

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