“Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”
Twice a year I teach a course that requires the students to read carefully and critically week by week, listening and analyzing as they make their way through the world. A graduate-seminar in pedagogy, for three hours we meet; for an hour or so on the book for the week, and then for most of two hours they read their papers aloud, asking questions of each other. As the professor in the room, I have a different role, more the facilitator of the conversation, keeping us on-point, and moving through the class time, asking my own questions.
We read Tom Wolfe and Naomi Wolf, Dorothy Sayers and Mardi Keyes, John Stott and Francis Schaeffer and Lesslie Newbigin and Lamin Sanneh, Thomas de Zengotita and Nicholas Carr, Harry Blamires and Wendell Berry, and more, digging away at the ways of the world, and trying hard to understand our place in it. I want them to read widely, always taking the ideas seriously, even as they disagree, sometimes fundamentally.
This week’s class is one that I always look forward to, as we take up the life and thought of Peter Singer, Princeton University’s famous philosopher. Appointed director of the university’s Center for Human Values, he is ironically best-known for his radical reimagining of the very nature of “human values” and, to put a point on it, the nature of being human. A brilliant and consistent evolutionary materialist, a utilitarian by moral philosophy, he argues with great sophistication that human beings are not different than any other mammal— and therefore should not be accorded any more honor or dignity or protection than any other mammal.
As the film of a generation ago put it, “They shoot horses, don’t they?” And for Peter Singer, that is his signature thesis. When we lose our utility as people, when we are no longer useful for others, we should be euthanized, put to death. Not grossly or crudely, of course, so no gas ovens— but nicely, so with birds singing, flowers blooming, and of course, tasteful music. He is after all, the figurehead for Princeton’s Center for Human Values!
Years ago Michael Specter wrote a fascinating essay on Singer for The New Yorker, “The Dangerous Philosopher,” and it seems as if Spector must have read Schaeffer, as the critique is strangely reminiscent of the best of L’Abri’s reading of the world. As good a window into “taking the roof off” and “the logical conclusion of one’s presuppositions” as I know, point by point Specter examines Singer’s philosophical vision, and what it means for human beings, for “human values” we could say— and of course, with Schaeffer always pressing for meaning, “But do you really live this way? Can human beings live like this?”
With detail, Specter interviews people who have known Singer and his work, asking hard questions about the “they-shoot-horses” ethic, Anne McDonald among them. Born with athetoid cerebral palsy, she was long assumed to be a body without much of a brain, and was left in a dark hallway of a home for desperately needy people in Melbourne, Australia. By surprising mercy, one day someone saw something more, and Anne’s life began to change slowly, but dramatically. That story is worth the read all by itself. But over time she met Singer, and while liking him as a person, knew that in his terms, she was someone with a life not worth living.
“We can always be sure of one thing,” McDonald said, typing on her keyboard. “The dead have no regrets. Peter thinks that way. He knows me. But he doesn’t think about individuals. We are all just a category to him.” She goes on. “Peter is a perfectly sincere man, but he thinks real life is not as important as intellectual life. So he can be very compelling when he talks about the intelligence and feelings of a pig. But he is somehow not as quick to understand what our problems and possibilities might be. He has all these big ideas, but he has never really gotten his hands dirty. Peter needs to get a little more involved in life if he wants to understand it.”
All this moves towards the crescendo of the final page, a tender reflection on Singer’s own mother, who slowly enters into the darkness of Alzheimer’s. Anyone who knows this sorrow, knows its burden; I know that I do. But Singer has spent his life arguing against using the limited resources of family and society for those who are no longer useful, i.e. which is why his ethic is called utilitarianism. But when push-comes-to-shove, he and his sister refused to do their mother’s will— she had insisted that she not be cared for if she became unuseful as she aged —but instead chose to provide care for their mother, even with her debilitating Alzheimer’s. When asked about the dissonance between his philosophy and his life, he said— human being that he is, human being that he must be —”Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it’s your mother.”
My longing for my students is that they see the complex questions of the world for what they are— weeping, praying, thinking and working for more coherent lives, where what they believe about the world becomes the way the way that they live in the world, seeing seamlessly because everything and everyone matters.