You are hereWhy Peter Singer makes the New Atheists nervous

Why Peter Singer makes the New Atheists nervous

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By Virgil - Posted on 17 March 2009

by Dinesh D'Souza

I write this fresh from debating bioethicist Peter Singer on "Can we be moral without God?" at Singer's home campus, Princeton University. Singer is a mild-mannered fellow who speaks calmly and lucidly. Yet you wouldn't have to read his work too long to find his extreme positions. He cheerfully advocates infanticide and euthanasia and, in almost the same breath, favors animal rights. Even most liberals would have qualms about third-trimester abortions; Singer does not hesitate to advocate what may be termed fourth-trimester abortions, i.e., the killing of infants after they are born.Singer writes, "My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others." Singer argues that even pigs, chickens, and fish have more signs of consciousness and rationality—and, consequently, a greater claim to rights—than do fetuses, newborn infants, and people with mental disabilities. "Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at 10- or even 32-weeks gestation. … The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy."

Some people consider Singer a provocateur who says outrageous things just to get attention. But Singer is deadly serious about his views and—as emerged in our debate—has a consistent rational basis for his controversial positions.

To understand Singer, it's helpful to contrast him with "New Atheists" like Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. The New Atheists say we can get rid of God but preserve morality. They insist that no one needs God in order to be good; atheists can act no less virtuously than Christians. (And indeed, some atheists do put Christians to shame.) Even while repudiating the Christian God, Dawkins has publicly called himself a "cultural Christian."

But this position creates a problem outlined more than a century ago by the atheist philosopher Nietzsche. The death of God, Nietzsche argued, means that all the Christian values that have shaped the West rest on a mythical foundation. One may, out of habit, continue to live according to these values for a while. Over time, however, the values will decay, and if they are not replaced by new values, man will truly have to face the prospect of nihilism, what Nietzsche termed "the abyss."

Nietzsche's argument is illustrated in considering two of the central principles of Western civilization: "All men are created equal" and "Human life is precious." Nietzsche attributes both ideas to Christianity. It is because we are created equal and in the image of God that our lives have moral worth and that we share the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nietzsche's warning was that none of these values make sense without the background moral framework against which they were formulated. A post-Christian West, he argued, must go back to the ethical drawing board and reconsider its most cherished values, which include its traditional belief in the equal dignity of every human life.

Singer resolutely takes up a Nietzschean call for a "transvaluation of values," with a full awareness of the radical implications. He argues that we are not creations of God but rather mere Darwinian primates. We exist on an unbroken continuum with animals. Christianity, he says, arbitrarily separated man and animal, placing human life on a pedestal and consigning the animals to the status of tools for human well-being. Now, Singer says, we must remove Homo sapiens from this privileged position and restore the natural order. This translates into more rights for animals and less special treatment for human beings. There is a grim consistency in Singer's call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly.

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markedward's picture

For all purposes, I cannot understand how "morality" can exist without God. If we're all the by-product of a "random-chance" explosion billions/trillions/whenever ago... and there is no God who is ultimately in control of our existence... then there is absolutely no basis for morality. Who is the authority, then? Man? Why should I listen to any other person over what I believe is moral? If I have the power to do what I want whenever I want, no one has the "right" to dictate to me my own morality. Morality must come from an authority higher than that of mankind... and it must come from an absolute authority, because relative morality is just as flimsy as no morality. God is really the only entity who fits such critera.

Parker's picture

This article is exactly correct. If there is no Supreme Rule Guide in the universe which says that men ought to choose to believe in the abstract concept of "human rights" and ought not trample those "rights," then nature's prescription is "Do What Thou Wilt."

If there is no God, the entire theoretical basis of human morality goes poof. Whatever one can do or wants to do, one is permitted to do and must do. Blind evolution contains no moral prescriptions whatsoever. It provides no rule book except various urges and a capacity to act. If a person has urges to kill and eat his family, he may do so and be acting as a fine human in the same way certain chimpanzees, birds, and fish are fine at being what nature has made them to do. The Stalinists and Nazis were merely being good animals, especially by their own laws and standards.

Peter Singer is a fantastically consistent atheist. Though, actually, he's not consistent enough. It is clear from nature that it is permissible to kill at any time, but it may not be prudent to attempt such if your chance of losing the physical battle is greater than winning the battle. So, the potential of surrendering one's own life during a murder attempt is the only moral caution. And even then, there is no rule in the universe that says I ought to continue living.

Hitchens and Dawkins and these guys borrow Christian morality for themselves without any rational basis for doing so. They are tricksters who pull a slight of hand by throwing away the God of Theism while retaining the ethics that derive from the supposed existence of a Designer who intends specific things for His volitional creatures.

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