Talking Points

The trendy philosopher who just won $1 million

It's been a long time since philosophers had to fear the fate of Socrates, who was executed in ancient Athens for atheism and corrupting the young. Still, it's rare for philosophers to receive great monetary rewards for their work of posing provocative questions that skewer popular pieties. That makes it all the more surprising that Princeton University's Peter Singer has won a $1 million prize from the Los Angeles-based Berggruen Institute. (Past recipients include public-health-advocate Paul Farmer and the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.)

Singer is best known for advocating a form of utilitarianism — the view that ethics should be concerned above all with promoting the greatest good for the greatest number of people. That might sound reasonable at first sight, but it entails certain other views that contradict our moral intuitions. Singer is famous (or infamous) for denying any moral distinction between animals and human beings, for example, and he grounds rights in the capacity to feel pleasure and pain and develop preferences on their basis. This implies that infanticide of severely disabled newborns is acceptable but factory farming and experimentation that causes pain to animals is not. (Singer is a hero to those who champion animal rights but widely despised by disability-rights activists.)

In addition to eliding the distinction between humans and animals, Singer also insists that giving any kind of ethical priority to one's own family, friends, or fellow countrymen over people in other parts of the world is immoral. What counts is suffering, wherever it is found, and the duty to alleviate it.

The result is a form of moral reasoning at once utterly divorced from place, attachment, and many commonsense moral intuitions — and also somehow very much rooted in the assumptions inculcated by a certain kind of Western progressive who finds metaphysical claims (about, say, innate human dignity) and parochial solidarity keenly distasteful. In this respect, Singer's thought, so hostile to prejudice, has the effect of flattering the prejudices of many in his own class.

Maybe the fact that Peter Singer has been rewarded with a generous prize isn't so surprising after all.