<i>60II</i>: Unconventional Wisdom

Princeton Professor's Views Stir Up Controversy

The concept that every single life is precious has been underscored since Sept. 11. The worthiness of every individual - that every life has equal value - seems truer than ever to most of us.

Most of us. But not Peter Singer.

Singer is a philosopher who has become famous for disputing that all life is equally precious. In fact, he says it may be ethical to kill handicapped babies, argues that the lives of animals are not inferior to the lives of humans, and claims that most people choose their own enjoyment over the needs of starving children.

For the past few years, this mild-mannered Australian professor has been imparting his controversial messages behind the ivy-covered walls at Princeton University. In 1999, he was appointed to a new position at Princeton: teaching bioethics, the study of moral and ethical choices doctors face when treating patients.

For example, reports 48 Hours anchor Dan Rather, Singer would allow dangerous experiments on certain humans.

“I think there perhaps are some things which could be done with people who are no longer conscious at all, and will never recover consciousness," Singer says. “It would be ethically justifiable to approach the relatives and to say, ‘Look, we want to find out whether certain drugs produce adverse reactions in human beings. Do you have any objections to us doing this test on your relative, who can no longer suffer from it because he or she can no longer feel anything at all.’ “

Another of his "unconventional" views is about infanticide. In one explosive essay, he wrote: "Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often, it is not wrong at all."

“Killing a disabled infant is sometimes not wrong, given that the infant like any infant is not a person as I see it," Singer says. "I think that it's ethically defensible to say we do not have to continue its life. It does not have a right to life. And we can choose to end its life on the grounds that the future otherwise will be very bleak for that child.”

With views like these, it’s no wonder protesters shouted disapproval when Singer came to Princeton. Howard Shapiro, the university president who hired him, says “Controversy is a part of academic life, the marketplace of ideas does live and is alive here at Princeton.

Singer's ethical views about ending life aren't just philosophical ramblings. He backed Diane Amder, mother of 29-year-old Tina Cartrette. Cartrette has had cerebral palsy, severe mental retardation and seizures since infancy.

Her mother wanted to end Tina’s life; the hospital agreed and Singer concurs 100 percent. But the advocacy group for the disabled called "Not Dead Yet" asked a judge to intervene to keep Tina alive.

Steve Drake, who survived a childhood brain disorder, is spokesman for the group. "It is dressed up very nicely,” he says. “It is spoken in very polie tones by a very polite person but what he is really saying is that some peoples lives are not worth living, are not worth it for us as a society to put up with, is not worth families having kids with disabilities. He is really giving an air of respectability and legitimacy to these prejudices.”

The judge gave Tina's mother the power to decide what is best for her daughter. She chose to terminate life support and Tina died in August.

Singer's views about who should live and who should die have led people to compare him to the Nazis. It's a label he finds revolting as well as ironic; his parents were Jewish refugees from Austria who barely escaped the concentration camps by fleeing to Australia.

Singer first made a name for himself for his outspoken views on the suffering of animals. He sometimes is considered the father of the animal rights movement. He believes farm animals suffering pain is as undesirable as humans suffering pain.

“If humans have basic rights, such as rights to be spared unnecessary suffering, then animals have those rights, too,” he says. “The fact that a being is not a member of our species has nothing to do with how much its pain matters.”

Selfishness is at the core of Singer's ethical thinking. He often lectures about this subject around the world and has outlined this view in his latest book called "Writings on an Ethical Life."

He asks you to imagine that you have just invested most of your retirement money - as well as much of your pride - on an expensive automobile. You park the car on a railroad crossing to step out for a breath of fresh air. From out of the blue, a runaway train comes roaring toward your car. You can pull a switch to change the train track, but there is a refugee child from Bangladesh on that other track. So you have a choice: Save your car, or save the child.

Singer thinks most people would want to save the child, but by the way people live their everyday lives, they are choosing to save their car.

“We are so prepared to spend money on luxuries,” he says, “rather than give substantial amounts to alleviating the kind of poverty that leads to the preventable death of so many people elsewhere in the world. “

Singer used the example of the car and child in an article he wrote for The New York Times; it struck a chord with readers. Two charities mentioned in the piece, UNICEF and Oxfam, received donations of about three quarters of a million dollars in response. Singer himself says he gives 20 percent of his income to charity but ideally, he says, everyone should only keep money for basic necessities; the rest should be given away.

Singer admits he doesn't live up fully to his ideals but wishes “there were more people following me as far as I've gone, and then maybe it would be a little easier to keep going down that track.”

Medical miracles are bringing new ethical choices, but Singer says he is guied by one of the oldest rules of all.

“My ethics come from considering the consequences of my actions for all of those who get affected by them,” he says. “I'm prepared to say in effect my ethics is a kind of golden rule. The the idea of saying ‘How would you like it if this were done to you?’ is fundamental to my sense of ethics. I think that is what ethics is about. It's about getting beyond yourself and looking at the effect that you're having on others “

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