Peter Singer, controversial ethics professor, to speak at WU

Kat Zhao
Scott Bressler

Peter Singer, a renowned philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton University, will be speaking at Washington University this week in two open lectures, titled “Global Poverty: What Are Our Obligations?” and “Medical Decisions About Life and Death,” hosted by the Center for the Study of Ethics & Human Values.

Singer, author of the books “Practical Ethics” and the more recent “Writings on an Ethical Life,” is a defender of the ethical theory of utilitarianism and has held controversial stances on issues like infanticide and animal testing.

“[Singer is] a very prominent figure in contemporary philosophy. He’s had a big influence outside of philosophy in animal rights issues and environmental issues,” junior Andrew Wong, president of Philosophia, the University’s student-run philosophy club, said.

One of Singer’s most controversial positions is his support of infanticide. According to Wong, Singer establishes that there is no morally significant difference between a fetus in the womb and a fetus outside the womb, and that the fetus’ passage through the birth canal is not a morally significant event.

Singer argues that if it is morally permissible to have abortions, it is also morally permissible to abort the fetus outside the womb, according to Wong.

“Regardless of whether I personally agree with his views, it’s very good to have someone come who engages in issues of rational discourse, someone who promotes critical thinking about those issues,” Wong said.

According to Ansu Satpathy, a second year M.D./Ph.D student at the School of Medicine who is involved with the Center for the Study of Ethics & Human Values, Singer’s first influential published works were in the subject of animal liberation.

“The idea was that we should all be vegetarian, decreasing suffering for all those who have the ability to suffer,” Satpathy said. “Over time, his interests have varied and widened a little bit and he’s gotten into global ethics, helping out the poor and end-of-life issues.”

Satpathy says that he hopes Singer’s lectures will provide a good outlet for philosophical discussion.

“There are a lot of people who are really interested in talking about these kinds of things. Maybe they didn’t have the avenue to do that, so we’re hoping to expose them to different ways [they] can get involved,” Satpathy said. “There is a sort of growing interest in our student population.”

Singer teaches an introductory ethics course at Princeton, which was one of the most widely-taken courses.

“There are some things that I disagree with, but I think his overall message, decreasing suffering, is a very attractive message for people,” Satpathy said. “He thinks about things very rationally and he looks at many perspectives. For me that’s a very attractive part of his philosophy.”

Wong says there are certain advantages of inviting philosophers to campus to speak, as opposed to other kinds of speakers.

“This is a different kind of thinking. Having a philosopher come to speak is promoting a different type of critical thinking than having a politician or social activist speak. It’s one that people don’t think about as often but that’s important to think about,” Wong said. “There are certain assumptions in every discipline. It’s important to examine those assumptions. That’s what philosophy does.”

The lectures will also serve as a location to donate to the international charity Oxfam for poverty relief in Africa. The fundraiser is hosted by Students for Change, the International Student Association and the George Warren Brown School of Social Work. According to Satpathy, it was Singer’s idea to hold a fundraiser.

“The general idea is that it’s Singer’s philosophy as well. If we can give up something very small and marginal for ourselves [as] a huge benefit for others, then we should do so,” Satpathy said.

The lectures are also being hosted in part by the Washington University Medical Center Alumni Association, the Burson Student Activities Fund and the Student Health Lawyers Association at the School of Law.

The session addressing global poverty will be held on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. in Edison Theatre, while the session addressing medical decisions will be held at noon in Whelpley Hall at the St. Louis College of Pharmacy on the medical school’s campus.

Each session will consist of a 45-minute lecture followed by a 15-minute question-and-answer period, according to Satpathy.

Students can donate to Oxfam at or at Singer’s lectures.

-With additional reporting by Ben Sales and Puneet Kollipara

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