Political Philosophy: Ethicist Peter Singer Tackles Election Issues at Stevens

10/22/2012

Whichever candidate has your vote, we can all agree that the welfare of every American will be affected in one way or another by the upcoming U.S. Presidential election.

With less than three weeks to go until the decision, the Stevens community pondered a myriad of issues facing the nation, all from an ethical perspective.

Peter Singer, who is widely recognized as one of the most influential contemporary philosophers in the world, spearheaded the discussion. He offered his own eye-opening views into the morally correct courses of action in critical areas such as tax law, healthcare policy, abortion and foreign policy and gave insight into how the election may determine whether America follows a moral path.

Singer came to Stevens as part of a seminar hosted by the Stevens Center for Science Writings (CSW), a unit of the College of Arts & Letters (CAL), which brings prominent writers, scientists and scholars to campus to discuss science-related issues.

Holding joint appointments at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne in Australia, Singer is renowned for his writings on the ethical dimensions of animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, poverty, globalization, healthcare and other issues. Among his famous books are “Animal Liberation,” which helped inspire the modern animal rights movement, “Practical Ethics,” which analyzes why and how living beings' interests should be weighed, and his newest release, “The Life You Can Save,” which argues that affluent people should do much more to help alleviate poverty around the world.

“CAL gives students grounding in the humanities and social sciences,” said CSW Director John Horgan. “Students wrestle with questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a moral person? By what rules should we live if we want to be good, happy people?’ Peter Singer has also wrestled with these questions. He epitomizes the engaged, activist intellectual. For all these reasons, I asked Singer to visit us to talk about ethical issues in the current Presidential election.”

Singer analyzed many issues shaping the election through the lens of his famous philosophy, utilitarianism, which holds that the goal of ethics should be minimize suffering and maximize wellbeing. He said many Americans do not frame their vote in that context, as evidenced by the second Presidential debate, in which the Town Hall participants primarily asked questions about what each candidate can do for them, personally.

“I was disappointed by the debate,” he said. “What the candidates can do for you – i.e. Can you ensure I will be able to get a job? Can you promise I will pay less for gas? – should not be the only thing you think about when you vote.”

Singer thinks taxes, in particular, are thought of in self-interested terms. While both candidates are trying to convince the middle class that their taxes will come down if they are elected, Singer believes what sets them apart are their views on tax cuts for the wealthy, which he does not support. He believes tax cuts for the wealthy are unneeded, would make it more difficult to reduce the deficit, and would ultimately hurt many more Americans than they would help.

Regarding healthcare policy, Singer cited statistics that showed that the U.S. spends much more on healthcare than many other nations, but has worse outcomes. He called ours a “crazy system” in which uninsured people are denied basic preventative care, but then allowed last minute, very costly emergency care when they end up in the hospital.

“There is something seriously amiss about healthcare in the United States,” he said.

Singer’s philosophy supports legislation that would bring about universal healthcare – or at least greatly reduce the number of uninsured – and also makes the healthcare system more efficient. He believes Obamacare is a step in the right direction, but not perfect.

Singer also described his philosophy on the controversial issue of abortion. Like many activists, politicians and regular voters, he pondered the basic question about whether a fetus is alive. He said yes, it is alive, but then strayed from the usual conclusion that therefore abortion is wrong. Instead, he said fetuses are scientifically human, but they are not self-aware and they cannot plan their futures – therefore, abortion in some cases can be justified.

Unlike so many who debate the pro-life, pro-choice issue, Singer was also interested in a separate question: who should decide if abortion should be legal? Although he agrees with the premise of the Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion, he ultimately believes abortion rights should be state-by-state decision, so in some ways he supports the movement to overturn it.

“I’m a bit torn because I don’t think the legality of abortion should be something the Supreme Court decides, but I would regret overturning Roe vs. Wade for the impact it could have on women, especially poor women with restricted travel,” he said.

Another issue Singer discussed was foreign policy – specifically if America should take preemptive military action to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Singer does not support violence at this state, saying Iran does not pose an immediate threat and America does not have enough knowledge about its nuclear capabilities or production plans.

Whether you agree or disagree with his positions, Singer’s talk brought rational thinking to some of the hottest and most controversial topics of this Presidential election.

“He is clearly motivated by compassion, and the desire to make the world a better place, but he appeals to reason rather than emotion, a rare trait these days,” Horgan said.