Podcast: The Detail

The philosopher whose thoughts are being cancelled

Peter Singer has already been de-platformed by SkyCity ahead of his New Zealand visit. Is he one of the world's most influential philosophers, or an intellectual pariah? 

Nearly half a century ago, Australian philosopher Peter Singer was presented with a quandary.

He'd been approached by paediatric doctors facing an ethical dilemma: what to do about children or babies born with disabilities so debilitating their lives could be considered inherently "unhappy"?

Singer is a proponent of utilitarianism: broadly speaking, he thinks people should act in such a way to minimise suffering, and to maximise happiness.

After mulling the question over, he came up with an idea

"We decided that, yes, it was a reasonable decision for parents and doctors to make: that it was better that infants with [certain severe disabilities] should not live."

This idea has followed him around ever since.

Peter Singer is often called one of the world's most influential philosophers; he lectures at Princeton University in New Jersey and has contributed significantly to philosophical thought in several areas, including arguably spearheading the modern vegan movement.

Earlier this year it was announced Singer would appear in New Zealand for a talk about effective altruism at the SkyCity Theatre in Auckland - but within weeks the company withdrew the venue, amid a backlash from disability advocates arguing Singer's views didn't deserve a platform. (Singer will now appear at a Trusts Arena venue in Te Atatu – the organisation says in a statement that arguably, refusing him permission to speak could be a breach of the Bill of Rights.)

This isn't the first time this issue has cropped up recently.

Former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash had an event at Massey University cancelled in 2018, and right-wing provocateurs Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux were also de-platformed that same year - with both decisions influenced by public outrage.

But this case is a bit different: Singer is a world-renowned philosopher, a person whose professional role is to conceive and debate boundary-pushing ideas and arguments.

Journalist and broadcaster Graeme Hill has interviewed Singer twice, and wrote an article in the New Zealand Herald in February arguing Sky City should’ve let him speak.

Hill says a type of groupthink is evolving in which people who see themselves as morally "right" take a perverse joy in de-platforming people they disagree with.

"The rejoicing ... finding something, anything, which doesn't fit the polite society narrative ... they can be held down, lose their jobs, [be made] exempt from society from that point forward.”

Hill says the situation is comparable to the zenith of McCarthyism in the USA in the 1950s - and that a societal pushback may be required.

"It behoves us to recognise when that sort of thing is happening, and to pull back and have a good think about it.

"Mao killed millions of people through neglect, hubris and horror ... I'm not talking about that.

"But it really is dystopian ... if you feel, right, the opinion is all on my side, therefore we are RIGHT - it's easier to be caught up in it.

"And Bertrand Russell always rings in my ears: one ought to always entertain one's opinion with an element of doubt."

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

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