Peter Singer: Australia’s Favorite Son?

The controversial bioethicist Peter Singer has received Australia’s highest civil honour. He has been made a Companion of the Order of Australia “for eminent service to philosophy and bioethics as a leader of public debate and communicator of ideas in the areas of global poverty, animal welfare and the human condition”.

Singer, who has been at Princeton since 1999, is a prolific writer who is best known as a spokesman for utilitarian bioethics and as a theorist for animal rights. In recent years he has also written extensively on welfare ethics. Politically, he is aligned with the Australian Greens. In 1996 he wrote their manifesto with former party leader Bob Brown and stood unsuccessfully for the Federal Senate. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, which may account for his award.

Philosopher Peter Singer

Whether or not Singer is the world’s best-known philosopher is hard to say, but he is definitely Australia’s. Not long ago he appeared on Q&A, a local current affairs program and added bestiality to the ethical positions to which he does not object. Others include infanticide, euthanasia and abortion.

So the “gong”, as Australians call such awards, was greeted with dismay by his numerous opponents. Nationals Senate leader Barnaby Joyce called it “madness”. Writing in The Australian, Dr Amin Abboud*, a moral philosopher, wondered how people could object:  “Can Australians who may feel like accessories after the fact to infanticide get a certificate of their own explicitly dissociating them from Singer’s repugnant views?”

Singer accepted the uproar philosophically. “Obviously some of my views are controversial and that hasn’t stopped me receiving this honour. That suggests we are a tolerant society that values a diversity of views,” he told The Australian.

Professor Singer was not the only Australian bioethicist to feature in a media controversy this week. Professor Julian Savulescu, a former student of Singer’s who now teaches at Oxford University in the UK, has been nominated as one of the nation’s intellectual elite. A government department spent A$28,765 photographing him to help improve the country’s image overseas. “The only victim here is the taxpayer,” said Opposition government waste spokesman Jamie Briggs said— somewhat predictably. “At a time when the Government is planning the world’s biggest carbon tax, they are wasting taxpayers’ money.”

* Dr Amin Abboud is a foundation editor of BioEdge. 

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Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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