Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He first became well known internationally after the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include: Democracy and Disobedience; Practical Ethics; The Expanding Circle; Marx; Hegel; The Reproduction Revolution (with Deane Wells), Should the Baby Live? (with Helga Kuhse), How Are We to Live?, Rethinking Life and Death; One World; Pushing Time Away; The President of Good and Evil; and, with Jim Mason,The Ethics of What We Eat. Singer holds his appointment at the center jointly with his appointment as Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, attached to the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics.
Question: How do you determine the morality of stem cell research?
Peter Singer: A certain thing the government needs to regulate, the use of made genetic information because if it doesn’t, we’re going to get into a situation where rich people can buy information that enables them to select certain, among the variety of embryos, select the best children or the children with most talents and poor people are not and I think that’s going to produce a society that’s even more sharply divided among the lines of rich and poor than our society is today and I think we want or should want such a society.
So, in the genetics matter, I do think there’s a need for regulation. On the use of stem cells for research, the only regulation that I would see would be if anyone is going to use them for reproductive purposes but I don’t think that that’s very likely. I don’t know anyone who’s focusing on that.
So if stem cells or embryos that are going to be used to remove stem cells and the stem cells are then going to be used for research and destroyed, and not allowed to develop into an embryo and then a fetus and a child, I really don’t see much need to regulate that.
Question: Why is your perspective on abortion unique?
Peter Singer: My defense of abortion is unique because it does not try to draw a sharp distinction between the fetus and the infant. It acknowledges a point that opponents of abortion make that there is simply a gradual development of the human being that continues during the first months of life after birth, as well as beforehand.
So I think the question about abortion we should ask is not, is the embryo or fetus a living human being, because I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, it is. The question is, what characteristics or capacities does a being have to have in order to make it a case that that being has a serious right to life?
And when we ask that question, I think it’s not hard to see that the answer, when it’s a member of the species Homosapien, is not really a very persuasive answer. Why should membership of one particularly species be determinative of whether you have a right to life or not.
So if we reject that answer then we’re going to have to look at the characteristics of the beings and say, are these characteristics is such that if you have them, you have the right to life and if you don’t, you don’t. And I think we can explore what those characteristics might be, but the most important part is to break away from the idea that it’s the membership of our species in itself that really is the morally crucial marking line, dividing line.
Recorded on: March 16, 2009