Late Edition: The Shibboleths of Academic Freedom

Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer has for many years contemplated the mysteries of the human condition from his perch at Australia’s Monash University. His studied conclusion, articulated in numerous articles and books, is that traditional morality is so much delusional hogwash.

If you look closely at what most men do, as opposed to what they claim they are doing, Singer says, you will see them engaged in an effort to maximize their own pleasure. And Professor Singer wishes to help them along by contriving a set of ethical rules to make them comfy as they pursue their inclinations.

Lest you get the idea that Dr. Singer is a mere apostle of self-indulgence, it should be said at once that he is as stern as a Victorian schoolmarm when it comes to certain kinds of behavior. We should be scrupulous, for example, to respect the rights of animals. Singer’s opinions on this subject have made him into something like the philosopher- king of the animal rights movement. He is also a moving force behind The Great Ape Project, which seeks to secure legal protection for certain higher-order simians.

Some apes, he argues, are entitled to rights of personhood, a status he refuses to grant to all human beings. In Singer’s view, human infants are, at best, only presumptively rights-bearing creatures. For at least a couple of months after a child is born, he says, the law should recognize a parental right to kill their offspring.

In so arguing, of course, Singer is doing little more than extending the logic of Roe v. Wade to children already born—a proposition that would perhaps shock the conscience of the late Harry Blackmun, though there is little in his opinion or in subsequent opinions of the Supreme Court to prevent that extension. Singer’s razor shreds the pretense of decency that shrouds for many the barbarism of the Court’s reasoning.

Dr. Singer’s candor, however, is not always appreciated. He is effectively banned from lecturing in Germany, where angry crowds greet his appearance with unpleasant reminders of Nazi eugenics. But what is unacceptable in Germany has apparently become a badge of honor at Princeton University, which recently invested Singer with a professorship in bioethics.

A robust group of Princeton students, showing more moral wisdom and courage than their mentors, staged a protest rally in April, with the promise of more when Singer arrives this Fall. Steve Forbes, presidential candidate and Princeton trustee, in a comparable display of wisdom and courage, asked Princeton president Harold Shapiro to rescind Singer’s appointment. As the dynamics of the presidential race develop, Forbes’s gesture could make infanticide a national issue.

In response, President Shapiro has predictably embraced what William F. Buckley once aptly called “the shibboleths of academic free-dom.” Shapiro wishes to paint Singer’s opponents as so many censorious pecksniffs who would impose their views on unsuspecting undergraduates. This is a routine, and routinely hypocritical, argument by the university presidents, who preside over the most Pavlovianly liberal institutions in American society “You wouldn’t want to come to a university where only certain views are allowed,” Dr. Shapiro huffed to the Daily Princetonian. Indeed, but precisely for that reason, Shapiro should pay closer attention to the opinions of his faculty, most of whom share philosophical and political ideas of a similar stripe.

Professor Amy Gutmann, who was instrumental in bringing Singer to Princeton, perhaps revealed more than she intended in saying that Singer holds “a mainstream philosophical view” Some mainstream. Some view. Given the canons that govern modern academia, she is, alas, correct, but that only serves to remind us—to paraphrase Mr. Buckley again—that we’d all be better off governed by the first 2,000 people in the phone book than by the Princeton faculty.

Professor Singer will no doubt assume his post unchastened by anyone in Princeton’s hierarchy. Students, however, are another matter. With ingenuity, they can make professor Singer’s stay as uncomfortable as possible. Let him explain his theories to a cadre of handicapped students. The prospect is almost too delicious to contemplate.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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