Free Speech

Why Listen to Abhorrent Speech

Thoughts on Peter Singer and Rhodes College.

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This week the controversial philosopher Peter Singer took part in a Zoom discussion on "pandemic ethics," hosted by the philosophy department at Rhodes College. As reported by Brian Leiter and by Daily Nous, a number of Rhodes faculty members urged the school to cancel his invitation, given Singer's views on the permissibility of euthanizing severely disabled infants. (Singer recently discussed his views with NPR, the New Yorker, and the Journal of Practical Ethics; they were also the subject of a fascinating New York Times Magazine essay by Harriet McBryde Johnson in 2003.)

I want to assume, for present purposes, the beyond-the-pale-ness of Singer's views. So why should anyone listen to abhorrent speech from an abhorrent speaker?

The standard reason is "because you might learn something." Singer's works on animal rights and on charitable obligations are widely read and assigned. (For full disclosure, I include an essay of his on the status of embryos, together with a critical response by Patrick Lee and Robert George, on the syllabus of my reading group on abortion.) But Singer's critics would say there's little worth learning from him about illness and disability, and again I want to assume, for present purposes, that they're right.

Another common reason is "because it helps you debate people like him." Free-speech proponents often cite some version of J.S. Mill's argument, that "[h]e who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that." But many people feel quite comfortable in their own beliefs about euthanizing infants, aren't interested in debating Singer on such questions, and are perfectly content to deny him platforms instead. Charles Hughes wrote his colleagues at Rhodes a letter rejecting "the legitimacy of debating whether disabled people are people"; I doubt that Singer accepts this framing, but Mill quotes won't do much to dislodge it.

Another, similar, reason is "because it helps you understand people like him." I once attended an event at Oxford on "Islam and Democracy in the Middle East," in which one of the speakers (on the anti-democracy side) was a member of an Islamist political party dedicated to the restoration of the Caliphate. There wasn't much chance I was going to adopt his politics over the course of the evening, but many millions of people in some parts of the world already have, and it can be useful to hear a clear expression of what they might actually think. That said, there are limits to this kind of argument; the Anti-Defamation League can track what's going on among extremists without inviting David Duke to lecture on "Current Trends in Anti-Semitism." (Though if they did invite him, and if he accepted, that would be quite an event.)

So I want to offer yet another reason to hear abhorrent speech: "because it helps you reconsider premises you might already hold." Singer is a thoroughgoing utilitarian. Sometimes that strikes others as saintly, as in his advocacy for animals or the global poor; sometimes it strikes others as monstrous, as in his relative disregard for human beings or the global non-poor. But the saintly parts and the monstrous parts aren't easy to disconnect. Arguments like Singer's aren't just sneaky efforts to get you to believe unacceptable conclusions; they're also efforts to show that these conclusions follow from somewhat-less-than-obviously unacceptable premises. What makes Singer's work worth reading, if at all, is the quality of the reasoning—whether the arguments are plainly and lucidly expressed, whether they effectively connect proposition A to proposition B. And if the arguments work, if the premises really do lead to the conclusions, then that can be a somewhat-less-than-obvious reason to reject the premises in the first place: one man's modus ponens is another's reductio.

G.A. Cohen famously asked, "If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're So Rich?" Peter Singer offers something like, "If You're a Utilitarian, How Come You Wouldn't Let Parents Euthanize Their Severely Disabled Infants?" For those of us appalled by that suggestion, the answer might be to stop being a utilitarian—or to be a different kind of utilitarian, or to find some other place in the argument to get off the bus. Arguments like Singer's can have a great deal of force for us even if, perhaps especially if, we recoil from his actual positions. The better the reasoning, the more his work requires us—if we're going to be honest—to pick out the step where we disagree, and to see what consequences that has for the rest of our thought. (If we agree that infants have a right to live, we might ask which qualities they have in virtue of which that's so, which other beings have those qualities, and so on.) The fact that Singer actually believes both the premises and the conclusions is less important, for this purpose, than the quality of his efforts at connecting them: someone could read his whole oeuvre as if it were contained in block quotes, followed by the line "And this is why these premises are wrong."

In theory, anyone else could make that kind of argument. But perhaps because Singer does believe it so strongly, very few people do it better—which strikes me as a decent reason, abhorrence notwithstanding, to think about what he has to say.

(Edit: updated order of reporting sources)