Human Exceptionalism

Reporter Connects With “Terminal Nonjudgmentalism”

I posted here at SHS a few days ago about a story reporting that Peter Singer would receive a cool $20 Gs for speaking at Arizona State University in Phoenix. I didn’t mention that I was interviewed for some time by the reporter but was not quoted. Nothing unusual there. I am often interviewed by the media for a story and not mentioned in the end product, which is fine with me. Sometimes, I am asked to provide a background understanding or to help consider angles of the story to cover. Or, the reporter might not think my comments were worth quoting–whatever.

But reporter Sarah Fenske apparently “got” something I said to her, which is an issue I think is a matter of some import. From her blog entry on Singer’s appearance:

When I was working on the column about Singer, I got in touch with one of his most outspoken critics, Wesley J. Smith. “As a society, we suffer from terminal nonjudgmentalism,” Smith told me. “We find ourselves unable, except against tobacco users, to say that we’re capable of making judgments.”

He’s right. And on top of that, I think, your average ASU student likes what Singer has to say about eating ethically. (You know, avoid factory farms, eat less meat, consider going vegan.) It’s kind of cool to have the “most influential philosopher in the world” saying what you want to hear.

Singer is a decent speaker: smart, quick, polite. But for $20,000, I would have loved for him to challenge people’s assumptions a little more. For example, he’s argued that “buying local” isn’t necessarily the most ethical choice–for all its trendiness, it doesn’t do much for Third World farmers. But that idea was only briefly touched on; he was too busy hashing over things we already all knew, like the idea that animals feel pain. Duh.

So despite Singer’s writings about babies, despite his status as “the most controversial philosopher in the world,” the whole thing was pleasant, unchallenging–and completely uncontroversial. Terminal nonjudgmentalism, indeed.

If Singer were a racist, he would have been challenged vociferously, ground rules notwithstanding. But apparently promoting infanticide isn’t seen as odious as discrimination based on race. Or perhaps it is because people make the mistake of not taking his advocacy for the propriety of killing babies who interfere with family interests–based on their purported non personhood–seriously. That’s a big mistake: Remember, the most dangerous sentence ever uttered is, “It can’t happen here.”