Monday, February 02, 2004

I have great respect for Peter Singer. Singer is a professor at Princeton University who has generated much controversy with the pro-infanticide positions he has taken in many of his works. During my sophomore year in college, I read Singer's Practical Ethics -- a book about ethical reasoning from a Utilitarian perspective aimed at the general public. I thought the conclusions reached were intriguing; I appreciated the logical nature of Singer'swriting. I never sympathized with his critics -- they seemed to lack the intellectual gravitas to take him on.

Recently, I picked up Singer's new book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization. It is a foray into economics and political science -- and after his previous works, it is a disappointing experience. Perhaps personal ethical problems like abortion and euthanasia can be handled through Singer's abstract approach; but Singer becomes hopelessly unrealistic when he tries to approach pragmatic issues.

For example, Singer writes ... the Clinton-Gore administration made it very clear that it was not prepared to risk the life of a single American in order to reduce the number of civilian casualties. In the context of the debate whether to intervene in Bosnia to stop "ethnic cleansing" operations directed against Bosnian Moslems, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quoted with approval the remark of the nineteenth-century German statesman Otto von Bismarck, that all the Balkans were not worth the bones of a single one of his soldiers. Bismarck, however, was not thinking of intervening in the Balkans to stop crimes against humanity. As Chancellor of Imperial Germany, he assumed that his country followed its national interest. To use his remark today as an argument against humanitarian intervention is to return to nineteenth-century power politics, ignoring both the bloody wars that style of politics brought about...and the efforts to ... find a better foundation for peace and the prevention of crimes against humanity

Singer proceeds to approvingly quote Timothy Garton Ash: It is a perverted moral code that will allow a million innocent civilians of another race to be made destitute because you are not prepared to risk the life of a single professional soldier of your own .

First, I am obliged to point out that Colin Powell was not the chairman of the Joint Chiefs during the Kosovo war as Singer implies. Powell resigned from the Joint Chiefs in September of 1993; the Kosovo campaign took place in 1999.

It is difficult to know what to make of Singer's argument. Clinton's decision to avoid deploying ground troops was not driven by ethical considerations; it was driven by simple pragmatism. The American people would not support an operation which sacrifices American lives for humanitarian reasons; Clinton found this out in Somalia. Faced with a choice between an air war and no war at all, Clinton correctly chose an air war.

It Singer means to address the attitude of the American people, rather than the choice made by the elected officials, then its difficult to view his diatribe as anything except a refrain aimed at human nature. After all, this is not an American trait; every culture is the same way. I doubt many Kosovars would be willing to risk their lives in a risky venture to stop an American civil war for purely humanitarian reasons.

And if it is a refrain against human nature, I feel it is a waste of my time. Yes, people are selfish; did I really need to pay $21.95 for Singer's book to learn that?


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