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Peter Singer: A Dangerous Mind
55 mins. Films for the Humanities and Sciences
review by Steve Fesenmaier Charleston, WV Feb. 25, 2004
This new BBC-ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corp.) documentary on
Australian philosopher Peter Singer starts in a neo-natal unit in New
Jersey and ends in India.
Singer came to the US several years ago to teach at Princeton, facing a
storm of protest that has not gone away. Singer is most famous for
writing the landmark books arguing for the rights of animals, but in
this film the focus is on his belief that killing newborns who are
severely disabled – and killing others, older people, any age people,
who are in pain and severely disabled – should be permitted.
Clips from a 60 Minutes story are used, showing Dan Rather’s amazement
at Singer’s support for euthanasia. Protesters with signs saying, “Not
dead yet!” are shown. One opponent calls him “Hitler in black robes,”
pointing out that Nazis used the expression “life unworthy of life” to
murder thousands of handicapped and retarded children.
Singer also briefly discusses how he believes that some drug tests could
be conducted on comatose humans rather than animals, stating that “one’s
species should not be the only criterion” for testing. Harold Shapiro,
past president of Princeton, states his support for Singer’s creative
The film follows Singer from St. Peter’s neo-natal unit in New
Brunswick, NJ to England where he visits with the Glass family whose son
is severely disabled and who was almost killed by his own doctors.
Next Singer is shown in his grandfather’s hometown of Vienna where he
was doing research for his autobiographical book, “Pushing Time Away,”
that deals with the fate of his grandparents under Hitler. Both his
grandfather and Hitler shared a common birthdate – April 20th. He came
to confront directly the problem of how such a rational society could
use “thinking with their blood” to murder so many innocent people. He
also states his doubt in the existence of a God that could permit such
Singer is a utilitarian, and as a utilitarian believes in maximizing the
most good for the most people.
Next he is off to his home country of Australia where he visits with a
family whose mother was dying from cancer and who was in much pain. He
goes to their home, and discusses her son’s pain at their mother’s
decision to end her own life.
Throughout the film Wesley J. Smith from the Task Force on Euthanasia
states his own beliefs, and judges Singer as not being honest. Raimond
Gaita from the University of London, a fellow philosopher, also explains
some of the philosophical implications of Singer’s work.
Singer’s last trip is to India where he explores where some of his money
– he donates 20 % of his income to charities – is being used to help
the poorest people. He believes that if some of the money used to keep
wealthy Americans and Europeans, etc. alive could be given to the
poorest people on earth that it would be the best use of the money. The
top 1/5th in wealth could do immense good for the bottom 1/5th.
Besides various commentators being interviewed, there are clips of
Singer’s home movies, and home movies of some of the people he visits.
I thought that Singer reminded me of Billy Bob Thornton, the Hollywood
actor and director, and spoke with great intelligence like Thornton
does. We get to see him eating with his family – his wife and children,
who talk about what it is like to have such a controversial father. They
also discuss with Singer and others what he actually did when his own
mother got severe Alzheimer’s Disease – and how he just did not throw
away her life. He admits, “ My mother’s disease advanced until she did
not live as a person – a person with memories of her past and of other
people.” Luckily, some medical emergency intervened and she died.
I wish that the film had gone more into his earlier work on animal
rights. As Colin McGinn, the advisor for Films for the Humanities and
Sciences new film series on philosophy, has stated, “Actually I don't
think Singer's work has affected me at all and I strongly disagree with
some of his positions; but I do think some of his books are good.”
I think that all philosophy, all medical ethics, a thousand different
courses could certainly use this film to good advantage.
I studied medical ethics in 1971 in the first course offered at the
Minnesota, before the most famous American medical ethicist, Dr. Arthur
Caplan, came to the program. I found it amazingly interesting and still
recall the book we read on the ethics of donating blood. This film will
certainly spark discussion of medical ethics, and animal rights, as much
as any film I have ever seen.
One further note – Sanford Berman, the unretired cataloger from Hennepin
County Library, created a new subject heading based on Singer’s work –
and use of the term – “speciesism.”
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