Peter Singer Talk in New Zealand Cancelled by Venue (Updated)


SkyCity, a hotel and entertainment complex in Auckland, New Zealand, that was scheduled to host a talk this June by Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton, has cancelled the event owing to controversy over the philosopher’s writings.

Sunaura Taylor, “Arctic Wheelchair”

Though appearances of his have occasioned protests in the past, this is the first time in a five-decade career of giving talks, mostly at universities, that a venue has actually cancelled a speaking engagement of his, according to Singer (as reported by the New Zealand Herald). SkyCity is a hotel and casino, not a university. [UPDATE: A reader points to a report that Singer was disinvited from a philosophy festival in Germany in 2015, and mentions other cancellations. Also, in a comment on this post, Professor Singer denies telling the New Zealand Herald this is the first time a talk of his has been cancelled. At this time the Herald article remains uncorrected (screen shot here).]

Singer is embarking on a speaking tour to raise money for charity, but it is his earlier writings on the permissibility of parents choosing to euthanize severely disabled babies that prompted opposition to his talk in New Zealand.

According to The Guardian, the venue released a statement saying, “Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

Singer is quoted as saying, “it’s extraordinary that Skycity should cancel my speaking engagement on the basis of a newspaper article without contacting either me or the organiser of my speaking tour to check the facts on which it appears to be basing the cancellation.”

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Will Behun
Will Behun
1 year ago

I generally think that the cries of a “cancel culture” amount to little more than right wing pearl clutching along the lines of the “war on Christmas.” This makes me rethink that.

To be clear, I find much of what Prof Singer claims to be deeply problematic and some of it reprehensible. And I am very grateful for his work precisely because it makes me question WHAT I find so reprehensible and how I might formulate a better way of thinking about the issues he addresses. Even only for this this, he is worth reading and listening to (not to mention the other virtues of his work).

I have no problem with a venue deciding not to host a speaker if that speaker legitimately represents values at odds with those of the organisafion. But as a sponsor it is their responsibility to make that determination in advance. If they feel they must cancel, it would seem that the bare minimum required morally would be to be sure that their concerns are valid, and allowing the controversial speaker in question a chance to address the concerns. Neither seems to have happened here.

It’s unlikely that I’ll change my mind on Prof Singer’s most controversial claims. But neither will I change my mind on how important he is as a thinker. This was hamfisted at best and disappointing.Report

Lance Bush
Reply to  Will Behun
1 year ago

I am glad you are rethinking this, but I’m concerned about why you would think so much criticism of cancel culture comes from the right wing. Much of it comes from the disaffected left, myself included…the kind of people who identify with e.g. George Carlin. Yet article after article pumped out by the likes of Vox and HuffPo frames all opposition to cancel culture as though it stems from the right. Much of it does, but much of it does not. Constant efforts to smear left-leaning proponents of free speech seem to have convinced many people that we don’t even exist.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
Reply to  Lance Bush
1 year ago

At least from where I stand the loudest objections seemed to be coming from the partisans of figures like Jordan Peterson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Ben Shapiro. But I suspect that’s just an artefact of my particular echo chamber.Report

Dave Baker
Dave Baker
Reply to  Lance Bush
1 year ago

Seconded. Although my sense of how (some of the writers at) Vox et al. are aiming to frame things is a bit different. Rather than pretending folks like you, me and Cornel West don’t exist, the goal seems to be to reframe the issues so that we now count as right-wing, at least on this one particular issue. Maybe that’s even an accurate assessment of how the meaning of the relevant words has shifted in the past few years?Report

Kelly
Kelly
Reply to  Will Behun
1 year ago

“I generally think that the cries of a “cancel culture” amount to little more than right wing pearl clutching along the lines of the “war on Christmas.” This makes me rethink that.”

The same people promoting the ban against Singer talking here in NZ are the same people who have been doing their best to deplatform left-wing feminists over the last few years. Every article I’ve read about this has had quotes from people whose names I’ve recognized as advocating for the deplatforming of Speak Up For Women.

The leadership of SUFW is left-wing – some liberal, some radical. The vast majority of the membership is also left-wing.

Banning left-wing feminists was a warm up. A practice run for applying purity tests.

The local web publication Spinoff advocated for banning Singer’s talk as well. This publication also was constantly mischaracterising and smearing Speak Up For Women and feminist individuals.

I can understand concerns are raised by the conservatives and liberal right-wingers: they understand that their views could be marginalised. But this concern doesn’t soley come from the right/conversatives. The only major political party in NZ to stand up to public speech purity has been the ACT Party: a liberal libertarian party.

Attacks on feminism have been a warm up for anti-democratic tendencies that run within left-wing parties.
As usual with sadistic authoritarianism, they always go for the women first.Report

kailadraper
Reply to  Kelly
1 year ago

I personally don’t want to deplatform anyone, not even those gender critical feminists who like to hate on trans people. I’m not saying that you disagree with what I am about to say, but I haven’t seen any attempt to deplatform feminists per se, just feminists who are rightly or wrongly perceived as transphobic or as anti-trans propagandists. Most feminists aren’t perceived in that way.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
Reply to  Kelly
1 year ago

“As usual with sadistic authoritarianism, they always go for the women first.”

Is the claim here that sadistic authoritarians always attack all, or most, women before they attack any men?

Or is it that when several people are attacked by sadistic authoritarians, the first person to be attacked by them is always a woman?

Whichever it is, I’d really appreciate some empirical evidence for the assertion.Report

R Lev
R Lev
1 year ago
Mark
Mark
1 year ago

“Unspeakable Conversations” is a wonderful piece, but it’s worth noting that Harriet McBryde Johnson talks about being criticized quite severely by friends and allies in the disability rights community for (as they saw it) giving Singer a platform by agreeing to debate him. Her response to this critique is very nuanced. As she writes:

“I am regularly confronted by people who tell me that Singer doesn’t deserve my human sympathy. I should make him an object of implacable wrath, to be cut off, silenced, destroyed absolutely. And I find myself lacking a logical argument to the contrary.”

Nevertheless:

“If I define Singer’s kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can’t live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can’t refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It’s not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.”

Needless to say, Harriet McBryde Johnson does not (did not) speak for the whole disability rights community, but the whole piece is very much worth reading.Report

Justin Kalef
Justin Kalef
1 year ago

How despicable that this was cancelled, and how especially despicable that it was cancelled in the way that it was.

I hope that philosophers, whether or not they agree with Singer’s position on this or any other issue, will unite against all such moves to prevent us from doing the very thing that justifies our existence at public expense: carefully and objectively examining, from all sides, the difficult and sensitive questions that will otherwise be decided by bullying and mob rule.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
1 year ago

“Whilst SkyCity supports the right of free speech, some of the themes promoted by this speaker do not reflect our values of diversity and inclusivity.”

What a fascinating logical structure. Let me have a go:

“Whilst I have nothing but admiration for SkyCity’s support for the right of free speech, they clearly either don’t know what it is, or don’t care.”

Did I get it right?Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Whilst I praise the clarity of David Wallace’s comments, I don’t have faintest idea of what his latest comment means.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Jen
1 year ago

Whilst I’m always willing to explain my posts, I’m not going to this time.Report

Jen
Jen
Reply to  David Wallace
1 year ago

Whilst I completely agree with you, you really must explain.Report

don't just read the headlines
don't just read the headlines
1 year ago

This piece about the response to Singer’s latest NZ talk has some interesting discussion of some of the debates among disabled people (including disability rights activists in NZ) about how to respond to Singer’s work.

“I don’t know what it is about pseudo-intellectual old men but I just don’t take them very seriously, so when I heard about [Singer] I thought ‘Oh god, who really cares. Who’s actually listening to this guy?’. But it turns out quite a few people are. That’s probably the thing that woke me up and made me feel like I should get involved in this kaupapa a little bit.

“We certainly run the risk, if we make a big song and dance about it, that we get the Jordan Williams’s and David Seymours on our case and all of a sudden Peter Singer becomes the hero of the free speech brigade. But at the same time, if we let a guy come to New Zealand and speak about how we should kill disabled babies, and we sit there and go ‘oh well, maybe no one will listen to him’, that feels naïve.”

Nicholson fears it’s not the immediate reaction to the talk but the seed it might plant that has the most potential for harm.

“I don’t think there are many people who would hear ‘we should kill disabled babies and replace them with non-disabled ones’ and go, that sounds reasonable. I don’t think there are many people that would be on board with that.

“All that would need to happen is for there to be a financial meltdown and all of a sudden government finances are stretched and it comes out that disabled people cost the taxpayer this many millions of dollars and we become targets for the next round of beneficiary bashing. It wouldn’t take much for more people to jump on that bandwagon.

“That’s what I worry about – less about the impact tomorrow but the potential for kōrero like this to live freely in the world to fuel fires later.”

https://thespinoff.co.nz/society/19-02-2020/disabled-voices-on-peter-singer-whos-actually-listening-to-this-guy/Report

Peter Singer
1 year ago

A few comments:
1. Just for the record, I did not tell the NZ Herald (or any other journalist) that this cancellation is the first in my career. There have been several others, mostly in Germany, starting in 1989. For details, see my account in The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1991/08/15/on-being-silenced-in-germany/
2. I was not planning to speak about life and death decisions for disabled newborns. The NZ visit is part of a tour of Australia and NZ, organized by Think Inc, to draw attention to The Life You Can Save, a charity I founded, and to the 10th Anniversary edition of my book of the same name (now available as a free eBook and audiobook from http://www.thelifeyoucansave.org). Think Inc has agreed to donate all profits from the tour to The Life You Can Save to assist its efforts in promoting effective giving that aids people in extreme poverty in low-income countries.
3. I have already received two offers of other venues in Auckland, so the visit will go ahead.
4. As a result of the cancellation, I have had several requests for interviews from NZ and Australian media, and many more people are hearing or reading about my views on life and death decisions for disabled newborns than would have if the venue had not cancelled the event. I take some consolation from the fact that the culture of cancelling speakers so often backfires in exactly this way.Report

Inconsequential
Inconsequential
Reply to  Peter Singer
1 year ago

“As a result of the cancellation, I have had several requests for interviews from NZ and Australian media, and many more people are hearing or reading about my views on life and death decisions for disabled newborns than would have if the venue had not cancelled the event.”
Therefore, by consequentialist standards, the venue acted morally right in the public cancelling of Singer’s speaking engagement.Report

witters
witters
Reply to  Inconsequential
1 year ago

You need to distinguish act and rule utilitarianism for a start.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Inconsequential
1 year ago

This really isn’t a good gotcha and I’m amazed that 18 professional philosophers apparently think it is. At most, it shows that people *accidentally* complied with their duties (from Singer’s point of view). Virtually any is going to have to allow that people can, by coincidence, achieve results that are the opposite of what they intend, and thereby fulfill duties they were trying to shirk. So this can’t specifically be embarrassing for utilitarians or consequentialists. Nobody, including consequentialists, has to think that this is praiseworthy (praising people for attempting to shut you down and thereby encouraging the spread of your ideas is hardly going to have useful consequences) or indicative of good moral character (i.e. a reliable disposition to act in the way that produces the best consequences.)Report

Paul
Paul
Reply to  David Mathers
1 year ago

Yes, but the commenter didn’t say that consequentialists are committed to saying that the action was “praiseworthy” or “indicative of good moral character”, just that it producing good consequences makes the act “morally right” following a consequentialist standard. That seems accurate, particularly if we’re dealing with objective consequentialism (i.e. assessing actions based on actual rather than anticipated consequences), in which case it doesn’t seem to matter whether one accidentally or intentionally complies with one’s duty.

Also, I didn’t read it as a gotcha comment (more as a joke), though perhaps it was intended that way.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  David Mathers
1 year ago

I also read it as a tongue-in-cheek comment, and I’m among the professional philosophers who thought this was pleasantly lighthearted, whereas David Marthers’ comment strikes me as actually playing the ‘gotcha’ game. I also don’t think Inconsequential was trying to embarrass consequentialists or utilitarians. I also don’t think Singer would disagree that, *by some consequentialist standard,* the venue might have acted rightly in cancelling the speech, had they known this would lead to a putatively better state of affairs.Report

Alan White
Alan White
1 year ago

I have always understood and taught Singer as maintaining (along with Bentham and Mill) that pleasures and pains are the only serious candidates for intrinsic values that can ground a moral system. Since they are properties of beings, and not the beings themselves, then the the moral sphere of discourse extends to all and only those possessing these properties. But this view does not recognize any place for the intrinsic value of any particular kind or individual of moral being thus included in that sphere. I take it Singer’s views are logical extensions of this perspective.
Of course most deontologists would reject all this, and thus must shoulder the burden of demonstrating why there are (and who are) morally intrinsic beings not reducible to having that status in virtue of of possessing transient or accidental properties.
I would also note that even by something like Singer’s own view, if there are enough who are pained by entertaining it and even tolerating its discussion, then on a meta-level Singer’s view might lead paradoxically to its own suppression. Of course I am deliberately overlooking here Millian-style refinements of a qualitative assessment of pleasures and pains that might rescue Singer from such paradox.
But, if we do not discuss such matters–even though they cannot practically be separated from deep attitudes about them that we seemingly cannot simply and easily set aside–then are we engaging the debate at the most basic of levels of philosophical discourse?Report

Shelley Lynn Tremain
Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

“The same people promoting the ban against Singer talking here in NZ are the same people who have been doing their best to deplatform left-wing feminists over the last few years.”

This remark seems at least partly incorrect. Huhanna Hickey, cited in both news items and associated videos on the cancellation of this event, is a Maori disabled lesbian activist and disability studies scholar. Huhanna is devoted to “left” causes and works indefatigably for the recognition of a range of disenfranchised and minority constituencies and their interests. About a week or so ago, Huhanna tagged me in a Facebook post about this issue, seeking my assistance. Unfortunately, I was caught up in some family matters at the time and unable to respond to them in a timely fashion.

I am, frankly, more concerned to uncover, identify, and interrogate the historical conditions of possibility for relevant aspects of the professionalized and famous persona of Peter Singer, his views on disability, and associated views rather than to focus on Peter Singer himself and a given event that features him. For although Peter Singer is usually represented as unique and controversial with respect to the views that he expounds (and seems inclined to represent himself as such), the apparatus of disability to which these views contribute and comprise is at the heart of and deeply embedded in the subfield of bioethics, promoted (in a variety of ways, more or less) by many philosophers and bioethicists throughout the profession.

Earlier in the week, a number of philosophers on Twitter expressed outrage that Richard Dawkins would have the audacity to assert that eugenics “could work” for humans, as it has done for some nonhuman animals and plants. Although these philosophers wished to show solidarity and concern for disabled people, I think that (most of) their comments seemed misplaced and suggested that they are unaware of what is likely taking place on a day-to-day basis in their own departments. One comment in response to Dawkins put it best by pointing out that his remarks didn’t seem unlike what is taught in introductory bioethics courses.

Indeed, it is standard fare in both undergraduate and graduate bioethics courses to teach that the view according to which disabled lives not worth living (and should be eliminated) is a legitimate position among other positions, a view legitimately worthy of philosophical reflection and adjudication, a view legitimately worthy of class time and space in textbooks. And note: the set of disabled people whose lives fit this description is steadily expanding and the technologies, discourses, laws, institutions, and policies that enable the view to both circulate and be put in practice are steadily normalized, incrementally and coercively. We can thank a number of bioethicists and other philosophers for these developments, not just Peter Singer.Report

David Mathers
David Mathers
Reply to  Shelley Lynn Tremain
1 year ago

Dawkins often says very stupid things but in this case, all he was saying (albeit in a slightly trollish manner-as I say, I have little time for the man) was that it would be biologically possible to bread humans for particular traits just like other animals. He also said he thought doing so was a bad thing. The second view clearly isn’t ableist, and if the first is well, then scientific fact is ableist. (I am disabled, by the way. And I actually I have very complicated feelings about whether it would be better or worse if people with my disability were no longer born, which absolutely does not mean that I want to stop living or even to become non-disabled.)

Further, Singer’s view isn’t that disabled lives are, generically, not worth living because disabled, but that it is *possible* for something to both be a disability and make life not worth living. Since literally any good of human life can, in principle be rendered inaccessible by some sort of difference in body or brain-function, not to mention that a disability can be a source of severe constant pain and “pain is bad” is at least as plausible as “disabled people are the authorities on how bad disabilites are”, it’s hard to conceive that this is wrong at this level of abstraction. (Which is compatible with Singer’s particular views on which disabilities make life not worth living being the result of bigotry and prejudice, obviously. I don’t really have an opinion on this because I forget the specifics of what Singer’s views actually are.)

If people are a bit taken aback by my sharp tone: in my home country of the UK disability rights orgs have thought tooth and nail against even very small incremental reforms to the euthanasia laws that allow voluntary euthanasia for the dying when they ask for it but are physically incapable of committing suicide without assistance. Why? Well because they extend the principle that sounds so good when it’s raised as an objection to Singer’s extreme (and at the very least, super unsettling) views about killing disabled babies: namely that you can’t say that a particular life isn’t worth living because of bodily discomfort. That is, they extend this from life’s to life-slices (an extension that I suspect is hard to resist) and hold that if it’s wrong to say that being in severe pain and discomfort could make a whole life not worth living, then that should also apply to temporary periods of illness, and hence to the temporary period of illness before death. I think this view is dangerous and disgusting when applied to people dying in agony. After all, someone under torture inflicted by others might be perfectly reasonable in begging for a quick death*, and it’s opaque why this wouldn’t extend to fatal illnesses that cause extreme suffering in their late stages. But disability advocates have tried to block relief for these people on the basis of a mixture of a fixation on ‘no life is not worth living’ as a slogan, and implausible slippery slope arguments which claim that once assisted dying for the terminally ill was allowed, various other dreadful things would follow by ‘the same logic’, ignoring the fact that the public already believes assisted dying is fine but rejects those others things, and it’s unclear why this would suddenly change if assisted dying became legal. Furthermore, the disability orgs do this despite polling evidence that their views are wildly out of step with those of the actual disabled public. I admit if you are sceptical, I don’t have a source to hand, but if you’ll take my word for it, I recall a debate in the House of Lords (our upper-chamber) where a blind Lord supporting a change in the law said that when he found out how far his view was from those of disability rights orgs this had given him pause, and he’d thought ‘am I an outlier relative to other disabled people?’, so he’d looked at the public polling and found that disabled citizens of the UK overwhelmingly supported assisted dying for the terminally ill, and that their support for this was barely lower than that of non-disabled citizens.

*I believe the historian Timothy Snyder’s Bloodland’s, his account of Nazi and Soviet atrocities in Eastern Europe contains the story of the Nazis simply imprisoning Soviet prisoners to die of exhaustion and starvation standing in a field: the prisoners, reasonably, begged to simply be machine-gunned.Report

New Doc
New Doc
Reply to  David Mathers
1 year ago

Let your ideas stand or fall on their own. Whether you are disabled is irrelevant. We need to stop having arguments this way. We’re philosophers. We know better.Report