Philosophy dept. event sparks controversy

Fem Alliance and ACCESS hosted a talkback following the lecture by Peter Singer. Many who attended both events found the constructive dialogues to be helpful in understanding Singer’s point of view. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Fem Alliance and ACCESS hosted a talkback following the lecture by Peter Singer. Many who attended both events found the constructive dialogues to be helpful in understanding Singer’s point of view. Photo By: Sam Pianello
Fem Alliance and ACCESS hosted a talkback following the lecture by Peter Singer. Many who attended both events found the constructive dialogues to be helpful in understanding Singer’s point of view. Photo By: Sam Pianello

On April 20, two students posted a Facebook event announcing that Peter Singer, a philosopher best known for his views on utilitarianism and altruism, would be Skyping in for a discussion on his TED Talk, “The Why and How of Effective Altruism,” the following week. Just minutes after, Willow Carter ’15 posted on the page, with a quote from Singer reading, “When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.”

“Ok cool,” she wrote. “Glad to see we’re bringing a eugenicist.”

Her post sparked a flurry of 38 comments, weighing the merits of bringing someone to campus whose views devalue the lives of disabled people, albeit only virtually. Some pointed out that the College wasn’t paying Singer—only selling his books, the profits of which would go to charity in accordance with his beliefs. But discussions on Facebook can only be so fruitful.

In hopes to open up a broader discussion about ableism in academia, Feminist Alliance and ACCESS hosted a talkback immediately following the Philosophy Department’s Singer event. In an open letter that the two organizations penned in protest, they write, “By sponsoring this event, the Philosophy Department is legitimizing Mr. Singer’s eugenicist ideals, which cannot and should not be separated from his utilitarian ideology as a whole. ‘Controversial’ or downright bigoted statements should not be brushed aside when considering a potential speaker, but rather weighed heavily in the College’s decisions about who to endorse.”

Similar feelings filled Rocky 210 at 8 p.m. this past Tuesday, at the talkback. After the Singer event ended just down the hall and the last few students petered in, ACCESS President Charles Callejo ’17 opened the discussion with a simple question: “How are some voices privileged over others in academia?” he asked.

Philosophy major Spencer Davis ’16 was the first to answer, stating, “…In a philosophy classroom there are norms that are enforced and those norms are expected from a body like mine. But if you don’t have a body like mine or doesn’t come from a background like mine you’ll have a hard time finding success in that space.”

Earlier, in an emailed statement, Davis wrote that though he recognizes ableism in philosophy and other fields, he doesn’t believe Singer’s views reflect ableist beliefs. “[But] I also think that we can converse with Singer in the context of shaping the world such that it welcomes disabled bodies more fully.”

Some students agreed, clarifying that Singer’s view is such that he doesn’t believe allocating funds toward assistance for disabled people is the most effective altruism. That money, he asserts, would be more effective if it went toward curing blindness caused by glaucoma in third-world countries, for example.

For many students, this fact doesn’t make them look any more favorable on Singer. Ellie Vamos ’17 responded, “To say that he doesn’t hate disabled people but he doesn’t want them to receive services or care—” People in the room laughed at the idea that these two could be mutually exclusive.

Diego Encarnación ’18, however, suggested that having these controversial views doesn’t make Singer special: He represents just one of many philosophical perspectives. “If you disagree with Singer, that’s good because it confirms your views…I feel like at Vassar—although I agree that Singer’s wrong,” he said, referring to Singer’s stance on people with disabilities, “I think we’re a bit too fast to jump.” Encarnación insisted that there’s value in engaging with oppositional opinions.

Tanya Madrigal ’18 expressed her frustration with this sentiment. Having gone to the Singer event, she felt that questions of ableism and eugenics weren’t addressed. “I think Singer’s worth hearing, but my problem was that there was an elephant in the room that wasn’t acknowledged,” she said.

Others pointed out that if the Philosophy Department hadn’t hosted the talk with Singer, the talkback wouldn’t be happening either.

“There’s a lot of people that say a lot of things and write a lot of books, but there are only some speakers departments bring to campus and in doing so they value certain voices,” said Westin Sibley ’17. “It confirms a belief system.” Vamos agreed, noting, “We could be having a similar discussion in the context of a disabled speaker’s talk rather than as a student-organized response.” Another student added that suggesting Singer and the event itself was beneficial in that it sparked productive dialogue overlooks the fact that many organizations on campus, like Feminist Alliance and ACCESS, are always having these conversations.

Phoebe Shalloway ’18 said, “There is a line somewhere where everyone would agree you shouldn’t bring a speaker here…The fact that people are protesting this event shows that they believe Peter Singer has crossed that line. But the Philosophy Department bringing him shows that they don’t think he has, which exposes how deeply ingrained ableism is in our institution.”

At times, the discussion became tense: Some students posited hypothetical scenarios in attempts to explain Singer’s beliefs with more nuance. Philosophy students contributed points of interest they discussed in class. But some of the tensions that had arisen on the event’s Facebook page manifested themselves in real life. When students voiced their criticism of Singer, others pointed out weak points in their arguments.

“What I’m hearing is academic discussion that’s making value judgments about disabled people’s lives. Why are we asking, ‘If we can have a genocide—philosophically—then let’s have a genocide?’” asked Marisa Tomaino ’17. “Our problem isn’t with a singular view,” she continued, noting that Singer never questions the value of other lives in his ethics. “Down the line, he’s deciding at every single point that the lives of disabled people aren’t worth as much. He continually focuses on disabled people because that’s the group he has it out for.”

Though not everyone was swayed, for students who went to both discussions, the talkback had a meaningful impact.

A student ended, “I went to both events and I’m grateful for it, because I would have left the Singer talk without the grain of salt I clearly needed.”

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