Saturday, October 21, 2006
I have posted about the Australian philosopher Peter Singer once before when I chaired a debate at Foyle's. By inspiring the animal rights and liberation movements, he has become, perhaps, the most celebrated and effective philosopher in the world. I was vaguely disappointed at that debate, feeling my own aversion to utilitarianism had not seriously been challenged. I am even more disappointed by an article by Singer in the Guardian today. This is an extraordinarily muddled piece of thinking in which he starts out by discussing gay rights and then swerves weirdly into an irrelevancy about motorcyle helmets. Should the state have the right to make people wear helmets in order to prevent them harming themselves? This is legal paternalism, though Singer then argues it is, in fact, moral paternalism. In either form, it appears to breach John Stuart Mill's cardinal principle that the state can only intervene in the life of the individual to prevent harm to others. Harm to oneself is one's own business. What Singer leaves out is that not wearing a helmet can cause harm to others - by, for example, imposing avoidable costs of treatment in the event of an accident or by involving another road user in an incident made more serious by the lack of a helmet. Mill could not convincingly argue against helmets and Singer, I fear, has lost it.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 7:15 am