Why I Wanted to Debate Peter Singer

Wall Street Journal, Dec 18, 2016.


If you are a student at a college or university, you are there to learn—from the faculty, from the speakers who visit campus, and from each other. It is a precious opportunity.

Making the most of these years requires cultivating and practicing certain virtues, including dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind and, above all, love of truth. Your willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge your beliefs, who represent causes you disagree with and points of view you do not share, will allow you to strengthen these virtues.

Take courses from professors who will challenge your views, whatever they are, and attend lectures by visiting scholars whose ideas you find uncongenial, because, after all, you may—as any of us may—be wrong. And even if you are right, seriously and respectfully engaging these thinkers will deepen your understanding of the truth and strengthen your ability to defend it.

 None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that there is no truth. Nor does it mean you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either.

A person who has not fallen so deeply in love with his or her opinions as to value them above truth will want to listen to others who see things differently. This is the way to learn what considerations—the evidence and arguments—have led them to conclusions that differ from one’s own.

A few weeks ago, I was pleased to be Peter Singer’s conversation partner at a forum at Princeton (where both of us teach). The event was tied to his new book “Ethics in the Real World.” Mr. Singer defends the morality of practices—not only abortion but euthanasia and even infanticide—that I strongly reject. Yet I welcomed the opportunity to read his book, listen to his arguments, and talk with him. Why? Because I know how much can be learned from engaging an intelligent and well-informed scholar whose convictions on many issues of morality, justice and human rights are diametrically opposed to my own.

We all should be willing—eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of intellectual discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more eager we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person in question will challenge our deeply held beliefs, even those that form our identity… [Read More at WSJ]

Wall Street Journal