The @stolafaffirmations Instagram account captured the general sentiment on campus about the first Institute of Freedom and Community event this semester. Their post says, “I will boycott Peter Singer’s f**king eugenics lecture” and has over 350 likes.
Since its creation in 2014, the Institute of Freedom and Community (IFC) has gained a reputation for bringing contentious speakers to campus. The Institute hosts public events with speakers in keeping with their mission: “Exploring diverse ideas about politics, markets, and society, The Institute seeks to challenge presuppositions, question easy answers, and foster constructive dialogue.”
To kick off the IFC’s Spring Series, “Contemporary Controversies,” the IFC held the virtual event, “The Point of View of the Universe: A Philosophical Conversation with Peter Singer” on Feb. 16. The IFC’s decision to invite Singer for their Spring Public Event Series received criticism due to Singer’s philosophical views on those with certain disabilities.
While primarily known for promoting animal liberation, Singer’s writings on infanticide and disabilities have made him a controversial figure in the philosophical community. For example, Singer has repeatedly argued that certain disabilities prevent infants from enjoying a happy life, justifying their killing at their parents’ discretion.
In his 1979 book “Practical Ethics” Singer claims that “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.” He also argues in “Practical Ethics” that in the case of severely disabled people, infanticide is justifiable and morally necessary to prevent suffering. Since the original publication of “Practical Ethics,” Singer has frequently been met with protest at public events.
On the evening of Feb. 14, several St. Olaf offices sent a joint email to students who utilize support or accommodations for disabilities. The email opened with the statement, “The Center for Advising and Academic Success (CAAS), Disability and Access (DAC) and TRIO-Student Support Services for Students with Disabilities (SSSD) unequivocally reject Peter Singer’s views on people with disabilities, which are harmful to our values, mission and ongoing efforts to provide an inclusive environment for our students, faculty and staff.”
Following this, the email describes different support resources for students impacted by the event, including listening sessions, articles responding to Singer’s views, one-on-one meetings and TimelyCare.
Students also responded to the announcement of Singer’s talk. Spread on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, a student-made Change.org petition titled “Boycott Peter Singer’s Speaking Event at St. Olaf” received over 900 signatures.
Petitioning the St. Olaf College administration, President David Anderson ’74, St. Olaf Office of General Counsel, and the St. Olaf Board of Regents, the petition asks the administration to confront Singer’s beliefs stating that, “We implore admin to recognize it for what it is: hate speech. His philosophies aren’t controversial, they’re dangerous.”
Neither the IFC nor the St. Olaf administration at large has publicly responded to the petition or statements made by St. Olaf students, faculty, and staff regarding the event. The controversy around Singer is one of many times that the St. Olaf community has objected to speakers the IFC brings to campus for years.
The IFC will continue the “Contemporary Controversies” series on March 14 with “Antiracism as Religion” featuring John McWhorter. Other events in the series include “The 1619 Project” with Leslie M. Harris and Phillip W. Magness and “Partisan Science and Other Fundamentalisms” with Gary Saul Morson.