September 29, 2021 - 1:41pm

Peter Singer is a world famous moral philosopher and bioethicist. Today, he’s due to speak at an online event hosted by the philosophy department at Rhodes College.

However, other academics at the college are outraged. It’s not topic of the event — pandemic ethics — they object to, but the involvement of Singer himself.

The Daily Nous website quotes from one of the protest emails, which accuses Singer of advancing “philosophical arguments that presume the inferiority of many disabled lives.”

This is presumably a reference to Singer’s longstanding and highly controversial argument in favour of euthanising profoundly disabled infants.

His Rhodes critics say that his views are “dehumanising and dangerous” and therefore “urge the college to withdraw the invitation.” They add that they “cherish and advocate for freedom of speech and expression as long as it does not deny others their humanity.”

The question, of course, is who gets to apply this condition on free speech? Pro-life campaigners would argue that abortion denies humanity to a category of “others”, in this case the unborn child or ‘foetus’. So would a group of Catholic academics, say, be justified in demanding that a pro-choice speaker be cancelled?

If the decision ultimately comes down to how influential the no-platformers are, then the real condition that’s applied to free speech is who’s got the power (and is sufficiently offended and censorious to use it). That’s something that advocates for the powerless might want to think about.

When he was interviewed for UnHerd back in June, Peter Singer declared himself to be “an advocate of freedom of speech” adding that free speech “has been something that the Left traditionally has championed.”

The irony is that an ultra-liberal like Singer now finds himself under attack from his fellow progressives. This was his explanation for that:

They see themselves as defending people who are underprivileged, marginalised, disadvantaged. They want to extend that defence, not just to improving their social and economic position and preventing discrimination against them, but also making sure that they’re not offended by remarks that are made.
- Peter Singer, UnHerdTV

Meanwhile, it looks like the Rhodes philosophers are defying the no-platformers.

On the Leiter Reports philosophy blog, the event organisers are quoted as saying that “serious intellectual exchange about matters of significance cannot avoid sometimes causing anger, offense, and pain and no one should be cavalier about that fact.” Nevertheless, to cancel speakers on this basis would be “incompatible with our mission to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue even, and indeed especially, with thinkers with whom they vehemently disagree.”

On this occasion at least, free speech has prevailed.