Friday, May 09, 2008

Peter Singer: Your Friend and Neighbor

Peter Singer wants me to kill my uncle. In fact, Mr. Singer would have already murdered his mother, but his sister won't let him. Peter Singer is the man who said this:
"Simply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person."
He's also the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. That's right, he's Princeton's ethics professor. And he believes that infants and handicapped people aren't really people. They may be humans, but that doesn't qualify them for his definition of a "person".

When I wrote "A Philosophical Study of Abortion" I commented on what seems to me to be the fundamental question of abortion - what makes a person a person? This is critical to the abortion question because most people intuitively know that killing an innocent person is wrong. Therefore, in an attempt to rationalize abortion, academics have parsed out new definitions of personhood. Singer's definition goes like this:
Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.
As I noted in "A Philosophical Study of Abortion," each of these definitions has led down the dangerous road of excluding people like my seriously disabled uncle, or Peter Singer's Alzheimer's-stricken mother, or newborn babies. Most people go down this road, see the ending, and recoil at its baseness. But not Professor Singer.
"There appear to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide."
Singer chooses infanticide.

There are two thought processes in regards to "thinkers" like Professor Singer. One is to dismiss him outright as a crank and a nutjob. Outlandish views like his make it easy to condemn our liberal, secular society and leave it at that. Another way is to dismiss him as "just" a philosopher, an academic, with no real say on policy or society.

Both reactions would be wrong.

First of all, as far as the world is concerned, he's not just a nutjob. He's a nutjob with a very important position with one of the most prestigious universities in the world. It lends he and his views credibility, as well as gives him a platform to teach the world his view of personhood.

Secondly, although he is "just" an academic with little influence on society, his views are far more commonplace than one might think. Consider for instance the fact that he partly came to his conclusions based on not wanting children or their parents to suffer with physical or mental handicaps. These parents could simply abort the fetus or kill the infant and then produce another child that will likely by "normal". The intention is to ease suffering, to reduce pain.

Now compare that with this often-used quote:
"We women know when it is or is not the right time to bring a child into the world...We act out of compassion when we wait to have a child until the time when we can give it the kind of life every child deserves. We act out of love when we consider what we would be taking away from the child or children we already have if we brought another child into our family now...We women know the truth: That given certain circumstances, abortion is the most morally responsible and loving choice we can make."

-Jean Stewart Berg and Anne Baker
Don't you get it? It's all about love, people. It's compassionate to end human life because that life might suffer or cause others to suffer.

Shortly after I wrote "A Philosophical Study of Abortion", I had numerous discussions and debates with various people about abortion. All of the arguments Singer uses were used by everyday people in these debates. I wrote about them here. From the "compassionate choice" argument, to being a "fully formed human", to a fetus being aware of itself and its own life - all of these are variations of Singer's arguments and all of them were used by non-nutjobs and non-academics.

Peter Singer's view is out there folks. People I interact with fairly regularly have espoused these views in some form or another. Commenters on this blog like Democracy Lover and Geoffrey have used them. Utah's own Green Jenni used them over and over again.

While it may be shocking to read Peter Singer's opinions, it's even more shocking to see them repeated by those in my own community.

"I do not think it is always wrong to kill an innocent human being."


Ashlee said...

Well, I'm sure glad that he's got it all figured out. The rest of us that actually care about humanity are obviously the looney ones.
Yes, people suffer. Children are born all the time with handicaps and the parents still love them with all their hearts. They wouldn't trade them for the world. A blog I frequent has a son who is literally brain dead. But, he is alive. And she loves him and cares for him and does not see him as a burden in the least. She sees him as a gift. The heartless comments she receives from other people make her question their integrity. She, just like us, wonder how people can feel innocent in the taking of another's life. Yes, her son suffers, and her family has "suffered" in the meaning of what you described in your post, but he is her son. He is alive. To kill a baby because you may "suffer" at having to "deal" with a child's handicap, or perhaps you have TOO many kids already or you aren't ready for kids, is selfish. Pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

If your uncle has ever been self-aware Singer believes your uncle should be the ultimate arbitrator of his life. Likewise with his mother (who has already passed away). He also believes that the family of the individual should hold sway in circumstances when the individual's preference is not known.

If someone who is disabled possesses self-awareness, or has ever been self-aware, they should be able to decide how and when they die. When the individual's preference is not known the families preference should hold sway. Does a human without a brain qualify for 'personhood'?

Infants are not self-aware, and have no concept of themselves existing over time. Therefore, it is left to the family to hold sway over them. Were they to be severely disabled, (down syndrome), adoption would always be preferable. Most families however, if they know they are to have a child with a severe disability abort the foetus if they can. Peter Singer does not make a distinction between either immediately before, or immediately after birth, because essentially there is no difference.

"Yes, people suffer. Children are born all the time with handicaps and the *parents still love them with all their hearts. They wouldn't trade them for the world.*"

And in those cases Singer supports, 100%, the parents. However, he also supports parents who are unable to or instances where the child will face unbearable pain and suffering. He has no theoretical objection to someone loving, caring and nurturing even a brain dead infant. He does not however, believe that the parent should be forced to bear that burden. However, others may choose do so. I'm sure we can all agree that there are at least some cases were this would be acceptable. Peter Singer doesn't claim to speak on the behalf of all concerned individuals and neither should you.

It's Peter Singer not Fred Singer.

Here is a differing perspective:

Charles D said...

I don't necessarily agree with Singer on everything, I have read one of his books and think he makes some good points.

Ultimately we do have to answer the question "What is it about human beings (or at least some human beings) that makes it ethically wrong to kill them?

My problem with many who claim to be pro-life is that they clearly do not have a consistent ethic. They may oppose abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or severe disability; but then they seem to have little problem with capital punishment, war, or the many human actions that indirectly cause the loss of many lives. While there may be a consistent ethic behind such a view, it cannot be described in terms like pro-life, or respect for life, because that it is not.

Cameron said...

Ash, thanks for the comment, I think you sum it up pretty well.

Cameron said...


Sorry about the typo, it looks like I switched Singers there at the end. I've fixed it now.

I've read much of Singer's writings. While I appreciate your attempt to soften his views, I'm not buying it. It's not simply cases of severe disabilities or missing brains that Singer discusses.

He thinks that at any point in time a down syndrome person can be killed by her parents.

He thinks that any infant - preferably at around 28 days or younger, but he's flexible on that point - can be killed regardless of health or viability.

A perfectly "normal", perfectly healthy baby can be killed under Singer's guidelines. Why? Because, as you say,

"Infants are not self-aware, and have no concept of themselves existing over time."

Singer has fallen into the same trap many other abortion proponents have fallen into. In their attempt to parse out an "acceptable" definition of humanity they have excluded huge swaths of our society's most innocent and most vulnerable members. Trying to ease the shock this creates by saying that it's just giving a parent or caregiver the "choice" of killing an uncle, a mother, or a baby is no less abhorrent.

Cameron said...


Thanks for stopping by. It's been a while.

Every argument for and against abortion hinges on innocence. You'll notice that many writings have that word injected into the discussion. The Singer quote at the end of this post is one example.

Most people believe that killing an innocent person is wrong. Singer agrees, so he set about trying to invent a difference between a person and a human being.

Interestingly, it is pro-abortion positions such as yours that Singer finds inconsistent. He argues that there is no difference between a fetus and an infant, so if you're going to advocate abortion, you must also advocate infanticide:

"There appear to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide."

Frankly, most of the arguments I have heard in favor of abortion follow in Singer's footsteps.

Charles D said...

Innocence cannot be the ethical criteria because it is subjective. What you may consider innocent, I might not and vice versa. We have certainly executed hundreds of innocent men and women in this country and every day our armed forces are killing innocent civilians (collateral damage) in those nations we occupy. Obviously innocence is not the criteria anti-abortion advocates use.

I am aware of Singer's infanticide argument, and it is a natural outgrowth of his argument for terminating pregnancies. People make difficult decisions every day to terminate the lives of their loved ones to end their suffering, or stop prolonging the inevitable. At least Singer provides a consistent ethical framework for making those decisions. I would point out however that not having ethical grounds to continue life does not mean we must terminate it, only that it is a decision some responsible human can make.

Cameron said...

"What you may consider innocent, I might not and vice versa."

Not when it comes to infants. I think everyone agrees that an infant is innocent. Even those like Peter Singer that argue for infanticide concede that point. It is indisputably the criteria that both pro- and anti-abortion advocates use.

Also, as I wrote in this post, Singer's infanticide arguments are basically identical to those used by pro-abortion advocates - including yourself. It is these arguments that led him to write, "There appear to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide." This is the "natural outgrowth" of all of these arguments.

Salt H2O said...

Peter Singer is simply a Darwinist.

Hitler believed these exact same things and it all goes back to Darwin.

Charles D said...

Cameron, many of those "innocent" embryos will grow up to be criminals, they are not innocent, it is simply impossible to determine their innocence or guilt since they have not arrived at a stage of development when that is a relevant idea.

I don't deny that, using Singer's criteria, there are situations in which ending the life of a child is justifiable in the same manner that ending any pregnancy is justifiable. That is why his ethic is consistent and yours is not. He bases his moral stance on verifiable facts and science rather than on feelings, religion, prevalent opinion, or other subjective criteria.

Also, salt h20, I would point out that Darwin has nothing whatever to do with this. He simply observed that in nature, the creatures that adapt themselves best to their environment win out over time. It was an observation not a prescription. It also had nothing to do with Hitler, who quite obviously was not content to allow natural selection to work as Darwin had observed it, largely because it did not suit his racist ideas.

Cameron said...

So, according to your "consistent ethic", the "potential" to become a criminal warrants ending a human life, but the "potential" (and this is your ethic we're talking about) to become a "full" person does not warrant protection.

Are you kidding? That doesn't sound consistent at all.

Besides, since when have we decided that a baby isn't innocent because she might commit a crime one day? Why not just throw me in jail right now because it's possible I could steal something on the way home from work.

Of course babies are innocent!

And Singer's ethic isn't that "in some cases" it's ok to kill an infant. His ethic holds that there is no difference between an unborn baby and a born one. You can kill any baby you want, just like you can kill any unborn baby you want.

To most people, that is appalling. Killing innocent babies is not ok. But to Singer it is. And, since you use his ethic in your arguments, to you it is as well.

Finally, I get really tired of getting the religion thing thrown at me all the time when it comes to abortion. Show me where I have used that as an argument. Scour the archives of this blog and others and show me where I have used religion as the reason for opposing abortion. Not once. Not once will you find it. I even created an entire post consisting of my online abortion arguments on various forums, and not once did I use religion as an argument. But I have had it used against me, just as you are doing now. I've found that it's often the last resort of people who can no longer argue rationally. It's like waving the white flag.

The reality is that in trying to rationalize abortion by excluding unborn babies from "personhood", you also exclude born babies. Singer understands this. That's why he's ok with infanticide. He went down that road, saw where it led, and went ahead anyway. I would argue that most people wouldn't do that. I also argue that most people haven't even gone down that road far enough to see where it leads. They have simply adopted Singer's arguments without realizing the ramifications of them. Talk about faith based opinions.

Now, your "consistent ethic" argument goes something like this:

pro-life proponents use "sanctity of life" as reason to oppose abortion.

Pro-life proponents abandon the "sanctity of life" argument when it comes to war or capital punishment.

Pro-life proponents are not consistent in their use of the "sanctity of life" argument, therefore, this argument cannot be used at all.

However, your downfall is, as I wrote earlier, that your characterization of the "sanctity of life" argument is missing a word - innocent. Our society protects innocent life. Now, as you say, your definition of innocent might differ from others'. But not when it comes to an infant. Our society recognizes their innocence. What exactly has an infant done that would make her culpable of anything? Even Singer knows this. Every pro- and con- argument I have read understands this. A baby is innocent human life. The ethic used to protect innocent human life is entirely consistent, particularly when it comes to unborn and born babies.

Charles D said...


The thing that makes babies "innocent" is that in Singer's words, "Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious." Therefore, he would argue, the decision about terminating the life of, say a severely disabled infant, is one that rests with the parents, much like the decision to terminate an embryonic or fetal life rests with the woman carrying it.

Again, "innocence" is a subjective norm. It implies a lack of guilt, and guilt is most certainly a subjective quality itself. It may also refer to beings who are not sentient or self-conscious, but in those cases, we clearly do not have a consistent ethic.

It does seem to me that when a person takes an ethical stance for or against an action, that ethic must be consistent, or it is highly suspect. I simply do not believe 90% of the people who claim to oppose abortion because they have a "respect for life", because they make a distinction between lives them choose to assess as "innocent" and those they choose to assess as guilty. In the final analysis, this is an ethic based on personal subjective judgment.

Cameron said...

"Therefore, he would argue, the decision about terminating the life of, say a severely disabled infant, is one that rests with the parents,"

No. Singer would argue that any infant could be killed by her parent. His only criteria for making that choice is if it would make the parent/caregiver happy.

To Singer, there is no difference between a perfectly healthy fetus and a perfectly healthy infant.

So, DL, in order to be consistent, if you are to advocate abortion, you must also advocate killing innocent, healthy babies.

Charles D said...

I would have to advocate nothing of the sort, and neither does Singer.

I don't totally subscribe to Singer's utilitarian views, but what I do appreciate is his attempt to get us to base our ethical decisions on facts and logic rather than subjective opinions and irrational beliefs.

Your apparent criteria for determining the worth of a human life ("innocence") is a subjective opinion that we know is often incorrect in practice. I don't ask that you accept Singer's views, but that you appreciate his approach and re-examine your own.

Cameron said...

That's exactly what Singer advocates.

Human infants are not people. Therefore they can be killed.

In his words:

"Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons."

"Simply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person."

"In our book, Should the Baby Live?, my colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggested that a period of twenty-eight days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others."

"There appear to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide."

And why does Singer come to this final conclusion? Because he's being consistent. He realizes that his definitions of a person not only exclude a fetus, they also exclude babies. And the elderly, the sick, the handicapped.

And so does every argument for abortion I have heard you and everyone else use.

For instance, and this time in your words:

"We protect persons (to the extent that we do) because they are the only beings with consciousness, and the ability to understand and desire their own future. No fetus possesses those qualities."

"A fetus cannot feel pain, has no self-awareness and cannot cherish or even be aware of life, then why is it deserving of protection?"

Compare your words with Singer's. Your definitions of personhood, your excuses for advocating abortion, are the same as Singer's. In order to be consistent, you must allow infanticide.

That's why this post is titled, "Peter Singer: Your Friend and Neighbor". Because it is Singer's arguments that I hear all the time, repeated by people who don't seem to understand what they are really advocating.

Yourself included.

Charles D said...

The question is whether or at what point an infant becomes a "being with consciousness, and the ability to understand and desire their own future".

Singer and I would contend that some infants (say those with severe mental disabilities) might never achieve this status. We might also raise the question of whether a healthy infant possesses those qualities at birth or, if not, at what age he/she would acquire them. That is a matter for scientific research.

I think it is certainly more ethical to proceed along Singer's line of reasoning than to select individuals for our "respect for life" based on subjective assessments or religious dogmas.

On the one hand, Singer's ethic does open the door to euthanasia, but we can rely on parents to keep infanticide to a minimum. Your ethic opens the door to capital punishment, pre-emptive war, and other ills.

Cameron said...

"keep infanticide to a minimum."

Come again? Keep infanticide to a minimum? How bout we just don't kill babies.

"The question is whether or at what point an infant becomes a "being with consciousness, and the ability to understand and desire their own future"."

This is your and Singer's definition of a person. The problem with this definition is that it leads to killing people.

We might also raise the question of whether a healthy infant possesses those qualities at birth or, if not, at what age he/she would acquire them.

Singer says around 28 days, how about you? How old does a healthy baby have to be before you're okay with killing it?

Charles D said...

Both these ethical frames result in condoning the killing of people. One of them (mine and Singer's) places the responsibility for making these decisions in the hands of individuals who have a great deal at stake and a strong emotional reason not to take that action. Yours places that responsibility in the hands of impartial governments who do not know or care about the lives they are taking.

It is much more likely that human beings will die needlessly under the "innocence" standard than under Singer's utilitarian view.

By the way, it's nice arguing with you again. You are one of those rare people who can hold your side of any argument without resorting to personal attacks and irrelevancies. Maybe you have a good ethic of bloggin.

Anonymous said...

Dad poisoned the minds of his children with his irresponsible television viewing choices.
Among other things.
Dad is liked, so expect the intent was not there. However, I suspect the same cannot be said for his wife.
Case in point:::Neighbor's driveway sidewalk chalk art consisted of a girl's name, a smiley face, other innocent, child-like offerings.
In our driveway our kids drew body outlines, like those one would find at a murder scene.
And all his son spoke of was guns, hunting and killing.
The father's irresponsibility was manifested in how the son spoke when he was younger. Just ask his former teachers.