Immersion: Peter Singer, Harriet McBryde Johnson and Spock

It's no surprise that when I get interested in a topic I opt for full immersion. Come on, people--you've seen the zebra print! You've seen the wigs!

What's my latest? Apparently, a deep immersion into Peter Singer, whose chapter "Taking Life: Humans" I've assigned to my students in Comp 1, along with Harriet McBryde Johnson's "Unspeakable Conversations."

I've asked my students to read these two pieces and write a two page analysis of these pieces. Whose argument is stronger? I've asked them to suspend emotion and attempt to read both pieces rationally, unemotionally, with the reminder that it isn't who is making the claims--it's always about the claims themselves and the evidence provided.

Here's the thing, though: these aren't science-based pieces, where there's solid evidence to use to bolster the claim. These are the big questions: what does it mean to be human, to be alive; what determines quality of life; who has the right to life. Big questions that science ultimately cannot answer, not when we're moving beyond the facts of humanity. All humans are humans--but are they all persons.

Utilitarianism, Singer's approach to life, is apparently a Spock kind of thing: the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one, and we all saw how that ended in the Star Trek movies--Kirk makes it clear that the needs of the one are just as vitally important as the needs of the many--indeed when we sacrifice the needs and rights of the individual for the society, society as a whole loses.

Singer's chapter is dense and intense reading, especially when one tries to keep emotion at bay and really understand what he's arguing. It's tempting to read his chapter as intentionally inflammatory, to hope that when he argues that abortion and selective infanticide are morally equivalent that he's really trying to get people to realize that abortion is not morally acceptable, but I know that is not how it's taken by critics, and given his other work, not how he appears to mean it.  Viktor Frolke does a good job of summarizing Singer's position without distortion:

Moreover, Singer’s utilitarian worldview, which defines good or bad by the pleasure or suffering it causes, leads him to believe that the life of a human being is not always sacred or worth living. Death is sometimes preferable to life. The 54-year-old philosopher from Melbourne maintains that the life of an infant is not automatically more valuable than the life of a higher animal, say a pig, especially not when that infant has all kinds of “defects.” Parents should be allowed to have the life of a severely disabled baby ended, according to Singer, just as a pregnant woman is allowed to have an abortion when she discovers her embryo will become a disabled child.
I picture my students confronting this material, this simple chapter on its own merits with no context, and question whether they will read it carefully, troubled enough by the ideas laid out to go back over it and make sure they really understand what Singer is laying out. Or will they skim it, miss the finer points, fail to have their own ideas on personhood and the value of human life stirred so that they really consider the moral ramifications, whatever ultimate position they find they hold. There's no way to predict how much of themselves my students will invest in this material, if they will experience the discomfort that comes from facing these big ideas. I can only hope they will--that they will find themselves challenging the status quo, that they will embrace the cognitive dissonance as they work out these complicated, entangled ideas.

I've reread the chapter several times--tried to make sure that I understand the claims Singer is laying out for selective infanticide of disabled babies and nonvoluntary euthanasia--the ideas of personhood underlying these ideas of his--that parents should be able to actively end the life of a sick, deformed, or otherwise not-right baby--that the consequence is no different than passive removal of care for the infant, allowing "nature" to take its course. I've gone beyond, explored his webpage with dozens upon dozens of essays, articles, and interviews. I've watched youtube videos of him, trying to understand how he can argue that there is a moral imperative to help others, to eliminate and reduce suffering, but still think killing disabled infants is morally acceptable, and I think I've found the key to how he rationalizes this apparent contradiction to helping end poverty and suffering of third world children with being able to say with no sense of horror that if he had been presented with his newborn child and he had Down Syndrome, would he choose to let the child die:

What would you have done if one of your children had had Down syndrome?If [the fetus] had a blockage of the intestines, which is a common complication, I would have refused permission for the operation. If it did not have blockage or some other complication, but we knew a couple who would want to raise the child, we would put up the child for adoption.

In some ways, it seems clear that he views infants as interchangeable, that if the first one is defective, then let it die (or actively terminate its life) and have another one. It's cold, it's hard, and it's horrific. But, if we accept his premise that there is no difference between a fetus and a newborn other than location, and it's morally acceptable to kill a fetus, then it is also morally acceptable to kill a newborn.

In this video, Singer discusses our moral obligations, not just to help those in need, but also to not harm (see 7:58 minutes in). And yet, although he does not discuss selective infanticide of disabled newborns in this piece, one wonders how he reconciles this belief about helping/not harming and the deliberate, intentional ending of the life a disabled newborn.

At 6:59, Singer talks about putting oneself in the shoes of another, "is the priority of reducing or preventing the suffering of others." It is this one line, I think, that allows him to work hard to reduce global poverty and animal rights while at the same time advocating selective infanticide and nonvoluntary euthanasia. Utilitarianism argues that the consequences are what is relevant--if the consequences of various actions are the same, then the mode for getting there is irrelevant (or morally equivalent). Singer presumes suffering--suffering of the parents, suffering of the family unit, suffering of the disabled infant, and concludes that quality of life is so reduced as to be morally acceptable to end the parents' suffering by letting the infant be euthanized rather than allowing a drawn out death due to deliberate withholding of nutrients and medical intervention. To Singer, it is more human to euthanize the infant or the comatose or senile, bedridden individual than to allow a long, slow "natural" death.

Harriet McBryde Johnson found herself in the strange and impossible situation of engaging with Singer, someone she felt believed she should never have been allowed to live, and yet despite this cold, utilitarian view of the value and worth of individual human beings, was unfailingly polite to her.

People have accused Singer of being a Nazi, as Frolke notes, and Not Dead Yet's Stephen Drake (a facebook friend of mine) has written often about Singer, denouncing his positions on both selective infanticide and euthanasia. Not Dead Yet's Diane Coleman has called Singer "the most dangerous man on earth." In the same article, Singer acknowledges: "Some of what I say seems obscene and evil if you are still looking at it through the prism of the old morality. That's what happens when morality shifts: people get confused and angry and disgusted."

All of this leads me back to the original concern regarding my students and the texts I select for them to read. Will they go beyond the snapshot that a text provides? Will they think to consider the context? The person? The other writings? Will they read it carefully, working to keep from judging the writer? Or will they react in a knee-jerk fashion, engage cognitive biases and employ fallacies to avoid really thinking about the issues the texts raise?

And beyond that, will I? How far will I allow myself to go, how deeply will I invest myself to understand a man and his ethics, an ethics that I find myself horrified by when it comes to the selective infanticide and nonvoluntary euthanasia, but supportive of when it comes to the importance of helping others in need. With me, of course, the immersion will be complete--all of his books are either in my to-read pile or on their way here in the mail. In the end, while I might struggle to help my students to consider the claims irrespective of who is making them, I want to understand the man who has made this his life's work, who can so care about animals and their rights, but argue at the same time that human infants and severely compromised adults have less right to live than the animals we eat. It is the man who, in the end, interests me and leaves me befuddled.


scintor said...

It's funny how people across history who take a position like this talk about a need for a new morality because the old morality "just doesn't cut it anymore." Yet, this same position has been argued for millennia. The ancient Greeks argued it, and justified widespread infanticide by "exposure" (which was abandoning a baby out in the wilderness.)
It's just the same old song and dance. "Some people are better than others and therefore should decide the fates of their lessors."
It's one of the reason that i oppose "abortion rights" so strenuously. As soon as such a right is established legally, it only a matter of time until it stops being a woman's right and starts being a government or societal right to eliminate those who are burdensome. Look at our friends in China: Better yet, look at our friends in Denmark who have "cured" Down's syndrome by killing every fetus that might have Down's syndrome before it can be born. It has proven so "successful" that that they are considering moving on to other "burdensome" congenital defects like autism.
As soon as a life is weighed by how convenient it is for those around them, the same old "new morality" comes up to justify taking it.

Eric said...

I have also had something to say about Peter Singer in several blog posts and my "Hitler reacts to the hastings report" video on youtube. I agree with scintor above. The fact is that Singer's song and dance is a diversionary tactic. The killing of severely disabled children has been going on in The Netherlands, legally, for many years now. Ironically if parents decide they do want to keep the child, there is probably no better place on Earth, vis a vis social services, to do so than in Holland.
Singer has no love for animals, he simply tries to argue that if you believe sentience is a common denominator for "human rights" you must accord animals the same regard as humans. ergp if you believe killing is Ok you MUST agree to killing human beings and if you don't you are contradicting yourself and thus all of your logic is rendered null and void.
The man is a troll.