Peter Singer & Vegetarian Dogs (was Re: The Heiress and theAnarchists)

Sat Mar 4 20:41:32 PST 2000

I am not a utilitarian, but I don't think utilitarianisnism should be cariactured. I thank Marta for laying out her understandiing of Singer clearly and briefly: I'll explain where I think it is mistaken or misleading.

In a message dated 00-03-04 22:09:35 EST, you write:

<< NOT DEAD YET's assessment of Singer, I pretty much concur with it.




> Personhood

> According to Singer, to be ethical, we must treat all "persons" according

moral guidelines. But not all humans are "persons." Singer claims that in

order to be "persons" and to deserve moral consideration, beings must be

self-aware, and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time.

This almost correctly represent Singer's views. (As I said, there is nothing utilitarian about this particular claim. ) It is not true, however, that Singer thinks that only persons get moral consideration. Singer advovocates animal rights on utilitarian grounds, arguing that animals that are not persons should be treated decently (and not killed) because they are sentient.

> Singer claims that no newborn infants are "persons." He claims that some

people with life-long cognitive disabilities never become "persons" at any

time throughout their lives. And he claims that some people who acquire

cognitive disabilities through injury, Alzheimer's Disease, or other means

cease to be "persons."

Singer says this, and given what we mean ordinarily by "person" I think it is a plausible view. Adult cats are smarter than newborns, very advanced Alzheimer's patients, and some people who are desperately retarded. but we don't think adult cats are persons.

Moreover, iof we were to meet something on Mars that had the cognitive capacity of an adult cat, much less a newborn, etc., we would not think it was a person. On the other hand, if we were to meet a Martian who was at least as cognitively developed as an ordinary adult, or even a Congressperson, we would have no doubts that it was a person. These hypotheticals show that we do not care so much about whether something is a homo sapiens and we do care a lot about whether something has a fairly high level of cognitive capacity, in deciding whether it is a person as we use the term.

> Singer says that killing a "non-person," even if it is human, does not carry

the same moral weight as killing a "person."

He thinks that, and although the view is trouble, it is not crazy, nor is it a call to massacre the nonpersons.

> Infanticide

> It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill infants. Because they

not "persons," they have no interest in staying alive, and it is only

superstition that makes us think that killing them is intrinsically wrong.

Well, Singer is a utilitarian, so the only thing he thinks is "intrinsically wrong" is pain and frustrating desires, and then something's being "intrinsically wrong" in the athat sense (causing pain or leading to frustarted desires) is not a decisive reason against it. For Singer as for all utilitarians, we are to do what maximizes net happiness (pleasure over palin, desire satisfaction over desire frustration), so even with regard to killing a person, that is only wrong if it would not maximize happiness. There is nothing special about killing persons versus nonpersons here.

If something's being a person is special and gives it a moral weight nonpersons don't have, it is because it is capable to taking an interest in its future interests in a way that would lead to increased pain or desire frustration if we kill the person, moreso than if we kill the nonperson. That is, being a person involves certain facts about how much happiness or frustration that there is or would be that are are not involved when we talk about nonpersons.

Thsi is rather abstract, but the thought may be illumunated by example. If I say, I am going to kill you, and you understand it, in addition to the pain of dying and the lost happiness of your unfulfilled desires after you are dead, there is also the fear that is created by your contemnplating your immanent death. If you cannot experience that fear, there is less unhappiness involved in killing you.

> Singer is quick to note that it is still wrong to kill most infants, for

other reasons. The killing of an infant would, in most cases, make the

parents unhappy. Second, in the cases where the parents do not want the

infant, there are other couples and individuals who would like to adopt the

child, so the child should be kept alive and put up for adoption.

Right, he says this.

> But infants with known disabilities, and especially cognitive disabilities,

he says, do not bring the same amount of happiness into the lives of their

parents. Additionally, the very fact that someone is disabled means that he

or she will have an unhappier life than other people. And therefore the

reasons not to kill non-disabled infants do not apply to disabled infants.

That is not quite right--I mean, he qualifies this. Firstly, it is not true of everyone who is disabled or even cognitively disabled. So let's restrict ourselves to the very small class of people who will never attain the degree of development that Singer thinks is required for personhood. Even with these, some people will get happiness out of caring for those disabled individuals. It is true, however, that someone who can never take an interest in his or her own future will not have the same degree of potential happiness (or, if things go wrong, unhappiness) that some who can take such an interest will have. Therefore the same set of utilitarian reasons does not quite apply.

> Singer argues that it should be legal for parents to decide to have their

disabled infants killed up to 28 days after birth. This way, he says,

parents could have non-disabled replacements. In addition, the infants would

provide a source of organs for transplantation to other infants who could

grow up to be non-disabled.

He does argue this. It can be objected, however, that even on his own premises, he ought to give others who would take pleasure in raising them have a chance to do so.

> Euthanasia

It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill people whose doctors claim

they are severely cognitively disabled. Although Singer doesn't give a list,

we know that people to whom labels like "mentally retarded," "demented,"

"persistent vegetative state," and "severely brain-damaged" are applied are

likely to have that judgment applied to them.

Yes, he says this.

> Singer claims that such people are not "persons," and therefore can not be

said to have an interest in staying alive. Unless the benefit to the people

who love these "non-persons" outweighs the emotional and financial burden to

individuals and society of keeping them alive, they can safely and

deliberately be killed.

And this.

> The euthanasia of people whose minds are judged inadequate would be a way to

save money. It would be a way to allow families to "move on." And it would

provide a source of organs for transplantation to people whose minds have

been judged acceptable. According to Singer, very often people with

cognitive disabilities should be killed.

"Very often?" Well, even sometimes would be troubling. How often it would be OK for a utilitarian depends on empirical facts about what would maximize overall happiness.

> Academic Dishonesty

>In building his case, Singer makes many assertions that he does not support,

because they can not be supported.

Well, Singer may be wrong. But the reason he is an effective advocate is that he argues patiently and clearly from plausible premises. "Dishonest" is not the word that comes to mind. "Terrifyingly consistent" and "Frighteningly honest" are terms that do. Singer is a consistent utilitarian. I am not, partly because I find his conclusions unacceptable. But he doesn't cheat. That's unfair to say.

> Singer writes as if impairment itself guarantees that people with

disabilities will have fewer opportunities in life. He ignores the fact that

many of the barriers people with disabilities face every day are created and

sustained by the very society he claims should be allowed to kill them.

This is also unfair. Singer's talk about infanticide and euthanasia is not to be applied to persons whose disabilities can be handled by reasonable or even extraordinary accommodations, but only to the most extreme cases. As a utilitarian, he has expresssly argued for a massive redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor, and to the extent that this would make life better for the less severely disabled, he thinks that it should be done. Moreover, you have to put his views about abortion and infanticide together with his views about animal liberation. He does not advocate the mass killing of animals because they are not people; quite the contrary. To the extent that the severely disabled are similarly nonpersons. he thinks that they should only be killed in extreme circumstances, as one might, e.g., a sick or crippled animal, but not an ordinary healthy one even though it lacks much cognitive capacity.

> He leads readers to believe that if some medical professionals judge the

lives of people with disabilities as not worth living, that is indicative of

how people with disabilities judge their own lives. In fact, study after

study has shown that medical "experts" routinely underestimate the quality of

life reported by people with disabilities.

Right, but we are talking mainly about thoise who cannot report anything because they cannot have views about how their lives are going.

>But Singer does not include people with disabilities in the discussion of the

quality of their lives. He assumes that non-disabled academics and

professionals are better qualified to discuss what it is like to have a

disability than disabled people themselves.

No. Ordinary disabled people, those who are merely bllind or deaf or unable to walk, etc. are not touched by his theory. Or rather, they are, and they are treated as full persons. Persons with diminished but effectrive cognitive capabilities--the educable retarded, are also persons, even if they cannot participate fully in our discussions. Singer's cut off line is very low--about one month. So we are talking about the people who will not develop cognitively, or who have lost the cognitive capacity down to the level, of a baby who is less thana month old. You couldn't ask them, or they couldn't tell you how it was with them.

> Singer suggests that decisions about who is a "person" can be made

objectively and with little doubt, by doctors. In fact, doctors routinely

underestimate the capacity of people who are judged to be mentally disabled.

This is a more troubling objection, but perhaps less so if you consider how low the line must be for Singer before infanticide or euthanasia is on the table.

> In short, a lot of Singer's "logic" is smoke and mirrors. It has no more

basis in fact than the eugenic models of racial superiority and inferiority

that were widely held and respected in the first decades of this century.

This is just pernicious claptrap. Singer may misestimate how effectively doctors can judge the extent and permanance of cognitive disability, but that is hardly an "error" on the level with theories of racial inferiority. In fact, Singer himself would say that if there is good evidence that doctors regularly get this wrong, infanticide and euthanasai ought to be even more difficult than he thinks they should be if he is right about his estimates, which is pretty difficult to start with. Trying to sweep Singer in with the Nazis may be good polemeics, but it is not intellectually honest.

> Demands for Injustice

Singer is not simply arguing academic theories. He is urging that policy

decisions be made on the basis of his ideas. His demands for "academic

freedom" are merely attempts to keep the affected people out of the


This is ridiculous. Of course Singer thinks we ought to do the the right thing, actually do it, and not just talk about it. He has views about what he right thing is that flow from his utilitarian premises and certain minimal plausible empirical views, as well as from a plausible nonutilitarian view about what makes personhood, as he defines it, special. His views are startling and may be wrong, indeed I think some of them are, but it is not absurd for him to say we ought to do what the correct moral theory calls for.

As for keeping the affected people out of the discussion, Singer is a good liberal and he wants everyone in who has something to say. You will not find a sentence in hsi writing that suggests the opposite. On his theory, if you can participate, you will not be negatively affected by his theory because you will be a person.

I find it disturbing that some people would want to shut Singer up because he presents controversial views. And I do not put him in the camp of Holocaust deniers and other lunatics, who, btw, I also do not want shut up. Singer is a consistent spokesperson for one of the major ethical theories. We may not like the theory or its results. But we don't deal with that by firing him, refusing to publish his works, or indeed, in his case, sitting in at his lectures. You deal with it by refuting him, and honestly, without misrepresentation.

> If Singer's approach were to be put into law, as he wants, a new class of

non-citizens would be created. A group of people with disabilities would be

forced to prove that they were "persons" before even being granted the most

basic right, the right not to be killed at society's convenience.

That's true, although I note that you prove you pass the test if you can even complain about it.

> When people assume mental capacity, they tend to find mental capacity. When

people assume mental incapacity, they tend to find mental incapacity. To

demand that people assumed to be incapable pass a higher test than those

assumed to be capable merely to stay alive is simply unjust.

No, the test is the same.

> Singer claims to be speaking for the vast majority of non-disabled people.

He claims he is only saying what everyone else thinks. We in the disability

community call for a clear statement on the part of people without

disabilities that we are entitled to the equal protection of the law.


I don't know whether Singer thinks he says what everyone thinks. I am quite sure that he know his views are counterintuitive for most people.

At any rate I think you ought to attack Singer for what he thinks and not for a caricature of it. He does not think that anyone with the slightest limitation, or even most people who are more severely limited, ought to be killed. He does think that the reasons we have for not killing the few people whose mental capacities don't develop beyond that of a month-old baby are different from the reasons we have for not killing those who do. And he has far more stringent views about killing nonpersons than most of us nonvegetarians. He is profoundly aware that the quality of life for most people is determined by an indefensible dustribution of wealth that he thinks we must change. And to start on about race science and eugenics in the context of discussing his ideas is to abandon any pretense to rationality. Please. Utilitarianism ought to be rejected, i agreem and in part because it leads to unpalatable conclusions like Singer;s actual ones. But his actual conclusions are a lot more modest than you make out here.


More information about the lbo-talk mailing list